Emergence or How To Be Something Without Having an Essence


This blog post is inspired, in part, by a comment directed at my opening plenary at a recent event. The commenter challenged my claim that I escape the essentialism of human nature in my claims about care as the existential ground of human behavior. My answer is largely that the nature or essence of something is located inside or possessed by the object. Care is related to emergence. Emergent properties differ by existing only outside the body as the name suggests. They are there only by virtue of the word of some observer of the object.

Modern society, since the early Enlightenment, has been shaped by an essentialist definition of human nature, describing it as some feature or set of features that make us what we are. This seems quite reasonable since we define most anything else by the way it works. A table is a table because it serves as a platform on which we can set things. Martin Heidegger disagrees:

All metaphysics including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato. The basic word of its thinking, that is, of his presentation of the Being of beings, is eidos, idea: the outward appearance in which beings as such show themselves. Outward appearance, however, is a manner of presence. No outward appearance without light — Plato already knew this. But there is no light and no brightness without the opening. Even darkness needs it. How else could we happen into darkness and wander through it? (from On Time and Being)

I am more interested in creating flourishing than in the meaning of human nature, but I can’t get there without first taking a detour into the world of philosophy. Why? Because the absence of flourishing is, in part, the result of holding a faulty conception of what human beings are (an ontological question). Alternatively, because the state of the world depends on what we do, not what we are, we should ask the ethical question, “What does it mean to be a human being?”, or the closely related question, “What are human beings for?”1

The latter question sounds strange. Humans are a natural object, like rocks or giraffes or raindrops. We would not ask what giraffes are for unless we believed in some designing creator, who might have had some purpose in mind. Without such a transcendent designer/creator, natural objects, that is, those that appeared along the evolutionary lifetime of the cosmos due only to natural processes are purposeless. They simply exist as something distinct in the cosmos. Their distinction arises out of their differences in material extent and structure, as expressed by their properties. We would never ask what is the purpose or meaning of a rock, unless we were writing a poem or otherwise attaching some human-derived property, like hammering, to it. Natural objects can serve as metaphors, taking some of their properties and ascribing them to something else.

If we know what a giraffe is, but not what it is for or what does it mean to be a giraffe, does the same restriction apply to human beings? Our existence as a distinct species, like giraffes, is a result of the evolutionary process, but very late in that process. If we accept the answer for the giraffe, then it must be true for human beings as well. We exist as a distinct species only by the randomness of a set of meaningless natural processes. Giraffes and other forms of life differ from other inanimate natural objects in one critical extent, they exist with a purpose, to exist in the world in such a manner to reproduce themselves as individual organismic entities and as species.

How can this be if we accept the purposelessness of the natural world? The answer comes in the idea of emergence. Emergence is the process by which order appears, spontaneously, in otherwise chaotic systems, that is, systems that do not exhibit spatial or temporal regularities. The cosmos itself is best explained by the Big Bang theory as emergent, the result of some not ordered process that, as if by magic, created order. We see emergent processes all the time. Every time we make ice, we have created order, solidity, in what was another ordered form, liquid water, which results when a chaotic form, water vapor, condenses as the temperature is lowered.

Life, itself, is such an emergent phenomenon. From a mixture of chemicals in a medium, life came forth, or emerged, in the form of primordial organisms. The chemicals had been interacting before, but without the emergence of order. As time passed, the chemicals interacted in such a way that a structure was formed with the capability to reproduce itself. Maturana and Varela call this process, autopoiesis. Living organisms are the only natural entities that possess this characteristic. It is possible to conceive of mechanical systems that can be designed to reproduce themselves, but it would incorrect to label them as living. Living organisms, not only act autopoietically to maintain their organization during their lifetime, but also maintain the species by some form of reproduction.

If one were to observe the behavior of any living species, it would appear to have a purpose, that is, it would consist of actions to maintain itself, to remain viable. Maturana and Varela make an important point, noting that autopoiesis always maintains the organism’s organization while its structure changes to reflect interactions with its external world The emergent purposefulness of life is the primary ontological feature of life. It is sufficient to describe all life forms, including human beings, as living organisms. Another way to say this is that the primary feature of all life forms is viability, but that is all we can say about them, even about human beings. Early natural philosophers missed this important point and attributed other natures to humans (and other material objects). So far so good, but how does this step get us to accepting “care” as the basis for human existence?

Heidegger went further observing that human viability reflects the world in which one was embedded or, as he wrote, into which one was thrown. Biological structural coupling is accompanied by a cultural coupling as well, expressed through meaningful actions. Humans care for the world by acting in ways reflecting their understanding of the meaning of the situations they found themselves in. He defined care in terms of a wide range of actions, writing that caring is “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” Meaning is not to be found as an essence, but in the way we interact with objects or, in, Heidegger’s way, care for or with them. The critical part of this argument is that human Being is a complex phenomenon, which process permits emergence.

As a postscript, this kind of connection between meaning and action is central to early pragmatism. What we know in the form of beliefs is the result of our interactions with the world, as in this extract from the works of C. S. Pierce, the founder of this philosophical strain.

Every piece of knowing depends, not simply causally, but logically, on what one has previously learnt, since all knowledge rests on the assumption that certain methods of classification and systemization, which have been learnt in connection with other earlier situations, can be applied, in a particular way, to a particular situation. Once admitted, the grave error of Descartes and of all later Cartesians becomes plain: it is the assumption that we cannot learn until we know…Rather, we must always build on what we already know. It is impossible in principle to pinpoint the moment when the learning process begins, but so what.

One simply cannot get to understand what humans are for without the frame of complexity and its associated phenomenon, emergence. And once having got there, it is impossible to go further without the kind of understanding that pragmatic inquiry produces. The problems that the questioner at the conference and virtually all other attendees have with accepting this model of human Being is their uncritical use of positivism, as in the first quote.

You can find my talk I mention above by following this link.

  1. This discussion has been strongly influenced by Loyal Rue’s book Nature is Enough, and by the book, The Tree of Knowledge, by Maturana and Varela