Tag Archives: Aristotle

What is Emergence?

emergenceEmergence is a general term that refers to a characteristic of complex systems. Typically, emergence is the result of a process, where smaller ingredients act together to form a larger pattern. The resulting emergent properties tend to be very different from the properties of the smaller components. We have all heard it expressed in everyday language: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The quote has been credited to Aristotle.

So the idea is not new, and like many ideas it has been refined and expanded on over time. The concept of emergence has been applied to a wide range of behaviors and structures (both living and nonliving). It seems to happen everywhere, giving the impression that it’s a fundamental property of nature. Therefore, is it inevitable that complex interactions eventually lead to new phenomena? 

An emergent property may be difficult to spot, because emergence is intertwined with our everyday world. At the scale of our experience the underlying causes for our observations are subtle and not always obvious. When something new or unexpected arises, and when order or organization comes about, it’s a good sign that emergence is involved.

Examples of Emergence

  • Solids, Liquids and Gases: All the states of matter for a given compound, such as water, emerge from the same fundamental particles. The different properties of air, water and ice result from changes in the arrangement of the particles. In this case, temperature is the key factor for the phase transitions of water. 
  • Ocean Waves: Individual water molecules make up water droplets. A single droplet cannot make a wave, but countless droplets (with help from environmental conditions) can move together and create ocean waves.
  • Ant Colonies: An ant has limited intelligence. The key to their evolutionary successes is their ability to work together. The communication and interconnections between the ants result in an overall intelligence of the colony, which far exceeds the intelligence of a single ant. Their survival needs can only be attained as a group.
  • Flock of Birds: As birds fly in flocks they move about in patterns. The patterns are mesmerizing to watch as they constantly change. These patterns are surely unplanned and no single bird is in charge. The patterns emerge as a result of birds following simple rules. The flock is moving in a general direction, and each bird stays close to other birds, but far enough to avoid a collision.
  • Movement of Crowds: Humans moving in crowds is an emergent property similar to the birds. No one is controlling the movement of people on city streets or gatherings at large events. Pedestrians are following each other and obeying general rules. Each person reacts to the people around them and their environment.
  • Consciousness: This is perhaps the most impressive example of emergence. Although neuroscience has identified brain functions as the cause of consciousness, the mechanisms tell use very little about what consciousness actually is. Connections of neurons in the brain are physical processes, and yet we experience consciousness as nonphysical. And how does self-awareness emerge from processes that are not self-aware (as far as we know)?

Who or What is in Control?

flock-of-birdsWith our human organizations we are accustomed to having a person or group in charge. It is a follow the leader mentality. This structure is rarely questioned, as it is the foundation of governments, religions, business entities and most organizations. We do, however, question the competency of the leaders at times. Nevertheless, the point is that nature operates differently. Most of the time, there is nothing in control; order and complexity emerges from the interactions of all the individual parts.

Generally, the emergent properties occur at the level we most identify with and experience. Broken down into its finer ingredients, the world around us is composed of different arrangements of atoms; all biology is controlled by the complex system of DNA and genes. Scientists have an extensive understanding of physics, chemistry and genetics, as well as many other specialized fields. Science can make progress by studying things in isolation; however, the behavior of the whole is still somewhat mysterious. Interactions of simple individual parts, lead to large-scale complexity and organization.

One of the fascinations with emergence is that the large-scale structures look nothing like the structures of the finer scales. And if one were to examine the ingredients, the net result would reveal a surprising outcome. Whether you look at the micro scale or the macro scale, emergence is counter intuitive. But it seems that nature is able to self-organize in multiple ways, without anyone or anything in control.


References: Systems Theory: 8 Emergence, Complexity Academy, Published on Mar 5, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pooxD8XF5Uw

NOVA science NOW: 34 – Emergence, aranial, Published on Aug 9, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEaZHWXmbRw


The Birth of Science

ancient greeceThe origin of science is generally credited to the ancient Greeks, starting around 500 BC. There were surely other civilizations that applied scientific thinking, as cultures often evolve similar methods independently. It is well-known that other cultures tracked the motion of the stars and natural cycles. For example, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza are aligned according to solar alignments at specific times of the year. In order to build these and other ancient sites, some fairly advanced technology would have been required. It is also possible that some discoveries and knowledge have been lost through the ages. One can conceive a number of ways this could happen, such as poor documentation, political strife, religious suppression and various conflicts.

What to Make of Cause and Effect?

For much of ancient history, there were essentially no recognizable patterns in nature. No cause and effect mechanisms could be discerned from the random and chaotic events that surrounded humans. Gods were assumed to be in control of nature, and humans could gain favor or disapproval from the Gods. When the Gods were pleased people experienced fine weather, peace, plentiful food and health. When the Gods were displeased people suffered from disease, war, famine and natural disasters. The only form of cause and effect that they considered was how their actions appealed to the Gods.

The birth of science occurred when patterns in nature began to be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a huge shift in thinking, which considered explanations outside the realm of the Gods. The idea that the world could be explained by physical principles (partly accessible to humans) has had a long an arduous road. It is easy to see how this would have met resistance, as it has to this day in some circles. Nevertheless, the Greeks were the first to systematically document ideas that resembled modern science.

The Seeds of Science

The classical period in Greece is famous for influencing the development of western civilizations, including scientific thought. The region of Ionia, a colony of Greece located across the Aegean Sea, was the birthplace of Greek science. Thales is believed to be the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse, one that occurred in 585 BC. It is uncertain whether he actually made this prediction, but the fact that this story exist shows that the Ionians were thinking scientifically.

greek mathThe Pythagorean Theorem also originates from Ionia, stating the mathematical relationship between the three sides of a right triangle (the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides); the theorem is named after Pythagoras. He is also credited for having calculated the relationship between the length of a string and the specific sound it makes in a musical instrument. Archimedes discovered laws governing levers, buoyancy and light reflection. And perhaps the greatest insight came from Democritus, who proposed the existence of atoms as the fundamental particle of matter. Democritus reasoned that if you cut an object into piece, there would be a limit to the process. The word atom means “uncuttable.”

The Greeks developed some advanced concepts in geometry, which was their main form of mathematics. Other disciplines such as algebra, trigonometry and calculus, would only come many years later. Science being still in its infancy, they made little headway in describing actual natural phenomena using mathematics. Today, mathematics can be viewed as the language of science, as it is the cornerstone of many scientific theories.

The Absence of a Scientific Method

PhilosophersThe early scientists were as much philosophers as anything else. In fact, the term scientist was only coined in the 1800s (previously they were called natural philosophers). The Greeks’ method for describing patterns and principles in nature was mainly through reasoning. In other words, they had the idea that natural laws existed, but had not yet devised a method for testing them. Either they did not see it necessary to provide experimental evidence for their conclusions, or they believed it was fundamentally beyond their capabilities to do so. Or maybe they thought it was sufficient to understand the world by reason alone.

Although the Greeks were developing scientific ideas, there were disagreements, specifically because there was no way to settle conflicting ideas. According to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design:

“So if one scholar claimed an atom moved in a straight line until it collided with a second atom and another scholar claimed it moved in a straight line until it bumped into a cyclops, there was no objective way to settle the argument”

Clearly the cyclops is an exaggeration to make a point. But the fact is that explanations about the physical world were a matter of opinion, and based on an individual’s line of reasoning. There was no objective truth. Aristotle saw little need to test his theories. His approach was focused on why nature behaved in certain ways, rather than how nature behaved as it did. The term natural philosopher was fitting for the time.

Even though predictable patterns were being noticed, an idea persisted that nature had intentions. It was up to man to figure out what those intentions were, or what rules nature followed. There seemed to be an uneasy relationship between physical reality and some form of higher power. Perhaps they were trying to replace the Gods as an explanation for the world, but they had not yet achieved the means.

Modern science is done by observation and experimentation. Any scientific theory is only validated when data shows that a prediction about nature is indeed true. Modern science tries to understand how things happen, and gives little attention to why things happen. In ancient times the scientific method had not yet been devised, and there were no clear road maps that showed scientists the way forward. In his book, To Explain the World, theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg comments on the mindset of early scientists:

“It is not only that our predecessors did not know what we know about the world – more important, they did not have anything like our ideas of what there was to know about the world, and how to learn it.”

If this was true about scientists of past centuries, it was especially true during Classical Greece. From a standstill, ancient Greece broke the inertia and set the wheels in motion towards scientific discovery. Given rudimentary mathematics and insufficient tools for making precise measurements and observations, their insights were impressive. However, much of their ideas lay dormant for centuries following the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, only to be revived or rediscovered later. The scientific torch would be picked up at the turn of the first millennium in the Middle East, and continued 500 years after that in Europe (it has become known as the Scientific Revolution).


References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 22.

Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).

What the Ancients Knew – Greece (Published on Dec 30, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJRFLXBlsmA