Could emergence be hylemorphic?

Emergence appears to be the idea that certain phenomena of X do not belong to the elements of X, e.g. All the various atoms that make up water are not wet, and so wetness is said to emerge at some point; amino acids and organic molecules aren’t alive, but at some point you can get a living thing out of them.

It’s unclear if emergence is meant to be taken as a fact or an explanation of a fact. My sense is that it is taken as more or less factual. There appears to be an implicit interpretation of the fact, however, one where the structure out of which things emerge is definite, clear, and substantially real whereas the thing that emerges is a ghostly, ethereal question mark. Life doesn’t vanish into organic molecules, but it also is seen as arising entirely a tergo and lacking the clear substantiality of organic molecules.

A hylemorphic account of emergence might go something like this: emergence is a mode of understanding things in the order of material causality, so far as the parts of thing are always in this order. Seen in this line, the ghostly nature of the emergent thing is a symbol for formal causality. It is, if you like, the moment where we recognize that we have crossed over a threshold into an order of causality that is no longer homogeneous with the constituent parts. It’s not that the molecules are more real, they are just more primary in the material order. And so we might make a slight correction to the way we visualize emergence and see it in a hylemorphic way: the emergent reality appears to lack the substantiality of the parts not because it is less real, but because we have recognized a sort of causality that is no longer homogeneous with the causality of the parts. 


  1. Rich said,

    September 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    What are the implications for pinpointing the onset of human life?

  2. David T Chua said,

    September 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    This seems right. It’s perhaps worth noting a distant disanalogy between the phenomena of wetness and the phenomena of life, for in addition to being emergent from its constituent atoms, wetness also seems to ’emerge’ from constituent *molecules*. Arguably, a single isolated water molecule isn’t ‘wet’, in the same way that a single cellulose polymer isn’t ‘woody’. But this doesn’t seem like ’emergence’ in the sense that we want. So it seems that we should also say: An emergent phenomena is not just a phenomena does not belong to its elements, but rather a phenomena that does not belong to its elements and furthermore is not reducible to the causal interactions or relations between those elements. This allows us to avoid saying that wet-ness and woody-ness and pile-ness and heap-ness are emergent from their constituent unit substances.

  3. Gian said,

    September 19, 2013 at 12:01 am

    Wetness is property of water. It is not a property of some collection of water molecules. The thing is that water is a continuum while the molecules are discreet objects. Wetness emerges when we switch from a discreet view to continuous view.

    I do not understand “the thing that emerges is a ghostly, ethereal”. Life is not ghostly, wetness is not ethereal. If anything, these molecules, organic or otherwise, are a bit ghostly.

    • September 19, 2013 at 7:18 am

      The quotation you cite was explicitly called an “interpretation” of emergence, and was not meant to be the only one. But so long as no causal role is given to things that emerge upon the things they emerge from, and the emergent is seen as arising entirely a tergo from its elements, it will always have an air of unreality. It’s true that wetness and life are real and that emergence wants to preserve this, but the hylemorphic approach allows a way to have a two way causality between the terms. I’m not sure what to make of your account until I know how you view the discrete and the continuous as real and causal with respect to one another, if at all.

      • Gian said,

        September 19, 2013 at 11:48 pm

        I have no decided views but I recently learnt about Wolfgang Smith’s ideas about “corporeal object” and “physical object” which seem promising.

        Water is a corporeal object that we perceive with our senses. Wetness is a corporeal property. While the H2O molecules and even the giant network of H2O molecules is a “physical object”– lacking qualities.
        The corporeal object “water” in this case is the presentation of the “physical object” –network of H2O molecules plus the substantial form of water, The form is not describable in the language of physics.

        Thus, the reduction, water is just the collection or network of H2O molecules, is incorrect.

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