An explication of emergence


Philosophical debates about emergence are often marred by equivocation and lack of common ground, and dialogue about emergence between scientists and philosophers can be equally difficult. In this paper I offer a unified explication of emergence and argue that this explication can cut through much of the confusion evident in discussions of emergence. I defend an explication of the concept of emergence as the unavailability of a certain kind of scientific explanation for an observer or observers.

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  1. 1.

    Kim (2006).

  2. 2.

    O’Connor (2006).

  3. 3.

    Chalmers (2006).

  4. 4.

    Kelso and Scott (1995).

  5. 5.

    Bedau (2003) and Dennett (1991).

  6. 6.

    Chalmers (1996).

  7. 7.

    Redhead (1995) and Teller (1986).

  8. 8.

    Broad (1925).

  9. 9.

    Bedau (2003), (Wilson 2013).

  10. 10.

    e.g. McLaughlin (1992), Wilson (2005), Chalmers (2006) and Barnes (2013).

  11. 11.

    Chalmers (2006).

  12. 12.

    Hempel and Oppenheim (1965, p. 64).

  13. 13.

    Hempel and Oppenheim (1965, p. 64).

  14. 14.

    For example, Hempel and Oppenheim discuss a case in which electric current flows through a wire connecting a piece of copper and a piece of zinc that are partly immersed in sulphuric acid. They argue that the facts about this flow may not be deducible from basic information about the attributes of copper, zinc and the acid, but may be deducible from a theory that includes these details, plus the principles and general laws of chemistry. Hempel and Oppenheim (1965, p. 63).

  15. 15.

    For an anthology including some computational accounts, see Bedau and Humphreys (2008).

  16. 16.

    Chalmers (2006, pp. 1–2).

  17. 17.

    Stephan (2006, p. 485).

  18. 18.

    Nitschke (2009, p. 737).

  19. 19.

    Balazs and Epstein (2009, p. 1632).

  20. 20.

    Assad and Packard (1992).

  21. 21.

    In Langton (1995).

  22. 22.

    See Bedau (2003) and Bedau (2008).

  23. 23.

    Silberstein and McGeever (1999) and Wilson (2010).

  24. 24.

    Morrison (2012).

  25. 25.

    Note that criteria 1, 2 and 4 are among standards for explication developed in Carnap (1950, p. 7).

  26. 26.

    For example, consider the two philosophical accounts examined earlier. Neither Hempel and Oppenheim nor Chalmers explicitly formulated their account of emergence in terms of explanation, and yet the authors explicitly endorse the connection between emergence and explanation. Hempel and Oppenheim say If the assertion that life and mind have an emergent status is interpreted in this sense, then its import can be summarized approximately by the statement that no explanation, in terms of micro-structure theories, is available at present for large classes of phenomena studied in biology and psychology, Hempel and Oppenheim (1965, p. 65). Chalmers and Jackson explicitly tie emergence to failure of a priori reductive explanation in Jackson and Chalmers (2002). Furthermore, in most purported cases of emergence, an attempt at a scientific explanation of the relevant kind has failed. For example, consider the decline of British Emergentism. The British Emergentists thought that chemical properties emerged from physical properties but this was proved wrong by the new physical explanations of chemical bonding. See McLaughlin (1992, p. 23).

  27. 27.

    What about those purported cases of emergence in which the emergent appears to be completely explainable from the micro-level? For example, consider Wilson's conception of weak emergence in Wilson (2010). According to Wilson an entity E is weakly emergent from component entities ei when one of the degrees of freedom needed to describe a characteristic state of ei is eliminated from the description of the same state of E, in virtue of some constraint being imposed on ei. This is a non-explanatory conception of emergence, and yet this account does meet the conditions of EM. Even if it is deducible that there will be some constraint on ei from the fact that the ei components stand in a particular relation R, it is not deducible from this that the constraint will be associated with weak emergence, because the appearance of the weak emergence is partly determined by the laws of nature. This strategy generalizes to similar accounts, such that even non-explanatory conceptions of emergence can still meet the conditions of EM. Furthermore, even non-explanatory conceptions of emergence typically involve some explanatory difference between the micro and macro level, such as for example that the emergent can appear in explanations the micro-level components cannot.

  28. 28.

    See e.g. Crane (2001).

  29. 29.

    See the Chalmers (1996) and Block and Stalnaker (1999).

  30. 30.

    Broad (1925, p. 55).

  31. 31.

    See Block and Stalnaker (1999), Chalmers and Jackson (2002).

  32. 32.

    O’Connor (2006).

  33. 33.

    Chalmers (2006).


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Correspondence to Elanor Taylor.

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With thanks to Marc Lange, John Roberts, Karen Neander, Laurie Paul, William Lycan, Jessica Wilson, audiences at Illinois Wesleyan University and LMU Munich, and an anonymous referee.

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Taylor, E. An explication of emergence. Philos Stud 172, 653–669 (2015).

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  • Emergence
  • Explanation
  • Levels