One of the quandaries of reductionism from what I understand is how complex systems can emerge to overtake simple ones. This may sound convoluted, so bear with me as I try to explain.

According to a standard materialist position, reality is ultimately at bottom made up of atoms (which are made of protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, etc. but for the sake of example leave these aside along with quantum considerations).

Reality, however, appears much more complex than a bunch of floating and colliding atoms. Life, for example, is a complex arrangement of matter that is self-sustaining, can adapt to environment, requires energy, etc. We know, of course, that things like life (and other inanimate objects) are still large numbers of atoms and molecules— they have just been assembled into a single cohesive system. These larger systems appear as organized matter that transcends base-layer matter like atoms and electrons.

But this kind of organization of matter doesn't seem to square well with basic physics. Atoms must follow the laws of physics; are not their movements determined by position, momentum and so on? The universe, then, should appear to be atoms floating around and colliding arbitrarily. How do higher organizations of matter exist, then?

Any life-form is made up of atoms—atoms that move according to the laws of physics (even if those laws are probabilistic functions in the case of quantum mechanics). So, in effect, to an objective and disinterested observer, a universe that is full of life should appear no different from a universe that is devoid of it—they are both just atoms in motion.

So, what's a paradigm for understanding this? This is probably a stupid question, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

  • All forms are movement, an atom is a form. The transcendence of one material state to another is a a ratio of movements within movements. Movement is the inversion of one state in another, thus while all form is movement the movement of forms is the movement of movements into further movements. This argument is grounded in recursion, and is circular. We see these cycles within all natural and artificial phenomenon, so the form of the argument is grounded in the same state natural phenomenon appear. This is Nietzche's materialistic eternal return on steroids.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 3:10
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    "Atoms must follow the laws of physics; are not their movements determined by position, momentum and so on? The universe, then, should appear to be atoms floating around and colliding arbitrarily" is an invalid inference. The laws of physics are such that atoms tend to form complex structures by moving according to them. "To an objective and disinterested observer, a universe that is full of life should appear no different from a universe that is devoid of it" is also invalid. Configurations of atoms are as much a part of the objective universe as individual atoms. And they are different.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 3:35
  • The paradigm for understanding this (the interactions of atoms and molecules) is contained within the discipline of chemistry. Chemistry is almost entirely driven by the interactions between the electron clouds that distribute themselves around atoms and molecules and the energy levels those electrons are allowed to occupy; those interactions are the reason that the universe does not consist of individual atoms floating around and colliding arbitrarily. Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 5:25
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    "doesn't seem to square well with basic physics" Well, "basic physics" is just that - an over simplified model, to make things easier to learn and understand. Once you get into "advanced physics", then things get... "fuzzier" Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 12:34
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    You list all the things that would answer your question and then say “for the sake of example leave these aside”. Stop leaving them aside, and study them instead, especially the “quantum considerations”.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 14:56

1 Answer 1


There are multiple approaches to emergence, and I consider this to be the most valid, also agrees with my personal research regarding systems and interaction: emergence is just a subjective appreciation granted by reason.

To start, systems (the formal approach to things and objects) are just mental concepts. A constellation does not exist, the sky has only stars (and as you state, stars doesn't exist, matter is just a bunch of atoms). A rainbow does not exist, it's all molecules, photons, etc. It is you that create the rainbow in your mind. Same happens with a rock pebble, except that at different scales. An economic system is just a mental idea, etc. We can say that any object is defined by a subject. Paraphrasing Berkeley, systems can't exist outside a mind.

In consequence, systemic features ---such as emergence--- are also mental concepts. If you consider your subjective perception regarding the concept of atom (what you stated to be the essential element, which is sufficient for this discussion) and the concept of molecule, atoms are represented in our mind as points in three-dimensional space. But molecules, which are essentially permanent relations between atoms, are not anymore points, but ordered structures in such three-dimensional space. There you have an emerging feature. While atoms are points, water molecules can be conceived as planes. You can understand this behavior in two forms:

a) Since the atoms in the molecule are performing in a different manner (atoms exhibit physical changes), the original atoms have disappeared, and new atoms appeared with the capability of interaction, which physically perform in a different way. Emergence in this case would imply change, which is not sound, since emergence is about the same elements raising new features. But this is the objective reality.

b) In spite that the atoms in a molecule perform in a different way, our mind is able to approach them as the same elements. This is equivalent to consider that the river you've looked a second ago is the river that you are currently looking, or that the person you are looking at the mirror is the same as the one you looked yesterday. The river has completely changed, physically, but not in your mind. So, in this case, emergence does not imply change but a mental behavior that implies approaching a different thing as if it would be the same. This is a subjective reality.

Even if the mind perceives different things as the same object (we think they are the same atoms, when in fact they are not), it grants them of new features. A molecule can form a plane or a body in space, while an atom can't. A molecule has a length or a volume, an atom hasn't one. A molecule has an extension, an atom hasn't one. Etc. But those are, clearly, subjective features (moreover, if you agree with Immanuel Kant regarding space, which would be a rational-subjective construct; every spatial feature would also be a subjective perspective to approach the environment).

So, emergent features are just illusions given by perception, by our mind that is able to associate some types of change (like eternally changing large masses of H2O molecules) to subjectively created entities (like the static idea of river X). At the bottom, the real issue is not emergence, but permanent change, and how our mind assesses it as if static things would exist.

Following your example, the real issue is how do atoms perform in order to interact; how does interaction change systems, and what does life mean, instead of how life emerges from a bunch of molecules, which is moreover a subjective speculation with a lot of arbitrary and biased suppositions: atoms, molecules, cells would not be changing phenomena, but static objects that when associated in a unique way, are able to reproduce and eat. That sounds quite naive and largely subjective.

Note 1: The same notion from a different perspective: a new feature is just a different idea, which must logically corresponds to a different system. Nothing new here.

Note 2: Complexity is a really confuse term. A complex system is just a system that someone can't understand [1]. But the general systems theory was created precisely for that. So, the term is usually not necessary. It has been used, in my opinion, to justify facts of academic corruption.

[1] Google for 'complex systems': either complexity is wrongfully associated with common systems (in such case, the term has no reason to be), in other cases it is associated with features of living entities (in such case, it is just plain biology, not a feature applicable to general systems); but in some cases it is related to understanding, which seems more coherent; nevertheless, since the systems theory is precisely a way of dissecting complexity to address simple problems, the term has anyway no reason to be.

  • This is precisely the problem I'm trying to address, though. If organizations of matter (or emergent systems) are merely a matter of mental concept and don't possess any causal or superintending power, then they don't matter in the objective sense because they are wholly dictated by the movements of atoms. "So, in effect, to an objective and disinterested observer, a universe that is full of life should appear no different from a universe that is devoid of it"—how does this not hold?
    – natojato
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 15:55
  • This sort of reminds me of Searle's Chinese Room. If cells are just systems that unconsciously follow instructions, and the human body is made up of lots and lots of cells, at which level can consciousness emerge? And even if under some panpsychist view cells are conscious to a degree, where does unified human consciousness come from? This is analogous to my point about atoms and general systems; how can general systems be distinguishable from atoms that obey the laws of physics in ways other than overlaying them with mental/subjective concepts?
    – natojato
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 16:01
  • @natojato: your comments follow a new direction: understanding how reason and consciousness do what they do. No answers here. Immanuel Kant has, nevertheless, defined a brilliant agenda to understand reason. Look for his Critique Of Pure Reason (which is a complex and obscure text, a lecture guide is usually recommended). You might be interested in Hume, Berkeley and Locke (cf. empiricism) as well.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 0:49
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    For an abbreviated version of the Critique of Pure Reason, written by Kant himself, see the Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics. It is roughly only 100+ pages and is fairly easy to read. CMS
    – user37981
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 15:47

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