Emergence: Profoundly trivial

This post is an echo of voices from the distant past, prompted by a tweet by Fernando Rosas. (It’s also not entirely fact-checked and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)

Emergence is trivial! Emergence is what makes it possible to have different levels of description. Biologists can discuss cells; medical scientists can talk about tissues made of millions of those cells. Physicists study molecules; material scientists study crystals of gazillions of those molecules. The list could continue for quite a bit, all the way to the social sciences. Emergence is the mechanism that brings the higher level into existence from the lower—and since the different levels don’t make us raise an eyebrow, neither should emergence. It’s an integral part of our everyday experience and, in that sense, trivial.

Emergence is profound! We can’t explain emergence by standard deductive reasoning, starting from the properties of the constituents. We can, at best, make mathematical and computational models that have similar collective effects. Would that count as an explanation in school? No. So there you have it: emergence is an enigma shrouded in mystery.

If that is a too obscure explanation, then essentially all theoretical modeling is. We don’t have to talk about Boltzmann or Maxwell; calculus works in the same way—to measure something, we divide it into minuscule constituents, analyze them, and integrate the information—going from a higher level to a lower and back again.

Calculus does not involve emergence. If you calculate how long it takes for a cylinder to roll down a slope, the whole is literally the sum of its parts.

Yeah, but I was talking about the mode of explanation.

Hit me with some other argument! We can’t have this discussion without mentioning the Ising model. It’s the simplest model of its kind, and still, Lars Onsager had a whole file cabinet with notes for solving the 2D case, whereas the 3D version is still not solved. Do you call that trivial?

(Mumbling: A critical phenomenon is a very particular type of emergence…) OK, the math of the Ising model is profound, but that doesn’t mean emergence is enigmatic. You can find profundity in numbers, and indeed we all hear about numbers before emergence, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look further than numbers. Numbers are essential tools to discuss and solve problems—from everyday worries to the fate of humanity. Emergence should be the same. It’s a helpful concept in many discussions but nothing to mystify. Honestly, the complex system community had a bit of an issue with that—sometimes self-promoting with mystical, spiritual overtones.


Emergence blends too well with holism, higher states of consciousness, mind expansion, Ken Wilber’s integral spirituality, astral travel, …

What’s mystical about holism? And was Ken Wilber ever a part of the complex systems community?

Gregory Bateson, then. He was at the Santa Fe Institute.

… Esalen Institute, and he was also doing dry science; respected stuff.

He was? And wasn’t Esalen the primary target of Feynman’s cargo cult talk?

Feynman, the buddy of Gell Mann, founder of SFI.

Buddy? They hated each other.

Like I hate you!

[profanities, and violence, emerging]

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