My original question may have been unclear. Most answers seem to miss my point. So I'll try to restate it.

Can you speculate about an entirely new higher level phenomena that might emerge from a larger alien brain or computer, analogous to how consciousness (might have) emerged in human and animal brains?

             Original Posted Question

Many scientists and philosophers think consciousness is a property that emerges from a complex information processing system, like the brain or a supercomputer. If so, in addition to consciousness, could another totally new property emerge from an information processing system even more complex than the human brain?

Such complexity doesn't exist on earth, but it could on other planets. Or perhaps in computers of the far future.

I am wondering what such an advanced emergent phenomenon would be? I'm aware that nobody knows. But can you recommend any books or authors or websites that discuss this fascinating possibility? What is your opinion about this?


6 Answers 6


You talk about consciousness like it's one thing, and either systems have it or they don't, and imply humans have it but nothing else does, and we have it in full and complete form which can't be improved on. When you draw out those implicit assumptions, it should be obvious none of them make sense.

Individual birds, like corvids and parrots, can solve some kinds of puzzles involving water levels or tools for reaching treats, at a younger relative age than humans. Octopuses too can be very very smart individually. Humans have a superpower though: language. The Dunbar Number points to the development of neocortex as linked to navigating our social environment, understanding the minds of others, with the happy side-effect we could copy and learn from others, which seems to have let us tag things (and abstractions) with noises in the way we call language. That led to the energent complexity we call culture, and getting each individual child tapped in to the inheritance of millennia of innovation for how to live, and what we can make, and how to link to abstract systems that can give us access to a sense of what we do having meaning beyond our own deaths.

We have this parochial picture, of consciousness as like that, shaped by social needs. Octopuses long seperated from us evolutionarily as molluscs, and rarely socialising and almost never learning from each other, seem to have also developed theory-of-mind to fool predators and prey. They play, and dream. A powerful example of convergent evolution. But we need to recognise, their experience is likely to be extremely alien to ours, in ways our superficial behavioural similarities obscure.

I'd think about what can cause greater complexity to emerge, in terms of more complex individuals, and more complex systems or interactions. The OrchOr model of consciousness, which suggests there is a kind of processing that happens from feeding in lots of very complex information and on-the-fly sifting through it for what is relevant (objective reduction), which may be either a classical or quantum phenomena, has been used to suggest the complexity of stellar-quakes on the surface of neutron stars could support the kind of processes needed for cognition. A conscious neutron star would just be unfathomable to us, a virtual-reality that it could simulate would be, vast. Rupert Sheldrake wrote a nice paper Is the Sun Conscious?, in which he suggests the deviations in stellar trajectories we have assigned to dark-matter, could instead relate to their conscious manipulations of solar-flares, to navigate themselves.

Gaia Theory posits something somewhere between an emergent complex individual, and network. It wouldn't involve subjectivity, but it would involve the emergence of various interacting systems to enhance stability, and perhaps to enhance self-organised criticality, a hallmark of systems that are increasing in complexity, including the human brain.

On networks, I think this is an unserappreciated aspect of Artificial General Intelligence, ie human-level or more AI. We can make very smart computers, and they can use light instead of electrons in their neural networks, and they can have more neural power, and they can reprogram themselves using their intelligence in ways we will be unable to imagine. But still I think, what will be more important is, how do they interact. Like humans, whatever their individual powers, will be greatly augmented by cooperation. And the game-theory dynamics of interaction will drive increasing complexity, just like they did for humans. Computers will be able to copy and modify different types of agents in all kinds of ways, train them through extensive simulations to have highly-developed faculties, just like evolution has honed biological replicators for their niches.

There is this interesting idea from Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, that our universe will come to a true end in that not a single particle remains except photons. Yet, the final distribution of those photons, could have substantial impacts on the distribution of matter in the next universe in the cycle, and maybe even impact the Fine Tuning parameters that define physical laws. The universe is already divided up by cosmological event horizons, so unless an intelligent species developed very early and spread very quickly in a way we don't have evidence for currently, it's unlikely every part of the universe could be intentionally placed. But over time we can expect consciousness to spread everywhere, in the 200 times the current age of the universe during which stars will shine. Surely there is likely to be some kind of shared collaborative enterprise, to shape the final distribution of matter, to benefit the emergence of more life an intelligence? This might be the ultimate network, reaching across the whole universe, to shape the next one. As close to the mind of god, as physics I think can allow..

  • Wow! I have no clue as to why Mr. Jonathan should suspect a large Xmas giftbox contains a lemur and not a flower vase? May 14, 2023 at 7:36
  • @AgentSmith: You don't seem interested in constructive engagement with ideas. Do better, or you will get removed as a site user.
    – CriglCragl
    May 14, 2023 at 8:15
  • Apologies. Your rep points (15.7k) indicate a man of great intelligence and vast experience. I'm sure you can find a cozy lil spot for me in yer universe. May 14, 2023 at 8:26

Yes, absolutely, everywhere.

Emergence is anywhere some potential arises by the relation of other potentials.

A piece of paper folded such that it glides is an emerging phenomenon.

A rope and tarp stretched as such to protect from weather is an emerging phenomenon.

I would also like to offer a modern objectivist position on consciousness as, the inflection upon the potential of our “existential being” (some neurological substrate, microtubules maybe). Through electro-chemical perturbation, This echo chamber of our consciousness, a sieve of constructive and destructive interference. Clusters competing for the singular illusion of primary awareness.

  • 3
    You make it sound easy. But paper doesn't glide just every way that you fold it. In fact, it's quite hard to get it right. Consciousness doesn't arise in every collection of nerve cells: my heart probably has more nerve cells than a bird's brain does, but it can't fly! (See how that works?) I do agree that consciousness happens with many centers of activity in the mind all contending to be the thought I am having.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 5, 2023 at 10:58
  • And where throwing the paper with precision, crumpling it tightly is the emergent potential. This is the cortex of intelligence, information, form, function, and it all sums to potential of existential being! May 5, 2023 at 12:04
  • Better examples might be some of the unexpected behaviors of predictive language models like ChatGPT.
    – Barmar
    May 5, 2023 at 14:35
  • 2
    The beautiful complexity emerging from simple rules in Conways game of life. The unique shape of every snowflake. The voices in my head that tell me we don't like olives. May 5, 2023 at 15:52
  • You don't define emergence properly. It's not just about changing state, like assembling or crumpling. It's specifically about new properties of assemblies that the constituents don't have.
    – CriglCragl
    May 11, 2023 at 18:04

A highly subjective question, based upon dogmatic concepts.

Short answer

A system is a set of interrelated parts. Just by adding one part to any system, a new property WILL ALWAYS correspond ("emerge") (see the theoretical explanation below): no need of the fashionable, metaphysical and subjective concept of "emergence" here. Add ONE atom to a rock pebble, new dimensions appear, or, if you want to use pop language, "emerge". No need of the notion of "complex" in this case: when do "simple" systems become "complex"? When a subject considers it so. "Systemic complexity" depends on mental capacity (not a scientific approach at all!).

Detailed answer

"Emergence" is a subjective assessment (emergence = perceiving a new property, perception being always metaphysical --not physical-- and subjective --not objective--). "Complexity" is another subjective assessment (complexity = difficulty to understand, the same system being complex for some or simple for others). Within this subjectivity, there can be multiple "emergent" phenomena from "complex" systems: e.g. A new flavor WILL ALWAYS emerge after mixing cooking ingredients ("complex system": cake, "emergent property": cake-flavor). Both terms have not a precise meaning, and, from experience (syseng here), complexity and emergence are coined by academics in order to make money.

See my critical answer here.

Many have tried to get science independent of philosophy, which does not work. Science is subject to philosophy, or it becomes useless/inconsistent/false knowledge, even if produced using the scientific method. Such was the case of the "complex systems" discipline, which raised without a philosophical guide, just to provide a set of methods that belong mostly to biology, or just fall into the classical Systems Theory. The terms "complexity" and "emergence" can only be accepted if they are used dogmatically, without critical and philosophical thinking.

An example

For this example, I will use an equation to explain what is an Artificial Intelligence model. And then, I will show a(n "emergent") property of Artificial Intelligence ("complex") system, to show that both are just metaphysical and subjective notions, which are already addressed by traditional science (biology) and the classical systems theory.

If you measure, scientifically (using the scientific method), a behavior that seems linear, like "the resistance of this system seems proportional to the amount of substance X in the cable", you can make a scientific hypothesis like this:

resistance is:

r = 0.29x (I imagine this is NOT a complex system for you: keep reading, and you will see that it is in fact a complex system).

Now, having such equation, you can predict the resistance of any cable having such substance.

What you've done is an hypothesis of f(x), based on the input and the output:

output = f(input) (I imagine f() is not an emergent property for you, keep reading, and you will see it is).

But what if a machine could take all those inputs, and all those outputs, and find f(x)?

Well, that is exactly what artificial intelligence is about: instead of mentally finding a rule that relates inputs and outputs, AI is the machine that can find such rule, based on inputs and outputs.

Problem: having {(x1, r1), (x2, r2), (x3, r3), ... } find f() such that r=f(x).

In the present example, the AI model is a linear equation, and the "weights" (new AI term here: machine learning implies finding weights to neural units, to find the expected function), the weights are:

(a=0.29, b=0)

That is, plugging such weights in the AI model, allows defining the AI system:

r = ax + b

OK. Now, ChatGPT is exactly the same, although with a way larger equation, with millions of weights, and different operators, not just addition and multiplication (op):

gpt = a[op2]n [op2] b[op3](n-1) [op4]...

Is ChatGPT a "complex system"? Yes, using the best definition of "complex", because literally NOBODY can understand how the weights of the model produce the obtained result: a machine that knows all the answers in the Internet. Is that an "emergent" behavior? Yes, because equations are tools, never intelligent entities like ChatGPT. Many have tried to find the meaning behind the behavior of weight-based models. But our brains cannot handle such complexity: they are just too complex to understand.

This is where the classical General Systems Theory (GST) comes into play: PRECISELY TO SOLVE SUCH PROBLEM. Since around 1900. Memorize this: The GST was created to address complexity.

  • "Complexity" is a property of all systems, and the GST has been created precisely to address such issue: what the GST does is providing formal methods for splitting complex problems (like finding millions of WEIGHTS) in multiple simple problems. In simple words, to split an unsolvable problem by finding a set of solvable problems.

Here, we've destroyed the idea of "complexity" in favor of the GST classic methods: the GST adresses "complexity" with solutions based on "simplicity".

  • "Emergence" is a common property to all systems. If our system is a point, there's no distance. Add one and boom! A new property EMERGES: distance. Add another and boom-2! Another property emerges: they can define an area.

Here, we've debunked the idea of "emergence". The more subsystems a system has, the more properties DO exist. While the GST provides methods to identify and measure any property, the approach is the opposite: do not adress the properties of the whole, because they are phenomenal (that depend on metaphysical /subjective facts). If you want to address such properties, you don't need of any systems theory (either the GST or the alleged "complex systems theory"). You just need booze to appreciate such phenomena. All systems do emerge new properties just by adding a single member.

If you follow this last idea, add just 1 (one) weight to ChatGPT and boom-n!: a new dimensional property emerges: the one that answers to your question.

But the GST allows addressing the problem: just use its formal methods to divide the problem in simpler parts, until reaching a level which you can understand (and which will be different to my capacity of understanding). The fact that you don't do it, that you have not the time or the resources to do it does not justify calling it "complex" or "emergent". Just use the classic GST.

  • 1
    +1 Sheer volume!
    – J D
    May 5, 2023 at 6:34
  • ChatGPT has other differences from the linear model showed here. It has non-linearities in particular. Also, as a quick comment, all of that used to be called "statistics" before it was rebranded "artificial intelligence". I guess "AI" is much catchier. I like "pseudo intelligence" myself instead of "AI" now...
    – Frank
    May 5, 2023 at 13:34
  • Emergence means property of an assembly that it's individual units don't have. Complexity in this field has a specific meaning, ie en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity You can just use a dictionary, to recognise this. The study of these is very much science, & essential to understanding basic phenomena like the transition from laminar to turbulent flow, for which we have detailed & accurate models & techniques. You give an exceptionally poor quality answer, & if I could downvote it more I would.
    – CriglCragl
    May 6, 2023 at 18:06
  • @CriglCragl Wikipedia is OK for a beer debate, but formally, all qualities described in such poor article are covered by the classical systems theory (e.g. who told you all systems are linear, and only complex systems are non-linear?). Your concept of emergence is aligned with the pop notion of "property", which is a subjective assessment (e.g. how does science describe "intelligence"? It can't, that's metaphysics, you can speculate about intelligence being an emergent property, that's pure metaphysics, not science). Or you can still dogmatically trust the academia and Wikipedia.
    – RodolfoAP
    May 6, 2023 at 21:55
  • @RodolfoAP: I studied physics, & non-linear dynamics. Dismissing emergence is horse****. The point about Wikipedia, is it's references - like Stack Exchange, it's not being on the platform that matters, but well referenced posts & arguments. Comments are not for discussion. There are plenty of questions posted questioning the concept of emergence, most of which I have written answers to.
    – CriglCragl
    May 6, 2023 at 22:09

Since we do not yet have a widely accepted explanation of consciousness, it would be foolhardy of anyone to make hard and fast claims about whether other properties akin to consciousness might emerge from systems more complicated than our brains. The obvious challenge faced by anyone attempting to speculate about the potential nature of such emergent properties is that if they are conceptually orthogonal to everything within the scope of human thought, then we would not be capable of imagining them. Take, as a trivial example, colour. We have a first hand experience of a range of colours. Might some other kind of intelligence experience colours that are outside the set it is possible for a human to experience? I cannot suggest what such new colours might be, because I am entirely incapable of visualising colours outside of the set wired in my mind. Human consciousness seems to have a particular instruction set, by which I mean conceptual primitives from which we build-up our thoughts, such as the ideas of numbers, shapes, time, colour, space and so on. Perhaps there could be other concepts that lie outside the realm of human thought, but by definition we would not be able to conceive of them.


It is indeed a "weakness" of dualist philosophies of mind that if the mind is not reducable to matter, then there is no theoretical limit on what else might magically arise from matter.

But since mind-body dualism is not an explanation of how things work, but just a fancy way of rejecting physicalism, there is no philosophic value in speculating what superhero powers could be achieved before those are observed.

Some cults are recruiting members based on such promises that the secrete techniques learned will help acquire "higher level" powers of the mind. Examples are levitation, telepathy, telekinesis, predicting the future, mind transfer, curing diseases with the mind, and so on. But none so far could prove any such power, other than the power of growing a cult with the majority of members paying money and the cult elite spending it.

So strong emergence and mind body dualism are not models based on which other emergent properties can be predicted. There are no serious philosophic writings on this, but plenty of esoteric writing, science fiction and superhero comics.

  • I agree that neither theory of consciousness (strong emergence or dualism) can help to predict new emergent properties of complex systems. But is there any possible way to predict phenomena which we have never seen? Could consciousness be predicted by a non conscious robot studying the operations inside a human brain?
    – JeffK
    May 10, 2023 at 5:00
  • No, currently the brain activity is not sufficiently understood to distinguish it from similarly complex activity that has no associated consciousness. E.g. if we assume ants are not conscious, but have a brain, we do not know philosophically if and what difference causes the human brain to have consciousness but not the ant brain. So far no attempt to create a consciousness by making an artificial complex system succeeded.
    – tkruse
    May 10, 2023 at 14:32

Could there be higher level emergent phenomena from more complex systems with properties different from consciousness?


First you should understand that the truth realizer / the realized is not in the level of any kind of mortal entity. In other words, the asker is imagining consciousness something like he already 'knew' with his own intellect. But the fact is entirely different.

IMHO, the answer of an enlightened to this question (if he answers) would be that nobody who realized what consciousness is, would never ask this question (because he realizes that this unique thing -- consciousness can never be born or die and it is immutable ... the mutable which has a possibility to become complex is seen nowhere) And complexity lies only in the levels of mind. ... which is lower level when compared to consciousness.

Such complexity doesn't exist on earth, but it could on other planets. Or perhaps in computers of the far future.

Consciousness transcends all -- including past and future because it transcends time also. So no such question arises. You should know that for complexity time must 'work'.

. In other words, complexity becomes meaningful only in relation to time.


Reply to the first comment:

Why couldn't some other unique phenomenon also transcend everything except consciousness?

Logically there can’t be; because, if there is one more such unique phenomenon you cannot use the term ‘everything’. If the first thing transcends the second thing, the second thing can’t transcend the first thing. If it transcends, both must be the same. This is not only technically, but while experiencing it also one realizes this truth.

Why the existence of consciousness prevents other unique amazing phenomena from occurring?

If all the other phenomena we feel are nothing but consciousness. which one prevents which one? Or, Which one prevents something?

Sat and cit (means "consciousness" or "spirit") are inseparable in Satcitananda. In Sanskrit, sat can mean being, existence, essence, true being, etc. If so, the inquiry about the beingness behind the beingness or the essence that precludes other essence is meaningless. Or it can be considered as a question for the sake of question.

  • You say consciousness transcends all. If so, why couldn't some other unique phenomenon also transcend everything except consciousness? I don't follow why the existence of consciousness prevents other unique amazing phenomena from occurring?
    – JeffK
    May 10, 2023 at 4:35

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