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Emergentism: what is and how does consciousness explain this philosophy?

Emergentism: what is and how does consciousness explain this philosophy?

July 14, 2024

The human mind is something complex to understand, being much of its operation still a great mystery. An example of this is self-awareness, about which there is very little knowledge and whose study has generated a great diversity of models and perspectives, both at a scientific level from psychology and even philosophical.

One of the multiple models or theories in this respect is the so-called emergentism , which we are going to talk about throughout this article and whose main axiom is the fact that "the whole is more than the sum of the parts".

  • Related article: "What is the Philosophy of the Mind? Definition, history and applications"

Emergentism: what is it?

It is understood by emergentismo a trend, model or philosophical paradigm characterized by the consideration that everything that exists, and all the properties of matter (including, in the case of psychology, the mind and our being) can not be derived solely from the sum of the elements that compose them, but that arise and evolve from them as an irreducible whole and generating their own laws.


Emergentism emerges as opposed to reductionist theories , that consider that reality is explicable from a single type of factors whose sum simply results in the particular phenomenon that is being analyzed.

It considers that the different phenomena are multi-causal, and that from each way or level of higher organization different non-existent properties will emerge in the components of lower levels. These properties are therefore part of the whole and can not be explained from the elements that have constituted it.

  • Maybe you are interested: "The Mind-Brain Identity Theory: what is it?"

Common properties

Although there are different visions and emergentist conceptions, they mostly share some main elements.


To begin one of them is the existence of synergism, or the belief that the properties of matter arise from the cooperation of various elements from whose interaction different properties and new elements arise. These properties and elements are more than the sum of their previous components, not being reducible or only derived from them but a new product and previously nonexistent.

The fact that new properties arise that are not reducible to their parts means that, in reality, what emerges can not be predicted. Despite this, there would be a certain coherence between complex elements when generating elements over time.

When we link the emergency to the biological, we must also take into account the existence of self-maintenance through reproduction as well as the capacity for self-organization and the ability to adjust to the environment in which living beings live and the demands they have to face.


Two basic types

The emergentismo is not a totally homogeneous theory, but inside of it they can be different positions to understand consciousness or mental states . Two types of emergentism stand out in particular: weak and strong emergentism.

1. Weak emergentism

From weak emergentism or innocent emergentism it is proposed that a hierarchically elevated phenomenon, such as human consciousness, is weakly emergent with respect to an inferior domain, appearing from that domain.

This type of emergentism proposes that it is the development of new physical structures which generates the appearance of new capabilities . Thus, the emergence of capabilities are due to physics, considering that we ignore the structures that allow the emergence of higher levels of domination and this is what prevents us from knowing the superior domain itself or its operation.

It is a position close to biological reductionism, since although the emergent is more than the mere sum of the parts (it would be a product of the evolution of structures), it is basically assumed to be the result of a new structure. That is, in reality it would be assumed that it is a product of a "part".

2. Strong emergentism

The so-called strong emergentism proposes that a phenomenon or superior domain is highly emergent with respect to a lower domain from which it may arise, but nevertheless not said superior domain can not be explained only from said lower level.

In other words, the process, domain or element in question can be derived in part from pre-existing structures, but can not be explained only on the basis of them, but its existence exceeds the mere sum of them. In addition to this, it has a way of functioning slightly independent of these. The new is derived from the whole, not being explained only by the parts that compose it.

An example in the human psyche

Perhaps the previous explanations are difficult to understand when referring to rather abstract aspects. An easier way to understand this position is to give an example, which also can serve us to approach the application of emergentism in the field of psychology .

Consciousness, as suggested by the text on which this article is based, is a good example of this. However, technically any of the higher mental capacities or even aspects and constructs such as intelligence or personality would serve us.

In the case of personality , we have that there is a large part of our way of being that comes from the genetic inheritance while that inheritance while another of the major factors that explain it is that of our experiences and the learning we have done throughout our lives. Neither one nor the other explain completely how we behave in real life (if we consider that it is one or the other factor we would be being reductionist), and not even its direct sum explains itself our behavior (being something that emerges from them but is not totally reducible to them).

And it is that aspects such as the will or the situation that we are living in the moment independently of our natural tendency of response would also have a link with it, being aspects that are not merely a sum of biology and experience but emerge from their interaction of such way that they can even alter them by themselves (Our personality and our will can alter our experience, which in turn influences the personality).

Bibliographic references:

Braun, R. (2011). Human consciousness and emergentism. Person, 14: 159-185. Lima University.


PHILOSOPHY - Metaphysics: Emergence (July 2024).


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