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The term emergence refers to the appearance of a new property in an evolving system or entity. As the system changes over time, a new property that was not present before comes to be associated with it, often through an increase in complexity. Emergent phenomena are not fully reducible (in a causal, explanatory, or ontological sense) to the lower-level phenomena from which they arise. Emergence thus represents the hypothesis that the whole story (in science, and perhaps in religion) can only be told by multiple causal stories at multiple levels.

In the religion-science discussion, uses of the term emergence fall roughly into three broad categories: (1) Scientific emergence concentrates on individual instances and patterns of emergence in the natural world. Many emergent phenomena can be categorized and analyzed in a purely scientific manner without needing to raise broader questions about their philosophical or theological significance. (2) Philosophical emergence theories look for broader patterns or similarities between emergent phenomena and attempt to formulate general criteria for classifying a phenomenon as emergent. (3) Metaphysical or theological emergence theories presuppose that the natural world is hierarchically structured and that it is a fundamental feature of reality that new emergent levels are produced in the course of cosmic history. At the metaphysical level, emergence theories attempt to describe and account for the broad pattern of emergence over time. In theological theories, the ladder of emergence is associated with the nature and action of God. Both presuppose the fundamental nature of change or development and emphasize creativity or novelty as a basic feature of ultimate reality.

Critics of emergence complain that it is either trivial, untestable, or false. Trivial because it seems obvious that, as systems increase in complexity, they will express new properties not manifest at earlier stages. Thus the critic might complain that emergence just restates the concept of complexityand in a less clear, more obscure fashion. Untestable because how could one ever test whether there is a broad pattern of emergence in natural history? And false if emergentists are claiming that mysterious new things emerge in cosmic history that cannot be understood at all in terms of more basic levels. After all, critics complain, the success that physics has enjoyed is simply success at explaining "new things" in terms of more fundamental laws.

Some classical theists have criticized emergence theories by responding that the basic nature of the world was set by the last day of creation. Humanity may move toward or away from God, but human nature as such does not changeand certainly God does not change or emerge over time, as both Augustine of Hippo (354430) and Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) maintained. Process thinkers have argued that emergence is not as metaphysically satisfactory as, for example, Alfred North Whitehead's (18611947) thought, since in place of the unified framework of actual occasions (panexperientialism), emergence offers only a confusing variety of fundamental entities arising within natural history.

Instances of emergence in the natural world

The first cases of emergence arise already in quantum mechanics. (Indeed, one could speculate that spontaneous symmetry breaking constitutes the earliest instance of emergence.) In the fractional quantum Hall effect, electrons act together in strong magnetic fields to form new types of "particles." Likewise, atomic structures and the properties of bulk matter are the emergent and relatively stable results of increasing complexity in physical systems.

Thermodynamics is inherently concerned with emergence, since it relates exchanges of heat to macroscopic phenomena such as temperature, pressure, and volume. Ilya Prigogine studied the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, developing laws for the emergence of order (anentropy) in specified systems ("order through fluctuations"). To take an example from fluid turbulence, heating a fluid from below results in the Bénard phenomenon, in which the convecting fluid spontaneously forms complex hexagonal "cells." Using similar physical principles, meteorologists study emergent patterns in the weather, which demonstrate very sensitive dependence on small changes in initial conditions (e.g., Edward Lorenz's Butterfly Effect). In such systems "matter displays its potential to be self-organizing and thereby to bring into existence new forms . . . under the constraints and with the potentialities afforded by their being incorporated into systems the properties of which, as a whole, now have to be taken into account" (Peacocke, 1986, p. 53).

The emergence of life depends on emergent properties in chemistry, such as the folding properties of proteins, which in turn are products of their underlying physical structure. Likewise, auto-catalytic (self-catalyzed) processes in chemistry play a key role in increasing complexity to the level required for life. Such processes allow for the role of feedback mechanisms, which can foster an iterative, self-correcting process that leads to the formation of new structures.

Eventually, ordered dissipative structures emerged. Life requires only that they have the potential to replicate and to incorporate environment-induced changes into their physical structure. At this point biological evolution begins, in which differential survival rates depend on reproductive success in a given environment. Emergence connotes both the unbroken chain of development backward through time and the continual emergence of new forms: bio-molecules, cells (including neurons), organelles, organs, and "autonomous agents," which Stuart Kauffman defines as systems that are able to reproduce and also able to carry out at least one thermodynamic work cycle.

Emergence may involve the evolution of new structures according to as many as six metrics:

  1. evolution temporally or spatially;
  2. evolution in the progression from simple to complex;
  3. evolution in levels of inner organization, feedback loops, and self-catalyzing autopoiesis (Niels Gregersen);
  4. evolution in increasing levels of information-processing;
  5. evolution in the development of "subjectivity" (e.g., perception, awareness, self-awareness, self-consciousness, spiritual intuition);
  6. evolution in the ladder of emergence of new properties (e.g., physiological, psychological, sociological; or physical, biological, psychological, spiritual).

Philosophical analysis and implications

Understood as a philosophical position, emergence theory is derived from the details of cosmic evolution as revealed through the various natural and social sciences. Philosophical emergence generally includes some combination of the following eight theses:

  1. Emergentist monism : There is one natural world composed of matter and energy (Peacocke and Clayton in Russell, 2000).
  2. Hierarchy : This world is hierarchically structured; more complex units are formed out of more simple parts, and they in turn become the "parts" out of which yet more complex entities are formed.
  3. Temporal ontology : This process of hierarchical structuring takes place over time; cosmic evolution moves from the simple to the more complex, and new structures and entities emerge in the process.
  4. Emergentist pluralism : The manner of the emergence of one level from another, the qualities of the emergent level, the degree to which the "lower" controls the "higher," and many other features vary depending on which instance of emergence is being studied (e.g., the biophysicist Harold Morowitz has identified at least twenty-eight different levels). Emergence should thus be viewed as a family resemblance term.
  5. Logical features : The various instances of emergence in natural history do tend to share certain features. For any two levels, L 1 and L 2, where L 2 emerges from L 1, (a) L 1 is prior in natural history; (b) L 2 depends on L 1, such that if the states in L 1 did not exist, the qualities in L 2 would not exist; (c) L 2 is the result of a sufficient degree of complexity in L 1; (d) one might be able to predict the emergence of some new or emergent qualities on the basis of what one knew about L 1. But one would not be able to predict the precise nature of these qualities, the rules that govern their interaction (or their phenomenological patterns), or the sorts of emergent levels that they may in due course give rise to; (e) L 2 is not reducible to L 1 in any of the standard senses of "reduction" in the philosophy of science literature (causal, explanatory, metaphysical, or ontological reduction).
  6. Downward causation : In some cases, phenomena at L 2 exercise a causal effect on L 1, which is not reducible to an L 1 causal history. This causal nonreducibility is not just epistemic, in the sense that humans cannot tell the L 1 causal story but an omnipotent being could. It is ontological: The world is such that it produces systems whose emergent properties exercise their own distinct causal forces among each other and on (at least) the next lower level in the hierarchy.
  7. Against dualism : Although the emergence of consciousness in the brain is significant to humans, it is not the defining moment of emergence. Emergence theory refers to the process of emergence as a whole, not merely to a single instance of emergence.
  8. Against dual aspect monism : Traditionally, as in Baruch Spinoza (16321677), dual aspect monism implies that there is no causal interaction between mental and physical properties, whereas emergence theories maintain that there is a dependence of the mental upon the physical and two-way causal influence between them.

Metaphysical or theological emergence

Emergentist theologies take several different forms, some focusing on emergence within the world, and some on emergence and the nature of God. Regarding the former, three forms are possible, here listed in order of increasing strength of divine involvement.

  1. The process of emergence might represent a basic feature of the natural world. Fundamental laws and constants and the nature of matter and energy are such that increasingly complex entities and states of affairs are formed, and more complex systems naturally give rise to new emergent properties. The emphasis is on the lawlike nature of the process: Once such basic features are set, emergence will occur naturally. It may have no broader significance outside itself.
  2. The same view of emergence being presupposed, a teleological dimension might be added. God established these features with the intention that the world would produce ever more complex entities and properties, such as complex biochemical molecules, living organisms, and the brains of the higher primates, as well as culture, art, philosophy, and perhaps religious understanding. In all cases, the pattern of complexification, once the preconditions are given, requires no divine intervention to be carried out.
  3. God might be more directly involved in bringing about emergent levels of reality. This might involve a general "lure," a constant introduction of creativity into the natural process, as argued by Whitehead and most process thinkers; it might involve the claim that in nature emergent levels (life, experience, self-consciousness) would not have occurred except for the role of God; or, the theist may assert, the entire process reflects God's providential role in history, working the divine will in to mold reality to God's image, for example, bringing about humankind in the image of God (imago Dei ) through God's constant creative or redemptive activity.

It is important to note that one can advocate an emergence theory of the natural world without maintaining any emergence within God. Thus one might hold an Augustinian view of God, such that God is completely immutable and dwells in a timeless eternal realm, yet through an act or series of acts preordained before creation God brings about its emergent history (its levels of emergence). On this view, emergence is divinely caused and entails a temporal process in the world, but it does not entail any change in God (Ernan McMullin).

Various forms of dipolar theism allow emergence within God, without asserting that "God comes into being" along with the process of emergence of the cosmos. So, for example, the essential or "antecedent" nature of God might be eternal and unchanging through the cosmic process, whereas the "consequent" nature of Godthe side of God that interacts with and responds to the worldgrows, develops, and even changes over the course of cosmic history. There is emergence within God at least in the sense that the divine experience becomes richer, containing experiences and responses that were not there ab initio, even though the essential nature of God remains constant.

Finally, the strongest forms of "emergentist theism" maintain that God comes to be along with the process of history. The world and the divine are inextricably wed: Where there is no world, there is no God. The world and God then come into being together, and perhaps the process will culminate in a deification of the world through this identity or association.

See also Autopoiesis; Complexity; Supervenience


holland, john. emergence: from chaos to order. reading, mass.: addison-wesley, 1998.

kauffman, stuart. investigations. new york: oxford university press, 2000.

peacocke, arthur. god and the new biology. london: dent; san francisco: harper, 1986.

peacocke, arthur. theology for a scientific age: being and becomingnatural, divine, and human. minneapolis, minn.: fortress, 1993.

prigogine, ilya. from being to becoming: time and complexity in the physical sciences. san francisco: w. h. freeman, 1980.

russell, robert john; murphy, nancey; and meyering, theo c., eds. neuroscience and the person: scientific perspectives on divine action. vatican city state: vatican observatory; berkeley, calif.: center for theology and the natural sciences, 1999.

philip clayton

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emergence, emergent properties Emergence is the process by means of which a number of divergent elements are synthesized and organized into a new form. As a concept it has been particularly prominent in evolutionary theory. However, it is also widely deployed in symbolic interactionism, which also aims to capture the processual and adaptive nature of social life. In the writings of both George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer the interaction of body, mind, self, and society constantly leads to emergence. From this point of view, society itself is an emergent, as are all social objects.

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"emergence." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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