The paradigm of emergence

So the paradigm case of emergence is the wetness of water. The smallest parts of water aren’t wet but a large enough mass of them is.

But wet and its contrary are formally constituted by sense organs – water skippers can’t experience water as “wet” any more than we can experience ice as wet. So in what sense is a molecule “not wet”? Because it is too small to feel running over one’s fingers?

Wetness emerges only in the same way that audible or visible does. At certain frequencies we can hear something and at others we can’t, but it is extremely odd to describe this as a new property of the thing we are talking about.

Here’s the basic problem: either we take water as partially sense-relative or we don’t. If so, then the “emergence” of its wetness is nothing more than the uninteresting, purely epistemological claim that our sense powers have detection thresholds. If not, then the ocean is no more actually wet than a molecule of H2O.

“Emergence” wants higher-order realities to follow lower-order ones. It’s hard to see how all of them could not be just as easily re-framed as accounts of how higher-order proerties use lower ones to achieve their goals.

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1 Comment

  1. Joseph Moore said,

    June 23, 2016 at 1:44 am

    While I think you are onto something, I’m not sure you’re capturing the distinction between water and sight and sound. Certainly, there is some threshold beneath which our eyes don’t register photons or our ears sound waves – but when sense organs do perceive, they are perceiving more of the same thing, in that few photons are still photons and inaudible sound waves are still sound waves. But a single or very few water molecules do not behave in the same way as a large number of water molecules together behave – once you have some number of water molecules together, they share electrons in a manner that unites them and gives them properties that an individual water molecule doesn’t have. It is not merely the case that there is a wetness threshold beneath which our senses cannot perceive wetness; there are in fact different properties that “emerge” well below that threshold.

    At least, that is my understanding.


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