I've read, on several occasions, that emergentism is maybe not all the way contrasted but at least to some degree conflicted with reductionism. As I understand, emergentism is a doctrine within philosophy of mind according to which agglomerations of specimens begin to exhibit properties that are not discerned at the individual level so an emergentist considers them, to some degree, irreducible.

But my question is, why would that be irreducible (if my understanding is correct) and is emergentism really incompatible with reductionism? Why can't those properties be present and (upon some future advancement of science) observable at the individual level where they are latent and only manifest themselves in a certain context, such as when agglomerated in a large crowd. So, if I subscribe to a physicalist doctrine of consciousness, those characteristics are very much encoded in my neural configuration, and detectable as such, they only don't outwardly manifest themselves outside a context in which they can come to prominence. But they very much exist.

I cannot conceive that agglomerations of specimens possess properties not observable on individual level. The idea just kinda creeps me out. It cannot come out of nowhere.

  • 3
    There is strong and weak emergentism. Under strong emergentism, it is not that emergent properties are not yet detected at the basic level, or the reduction is even theoretically intractable, but that they are simply not there, they literally emerge only in collective behaviors of sufficiently complex systems. This often includes top-down causation, i.e. collective configurations alter the basic level laws, such as quantum collapse probabilities, for example. That, by definition, is a denial of reductionism.
    – Conifold
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:32
  • that sounds like theology to me, strong emergentism that is
    – amphibient
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:48
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    @JohnForkosh Well, snowflake shapes certainly do not occur at the atomic level, their macroscopic appearance is due to complex effects involving large numbers of atoms. Although, in this case we are dealing with weak emergence.
    – Conifold
    Mar 19, 2019 at 16:28
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    @JohnForkosh: No, it is not "illustrating them as abstract examples of self-similar fractals." It is exhibiting as examples of the physical formation of those patterns out of simple water molecules. If they had wanted an "abstract fractal," they would have used something like the Mandelbrot set.
    – Kevin
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:21
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    @JohnForkosh Mathematical fractals (the self-similar ones) are not physical objects, and they write that snowflake "exemplifies emergence in a physical system". Mathematical fractals would be examples of (weak) emergence in the sense that simple iterative schemes that define them do not manifest the complex patterns that emerge, they are opaque at the basic level of description. "Emergence" often refers to a relation between descriptions, not necessarily in the order of scale.
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


My view may be idiosyncratic so watch out, but to me emergentism and reductionism would be the same thing. It would because things emerge that they are reducible. Those who say say consciousness emerges with physical complexity are saying that consciousness can be reduced to the physical.

After all, if a phenomena is not emergent and reducible then it must be fundamental and irreducible. I'm afraid I can't quite see the argument that strong emergentism is a denial of reductionism and I'd call it strong reductionism.

Perhaps someone will explain what it wrong with this view but until then it's mine.

  • My view is that intelligence emerges with physical complexity. Not consciousness, which I believe is relatively neutral and quite ubiquitous (also eternal), and which only becomes concentrated so to speak within intelligent beings. Would you consider that reductionism, also? I guess I also believe everything is somehow physical, otherwise I don't see how it could exist.
    – Bread
    Mar 21, 2019 at 6:56
  • @Bread - The other way of looking at it is to say that if everything is physical there can be no way to explain how anything exists. It would have to be an inexplicable miracle,. Did you ever meet someone who believes everything is physical who can make sense of metaphysics? .
    – user20253
    Mar 21, 2019 at 10:45
  • I'm leaning toward a view of God as the totality of the universe. But I'm neither a deist nor pantheist. Based on mass/energy equivalence I'm drawn toward metaphysical naturalism, religious naturalism (neo-theistic), process theology. Influenced a lot by Spinoza and Cudworth (although open to all the great philosophers). I just discovered Bernard Loomer, following your comment here. It's important to stress that I believe the very word "supernatural" is itself illogical. Yet things like intuition, 'miracles', spirit, and abstract ideas are very real and extremely valuable. I'm learning...
    – Bread
    Mar 21, 2019 at 11:42
  • @Bread - Agree about 'supernatural' being an illogical idea. But Isn't metaphysical natutralism just materialism? . .
    – user20253
    Mar 21, 2019 at 12:45
  • Not sure, but I'm not 'materialistic', at all. Not into humanism or paganism, either. I've always believed in God and consider myself a Christian of the English Separatist type, more or less... If I were to claim that holy angels exist, and that at least some of them may be experienced through the senses of hearing/sound, vision/sight, and communication/love -- would that be materialism? (Assume for argument's sake that it was not a hallucination or imaginary, but a real experience, if you will.)
    – Bread
    Mar 21, 2019 at 20:57

Emergentism implies that there are some properties and regularities that are proper to the level in question, thus life is an emergent property and evolution by natural selection are proper to the biological level of reality. This does not mean that they cannot be studied at lower levels, even if they cannot be reduced to them. Thus it makes no sense to say that DNA molecules have life or that they evolve by natural selection, although, definitely, the changes that occur in species are the result of changes (mutations) in the genetic material. Likewise, there are such relationships between the different levels: physical, chemical, biological, social and technological.

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