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Emergence - A Dooyeweerdian View

The notion of emergence refers to properties of systems (complex things) that 'result' from the interactions of the behaviour of their parts (elements) but cannot be explained or predicted from those interactions. Examples include:

The theme of emergence is closely linked with those of reductionism, supervenience, levels, hierarchy theory and systems theory. There is held to be two varieties of emergence: strong and weak. Weak emergence is of properties meaningful at the level of the elements; strong emergence is of properties that have no meaning at the level of the elements. In most of the discussion below "emergence" means "strong emergence" unless otherwise stated.

This page compares various themes in emergence with Dooyeweerd's philosophy, and makes outline suggestions how Dooyeweerd might contribute to current discourse on emergence. The comparison takes the form of a table; the latter, of short paragraphs.

This page is to be expanded in the future, but currently it includes

A major critique of emergence here is that most strong emergence theory and analysis 'smuggles in' meaning from later aspects: we detect the 'higher level' patterns only because they are already meaningful to us.

I remember, during chemistry lessons in school, how we were introduced to organic (carbon-based) chemistry. Carbon has the unique property of being able to make long molecular chains (a physically meaningful concept). The teacher tried to tell us that this was the reason it was worth studying. But I remember thinking "But do not other elements also have other unique properties? Why not study them instead?" It was not until its link with life (a biotically meaningful concept) was made clear, that the reason for studying carbon chemistry became clear. The teacher had surreptitiously smuggled in the biotic meaningfulness, but had not made this clear. A similar thing happened when our university lecturer tried to explain thermodynamics: it only passed the "so-what" test once I had understood its meaningfulness in a post-physical aspect.


In the following table, various thinkers' ideas about emergence are given in the left-hand column. The middle column, 'Dooyeweerd Agrees', summarises portions of Dooyeweerd's philosophy that might be commensurable with these ideas and perhaps enrich them. The right-hand column, 'Critique / Enrichment', outlines how Dooyeweerd might critique or enrich the idea.

Comparison of ideas on Emergence with Dooyeweerd's Philosophy
Idea about Emergence Dooyeweerd Agrees Critique /
'Higher' and 'lower' levels in (strong) emergence Distinct aspects, 'later' and 'earlier'. Dooyeweerd delineated 15 distinct aspects, ranging through (e.g.) quantitative, physical. biotic, psychic, lingual, social, juridical, pistic, giving the possibility of many earlier-later pairs and thus many types of emergence.
Behaviour of parts or elements at 'lower' level; v. behaviour of the system at 'higher' level. Functioning in an earlier aspect, v. functioning in a later aspect. The one entity (a whole) functions in both earlier and later aspects simultaneously. We can focus our attention as thinking observers on either aspect.
Whole is more than sum of parts. "Whole is much more than sum of parts." The whole functions in all aspects, most of which are apparent to observer; the 'part', qua part, might function primarily in one aspect. What it is to be a whole or a part is seldom discussed. Dooyeweerd offers an excellent understanding of the nature of both and the difference between them based on the notion of qualifying aspect and enkapsis.
Generally, emergence discourse thinks from 'lower' level to 'higher', presupposing that the functioning at 'lower' level is more fundamental. Dooyeweerd thinks from the whole to the parts or its aspects

Jeffrey Goldstein's Classic 1999 Article

Overall note: Goldstein recognises the philosophical problem of whether emergence is merely an epistemological device rather than ontic reality, but does not solve it. Dooyeweerd can solve this as follows. Both ontic and epistemic are enabled, and occur within, the same 'ocean of meaningfulness' that Dooyeweerd calls the law-side. Specifically:

Ontic reality: Being is grounded in meaning, with each aspect as a mode of being (being-as), along with inter-aspect dependence (see Existence). Example: the animal body is physical, biotic, psychical. The being-as biotic living thing depends on being-as physical, and being-as psychical thing depends on being-as biotic. Yet these aspects are not reducible to each other in their meaning nor laws. (Aspectual being-as is dynamic, a functioning in the aspects.)

Epistemic reality: We know or recognise each being-as by virtue of our functioning in all aspects, and our intuitive grasp of their meaningfulness. So we recognise psychical, biotic, physical properties. In everyday, pre-theoretical attitude of thought, these are all mixed together, but when we distinguish we function in the analytical aspect targeting the aspects we are thinking about.

Dooyeweerd would locate the confusion of ontic and epistemic in the Immanenace Standpoint.
Radical novelty: Emergent features cannot be anticipated (deduced, predicted) until they show themselves. "Show themselves" is ontic: the observed thing functions in all aspects whether or not observed. "Radical" refers to inter-aspect irreducibility: functioning in one aspect cannot be predicted, nor even explained, in terms of functioning in other aspects. "Novelty" refers to epistemic expectation by the observer, who had been focusing on one aspect but then is surprised when their mind is opened to what is meaningful in another aspect.
Coherence: Emergents appear as integrated wholes that maintain an identity over time, which coordinates their parts. Dooyeweerd's emphasis on coherence of meaning and on wholes as ontic realities distinct from parts. "Integrated wholes" can refer to each whole functioning in all aspects simultaneously. The "identity" of a whole is founded in its profile of aspects, which Clouser calls Type Laws. The Immanence Standpoint hinders a proper multi-aspectual understanding of things, especially in their pre-theoretical reality. That is what emergence theory is trying to overcome, but it is struggling because it is usually still within the immanence standpoint.
Global/macro level: Consideration of emergence must be at the macro level rather than the micro level of parts. This is because the emergent property or function is meaningful in the later aspect, which qualifies the whole, not the aspects that qualifies the parts taken as entities. A part, qua part, is qualified by the same aspect as the whole, BUT part, qua entity-in-its-own-right, is qualified by an earlier aspect. E.g. lung-as-part is biotic; lung-on-bench is physical, merely a complex air pump.
Dynamical: "Emergent properties are not pre-given wholes but arise as complex systems evolve over time." Indeed, all being-as (being understood from the perspective of an aspect) is dynamical 'becoming', a functioning in that aspect. The functiong and being-as in one aspect depends foundationally on good functioning in earlier aspects. HOWEVER, might we detect a semi-ideological commitment to evolutionist perspectives here, trying to avoid pre-givenness. (c.f. Bergson versus Aristotle!) We need to ask: What does Goldstein mean by "pre-given"?

Dooyeweerd offers three possibilities: individuals, types and aspects. Dooyeweerd holds that individuals are not pre-given, and that aspects are indeed pre-given (as the 'ocean of meaningfulness' in which all reality 'swims'). Dooyeweerd also holds that types are pre-given, their type-laws (individuality structures) being part of the law-side, but I have argued against that. It seems that Goldstein's "pre-given wholes" refers either to individual wholes, or to types of whole, but NOT to aspects; after all, aspects are not wholes.

Ostensive: Emergents are recognised by showing themselves. "Recognised" points to the epistemic; "showing themselves", to the ontic, but many would see the latter in epistemological terms. See above.
Is emergence theory provisional, pending better predictability by other theories? Goldstein argues that that question presupposes a single ontic level, and argues in favour of multi-level ontologies, e.g. brain, mind. "Downward causation" is philosophically problematic. Each level correlates with, and is made possible by, a distinct aspect. There is no inter-aspect causality nor predictability, because their laws are irreducibly distinct. Dooyeweerd would support Goldstein here.

"Downward causation" is not inter-aspect causality, but is the multi-aspectual functioning of the subject in both (or all) all aspects, in which one retrocipates the other.

Emergence is merely descriptive, not explanatory. "Descriptive" is constituted in being meaningful in an aspect. "Explanatory" involves reference to law. Emergence, as functioning or properties in multiple aspects, can be explanatory as well as descriptive, since meaningfulness and law are closely linked in Dooyeweerd.

From Phil Clayton.
(with thanks to Gerrit Glas at CPC2011)

In strong emergence, new properties (at the 'higher' level) are irreducible to existing ones. Aspects are irreducible to each other. Dooyeweerd makes the irreducibility more specific: irreducibility of meaning and law, not of process.
Distinct levels have distinctly different laws. Distinct aspects have irreducibly distinct laws. To Clayton, the notion of law is nearly synonymous with that of causality. In Dooyeweerd, law is deeper than 'causality' (strictly, repercussion, because strictly causality refers to repercussion in the physical aspect only), making 'causality' possible and giving rise to it in time.
In strong emergence, the 'higher' level exerts causal influence on behaviour of the elements at the 'lower' level, by constraining them. The earlier-aspect functioning of the whole is such as to serve or enable the later-aspect functioning of the whole. To put it another way, the functioning of an entity in earlier aspects is given meaning and shape by its functioning in later aspects. There is no genuine causal link between aspects. The functioning in each aspect should not be thought of separately from the multi-aspectual functioning of the whole.
Emergence is a 'third way' between reductionism and dualism. Emergence is neither focus on one aspect nor two, but refers to a shift of focus from one aspect to another by the observer.

From Evan Thompson
(with thanks to Gerrit Glas at CPC2011)

Mind and life are continuous with each other. The whole that is the human being both thinks (mind-functioning) and lives (body-functioning).
Mind-functioning is what we observe when we look at human functioning from the sensitive and analytical aspects, and body-functioning from the biotic and sensitive aspects.
But the human person also does many other things too, in coherence with both thinking and living, and all, including these two, are interwoven.
Self-organising features of mind are an enriched version of self-organising features of life. Self-organising functioning seen in the analytical and biotic aspects. Is self-organisation in both aspects better seen as an abstraction (a label we use to describe what is happening)?
Top-down and bottom-up approaches are complementary. Indeed so: 'Top-down' and 'bottom-up' refer to seeing the functioning of the whole from a later and an earlier aspect respectively, and these views cohere with each other.
Dynamic co-emergence (part emerges from whole just as whole emerges from part) The whole develops through time, functioning in all aspects. As it does so, its functioning in various individual aspects also develops.
In 'minimally decomposable' systems, the parts of a system are governed by the system's organisation rather than by factors intrinsic to themselves. Various entities function together by enaptic relationships rather than as parts of a whole. Here the various entities might have different qualifying aspects.
In 'non-decomposable' systems, parts lose their identity altogether, and are no longer separable. Example: neural network. This seems to speak of what Dooyeweerd called a genuine part-whole relationship. A part has the same qualifying aspect as its whole.

From Jaegwon Kim.
With thanks to Lydia Jaeger at CPC2011.

"The main difficulty has been this: if a relation is weak enough to be nonreductive, it tends to be too weak to serve as a dependence relation; conversely, when a relation is strong enough to give us dependence, it tends to be too strong - strong enough to imply reducibility." [Kim, 1989, p.40] Dooyeweerd might be able to resolve the problem ... Dooyeweerd differentiates between (ir)reducibility and (in)dependence. Aspects are irreducible to each other but are dependent on each other. They are irreducible to each other in meaning and law. But the functioning of things in one aspect depends (requires) good functioning in other aspects.
Thus, for example, social functioning depends on lingual functioning but cannot be reduced to it because there are things meaningful in the social aspect that have no meaning to the lingual.
The coherence between the functioning in different aspects can be accounted for by reference to Dooyeweerd's CFR ground-motive; the problem arises because of presupposition of the Nature-Freedom ground-motive.


The list outline list is offered in order to stimulate work on how Dooyeweerd might contribute to understanding emergence.


Clayton, P. (2005). Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness Oxford: OUP, ISBN 978-0199272525

Goldstein J. 1999. Emergence as a Construct: History and Issues. Emergence, 1(1), 42-72.

Kim, Jaegwon (1989). The Myth of Nonreductive Materialism. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 63, No. 3.

Thompson, E. Mind in Life.


The first version of this page emerged (!) from a plenary talk given by Gerrit Glas and response by Lydia Jaeger at CPC2011; much of what they said is not given here, especially their discussion of whether emergence is compatible with creation order.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2010 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga and Protext in the style of classic HTML.

Created: 20 August 2011 Last updated: 9 December 2015 rid counter. 22 November 2017 smuggling in. 11 July 2019 Goldstein.