Emergence (system definitions, 2004)

The term “emergence” is often used to suggest an outcome that is unexpected. Reading a series of three entries from the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (out of order) helps.

Firstly, let’s try emergence … as compared to what?

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Any good understanding of a complex system requires a well integrated understanding of the relationships between emergence and reduction.

Properties of a whole cannot make full sense if not sighted as a global network of interactions between parts, which in turn must be duly considered as such.

A very simple example is the study of water (H20).

Its properties are widely different from those of hydrogen and oxygen. However, the characteristics proper to these molecules (for example their electrons shells) are basic for the under- standing of common (or heavy) water. This becomes still clearer when we consider for example the hydrogen atom within the HCl molecule It is commonly said that the whole is more than its parts.

It is however in a sense also less: as atoms enter in combination, they actualize potentially possible relationships, but also preclude others. In short emergence and reductionism offer complementary and necessary views and it is a gross mistake to oppose them in an exclusive way.

In this 1996 paper, K. BAILEY offers important insights about the ways we should use what he calls the upward ladder (bottom up) and the downward ladder (top down).

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Many times, the interest isn’t really the emergence itself, but emergent properties.

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1. “Properties of a structural level in a hierarchy that cannot be predicted from the properties of the components of the antecedent level (R.F. FOX, 1988, p. 171).

2.”a) Properties which emerge as a coarser-grained level of resolution is used by the observer.

b) Properties which are unexpected by the observer because of his incomplete data set, with regard to the phenomenon at hand.

c) Properties which are, in and of themselves, not derivable a priori from the behavior of the parts” (T.F.H. ALLEN & T.B. STARR, 1982, p.267).

A good example of emergent property can be found in a system’s autonomy. N. PEGUIRON describes the following very simple situation: “Let us consider an elemental electrical circuit made up from a relay and two switches: the first normally open serves to start the current within the coil of the relay, but it can be seen that this action is conserved when one stops to press the switch; the second one, normally shut, has the opposite effect, but the same property. This very simple circuit presents the property to memorize the last performed commands however this memorization property does not belong to any of the elements. As long as the coils, the contacts and the switches are separately studied, it is not possible to understand, nor to predict the global property of memorization. This property is said to be emergent because it is found neither in the components of the system, nor in their assembled state” (1989, p.9).

It appears only when the system is connected functionally with its environment, the grid.

Numerous other examples of emergent properties can be given, as for example:

  • life, in relation to macromolecules
  • consciousness as a result of numerous interconnexions between neurons
  • a working car, as a meaningful and functional assembly of parts.

Water as a liquid, while its parts, hydrogen and oxygen are both gases in their elemental state

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Finally, here’s the term appreciated as a process.

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1 .”The spontaneous transformation of a set of components from a less coherent state, where the space-time correlation between them is confined to mean free path and mean relaxation collision times, to a more coherent state exhibiting novel, global, dynamical space- time behavior” (R. SWENS0N, 1989, p.188).

2. “Any process whereby the variety and/or constraint of a system changes” (F. HEYLIGHEN, pers. comm.).

Emergence implies discontinuity and innovation in the construction of complexity (W. KARGL, 1991, p.579).

G. PASK, for instance described functional emergence as the recognition “by an external observer” that “a device or agent has acquired a new distinction, concept, structure” (P. CARIANI, 1993, p.28).

SWENS0N comments that this new coherent state is: “many order of magnitude greater than mean free path and relaxation times; in- accessible to, not locatable in, and not reducible to the individual or summative behavior of the separated atomisms” (i.e. elements or components); “the spontaneous creation of a new set of macroscopic constraints that reduce accessible microstates from some initial set Mn to some much smaller subset Ms, to yield a new irreducible level of dynamical space-time behavior. By the transformation Mn to Ms, emergence is always a progressive, asymmetrical time-dependent transformation of matter away from equilibrium” (p.189).

Emergent systems are thus always more complex and less stable than their components. They derive from the appearance of an emergent attractor. Ch. LAVILLE’s concepts about vortexes (1950), and recently D. McNEIL toroidal model of the system (1993a and b), suggest that such attractors are produced by opposing energetic fields.

HEYLIGHEN states: “The emergence of systems of (partially) conserved distinctions cannot be deduced from the properties of lower-level microscopic” distinctions, but may be understood as a process of self-organization, governed by variation and selective retention” (1989, p.382).

J.P. CHANGEUX in turn states: “The highest levels (of organization) emerge progressively throughout biological evolution. They superpose and embed the inferior levels, themselves selected during former evolutive steps (1992, p.707).

HEYLIGHEN also writes: “… such a process will necessarily change the identity of the system itself. It might therefore also be called a system transition. This is a qualitative change, where a new organization or system appears, with properties (potential appearances) that did not exist in the old system. The more usual (“quantitative”) dynamical evolution of a system, on the other hand, is merely a transition within the constrained variety of possible appearances, where neither constraint nor variety undergo any change” (Ibid).

This concept is quite different from SWENSON’s, but closer to PRIGOGINE’s. Here dynamical evolution (or better, adaptation or accomodation) remains in accordance with the organizational closure of the system, which is replaced, or at least transformed, in case of emergence.

Examples may better emphasize differences.

A running athlete accomodates him/herself to the effort by breathing rapidly and strongly, but only for a short time.

One who must go to live for years in some high altitude place, adapts permanently his/her respiratory capacity to this change.

The first animals who left the oceans under- went a radiative evolution of emergent types, changing branchial for aerial pulmonar breathing

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The numbers beside the entry mean …

  • The following special markers have been used, in order to enhance the usefulness of the encyclopedia:
  • 1) meaning “systemic on a wide range”, or “general information”
  • 2) meaning “general abstract or mathematical model”, or “methodology”
  • 3) meaning “epistemologica! or ontological aspects”, or “semantics”
  • 4) meaning “practical in human sciences”
  • 5) meaning “more specific or disciplinarian”

In this paper-first encyclopedia, the bolded text is link to other entries.


François, Charles, ed. 2004. International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics | 2nd ed. De Gruyter Saur. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110968019.

International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics