March 14, 2012


A discussion on 'Emergence' and 'Emergent Properties of a system'.

Introduction: A system, any type of system, always has properties & manifestations that cannot be quantified and pre estimated. These are known as 'Emergent Properties'.

The single biggest consequence of the above is on decision making.

Since a system has properties that cannot be quantified or pre estimated, the high quality decision, in any capacity, keeps mathematical inputs in mind, but, ultimately relies on the comprehensive experience of the decision maker. The high quality decision is the totality of the decision maker's experience in action and it may not always agree with what the mathematics might point to.

Coming to the subject of discussion,


This concept plays a very important role in Chaos Theory, and has been discussed by philosophers for a very long time.

Discussed by contemporary scientists, notably, Fritjof Capra.

When elements interact, the interaction forms a system.

The elements could be anything. People. Financial instruments. Building components. Electronic sub circuits. Software subroutines. Or a combination of the afore mentioned.

When elements come together to form a system, certain system level properties come into being, properties that cannot be attributed to the system's elements or designer's intent.

The last part is worth repeating - "properties that cannot be attributed to the designer's intent."

Named emergent phenomena/properties, such phenomena/properties cannot be pre estimated.

Some simple examples of Emergence:

Example 1 from Chemistry:
Properties of water are very different from properties of its physical constituents, i.e. Hydrogen and Oxygen. By knowing just the properties of Hydrogen and Oxygen, no one could predict or pre estimate the properties of water.

Example 2 from Chemistry:
Nitrogen gas is odourless. Hydrogen gas is odourless. But Ammonia (NH3) has a very strong odour. Can anyone have predicted this? And where does the odour come from?

NH3 is a SYSTEM. Nitrogen and Hydrogen are constituents. NH3's odour is a system level emergent property.

Quote Wiki:Emergence:

"In philosophy, emergence is often understood to be a much stronger claim about the etiology of a system's properties. An emergent property of a system, in this context, is one that is not a property of any component of that system, but is still a feature of the system as a whole."

From Plato.Stanford.Edu

"Emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. (For example, it is sometimes said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.)"

All organised bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner,bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents."


In the above passages, the authors are talking about biological systems. However, the concept would apply to all kinds of systems. Be it an engineering system, a human system in an organisation, it could be anything.

Question: Can we pre estimate or predict system level emergent properties before a system comes into being, if we have detailed knowledge of the components?

Answer: No. Because the emergent properties of a system will arise only after its elements actually start interacting.


A passage from Wikipedia:Emergence

Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same -- their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference. (Lewes 1875, p. 412) (Blitz 1992)

Nature of Emergent properties, from Wiki: Emergentism

"Some philosophers hold that emergent properties causally interact with more fundamental levels, an idea known as downward causation. Others maintain that higher-order properties simply supervene over lower levels without direct causal interaction."

1. Emergent properties of an air conditioning system.
2. Emergent properties of a building's electrical network.
3. Emergent properties of a financial portfolio.
4. Emergent properties of a group of people, in any scenario.

'Emergence' is a 'systems concept', and it applies to all kinds of systems - people systems, money systems, engineering systems, stellar systems, sub atomic systems, hydronic systems, digital networks.

Recommended A:

1. Non Deterministic Emergence
2. Wiki: Emergentism

Recommended B:

"A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down" is a 2005 physics book by Robert B. Laughlin, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. It argues against the overuse of reductionism, and argues for emergence as a replacement for reductionism."

End Note:

A note on the misrepresentation of science by many science writers, in response to a rather shabby article on EMERGENCE.

Left at WIRED by "Lost7176":

"I would contend that, more often then not, it is not the scientific approach or the scientists that take the wrong approach, but rather the media and public. As someone who has conducted experiments in neuroscience, I have heard, first hand, professors turn down press releases, because they could despairingly see how the media would generalize specific findings to the point of absurd impracticality.

Scientists know, and students are cautioned, to never state more than the data suggests. This is why statistical tests are performed (to minimize chance of error), this is why theories are never declared proven (only supported), and this is why the scientific process is ever ongoing. To declare that modern science is reductionist and otherwise blind to the complexities of nature misrepresents the scientific process and the scientific community. While certainly some scientists and many media outlets may exaggerate the significance of certain findings, it is only through scrutinizing specific traits and techniques that we can improve experiments, increase controls, refine theories, and ultimately progress toward a more complete (though never final) understanding of the world around us."

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