What is supervenience and is there controversy over its definition?

Does it have to do with the list of qualities of two 'things' being compared?

  • 3
    Start here: plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience
    – virmaior
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 3:42
  • Does the concept of supervenience cause 'dilemmas' with regard to functionalism or multiple realizability?
    – user128932
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 8:26
  • 1
    What sort of difficulties are you imagining here?
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 8:46
  • Does the concept of supervenience make it difficult to imagine how functionalism might explain emergent qualities of the 'mind' or multiple realizability for that matter? Maybe some 'technical' concepts of philosophy like supervenience and intentionality and intentional content and 'aboutness' and the whole philosophy of physicalism are getting in the way of any clear explanation or model of how a self-controlling info. management system like the 'mind' might work. (or at least what we call the mind)
    – user128932
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 4:45

2 Answers 2


I spent 6 years as the music director at a Lutheran church. The concept of supervenience is quite controversial with conservative Christians (and likely other similar groups) because it implies that every thing we do, think, feel and believe is derived in organic chemistry. And thus the house of cards plummets. I actually reject this kind of false binary logic because God (assuming God exists) could have set the natural laws of the universe in motion, allowing chemistry & biology to run its course. It's amazing to me how some Christians claim God is all powerful and all knowing, but seem to deny that God could have done it this way. Anyway...just some food for thought I guess.

  • The problem is not whether this is possible, but that it rules out traditional aspects of Christianity, like praying for miracles, having any content. The "Divine Watchmaker" would be someone worth glorifying, but not worth petitioning. "Ora Pro Nobis" is a big part of many people's personal experience of the Mass. It does not cause logical problems, just 'personal relationship' ones. (I understand I am off-topic for the forum, so I don't want to open that as a debate, just put in my empathy for them.)
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 14:08
  • I don't understand. Why does supervenience have something yo do with religious faith?
    – user128932
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 2:10
  • 2
    Many conservative Christians view the concept of supervenience in the same way they view the theory of evolution. To them, being able to explain human life in pure scientific terms somehow takes God out of the picture. Under the principles of supervenience, everything we do, say, think, and believe is a product of chemical reactions. I don't believe in this false exclusive thinking. God could have just as easily set things in motion, and allow life to evolve and be governed by the laws of organic chemistry. I've had more arguments with evangelical Christians about this than I care to remember. Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 3:07
  • @wildBillMunson; I myself am a born-again Christian , I did not know Supervenience was an attempt to 'mechanise' the Mind and belief. I thought it was just an overly technical bit of jargon used in the debate about Mind vs. Brain. Thank you for the info.
    – user128932
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 5:59

I don't think there is much controversy in its definition. Quoting SEP, "A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties." The most common example to motivate such a definition is to think of an image and the pixels that compose it. The image supervenes on the properties of the pixels since the properties of the image completely fix the properties of the image. A more philosophical example might be the claim that all biological truths supervene on the totality of all physical truths. More controversially, we have the claim in the philosophy of mind that all truths about phenomenal experience supervene on physical truths. Claims about zombies will be relevant here.

Looking at the comments, the worry about multiple realizability is just that, for example, the mental fact, "I am thinking about Paris" is multiply realizable by many, many different physical states of my brain. So, at a first glance, you might think it is problematic to identify thoughts of Paris with a particular brain state. The natural thing to do is to look at types rather than tokens, however. This example just shows that the supervenience relation doesn't go the other way. It's not the case that having a thought about Paris fixes what brain state you are in. However, most would say your physical state does fix what mental state you are in.

  • Wittgenstein said something like - philosophy could be taught with a book filled with cartoons. ( I think he said this; its actually a good idea. Many difficult and important concepts could be 'reached' with clever cartoons that combine visual learning with humor.) Are there too many overly technical and non- transparent terms like supervenience and intension vs. intention in philosophy. Why do you have to be an expert in philosophical terms BEFORE you actually DO any philosophy??
    – user128932
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 19:10
  • I don't think philosophy is more technical than other academic fields. And I find that most technical terms are well motivated and introduced in any good introductory textbook. Just like with any other field, you shouldn't start thinking about philosophical questions from scratch, but you should try to learn from the best attempts at answering them in the past. So, I think learning the relevant terms and distinctions is a good thing before you go on to do philosophy yourself.
    – Taro
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 19:33

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