Criticism of Emergentism

Emergentism is the philosophical position which states that the mind emerges out of the complexity of the material brain.
Emergentism is becoming increasingly popular in modern society, especially among atheists and university sophomores. Many people put their faith in it because they think it makes logical sense, but when put under careful scrutiny, it actually fails to survive as theory.

This lack of understanding is caused by people thinking that the the multiple meanings of the term “emergent property” are all the same meaning.

The Emergent Philosophy argument goes something like this.

  1. A car is more than the sum of its parts. Together the parts drive, but separately they cant do anything.
  2. ‘Wetness” is an emergent property of millions of H20 Molecules grouped together.
  3. “Consciousness” is an emergent property of complex patterns of neurons in the brain.


The most common understanding of the term “Emergent Property” is to say that something “is more than the sum of its parts“.

There are two meanings to the phrase “more than the sum of its parts“, and using it when speaking about emergence philosophy is different to the concept of ‘synergy‘.

The phrase “More than the sum of its parts“, when regarding synergy, is more of a layman’s way of saying “A complex system of parts can produce different outcomes than the same number of separate individual parts.

This does not mean that an additional ‘thing‘ emerges when parts are assembled in the absolute world.

The phrase “More than the sum of its parts“, when regarding Emergentism, literally means that a real world ‘thing‘ (consciousness) pops into existence when parts are assembled in the correct way.

Its like saying 2+2 can = 5

The core of emergentism is to assume that that the existence of an additional property must be caused by the system it appears to reside upon, even if we cannot find the cause of the property within the system.

Emergentism assumes that the existance of the property ‘consciousness’ must be caused by the system of neurons it appears to reside upon, even though nobody can find the cause of consciousness within the system of neurons.

For the sake of making things simple, lets replace the human brain with the example of a wall, and replace consciousness with a projected image on the wall. And lets hide the projector (the true cause of consciousness) from the scientists analysing the wall.


An emergentist philosopher analysing the wall under these conditions would assume that the wall is creating the projected image. He cannot find the cause of the projected image in the wall, but he proceeds to assume that the wall causes the image, because he knows that the wall is correlated with the image, and the image resides on the wall. He then invents the theory of emergentism and convinces a generation that this theory is perfectly logical.

But the true logical approach would be to assume that a property is probably not caused by a system if we cannot find its cause within the system.

So why do people so easily believe in emergence?

A good explanation as to why people have this concept of emergence, is that our perception of reality changes when our mind recognizes complex patterns.
We see “patterns emerging” out of complexity because we reach a cognitive threshold for discriminating the complexity of a system.

For example, lets analyse the inital argument.

  • A car is more than the sum of its parts. Together the parts drive, but separately they cant do anything. 

The subjective perception of the emergence of the ‘car’ only happens once the individual person recognizes the pattern of a car.

When we notice the pattern emerge, it appears as if a property is produced that was not there before. However, all the properties are already in existence; we simply may not be aware of some of these properties until a certain cognitive threshold is reached.

If there is a gunfight between two people, we discriminate it differently than if we were to percieve millions of gunfighting people. When the amount of people fighting reaches a certain cognitive threshold, one could perceive “War” to be an emergent property. But in reality, ‘War‘ didn’t pop into existance. Only our perception of reality has changed.

Emergent Philosophers say:

“Wetness” is an emergent property of millions of H20 Molecules grouped together.

In reality:

“Wetness” is the sensation of billions of liquid molecules that is only experienced when an individual reaches the cognitive threshold to experience the liquid. The physical world doesnt produce the property of wetness; your mind does.

Emergent Philosophers conclude:

  • “Consciousness” is an emergent property of complex patterns of neurons in the brain.

In reality:

All examples of emergence used to support emergentism fall under the catagory of subjective experience, and are not examples of something emerging in the real world.

Consciousness exists in the real world. 

Therefore, there are no logically valid examples of emergence that can support the idea that consciousness emerges from complex patterns of neurons.

If a hypothesis cannot be tested by experiment, then it should be trialed by logic.
If it fails to be logically coherent within the realm of though-experiment, then it should be discarded as a false theory.

Emergentism cannot be scientifically tested, and nobody can provide a logically coherent example of it.

It is more rational to assume that we have not yet found the cause of consciousness, and perhaps never will find the cause, rather than assume that a system which does not appear to cause it, causes it.

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