Basically this question stems from trying to answer yet another question that I have:

How does one analyse emergent properties that are not quantifiable, to allow for discrete mathematical probing?

Or in other words:

How does one go about building models for emergent properties that reject notions of simple counting?

Take the example of an emergent action: walking. By studying a single leg, you obtain no information about its purpose. But in the context of an entire human being as a system, interdependence of two legs on each other with coordination to put one leg ahead of the other and then repeat gives us a novel process we call "walking". I call this process novel because an alien philosopher with no knowledge of legs couldn't deduce its function by observing just a single leg. What changed was from understanding the leg as as singular closed system we changed our context to understanding it as an open system.

Now the leg, in order to explain itself, has to necessarily be regarded in the correct context. Also such a procedure introduces downward causation: a motivation in the environment that is causing the human to walk. This is already hinting to me, that when we are talking about strong emergence, one must necessarily take in the context as metadata/prerequisite in order to analyse effectively. This would not be the case with reducible entities like atoms for example, which may still be effectively studied without needing this metadata about its environment. Once we understand all the four forces it can interact with, we can at best hope to extrapolate into weakly emergent properties.

Another instance of necessary contextual information comes from the idea of quantum entanglement. In quantum entanglement, the polarization or spin of a particle are such properties that depend upon the orientation of the measurement apparatus. This already introduces context as a factor in our study, namely, the orientation of our apparatus. Once this particle splits into entangled pairs, the resulting daughter particles may give us individual measurements, which when looked without seeing the other sister, give us an impression of randomness, but when both sisters are taken together, the whole is such that the spin or polarization always adds up to that of the parent particle, as measured in the pre-split orientation. The weird thing however is that this parent particle seemingly acts as a multipartite system after the split and as an individual before the split. Again the context proves to be an important deciding factor when talking about the knowledge we gain from this entity. In a nutshell, the original polarization, with regards to the original measurement, if it has to be considered as a strongly emergent property, must necessarily also include the context information. Without this additional piece, looking at the sister particles individually cannot reconstruct this information unless taken together and then extrapolated backwards as to make a guess. Would a characteristic such as polarization even have absolute observer independent meaning?

So off the top of my head, all the instances that I can think of involving (strongly) emergent properties, necessarily rely on the context of observation. In strong emergence one expects to obtain properties that are in no way deducible from a single or even a group of constituent parts. Consciousness seems to be the strongest emergent phenomenon in which, I use a lot of layers of abstractions to just look at a group of water molecules and predict a weakly emergent property of "fluidity". The same knowledge, in order to be derived from computation would require a lot of computing, at least of the order of O(N^2) for N molecules. Clearly, having such higher abstractions is vastly efficient, might not be solid, but for practical purposes, it is solid enough. In my opinion, this is the only roadblock towards a model strongly emergent phenomena. After all, how many functions/forces could an emergent property have after it has exhausted its intended environment? Would it be possible to obtain a class of strongly emergent phenomena that can be considered as inert/not relating to the environment in any shape or form whatsoever?

  • I do not follow the first example. Strong emergence is about higher level properties (and relations) that do not reduce to basic ones and their interactions, it has nothing to do with functions and purposes. Those are just anthropocentric add-ons that we use analogically, there is no "intrinsic" teleology to the properties themselves, with or without context.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 4:41

2 Answers 2


The short answer is yes, emergence is context-dependent.

If you read SEP's entry on emergence, what comes to the fore is that there are several alternative formulations of 'emergence' each with different implications. However, they have commonalities, so, let's consider 'emergence' simply as the 'observation of properties of an entity which are not reducible or predictable from its composition'. In this sense, your leg example can be stated as, the function of a leg, that is to move in coordination with the other leg, is not readily understood as a property of the leg per se, but rather an emerging property once the context is the organism and the environment, and not merely the A&P of the leg itself.

Is it a necessary condition that there is a shift in context, or let us say a change in the boundaries of the system of the representation of the entity for the emergence to become obvious? Yes, because it stems, essentially (with the full force of the word) from the definition of emergence. Remember, an emergent property is one that doesn't appear, by definition, in the smaller domain of discourse and is not reducible to it. One has to enlarge the domain. This is a merelogical act. This certainly creates the appearance of downward causality or if you prefer supervenience, though there are many philosophers who reject with argumentation such ideas, and a healthy skepticism is the norm. To wit from the SEP's article on biological organization:

Downward causation seems prima facie to be common or even ubiquitous in experiments and explanations in the life sciences (Craver & Bechtel 2007; Love 2012). However, in contemporary philosophy, downward causation is often approached with skepticism. If it is understood as higher-level things or properties exerting some kind of physically measurable influence on lower-level things, there seems to be no evidence for it (McLaughlin 1992). Downward causation also faces metaphysical difficulties, most importantly the much-debated causal exclusion argument (e.g., Kim 1992, 1999, 2005). To put it very roughly, the core of this argument is that if we accept the plausible assumption that all physical occurrences must have sufficient physical causes, it is not clear how there could be room for additional higher-level causes of lower-level physical effects. For more on causal exclusion and downward causation, see the entries mental causation and emergent properties.

So, to reiterate, a shift in context is required, because for a property to be emergent, it must exist in the "higher" context, and not in the "lower".

Great observation!


First, dynamic features are not an emergent feature of static features. The leg example is bad. A set of particles is a good example: isolated, they are just points in a space. But putting them in a single space, they raise emergent features, as lines, surfaces, volumes, etc.

The term context is inappropriate. I would call it subjectivity. Emergence is a subjectively biased assessment. For instance, consider that three isolated points are just that, but if they are on the same space, three points could cause the emergence of a surface, or a triangle, a circle, a perpendicular line. But in all cases, the resulting feature depends completely on the subject, on the observer. The objects in itself do not exist as such.

The same happens with consciousness (as apparently it raises from the bunch of sand an individual is). Consciousness is nothing but a subjective concept. It exists in the mind of the observer (the fact that the observer is assessing its own consciousness is another history, the concept still remains subjective). Animal pain can also be considered an emergent feature, but without the mind of an observer, the feature stops existing.

The key to answer your question is on the very term you've used: something absolute observer independent is something we cannot know (and therefore something we cannot define as emergent). According to Immanuel Kant, that is not possible. Kant calls that the thing-in-itself or noumena, in contraposition to phenomena, which is always biased by our perception (see his Critique of Pure Reason). Emergence would evidently be pure phenomena.

Something absolute observer independent would only be possible without an observer. So, emergence needs of a subject, which always implies a bias. Context is not the appropriate term for that.

See my answer here: How can complex material systems emerge in ways that allow them to transcend fundamental material structures?

  • I love this answer for various reasons but have a few points to pick at. First, I believe context and subjective convey similar meanings, because a context is a human level concept equivalent with "putting into perspective". Vocab aside, I think we're on the same page. Coming to consciousness, you mention that it is a subjective concept of the mind. Tell me how this is not circular. A mind, only if it is conscious, can formulate the abstract concept of consciousness which in turn refers to the property, with which it used to formulate the very words mind and consciousness. (cont).
    – Weezy
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:28
  • It is for this reason, I make the distinction between mind and consciousness. To me consciousness is the noumena for the subjective mind. Mind on the other hand is temporal phenomenon. I make this distinction because whatever mind-like processes that concern us, necessarily have consciousness attached to them. We believe that other minds are conscious but necessarily distinguished, so Mind seems to be variable whereas consciousness seems to be common. Thus I disagree that "consciousness is only a subjective concept". It is the apparatus we're using right now.
    – Weezy
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:33
  • @Weezy: "tell me how this is not circular": it is circular, you are right! All our knowledge is essentially based on tautologies (a human-subjective bias; I think Kant suggests a similar thing). There are is no deep rule that would validate all other rules. But that exceeds this discussion.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Aug 12, 2020 at 13:51

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