Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Emergence: A Primer

OK, as promised here is a little primer on emergence as its theological relevance. And I totally disavow any pretensions of authority on this subject, this is the noddy version from noddy himself.

Alongside the exciting discoveries being made about the smallest parts of the universe in quantum mechanics there has also been the development of complexity theory, which deals not with the parts but with the whole that those parts make. What has become more and more aparent is that a purely mechanistic description of many complex systems (both articificial and naturally occuring) observed is not adequate. Put another way, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So the most common examples of this are the patterns that form on sand when driven by the wind or the patterns that form on computer generated displays of thousands of lights flashing at random. In a purely mechanistic universe these pattern should not occur (at least not a often as they do). The whole appears to have an effect on the parts.

Emergence is a related idea. In a purely mechanistic universe all cause and effect flows from the bottom up. So if you can fully understand the laws of physics then you should be able to predict the laws of chemistry, and if you can understand chemistry then you should be able to predict the laws of biology. Why? because chemicals are constituted of physical components, and biological matter is constituted of chemicals. In (mechanistic) theory all biology should be reducible to physics. . . except it's not.

What seems to be the case is that at greater levels of complexity (e.g. atoms forming molecules, or chemicals forming protein chains) new properties are added whch could never be predicted from the component parts. This has led some to suggest that when new levels of complexity are reached new information is actually added to the universe. Rather than the parts dictating what the whole will be, the complexity of the whole emerges as something more than the sum of the parts. This suggests a cause and effect that works from the top-down rather than the mechanistic botttom-up.

The reason some theologians find this very exciting is that the top-down cause and effect suggest a force at work in the universe that is external to the observable laws of physics, and some have not been shy to suggest that this force could be the Spirit of God at work in the ongoing process of creating and sustaining the universe. Personally, the jury is still out, but it is very interesting stuff.

Further reading:

Yong, Amos, ‘Ruach, the Primordial Chaos, and the Breath of Life: Emergence Theory and the
Creation Narrative in Pneumatological Perspective.’
John Polkinghorne ‘The Hidden spirit and the Cosmos’
both in Michael Welker (ed) The Work of the Spirit, (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)

Pannenberg, Wolfhart ‘God as Spirit—and Natural Science.’ in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, (2001, 36:4), 783-95

Most of the books on this page by Philip Clayton

Let me know what you think, :-)


  1. I am not sure that everyone who considers emergence important would agree that it implies "a force at work in the universe that is external to the observable laws of physics." The "more" that is there at higher levels of organization is not necessarily an "additional something or substance." Nevertheless I agree that it is an important concept with intriguing possibilities for theology!

  2. Thanks James, good point. Although, I did say "some theologians" rather than "everyone who considers it important"! I had only encountered emergence in discussion of pneumatology, but now you make me think about it, anthropology and cosmology would be obvious areas where it might also have important application. I wonder if there might even be mileage in relating it to a theology of scripture? hmmmm . . .

  3. Jonathan, linked here via James Mac's blog. I was drawn by the "Kiaora".

    Scott McKnight had a series of posts on Philip Clayton's thinking recently too. Worth a read if you hadn't seen them already.

    I'm currently reading Simon Conway Morris' "Life's Solution", which has some cross-over ideas.

    Ka Kite!

  4. Thanks Phil S, and welcome.
    Phil B: I give up, life is too short. :-)