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Any doubt to Emergent properties?

  1. Dec 9, 2008 #1


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    Is there any doubt in the scientific community to the theory of emergent properties?

    I am of the opinion that they surely exist. In fact even today's fundamental particles might be an emergent property of something more fundamental. All of stat mech is a study of emergent properties, not to mention biology.
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  3. Dec 9, 2008 #2


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    Hi tgt,
    You should better define what you mean by emergent properties. There are numerous concepts of emergence in the literature, though the two primary ones are "weak" and "strong" emergence. I might suggest you start taking a quick look through this thread:
  4. Dec 9, 2008 #3

    Since you are placing your question in the philosophy sub-forum, i'll go out on a limb and say that you are referring to life/existence as an emergent property.

    Emergent properties do exist, but it doesn't mean that scientists have any clue how and why those emergent properties are there at all. Scientists see that the sum total of an object is 10, then they go ahead and find that the constituent parts of that same object are described by 2+2. Thus they are faced with 2+2=10 which is illogical and a paradox, so they label it "emergent property" so they can go on with their lives undisturbed by the implications of their findings.
    Actually you'll find very few scientists that will be bold enough to confess that there are walls to what we are allowed to understand. Most scientists in secular countries are very choosy how they voice their opinions so that they won't harm their scientific careers.

    If you wake up in your bed tomorrow and find a living baby T-rex or a pterodactyls, call it an emergent property and be content that you are approaching the subject in the scientific way.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2008
  5. Dec 9, 2008 #4


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    There are actually quite a large number of scientists who have written about emergence including for example Phil Anderson and Robert Laughlin, both won a nobel prize in physics.

    The problem with emergence is primarily that of finding phenomena which are truly emergent and defining them as such. I don't know of any case which is as simple and straightforward as 2+2=10, that's a bit too vague of an analogy. See for example, Laughlin, "the middle way".
  6. Dec 9, 2008 #5

    Thanks for the links. Those 2 are just autobiography but i managed to find some of his thesises in an interview for a magazine:


    For most systems of interest, however, the basic laws of physics, though not incorrect, are inadequate. The reason is emergence, which says that when a system becomes large and complex enough, its constituents self-organize into arrangements that one could never deduce a priori, even though the laws of physics are obeyed. The obvious example is life, but emergence also acts on a more primitive level. Even the quantum theory of what should be the simplest of all crystalline solids, helium, is still a bit of a mystery.

    It seems he's saying life is an emergent property, which is quite obvious. But saying something is an emergent propertiy in no way explains it, or says why it emerges in the first place. What if an elephant suddenly emerged on a cruise ship? Would that be an emergent property of the ship, of matter or of the environment? Can we extrapolate the logic of atheism and say that - whenever the right conditions are present an elephant will emerge out of nowhere(whether it's through a gradual process or not). How's that a good scientific explanation?

    I don't think so. The problem with emergence is what causes emergence. Life and consciousness is widely accepted as being truly emergent properties, we've identified them as such but it's very likely that we'll never explain them.

    You can substitute 2+2=10 with

    100 quadrillion atoms=100 quadrillion atoms+consciousness+intelligence+self organisation+

    The 100 quadrillion atoms don't possess the properties found in a complete human. Arrange them in a different way and instead of a conscious human being, you'll get something close to a semi-liquid pool of glue.

    BTW, the above link talks only about self-organisation. It in no way tries to explain it or what might be causing it.

    None of these possesses intellect, consciousness, love, hate:

    Oxygen (65%)
    Carbon (18%)
    Hydrogen (10%)
    Nitrogen (3%)
    Calcium (1.5%)
    Phosphorus (1.0%)
    Potassium (0.35%)
    Sulfur (0.25%)
    Sodium (0.15%)
    Magnesium (0.05%)
    Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt, Iron (0.70%)
    Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine (trace amounts)

    Mix them right "inpiring" them with the true infinitely more complex "recipe" that directs all the interactions of atoms and molecules in the right way to form consciousness and you have a human being.

    To me what scientists label "emergent property" just screams "creation". What would constitue an uncaused emergent property, when uncaused is typically understood as chaos/randomness?

    But i see a light of hope for the explanation of emergent properties in the long period of existence of the universe. If it existed for as long as 14 billion years, it all must have been governed by specific laws during all that time, that we can hopefully comprehend(i.e. we can presume there was cause-effect relationship for 14 billion years). The only problem with this lies in QM and what it implies about existence. In that respect, i find the following quote by Einstein something of an understatement:

    "The universe is not stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine"

    This topic is of great interest to me, although it often forces me to think that life is unreal and impossible. Either I/we are too dumb and can't piece together a coherent picture of what's what about the emergence of life, existence and consciousness from inanimate matter or it's just that - unreal. My mind has a distinct innate property to consider everything that defies logic unreal. How real could it be when my wife talks to me and i am aware that she's just a cloud of repelling and attracting charges that appears to be talking?
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2008
  7. Dec 9, 2008 #6


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    Hi wavejumper. Thanks for reading the links. There’s a tremendous amount of information out there on emergence, so I’m glad to see someone is open to reading some of it.

    There are various classifications of emergence and definitions as to what these classifications should be. Chalmers defines strong emergence the same way Anderson might:
    In another paper, “More is Different”, Anderson talks about the “constructionist” who might claim that things are in principal calculable from a lower level. Anderson states "The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity." Obviously, Anderson is not a constructionist, though there probably aren’t too many. I think he misses the mark here though because simply not being able to deduce something because of scale or complexity is not the hallmark of an emergent system.

    Similarly, the article Laughlin writes uses the same basic definition of emergence. Laughlin states:

    So the real point trying to be made here is as Chalmers points out, that there are phenomena that are not deducible even in principal from the lower level domain. Further, there may be “organizing principals” which govern at various ‘levels’ of nature. See Chalmers, "Strong and Weak Emergence" available on the net.


    There’s another line of reasoning that basically says that inseparable phenomena are emergent. Compare/contrast this with the concept above where phenomena are emergent because they are not deducible even in principal.

    Alwyn Scott for example wants to say that all nonlinear phenomena are inseparable in the sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here, he lists various physical phenomena as being emergent such as tornadoes, lynch mobs, optical solitons, schools of fish, nerve impulses, rivers, etc… because they are “nonlinear”. See Alwyn Scott, “Reductionism Revisited”. Similarly, Robert Bishop wrote about Rayleigh-Benard convection, stating that is an example of a nonlinear system which is both emergent and “a model for downward causation in classical mechanics”. <yikes!> I disagree with this school of thought. I think the main problem is that these types of phenomena are all deducible from very low level facts as is commonly done throughout science and engineering for example when finite element and multi-physics software packages are employed to deduce the phenomena produced by these types of physical interactions.

    In a similar vein that I WOULD agree with however, Frederick Kronz put an excellent paper out called “Emergence and Quantum Mechanics” which proposes that emergent phenomena can be found at the quantum level. He says, “Because the direct sum is used in classical mechanics to define the states of a composite system in terms of its components, rather than the tensor product operation as in quantum mechanics, there are no nonseparable states in classical mechanics. There are nonseparable Hamiltonians in classical mechanics – the Hamiltonian corresponds to the total energy of the system and is related to the time evolution of the system. This type of nonseparability is the result of nonlinear terms in the equations of motion. Perhaps a kind of emergence can be associated with it. Some measure of plausibility is given to this claim since a classical system can exhibit chaotic behavior only if its Hamitonian is nonseparable.” Kronz is certainly not alone in his claims, and I would agree that at the quantum level, there are emergent phenomena produced, however, there is still work to be done to better define why such things are emergent, if they are more than “weakly emergent” and what kind of physical properties are truly emerging. The debate is still open.


    There are various other ideas floating around about emergence. They don’t all fall under the catagories and definitions provided above. An interesting summary of at least some of these concepts was provided by Michel Bitbol, “Ontology, Matter and Emergence” in which he goes through the various philosophical debates, though his conclusion steps away from committing one way or the other.
  8. Dec 9, 2008 #7


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  9. Dec 9, 2008 #8
    We do not need to go to living complex adaptive systems to discuss emergent properties. Two clocks with pendulum hanging on the same wall or salt will suffice. Clocks will either start ticking in unison or stop each other. (One of two possible shared states.) Saltiness of salt cannot be derived from properties of sodium and/or chlorine. Although there are many other properties of salt that cannot be derived, not even this simple one (saltines) is resolved. Moving just a bit further, deriving left or right orientation of some carbohydrates from properties of carbon and hydrogen nobody ever attempted. This is why people are starting to admit, many reluctantly, that there is a case to look at emergence more closely.

    Complex adaptive systems theory (complexity for short) has two basic aspects. Interplay between agents (subsystems) and what emerges as a property from their interplays as group behaviour. Theoretically, there is no difference between atoms as agents or birds in a flock as agents. There is also no theoretical difference between molecular behaviour and flock behaviour.

    Interplays between agents (or oscillators like clocks) lead to one of one or more possible group behaviour. Some suggest that there is always more than one, but this debatable and waits a mathematical proof. What is important to note that theoretical infinity of possible group behaviours is reduced to discrete few stati (Latin plural of status).

    Once the interplay prevails towards one of the stati (symmetry breaking), system exhibits emergent property or a group behaviour. And this group behaviour further stabilises the interplays between agents. This could be also viewed in terms of energy flows. Once symmetry is broken, energy flows out of the system as system stabilises itself. And only flow of energy into the system can throw it out of the balance to start anew interplays between agents. (Typical in chemistry reactions, for example.)

    The most of the above has math and computer simulations behind.

    As for your question, many in scientific community are tongue-tied but the resistance to the idea of emergence is still very strong. If you look at the topics here, the question “Can we explain the whole by looking at parts only?” is still very much alive.

    As to your thought, I agree that we are looking at wavicles in isolation from each other. Even our experiments are designed to infer properties of single wavicle from interplays between wavicles (wave/particle). This also shows strong resistance to the idea of emergent property.

    Kind regards,
  10. Dec 16, 2008 #9
    The theory of emergent properties often comes down to an ill-defined notion or a language game.

    If you look in any intro biology book they talk about "emergence" all the time. Take proteins for example. The primary structure of the amino acids govern the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures, which new properties (such as enzymes) occur. In some sense, it's synergy, its a gestalt, the sum are greater than its parts. But this isn't strange in any way--why would we expect anything different? When different combinations, numbers, and arrangements of fundamental particles occur why would new combinations and arrangements NOT occur?

    But I'm not sure why there is so much discussion about this. Of course when we look at phenomena from different perspectives that it looks different to us. But some people seem to suggest that something magical is happening, or that we couldn't "in principle" describe everything in terms of physics, I doubt that this is the case. Of course it becomes easier to talk about proteins in terms of amino acids rather than fundamental particles, but this is for our ease as humans. If we had a supercomputer with all the knowledge in the universe, many scientists would say that we could describe everything (even life) in terms of fundamental particles, forces, and initial conditions. It's just that we can't practically do that at this point, nor do we want to. But there is nothing that suddenly appears such that is completely unpredicted or unexplained in principle from the fundamentals.

    I mean even for something as complex as life can be described in principle: You are a human, which is made from differentiated cells programed from essential dna, these cells form spontaneously based on chemical bonds (see protobionts), understood from fundamental electromagnetic interactions of electrons and protons. Emergence is a result of taking a human perspective on various epiphenomena of fundamental forces of fundamental particles.
  11. Dec 16, 2008 #10
    Tiger Striped Cat,

    To prevent future la-la replies on complexity, I recommend you (and to others) Klaus Mainzer’s “Thinking in Complexity”. Although incomplete, it offers a competent introduction into what we now call Complex Adaptive Systems Theory or Complexity for short. It also offers basic math. For various simulations, you will have to look elsewhere, unfortunately.

    Kind regards,
  12. Jan 15, 2009 #11
    I really don't think you understand the kind of emergence that we are talking about here. Do me a favor: Go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and read the article on emrgence, then go to Google Books and find "Thinking in Complexity" and do a search for emergence. You should find, as I did, that of the 30 references not a single reference to "emergence" refers to the kind explained in SEP. Mainzer's idea of emergence is similar to that of chaos, sure we can take an incredibly complex system and watch extremely interesting phenomenA "emerge", but chaos and CAST (your example) are explained IN PRINCIPLE from the fundamental laws. I'm fine with this kind of emergence, and it astounds me why we would think that such complexity would NOT emerge. What I'm looking for someone to show is a new "thing" (however you want to define that) or "law" that MUST be postulated above the fundamental physical laws to explain a phenomenon even IN PRINCIPLE (not just in practice). Consciousness and maybe an aspect of quantum mechanics might be examples, but it rarely (if ever) occurs, so I wonder why we even call it emergent phenomenA and not an emergent phenomenON.
  13. Jan 18, 2009 #12
    Apart from the oversimplications inherent here, not to mention the sarcasm, I think you are misrepresenting the idea of emergence.


    2 + 2 = 4

    This states that when dicussing 2 separate sets of two, they add up to four. Each two is a distinct object. Now consider:


    This is one set of two 2s.

    The results are very different. When you consider them separately the properties only add up to 4, but once they are part of the same 'system', the numbers 'add up' to something entirely different.

    Bear in mind this is an analogy. Complex systems are what 'emergence' really deals with and simple math does not approximate this very well.
  14. Jan 19, 2009 #13


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    The fact that an elephant does not simply appear on a cruise ship is probably more of an emergent property than if one did appear out of thin air.

    Pessimism aside, the reason physicists are studying "emergence" and "quantum mechanics" is their attempt to explain certain features we are all able to observe

    The reason that an approximate number of atoms appears to develop an awareness is because awareness turned out to be one of the dominant survival traits allowing (edit) an organism to survive as a living organism. The "self organization" you mistakenly adhere to as a feature is actually random natural selection resulting in an evolution which in turn results in "conscious-awareness".

    Nor does a dead body.
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2009
  15. Jan 20, 2009 #14
    hahahaha that made me laugh.

    just from what i've previously read on emergent properties i highly doubt they exist.

    just because we don't UNDERSTAND why something is there doesn't mean we can someday understand it...

    2 + 2 = 5 today sure but maybe tomorrow we will correct our understanding (by using scientific method... maybe integrate some other knowledge here and there) and voila 2 + 3 = 5 or maybe 5 + 5 = 10

    but MOST likely we'll find MORE knowledge we need to learn and end up with like 2 + 2.5 = 5 or something who knows eventually i hope we would understand it

    if not though that doesn't mean it just came into existance
  16. Jan 23, 2009 #15
    Dear Tiger Striped Cat,

    I apologise for late response - I was excommunicated. (The use of religious terminology is - deliberate.)

    Philosophical musings are recently in bad need of revision. Libet’s findings on consciousness are good example. Finding on two genetically identical pea plants distinguishing non-self also tosses out tonnes of philosophical musings on identity. (Dr. Omer Falik et al at Department of Life Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of Negev etc.)

    I take, therefore, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on complexity with a grain of salt. I believe that our musings need to be reconcilable with empirical findings, i.e. science. As far history of thought on complexity goes, the article is correct. But this does not make musings themselves correct and I’m not much interested in them. (Moderators might consider this as overly speculating.)

    As for your assessment that emergent phenomena are explained IN PRINCIPLE from the fundamental laws, I have my doubts. The question is simple: Can we derive (explain) saltiness from properties of sodium and chlorine?

    I also have the following questions:

    Which fundamental laws we are talking about? Do they include chemical reactions to salt (new phenomenon), for example?

    In principle, we have to assume that atoms of sodium and chlorine must exist before NaCl molecule can be formed. Salt is therefore a new emergent phenomenon, regardless of how many times a new salt molecule was formed throughout history of universe. On molecular level, there are also possibilities of new molecules being formed that may have never been formed before. This would also qualify for new, emergent phenomena.

    I would also consider new ideas as emergent properties/phenomena.

    Kind regards,
  17. Jan 24, 2009 #16
    just because a property is emergent doesn't mean you can't understand WHY it emerged.

    the way i understand it the philosophy of emergent properties (complex systems) says that the properties are not explainable and the sum of the whole is MORE than all the parts
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