The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

(This is the fourth post in the series on the book by physicist Sean Carroll, The Big Picture.  In it a vital point is presented, and I hope convincingly.  That the concept of “Emergence” is most importantly a logical issue.  There is an internal coherence to our different “emergent vocabularies”.  The new qualities discovered by them about “the deeper, underlying, physical structures” are interrelated at their own level.  To mix the vocabularies of different levels — as in, “the stimulation of this set of neurons caused the subject to experience red” — is fraught with significant complexities.  Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism, in this way, approaches the topic Reference in human language and thinking; a topic long discussed by philosophers.  First published 12/16/2019)

Complex Forms with Numerous Qualities Have Emerged From Microscopic Structures with Limited Qualities.    Drawing by Marty

So, what is “Emergence”, anyway?  This is the Third Post in the Series on “Emergence” and it’s time to finally say — more explicitly — what it is.  After all, we all kind of know what the term refers to, or do we?

One of my most persistent readers has made it clear, he does not like the term.  “What is its point?” he has commented.  For example, if you take the CHNOPS chemicals and mix them just right, Life “results” or “occurs” or “is caused”.  Why say life “emerges”?  What is added?  It sounds unscientific, spooky-like. 

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers’ Stone, painting by     J. Wright of Derby (1773)

Yet, noted physicist, Sean Carroll has written an entire book (The Big Picture) pretty much dedicated to that concept.  “There are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, he writes.(1)  This vision of reality is “innocuous-seeming but secretly profound” and he calls it “Poetic Naturalism.”  What is vital is that all these “stories” must fit together.  “Higher level” ways of talking must be consistent with those ‘below’ it.  He then declares, “One pivotal word enables that reconciliation between the different stories: emergence.”(his italics, 2)

Emergence is as much a logical concept as it is a physical one.  Carroll cites 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte as the first to explicitly delineate a “hierarchy of sciences”.(3)   We all tacitly acknowledge this hierarchy, with not much dissent.  Physics is “the most microscopic and comprehensive level; out of that emerges chemistry, and then biology, and then psychology, and finally sociology”, Carroll summarizes Comte’s view.  But here is the controversial part, each layer does not ‘collapse’ into those below it because each “way of talking” or each “effective theory” — as Carroll also calls them — is valuable and logically autonomous in itself.

Not quite the idea of a Hierarchy of Sciences, but the general idea of a hierarchy of  existence has been around for a long time.  The above is Thomas Acquinas’ fourth argument for the existence of God, the argument from degree.  Thanks to Chegg Study for diagram.


For example, the chemistry and neurology of the brain will someday “explain” all the ‘truths’ of psychology we might want to say, but Carroll disagrees.  ‘The emergent theory (in this case, psychology, gww) describes true features of the system that might be completely hidden from the microscopic point of view”, he argues.(4)  He contends emergent theories are additional knowledge of the system; more precisely, they are knowledge of “useful ways of talking” about it.(5)  The microscopic theories do not say, or explain, all that is worth saying about the system.

What is this “usefulness”?  It seems to be a shift in perspective.  In fact, Carroll cites Ludwig Boltzmann’a explanation of entropy: Entropy is “a way of counting how many possible microscopic arrangements of the stuff in a system would look indistinguishable from a macroscopic point of view.”(6)   So, a point of view has now become integral to this vital scientific principle; microscopic occurrences can be taken, or have significance, in different ways!

When we describe the world from the point of view of physics — with its objects and laws — it is, as if, persons don’t exist.  Physics is not a very ‘human’ perspective.  It is universal and, therefore, almost totally abstract.  Physics “ignores” all the many layers of complexity that we humans deal with constantly.  No macroscopic solids or fluids, no color or sound, no feelings or meanings, no living things, no perceivers are conceptually present in its vocabulary.  For physics, these ‘things’ do not exist except as crude, initial, data that is in need of analysis.  They are “subjective phenomena” for which there true nature can be discovered.

“Where is Waldo?”  He is not in this portrayal of the movement of the basic particles of the universe as obtained following a high speed collision in a super collider.  “Waldo” is an idea from a vocabulary far different than particle physics.  Image thanks to pixabay.

“Physics is the simplest of all the sciences,” Carroll says, “not ‘simple’ in the sense that the homework problems are easy, but simple in the sense of Galileo’s trick of ignoring…”(7)  He says, some make of this that “if we completely understand the microscopic level,…we know everything there is to know…Whatever (macroscopic, gww) questions you might have can be translated into the microscopic language and answered there.”(8)

Carroll agrees, in one sense; all the ways we talk about ourselves (if it is legitimate talk) will be compatible.  So, ‘our’ behavior, as a system of atoms, is predictable and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.  The idea of “You” is “not a part of our best theory of atoms” or any other microscopic object.  Carroll continues, “you are an emergent phenomena, meaning that you are an element in a higher-level ontology that describes the world at a macroscopic level.”  As “You”, it is “perfectly appropriate to talk about wants and feelings and desires” and also choices.  “Those are all real phenomena in our best understanding of human beings”, he concludes.(9)

So, atoms don’t have wants and feelings, nor do waves in a quantum field.  Even though ‘you’ are made of such things, and understanding ‘you’ as a particular collection of them, can predict, “in principle”, all the movements of ‘you’,we can still legitimately say ‘you’ have wants and feelings.  Nor are wants and feelings caused by atoms.  That is a mistaken way to talk, says Carroll.  It is incoherent; it is mixing two vocabularies.  Wants and feelings are caused by other elements at the vocabulary level of ‘you’ (10), things like ‘need’, ‘instinct’, ‘ambition’, ‘expectation’, ‘socialization’, ‘desire’.  Atoms (or quantum fields, or whatever) only interact with other things of their kind.

The movement of these collections of particles can be predicted and described by physics, but the terms “predator and prey”, “cheetah and gazelle”  would not appear in that vocabulary, nor any emotion or need these creatures might be feeling.

This is Emergence, I believe: it is an ‘unfolding’ of potential, not a necessary sequence of caused objects.  It is our good fortune that from a microscopic world of quantum waves or sub-atomic particles more complex unities appeared.  It did not need to happen and it is a somewhat rare occurrence in the universe, apparently.   But, on our special planet, it did happen, and  from our point of view, as rational humans, many emergent properties and abilities needed to emerge for us to get to our current situation.   We can trace ‘our’ origin to the Big Bang, but there is a huge gap from there to humans going to the moon and sending robotic explorers into deep space.  Also, humans have a reasonable understanding of the entire universe at a microscopic level, and we live to write about all this and consider the significance of these accomplishments.

So, the connection between the Microscopic Worlds and the various Macroscopic Worlds (“ways of talking” about the micro) is not causation, but “usefulness”and “emergence” according to Carroll.  It is how the microscopic order is ‘taken’, ‘used,’ that matters to Poetic Naturalism.  It is what can possibly evolve from them.  Useful ways of talking about the microscopic add new properties, new abilities and new objects that are “autonomous” and meaningful on their own, because they are a set of interrelated structures, functions, and qualities (to use terms familiar to any follower of this blog). “The emergent theory is autonomous (it works by itself, without reference to other theories)”, and “truly new”, contends Carroll. (11)

That is a nice thought!  It is real and legitimate to understand the universe as useful to us as persons.  Emergence allows us, literally, to see this, and the concept of “emergence” allows us to understand that we do fit in this universe as a qualitatively rich and complex place.  We can look out and see it, hear, smell and feel these developments.  We can also try to understand these emergent wonders.

                     OUR WORLD OF NUMEROUS QUALITIES                            AND COMPLEX OBJECTS.       Allegory of the Sense of Smell, painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens (1617)

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

Much was attempted in the above discussion.  Physicist Sean Carroll has helped to establish and legitimize a context for understanding the emergence of complex unities from collections of simpler parts and simpler qualities.  Significantly, a passageway of connection remains between these increasingly stratified and unified emergent worlds.  In this post, I have focused on Carroll’s concept of “usefulness”.  Micro structures can be used to ‘create’ macro structures, in the above senses.  But an important and puzzling aspect was mentioned but not embellished: Movement remains ‘the same’!  Physics understands the basic movement of any object in the universe even when they are complex objects.  The Compatiblist Philosophy (12) being argued for, here, must accept a puzzling situation.   The movements of even complex objects is predictable by our basic physical understanding of the microscopic universe, but the meaning and significance of these objects is not!  Therefore, Reality is more than mere movement whether of microscopic or macroscopic objects.

Carroll suggests this puzzling situation in his Poetic Naturalism by his basic contention that Reality is two kinds of things: the universe of physics and a lot of “ways of talking about this underlying stuff.”(13)  His discussion of human perception and rationality is suggestive of some of these issues but it is not sufficiently developed compared to the hundreds, even thousands, of years of philosophical discussion of the issue of the universe as bits and pieces — and very limited qualities, and/or the universe as series of larger unities and, eventually, one very complicated thing.  The best philosophies, in my opinion, have been unable to avoid a role for, and a real source of, complex unity in reality.  Carroll founders on his insistence that the stripped down perspective of physics is preeminent.  His view leaves a huge gap, but suggests the problem by its recognition of the coherence — or unity — of each vocabulary and its perspective, by contrast to the qualitatively bland and splintered world of physics.

Does Carroll offer a solution to the puzzle?  We seem to have confident knowledge of the various levels of microscopic worlds and confidence in our ability to know and perceive these worlds, but little context for an understanding of these polar experiences or realities.  What we need is a more comprehensive theory of reality that describes its compatibility with our human ability to know that reality.

Carroll suggests a solution.  Reality has a bottom line for which we have no larger context with which to compare it, he contends, and no larger context to understand it within.  The bottom line reality is there, as given, as it is in itself.   Therefore, it simply must be accepted, if at least as the given position for further investigation.  For Carroll, this bottom line is the universe as presented by our current science of physics.  But here at naturereligionconnection. org, we have sided more with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, who argue that the bottom line existence is BOTH the universe as revealed by physics AND our abilities to know that universe.  Our human abilities to act — to reason, to initiate, to be responsible, to make mistakes and to learn — are as fundamental as the basic structure the universe.

THE WORLD AS UNDERSTOOD BY CHEMISTRY, which is less abstract than physics.  The molecular organization of graphene, charcoal and some other forms of carbon; can now also be seen with an electron microscope.



So, there is more to the universe than atoms in motion.  The next post will provide Carroll’s basic examples of how the universe “emerges” from these atoms.   The universe becomes more than its basic stuff, and is “for our purposes”, “useful” and ‘significant’ to us!   Two important mechanisms or structures for emergence will be described: coarse-graining and fractal organization.

Prades, the Village (1917)  Painting by Joan Miro.  “Intense color, light, space and form are used to express the artist’s emotional state.”

Notes:  1. page 93    2.  94    3. 104   4. 108    5. 108   6. 227  7.  25   8. 108   9. 113  10.  113    11. 106-7

12.  Compatiblism is the idea that higher qualities and abilities are compatible with a Deterministic Universe.  Just because physics knows a lot about the movement of the basic particles and quantum waves of the universe, does not mean that there are not still more interesting and significant things to be said about those microscopic realities.         13. page 17







2 thoughts on “The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

  1. Greg, I did ask what is the difference between emergent and resultant (emerges vs results in). I believe this is the third time I am asking. I don’t recall a clear and succinct answer.

    You also did not tackle this problematic quote from Carroll.

    Quantum mechanics predicts our future in terms of probabilities rather than certainties, but those probabilities themselves are absolutely fixed by the state of the universe right now. A quantum version of Laplace’s Demon could say with confidence what the probability of every future history will be, and no amount of human volition would be able to change it.

    Essentially he is saying that are our supposedly emergent properties and the choices we make are probabilistic and the result of the universe we find ourselves in. This is not consistent with a free choice any more than our actions being the result of a cosmic dice shaker. Ignorance of the underlying mechanism of our choices is not a satisfactory defense or definition of free will.

    I don’t object to the word emergent and its derivatives. I do object to its use in defense of non existent properties.

    What do you think is Carroll’s definition of free will and how does it compare to yours?

    Hope Santa was good to you and yours …


    1. Rom, I have tried to explain that dif of Emerge property AND caused result. Or maybe the clearest expression of that is in the post I am now working on, but briefly it is…

      Causes are most clearly expressed WithIn one vocabulary or “effective theory” as Carroll also calls “these diverse ways of talking.”

      In biology, a cause of ‘hunger’ is ‘need for food’. Hunger, need and food are all terms at ‘the same level’ of reality or in ‘the same vocabulary’.
      You can describe ‘this’ differently, at a diff level, in terms of neurological input and brain events, but that then that should only mention other neuro terms, not “hunger” or “food”. Neuro events cause only other neuro events. They do not ‘cause’ hunger; that is a Category Mistake.

      “Emergent” is the term that correctly signifies your awareness of the different levels and the logic of them. A pumpkin can emerge from micro particle events, but it is not a necessary resultant of them. We are lucky that from our perspective pumpkins exist, but also are Neceassarily Associated with some other biological events and objects that make the designation “pumpkin” meaningful, I.e. provides it with appropriate logical/semantic context—-like “squash”, “vegetable”, plant flower and seed.

      Enough said for now. Will get to definition of free will.
      HAPPY HOLIDAYS to You Too!!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s