By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 2 minutes By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was watching the stunningly good Planet Earth II tonight and again saw the amazing flocks of starlings and their murmurations. Here is an idea of what they do (I couldn’t get the Planet Earth footage):

YouTube video

This got me thinking about emergent properties, when things are created that are greater than the sum of their parts. As wiki states:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.

Emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry and psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things.

In philosophy, theories that emphasize emergent properties have been called emergentism. Almost all accounts of emergentism include a form of epistemic or ontological irreducibility to the lower levels.

Indeed, watching those images on the TV is another great example of emergentism. Those little parts collected together, in their individual states, are merely randomly collected pieces of metal and plastic and so on. But arranged in a particular fashion, they produce something quite remarkable. Those moving images of the patterns created by those thousands of starlings, creating their mesmerising shapes, are themselves startling.

My brain is made up of a collection of neurons, of pieces of grey matter – physical human cells. Laid out in a row, they are merely a collection of cells. But arranged in a particular, complex fashion, they produce something greater. They produce something that can visualise and interpret those moving images of those mesmerising starling patterns.

And thus we have a three-step chain of emergence.

Whilst we may not fully comprehend the finer details of consciousness, like we do not quite understand the machinations of those birds, I think we can be pretty confident in not needing to invoke the supernatural, the unknown, in order to explain our first unknown. Emergence happens in nature, in human manufacture, and in the manufacture, by nature, of humans.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...