Emergentism, the subject of this article, is an old idea which in recent times has acquired new life and generated much interest and research across the whole spectrum of the natural and human sciences as well as in philosophy. John Clarke suggests it may offer a new worldview in needy times.
‘The greatest riddle of cosmology is that the universe is in a sense creative.’ – Karl Popper
‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’. – Charles Darwin
The universe seems to have an irresistible urge to create. From the Big Bang to the tiniest flowering plant, from living cells to the mighty human brain, the natural world is a scene of booming, buzzing innovation, demonstrating at all levels of being an extravagant impulse to fashion and refashion things anew. There is, as Charles Darwin reminds us, a “grandeur” in the life of nature which brings forth “endless forms”. We witness this, not only in the process of evolution to which Darwin devoted his own creative genius, but in the life of the cosmos as a whole. This is not only a “riddle”, but a spectacle “most beautiful and most wonderful”.
In the course of his lifetime Darwin was torn between two ways of making sense of this creative exuberance. In his early days he viewed the world as reflecting divine grandeur, as a great cosmic harmony created by God. Later, and rather reluctantly, he came to see the creative power of nature as something which is simply inherent in nature itself, an extraordinary product of the natural order of things.
God or Nature
Caught between these two visions, his personal dilemma stood at an historic turning point. Traditional thought, in the West at any rate, has tended to see the order and beauty of the world as a product and mirror of something much higher, the divine Pantocrator, from whom nature draws its harmony and its grandeur. Since Darwin’s time, with the growth of evolutionary thinking and other scientific and philosophical developments, the world’s wonders have increasingly been seen to arise from nature’s own inherent resources, its own inherent creativity, not requiring any higher source or deeper ground.
So, is it God or nature that is causa sui? On the one hand there is the view of nature as, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the Grandeur of God”, and on the other, in Darwin’s words, one in which “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” have arisen by nature’s power alone.
My inclination is towards the latter and what I would call a naturalist presumption, an approach which limits its outlook, its values and its meaning to the natural world of which we human beings are an integral part. I contrast this with an eternalist presumption which typically locates the source of values and its meaning beyond nature, beyond the world we can experience. This latter view is epitomised in the Platonic belief that this natural world is but an imperfect shadow, an illusory reflection, of an eternal, perfect, spiritual world beyond.
doubt if either of these presumptions can be transformed into a completely impregnable theory or worldview, but I believe that naturalism offers conspicuous advantages over eternalism, not only in theoretical terms but in relation to the search for that which makes life valuable and meaningful. The naturalist presumption I advocate is not new for it stems from a variety of historical traditions, but it has acquired fresh life in recent times and is nowadays attracting increasing attention in the sciences, the humanities and beyond. It is especially relevant, I believe, in times of economic crises, social upheaval and intellectual uncertainty.
There are of course various forms of naturalism, some modern versions stemming from the scientific revolution, advocating a materialist approach in which nature in all its complexity and beauty is reduced to matter in motion, and the whole thing likened to a great machine. This is a paradigm which led to what Weber called the “disenchantment of the world”, a bleak picture described by A.N. Whitehead as “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly”
But it does not have to be like that. In recent times a new, richer, and altogether more inspiring form of naturalism has come into focus, arising in part from the revival of holistic thinking, and springing from developments across the whole intellectual spectrum. It is called emergenism.
What is Emergentism?
This is not a very attractive word. I would prefer ‘creationism’, but that term has already been hijacked. It is none-the-less a very beautiful idea, complex, protean, serendipitous. This term, along with its partner ‘emergence’, has itself been part of philosophical vocabulary for over a century. Responding to the rise of Darwinism, in its early usage it was deployed to find a special place for the evolution of life and mind, one which might succeed in holding back the rising tide of mechanism and reductionism. The term was especially popular in the early years of the last century among philosophers such as C.D. Broad and Samuel Alexander, and zoologists such as C. Lloyd Morgan, as well as Henri Bergson who was an important influence with his idea of creative evolution.
In more recent times the term has taken on a wider compass, largely as a result of exciting new speculations and discoveries in the sciences. Its particular influence has been in relation to attempts to understanding complex self-organising phenomena ranging across a variety of fields from physics and biology to economics and psychology. In the view of some commentators such as Paul Davies and Erich Jantsch it has evolved into what can be described as a new paradigm, or even a new worldview, one which not only addresses scientific problems, but opens up new approaches to some of the most pressing philosophical questions of value and meaning. Most recently Stuart Kauffman from the Santa Fe Institute, a speaker at a recent SMN conference, has become a leading spokesperson for this development.
So what is meant by ‘emergence’? The quotation above from Darwin sums it up succinctly: ”from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. The question at the back of this remark is: how is it that the complex forms, not only of living beings, but of human life, and indeed of the cosmos from micro to macro dimensions, arise from such simple origins? How is it that out of the simple emerges the complex, whether it be molecules, viruses, plants, animals, the human brain, the conscious mind, human society, or the works of science and literature? How are such wonders created? It is of course the old question going back to the ancient Greeks: how does order come out of chaos?
Emergentism provides the framework of an answer to this question. This framework, which has itself emerged from various traditions, Eastern as well as Western, has arisen out of attempts to understand a whole range of complex systems, natural, social, psychological, in terms which go beyond the entrenched reductionist paradigm. All such complex systems have developed the ability to bring order out of chaos, thereby achieving a special kind of self-organising order and balance. There seems to be an inbuilt tendency in nature for matter and energy to undergo spontaneous transition into new states of organisation which are not dependent on lower level laws.
Moreover, complex systems which emerge are able to retain a stable structure, and in the case of living things to constantly reproduce this structure, without requiring the assistance of any external control or direction. It is a spontaneous self-organising process, arising from within the interplay of component parts in ways which are unpredictable from initial conditions. Such complex systems are therefore irreducible to the simpler elements from which they emerge. The moment of creativity at which such systems emerge and self-organise is usually described, following the work of Ilya Prigogine, as being “on the edge of chaos”, a critical moment at which the system can advance to and sustain a self-directing coherence in various unexpected ways, or revert to chaos.
Some specific examples of the application of this idea might be helpful.
On the cosmic scale the Big Bang itself may be considered as emergence par excellence. According to the most widely accepted theory, the universe began, not with ready-made particles in place, densely packed into a small space awaiting release, but rather with a ‘singularity’ which, prior to ignition, had no spatio-temporal dimensions, nor any other properties that have arisen in the universe as we now know it. From this origin has emerged ever more complex entities from the chemical elements and compounds to the formation of stars, galaxies and planets, and eventually to life itself. As cosmic evolution progresses, some have speculated that even the laws of physics and chemistry are themselves contingent upon the emergence of the universe, and that possibly there is a multiplicity of universes in which there emerge an indefinite variety of elements, laws and physical constants. Physicists such as Lee Smolin have cast this speculation into a Darwinian mould so that, as with the evolution of the species, some universes survive and flourish, and some do not.
Biology provides the most obvious examples of emergence. A living organism is composed of a range of material, ranging from relatively simple chemical elements to ever more complex material ranging from cells, through organs, up to whole living beings. But when these materials are combined together, the properties of the whole organism are not always simply the addition of, or equal to the sum of, the properties of the components. At each level, new properties and laws emerge that cannot be predicted by observation and full knowledge of the lower levels. Such properties, and indeed life itself, are called emergent properties or emergent phenomena.
At a more mundane level we can observe self-organising processes in a number of relatively familiar biological contexts. These processes, examples of autopoiesis or self-making, have come increasingly into focus in recent years. They include such phenomena as self-regeneration or self-repair whereby organisms renew themselves either in whole or in part, and in the common phenomenon of a wound which heals of itself. Self-organising processes are also observed in flocking or swarming. For example ant colonies are capable of producing remarkably sophisticated and highly co-ordinated behaviour. This behaviour is the result of the activities of countless individual ants whose routines as individuals are extremely simple, and who seemingly have no conception at all of the overall nature or purpose of the structure they are creating. It is a sort of collective intelligence which transcends the intelligence of the constituent individuals, yet which is not the product of any central co-ordinating agency.
An obvious application of this concept is to biological evolution, and especially to the emergence of new species. These matters are of course subject to ongoing research as well as much dispute, but at least on the face of it the emergentist model has much going for it. The whole process of evolution is punctuated by discontinuities or relatively rapid transformations, for example the formation of a new species, with relatively stable and long-prevailing conditions interrupted by relatively rapid changes in which new and unpredictable phenomena emerge. The whole evolutionary process, and most dramatically the emergence of life itself, seems to demonstrate a power of self-transformation and adaptation which goes beyond the orthodox Darwinian synthesis.
The emergentist approach has also been applied to human societies in general and to many of the specific levels and functions that go to make up a social complex, from languages to traffic jams, from football crowd behaviour to dinner party etiquette. On a wider canvas, ongoing crises in the economic sphere have also provided important focuses for emergentist analysis. Recent economic and financial turmoil have brought home to us most painfully both the fragility of the economic system we live in – on the edge of chaos – and the way in which relatively stable economic conditions are at times subject to dramatic and unexpected transformations.
Writing just prior to the onset of the economic crisis, Stuart Kauffman drew attention to the fact that economies, like other social systems, are relatively stable yet become selftransformatory in certain conditions, and which, like the biosphere, are endlessly creative in ways that typically cannot be predicted. He goes on to point out that “the ‘econosphere’ is a self-consistently co-constructing whole, persistently evolving, with small and large avalanches of the emergence of new ways of making a living” (Reinventing the Sacred, p.150). Whereas in classical economics the activities of production, exchange, wages, and so forth have been regarded as operating in almost Newtonian terms, and as in some sense explicable in terms of rational, and hence predictable, choices, the language of chaos, catastrophe, adaptation and the spontaneous emergence of new and unexpected phenomena has begun to engage economists.
One final example, perhaps the most important. The evolutionary emergence of mind and consciousness has been a major issue for philosophers in recent years, an interest that goes back to Broad’s Mind and its Place in Nature, and indeed to Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Emergentism here can be seen as an alternative to, a via media between, the extremes of materialist reductionism on the one hand and mind-body dualism on the other. The idea that consciousness emerged at some point in evolution is widely accepted yet leaves a deep sense of puzzlement about how it could possibly be explained. The objection that it implies a completely mysterious and even a miraculous event in nature’s story has led some to retire into physicalism, and others to take refuge in panpsychism.
Taken in isolation, then, the emergence of consciousness remains irksomely mysterious, but recent work in emergence theory across the whole scientific spectrum has injected new life into the emergentist approach. In this context the emergence of consciousness can be seen, not as an isolated, one-off miracle, but as an integral component in and manifestation of the inherent creativity and unpredictability of nature as a whole, and especially of life itself. On this view mind is a natural, though not a material, phenomenon, one of many emergent self-organizing phenomena of nature as it advances to ever more complex levels.
Emergentism as a Worldview
In the light of all of this I hope it will become evident that emergentism is a plausible candidate for the title new paradigm. Yet it clearly reaches out beyond science in its more standard, professional sense. It is more like a worldview which not only encompasses recent developments in the sciences, but which at the same time shows how a fuller understanding of the natural world and of our own place in it can provide the basis for a purposeful and meaningful existence. God may be dead, but all is not lost. A view is now emerging which shows how we can dwell in nature, be at home in the world in a way which satisfies our deepest needs both spiritual and practical, and at the same time embraces the great achievements of the Enlightenment and of the sciences that came with it. Religion and science have frequently been placed in opposition with each other in ways which are a loss to both. Emergentism points the way beyond this impoverishing antagonism.
The key to the idea of emergentism as a worldview is contained in Popper’s vision of the universe as ‘in a sense creative.’ This is now becoming evident at all levels of being, opening the way towards a rich and meaningful philosophy of life, while at the same time bringing together science, humanism and spirituality in a new synthesis. In the words of Stuart Kauffman, one of the leading thinkers in this field, we are dealing here with a worldview “in which we are members of a universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, and the full richness of human action have emerged”. (Reinventing the Sacred, p.2).
Ludwig Feuerbach once pointed out that we have projected the best qualities of our humanity onto a supernatural being who is by definition beyond our understanding. Emergentism shows us a way in which we can recover those supreme qualities and find in nature and in the human world those attributes we hold sacred and which can give life value and meaning. As Kauffman puts it, the universe is “stunning, awesome and worthy of reverence…..Is not this new view God enough?”
There is nothing finished or final about the ideas I have presented here. As a worldview, emergentism offers an integrated perspective which links together the animate and inanimate worlds, the human and the animal, the mental and the physical. But it is a broad canvas on which many details remain to be filled in, and which leaves us with many unresolved problems. At the same time the sciences which underpin emergentism are relatively new and their standing and implications are by no means universally understood or accepted.
It is a story in-the-making, and the direction of its unfolding is uncertain. Creativity implies transformation, imagination, loss and gain, living dangerously, being on ‘the edge of chaos’, and that uncertainty applies to the ideas I have put forward here as much as it does to the process of emergence itself.
Bergson, H., Creative Evolution, London, Macmillan, 1911
Broad, C.D, The Mind and its Place in Nature, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1925
Clayton, P., Mind and Emergence: from Quantum to Consciousness, Oxford. OUP, 2004
Clayton, P. & Davies, P. (eds), The R-emergence of Emergentism: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion, Oxford, OUP, 2006
Davies, P., The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Ability to Order the Universe, Philadelphia, Templeton, 2004
Jantsch, E., The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, Oxford, Pergamon, 1980
Kauffman, S.A., Reinventing the Sacred: a New View of Science, Reason and Religion, New York, Basic Books, 2008
Laszlo, E., The Creative Universe: a Unified Science of Matter, Life and Mind, Edinburgh, Floris, 1993
Pope, R., Creativity: Theory, History, Practice, London. Routledge, 2005
Prigogine, I., Order out of Chaos: Man’s Dialogue with Nature, New York, Bantam, 1984
John Clarke is Professor Emeritus in the History of Ideas, has taught philosophy at McGill, Singapore and Kingston universities, and is a former Chair of the Network. He has published several books on Jung and on the influence of Eastern thought on the West, and is writing a book on the subject of this article.