The Myth of Emergence



The phenomena of emergence, complex properties arising out of nowhere when simple systems combine to form complex systems, is a myth that results from the inability to escape the illusory world of our primitive sensory apparatus.

Emergence: a Neat Magic Trick

There is a very serious conundrum. Complex systems have properties that the subsystems they are composed of do not have. But where do these properties come from? Are they also properties of the stuff systems are made out of or do they magically arise out of thin air at a certain stage of a system’s development? The theory of emergence states that complex properties emerge out of thin air when simple systems not having these properties interact to form a larger system. Unfortunately you can’t get something from nothing. This notion of divine creation is completely incompatible with the conceptions of modern science. From physics we know that everything is made of energy. Energy must obey conservation laws. You can’t create energy or destroy it. You can just change it into other forms. So, a far better explanation is that when new properties appear to arise out of nowhere, this emergence is actually always an illusory phenomenon.

In fact there are a great many emergent properties that we know are illusory. We know they are illusory because we generally understand the physical mechanisms behind the properties and how they manifest to our senses as illusions. Color, touch, hearing, smell, all properties that result from our senses are illusory. There is no color, there are just photons of different wavelengths that bounce off objects and into our eyes. There is no touch there is just the repellent forces of atoms. There is no sound, just waves of energy bouncing into our ears. There is no smell, there are just chemicals exuding from certain things that bounce onto detectors on our olfactory cells. In every case where we understand how an emergent property arises the property turns out to be an illusion. Why then would we assume that properties in which we don’t understand how they arise, would arise out of thin air and not be illusions?

It should be noted that illusions are not the same as hallucinations. With a hallucination there is nothing there but you believe there is something there. With an illusion there is something there but it is not what you believe it to be. Illusions are simply things that are not as they at first appear.

Emergence and the Fallacies of Division and Composition

Physics tells us that matter is just a form of energy. This energy gets bound up into systems we call particles. That means that all things are ultimately just a big collection of energy. The fallacy of division occurs however, if you claim that properties of a complex system must then be properties of parts making up the complex system. For example, a jet can fly. Since the property of flight can’t magically arise out of thin air all the parts of the jet must be able to fly. Therefore an instrument panel from a jet can fly. Of course this is also absurd. So how do we resolve this serious problem? The problem is actually one of misattribution. The energy that composes all things has certain properties. When this energy is bound up into a complex system like a jet, it appears that novel properties have magically been created out of thin air. However, if you look at these properties under a proverbial microscope they are really just the same properties of the energy. Take for example the fact that iron has the property of hardness. The iron atom does not have this property. But the property hardness doesn’t really exist, it is just how our primitive senses interpret the properties of the iron atom when they are combined together. So emergence really does happen but it happens only in our minds not in reality. The concept of emergence is an illusion that exists only in our imaginations.

Take this common example of the “fallacy of composition”: “This fragment of metal cannot be broken with a hammer, therefore the machine of which it is a part cannot be broken with a hammer.” Now lets reinterpret this example using the less-illusory reality of the atomic world. When a specific amount of force is applied to an expanse of tightly packed atoms the atoms will not break apart. When the metal is placed in a machine you now have a much larger expanse of atoms with many areas that are not tightly packed together (weak points) and a similar force can therefore break the machine because less force is needed to affect the weak points. The tightly packed atoms and the atoms of the weak points however, act exactly the same way because they have the same actual properties and obey the exact same laws of physics.
The “fallacy of composition” as well as the “fallacy of division” then apply only to illusory emergent properties not actual properties. Actual properties are based on universal laws of physics. All things are energy. The Universe is energy. Energy is energy. The properties of energy are the properties of energy. All systems have only the properties of the component parts and nothing more when viewed from the non-illusory level of the parts.

Types of Properties

There are two types of properties then: actual properties and emergent properties. Actual properties exist (in at least one lower level of reality), like iron atoms have a property to pack tightly together after being heated and then cooled. Emergent properties are illusory and don’t exist in at least one lower level of reality, like how we interpret tightly packed atoms as hardness. Emergent properties are created by our primitive sensory systems. Hardness is an illusory property because it exists only in our minds. Emergent properties do indeed magically arise out of thin air as all illusions do. All non-existent emergent properties are ultimately based on actual properties that do exist though.

So actual properties are the properties illusory emergent properties are based on. These “actual” properties can themselves be illusory if they are based on actual properties at another level of reality. You can’t tell if a property is truly or ultimately actual until you have discovered the ultimate level of reality. Perhaps this is not even possible.

Category Properties
It can be argued that there is actually a third type of property called a category property. For example, you have a pail of wet sand. You take the sand and create a castle out of it. The property of castleness has been created out of nothing since the pail of sand did not originally have this property. Category properties like castleness require a loose collection of subproperties to be present in order to classify something as having the property. Each of these subproperties is either an illusory emergent property or another category property. For example, most sandcastles have a sandy color that is an illusory emergent property. Sandcastles must have the extension property that is the ability to extend upwards and from side to side. This is an illusory emergent property based on the cohesiveness property of wet sand. Sandcastles may have the turretness property that is a category property based on the extension property. So if category properties are composed of illusory emergent properties and/or other category properties they are in actuality also just forms of illusory emergent properties.


It is imperative for philosophy and science in particular to divorce themselves from magical thinking. The magical thinking involved in outdated ideas like the theory of emergence furthers only to hinder our understanding of the true nature of reality. Physics clearly shows us that the world of our senses is an illusion in that virtually nothing is truly as it at first seems. All emergent properties in which we understand the physical mechanisms causing them to manifest turn out to be illusions. It is only rational then to assume that all properties in which we do not understand the physical mechanisms causing their manifestation should also be assumed to be illusions. The fallacies of division and composition have long been used to maintain the tenuous acceptance of emergence. Unfortunately, these fallacies only apply to illusory properties, not actual properties and are therefore largely meaningless. Systems then have only the actual properties of their parts. Any new properties that appear to arise out of thin air are illusions resulting from our primitive sensory systems that are not able to see the actual properties they are based on.


– Einstein, Albert (1905-06-30). “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”. Annalen der Physik 17: 891–921.
– Mill, J. S. (1843). System of Logic. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer. [8th ed., 1872].
– Tipler, Paul (2004). Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Mechanics, Oscillations and Waves, Thermodynamics (5th ed.). W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-0809-4.
– Waldman, Gary (2002). Introduction to Light: The Physics of Light, Vision, and Color. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 048642118X, 9780486421186

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