What Does Emergence Mean? 

We use the term emergence in a of couple different ways to describe complex, multi-component processes. A little bit of disambiguation might be helpful: we can divide up our uses of the term emergence into two types; here, we will call them "Weak Emergence" and "Strong Emergence". Both kinds of emergence are discussed in this website. Please note that this is not an absolute distinction. There might be some cases which are not clearly one kind of emergence or not clearly either kind of emergence. This page is simply meant to be a general guide for this website.




1) Weak Emergence:

Describes a model of a system’s behaviour.

Consider the example of a flock of birds to the left. The V-shape is a physical property that emerges that allows a set of birds to migrate with less expenditure of energy than if they migrated by themselves. From simple behavioural interactions whereby a bird chooses a flight path based on the vortices generated by its flockmates, the shape of a "V" naturally emerges, even though (it seems) that no single bird was by itself striving to create a V-shaped flock. We dub this "weak" emergence because the flock shape is a physical property that is directly traceable to the physical properties of the birds' individual positions. Biomolecules could be cited as examples of systems which display weak emergent properties because their emergent structure physical and directly traceable physical properties of their constituent parts. 




 2) Strong Emergence: 

Describes a relation where lower-level properties determine higher level properties of a system, and where those higher level properties are not directly traceable to the lower level properties. 

Consider the example of the Jackson Pollock painting to the right. One might say that the property of "beauty" emerges from the painting. Yet, its beauty does not seem directly traceable to any of its brushstrokes. Nor would we would say that it is simply the combined beauty of each brushstroke that constitutes the painting's beauty. Rather, it is seems also to be some relation of the brushstrokes to each other and all together. In this example, beauty is a higher order property that emerges from, yet is not directly traceable to the lower order properties of colours, spatial relations of brushstrokes, textures, etc. Another example of Strong Emergence might be the pain that emerges in your hand when you stimulate your peripheral nerve fibers by touching a hot stove.