The Myth Of Emergence: Magic Masquerading as Science

Möbius strip demonstrating emergence

As strange as this may sound, many if not most scientists seem to believe in one form of magic. This form of magic is also believed by most mainstream “skeptics” and all atheists. This magical thinking is probably traceable to the magical thinking introduced to all of us in the form of certain religious teachings. The magical thinking involves a very primitive understanding of the concept of emergence.

The term emergence refers to properties or traits of a system that are not traits of the things the system is made of. For example, a block of iron has the property of hardness whereas the iron atoms do not have a hardness property. When enough iron atoms come together and are heated then cooled they form a mass with a hardness property. Under these conditions the new property of hardness has magically arisen out of nowhere. The overriding problem is that most people do not perceive this effect for what it is, an illusion. The hardness property does not exist at the level of the atom. There you see only the property of atoms sticking closely together. Because of our perceptual limitation that we can’t see individual atoms, we instead experience an illusion. This is what emergence is, an illusion. It refers to something but not what at first appears.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[1]
-Arthur C. Clarke

Whenever we understand a system well enough, we see that its emergent properties are illusory. There is no colour, only photons of particular wavelengths that our brains interpret as colour. There is no sound only a certain range of vibrations that our brain interprets as sound. There is no smell only molecules that exude off of things which are collected by receptors in our nose to be interpreted by our brain as odor.

Yet when many people don’t understand systems enough, any emergent properties tend to be seen as having truly arisen out of nowhere. The most obvious examples are mental states. A human being has mental states like awareness, thought and feeling. Humans however are complex collections of atoms and other particles. Human mental states then must be explainable in terms of atomic properties. Or in other words, human mental states must be based on atomic properties. But how can a fundamental unique property like thought be based on something with no mental capacities?

To simplify things I would argue that thought, awareness and consciousness are one and the same thing. Thought is the awareness of ideas and the processing of information. Awareness is recognizing that something is there. In other words, awareness is processing information. Consciousness is being aware of your self as a system. In other words, consciousness is awareness of ideas or concepts and processing information. So really, all three terms refer to thought.

A human being is made only of particles like atoms and photons. These particles in turn are ultimately composed of packets or simple systems of energy. The interactions of these packets of energy in a sufficiently complex system result in human-level thought. If the mind is the brain, the mind is energy. Energy is thought. Energy must have some kind of simple thought. When simple energy systems interact together in complex ways, complex thought emerges. There is no way around this obvious fact except though the manic application of sophistry. This is just what the magical thinker does. Instead of thinking of where the emergent property comes from he simply assumes the property magically arises from nothing.

Where does this tendency towards magical thinking come from? One obvious source is religion. All religions involve a creation story that involves a divine being, the creator, creating the world out of nothing. This magical something from nothing idea also permeates the lay understanding of physics. It is disturbing how many people believe that the Big Bang involved the entire Universe arising out of nothing. Writers like Lawrence M. Krauss with his deceptively titled book “A Universe from Nothing” do little to help dispel this delusion.

By exorcising magical thinking from science we can enter an new era of rationality. By finally recognizing the undeniable conclusion that the building blocks of matter have simple mental states, we prove pantheism. When pantheism is recognized as an undeniable reality, atheism in turn is proven false. Pantheism then becomes a core spiritual outlook entirely compatible with science. Pantheism also can act as a core to all religions with their extra purely faith-based notions bolted on. Instead of the current divisional state of theism vs atheism we have a common uniting ground between science and religion. Similarly, all religions have a common uniting core instead of the overwhelming destructive divisions that have caused such untold misery though the ages. When even scientists and mainstream skeptics finally realize magical thinking is wrong, this in turn could influence religious people to draw close to the world of science. By finally recognizing emergence for what it really is, an illusion, we can achieve a new world order based on respect and cooperation instead of the current one of division and derision.


1. “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962, rev. 1973), pp. 14, 21, 36.


  1. You say that our perception of an assembly of protons, neutrons and electrons as having properties that are not “in” the protons, neutrons and electrons is an illusion born of our inadequate understanding of “the system”. I take that to mean that if we understood better how the constituents interact it would be obvious how they manifest, say, the fractional quantum Hall effect. Okay, I’ll bite. By the same logic, if we understand the alphabet and the interactions between the letters well enough, we will see that there is nothing “extra” in their assembly into, say, Joyce’s “Ulysses”. It’s just an illusion that anything has “emerged” that was not implicit in the alphabet. This may be technically true, but it’s a pretty impoverished and inefficient way of looking at written language, which facilitates description of “magical” phenomena which, for any rational understanding of “magic”, certainly do exist in our world.

  2. Pingback: Emergence | wynten
  3. Regarding the reduction of mental states to atomic states, you should start with a system we understand completely— the computer you are working on. The data in your computer is not really reducible to atomic states. Before you get too shocked, remember that you can copy the data to a memory stick, recopy it to a hard drive, run a program to compress it, and have it transmitted through an encrypted channel, all of which change the encoding of the data and the physical properties of the encoding medium completely. But it is the “data itself” which is preserved.

    How is the data identified then? It is identified by being acted upon by other computers, by getting read out and understood, despite the different physical substrate. The data is an abstract thing, encoded by the properties of many atoms, but not in a unique way. The interpretation of the data is in interaction with other data, which acts as a computing device to munch the data.

    The stuff in your head is also data, so it is a bit of a mistake to say it “reduces to physical properties of atoms”. It doesn’t quite, because the properties of computations are not determined by the properties of the atoms alone, but by the properties of other computations that are surrounding the data and make use of it. This is not mysterious today, when computers are everywhere, but you can see how mystical it looks to someone who has never thought about what a jpg is.

    Not all physical systems are computing, only certain ones. If the atomic motion is chaotic, it has no stable memory. If it is regular, it has no computational capacity. Only systems of a certain magical complexity level, like Wolfram’s Turing complete automata, or Conway’s game of life, are capable of doing an arbitrary computation on arbitrarily complex data. Living things are of this sort, and hardly anything else is. If it were, we should just reclassify it as a form of biology.

    So the “pantheism” is restricted to things that compute, unless you want to count a very tiny computer as micro-conscious. The typical physical systems have a teeny-tiny bit-count compared to a biological cell, in all cases. So the pantheism is really more of a life-force, which sounds a lot more new-age than it is intended to be.

    1. This is a very interesting point you’re making Ron. I don’t know why it took me so long to reply. I never really thought much about computer data. I agree it’s very much like information stored in our brains. I don’t see however how both forms of information storage are not related to the physical properties of atoms. In computer memory, data is stored via a mechanism of specific configuration of atoms interacting with electrons. What happens in our brain is very similar.

      You seem to be arguing that thought requires computing but that the building blocks of matter can’t compute. So again, you’re saying computation arises out of nowhere. Computers and brains are system of energy. If a brain computes, energy computes.

Leave a Reply