Emergent Phenomena & Predictability

Are emergent phenomena by definition unpredictable even in theory? For instance, if mind is an emergent phenomena, and if we don’t accept an eliminativist position, is there anything about physical matter that could possibly lead to the prediction of the emergence of mind? If not, how would that affect our understanding of determinism?

What if mind isn’t emergent but rather existent, and it’s only the brain that is emergent? That could be predictable then according to evolutionary theory, I think. Perhaps there is a way that a bigger, more complex, and more capable brain is needed just to gain access to mind, recognize it, know it, and render it in language.

Ok, sure, I don’t mind reversing what emerges from what. But that gets a bit crazier to me. I mean, it goes against typical ways that we think about scientific knowledge. If we need a brain to access mind, does that mean we had knowledge of various phenomena but no self-awareness without a brain? If so, how could you predict brains - what they are and how they function - in the absence of brains?

Those are excellent and brainbusting questions. O:)

If mind or nous is thought of as existent, outside the sensory bounds of time and space, then indeed any knowledge of it must be predicated on an organism capable of accessing it; and for us, that is the brain. Does it have to be a large brain and complex neurosystem? That I don’t know. Maybe a rock has consciousness for all I know. Also, I think there is more to knowledge than science, like gnosis for instance, telepathy, ESP, and intuition.

Not by definition, at all. But that can be fairly academic - in theory, you can predict where a snowflake’s going to land when it’s still 500 feet from the ground, but in practice you have no chance. But some emergent phenomena are far more predictable than the small-scale interactions that cause them.

Prediction isn’t inherent in a system, is it? Some people predict some things, and some of them are right. I’m not sure what that question entails.

I was kind of getting at how we understand determinism. The idea of emergence is interesting. I think many people view determinism from a decidedly mechanistic angle, yet the idea of emergence confounds that model. If mind is an emergent phenomena in the evolution of the universe since the big bang (just to use a standard scientific narrative), how could it possibly have been predicted? - (never mind the absurdity of predicting the emergence of mind without a mind to do the predicting! :slight_smile: )

Isn’t a new emergent phenomenon something that can’t be predicted even in principle? I’m talking about the first instance so to speak of a phenomenon’s emergence. And wouldn’t the recognition of that change the way many people understand determinism?

I think the popular take on determinism focuses more on evidence than predictability, so I’m not sure such a realization would make much difference to most.

I think the predictability of the emergence of a natural phenomena is near impossible unless we understand all of the variables in play and how they interact to produce this emergence (now I’m not saying it is impossible, just improbable). In other words, determinism seems more like an attempt at understanding what has already passed than predicting what is to come. In this sense, I think most deterministic views work backward – beginning with a given result, then understanding what variables yielded that result and why. Your view seems to be something of an inversion, in which your understanding of the process and predictability of the result(s) are proportionate. However, even if you predict incorrectly, you can still look at your result and come to some understanding about the dynamics of its emergence. The result is seen as evidence of what has taken place to create it.

I also think many deterministic views find a crutch in this methodology as people are never really forced to consider the probability of an emergence, which is the most mind blowing part in my opinion. Most things that can be viewed as ‘determined’ are already presumed to be entirely possible because we have evidence of them. Using your understanding as evidence of what is to come seems wildly uncertain until you have that final result to validate how precise or accurate your prediction was. This is why I think most deterministic views amount to an understanding of how/why phenomena, that we already know of, did emerge at some point in time.


How would one predict sponteniety? If the act of observation influences emergence, and we can predict when, but not where, or where but not when, then determinism is a flip of the coin. It isn’t enough to say the variables are too complex to “know” (failed prediction). It is nothing more than conjecture without showing the causal chain. In short: There’s no way to get there from here. :wink:

What is mind? How do you look at this thing called mind? You begin to think about it which, of course, is what you have to do to find out what anything is. But then you realize that thought comes from mind and is tied in with brain, memory, knowledge and such. All of these make up ’you.’ So, there is no ability for you to look at thought when you are thought. Or look at mind which is together with the knowledge you have of it. There is only thought about itself (thought); what you’ve come to know about your own knowledge; and what there is to use in your mind to be mindful of that same mind.

It’s probably when it dawns on you that, without all the faculties listed above that provide the instrumentality that enables you to look at the one that is looking, there is no way for you to find out what you are left with. So, perhaps ’mind’ is not part of you at all. It is separate from you. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t be instilled with knowledge from an outside agency. We know a lot and we assume probably even more. All this dialogue suggests that we acquired knowledge somewhere somehow. Absolutely we did. But do you have a question that you can call your own? All of the discourse that plays out in our ‘minds’ has its origins in knowledge that has been preserved (don’t we often fear losing what we have and what we know?) and passed along through the generations. Verbalization upon endless verbalizations allows the “mind” to survive and “live’ on proliferating as it goes. All questions come from that perpetuation of knowledge and assumptions.


I am not a determinist but not a pure free will believer in the classic sense of the term. I believe instead that a human mind can use perceived cause-effect relationships to basically steer causes in his/her favor to produce desired effects. I don’t see the human mind so much as independent of cause and effect but has the ability to steer the ship of cause and effect to suit the person’s needs.

I have always been fascinated with emergent phenomena. I do not believe they are predictable because by definition they can only be understood by a holistic approach to the system from which the phenomena emerge. This is the alternative to a reductionistic approach which examines components of the system to reach a defined cause. Emergent phenomena are not subject to reductionistic, and hence, predictable, explanations. Why? Too many components of the cause overall? Too many possible causes within a single link in an impossibly large cpmponents of a cause? Even using these sorts of explanations are reductionistic and we can’t get at the “reasons” wth reductionism in the same way as we can’t get to predictability. I maintain that holistic thinking is the realm of philosophy while reductonistic thinking is the realm of science. Between the two you get the fullest dimension of explanation of a thing. Reductionism and holism are conceptual “dimensions” of understanding, just like length and width are “dimensions” of physical space. You can abstract the concept of width from length but can’t conceive of a thing with width but absolutely no length or vice versa. Similarly, you can abstract from a system a series of cause and effects, but full understanding is not possible with just cause and effects. You also need to consider the holistic dimension of emergent phenomena and/or properties.

Cause and effect are the phenomena of the reductionistic dimension, emergent phenomena of the holistic. Determinism and predictability is the rule in reductionistic dimension, and volitional direction (steering the ship) of systems through the holisitic dimension.

Thanks for the great replies everyone. :slight_smile:

Rasava, I’d be interested in hearing more on determinism and free will sometime, if you’re ever up to it - your views on that subject.

Statik, what you said about looking backwards and looking forwards is also something I’d be interested in hearing more about, if you think there is any more you might find to say about it.

If emergent phenomena are your thing, you might also be interested in
amazon.com/Collapse-Chaos-Di … 0140178740

It’s a collaboration between a chaos mathematician and a biologist, looking at chaotic systems and the emergent phenomena that arise from them when abstracted to a higher scale. I don’t recommend it so much for the writing, I found it a bit of a plod and rather scattergun in its structure, but the ideas are very interesting.

Thanks a bunch O_H. I think I’ll look into that one.

Toughie. OH says “you can predict where the snowflake will land” and he’s right - know enough physics - and the starting conditions in sufficient detail… Then yeah, theoretically you could. But that’s not really what your question refers too. The question you ask is “By examining a snowflake, could you predict the avalanche…?”

Emergent properties arise from a platform, a system, that interacts in a complex enough fashion to support this new phenomena. Picture from the TV kinda thing. Examine the guts of the TV, you can’t find a picture anywhere, same way you cut up the brain, and you cannot find the persona. The two are to a degree interdependent, but only on a very… unimportant level really. A question of scale, of whole and particle.

“Synth” by Steven Strogatz is readable, as is “Critical Mass” by Phillip Ball.

Thanks for those too Tab! This is great…

Excellent question and one I hadn’t seen before. The very idea of emergent property seems to put a gap between it and what came before.

One reaction, what if it is like this. It could in principle be predictable that something would emerge ‘here’ - where mind emerges, but from there we cannot predict because since there are no minds yet we have no idea how it functions. So it is not that mind is not predictable, but rather what it will do is unpredictable to those without minds - I mean, duh, but also, seriously.

Perhaps minds are not the best example.