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Durham University

Durham Emergence Project


Strong Emergence


Olley Pearson

Stefano Catelan

Project Description

Our project sought to focus on two questions:

- How should we understand statements of strong emergence in light of philosophical theories of existence?

- Might different theories of existence have different implications for the possibility of strong emergence?

These questions were chosen because strong emergence, as an ontological thesis, involves novelty in the world itself, namely the existence of new entities, such as properties or objects. It was hypothesised that different interpretations of existence might hence have different implications for the understanding and plausibility of strong emergence. With these questions in mind, we undertook five more specific investigations.

The first of these focused on a novel characterisation of strong emergence that has been made by Barnes (2012), which utilises recent metaontological notions of fundamentality and dependence, characterising strongly emergent entities as those that are both fundamental and dependent. The notion of fundamentality is linked by Barnes to the notion of existence: the fundamental entities are those that provide truthmakers for existence claims: these are the entities that ‘really’ exist. We considered the set of entities delimited by Barnes as emergent, and contrasted that set with those provided by other current notions. We found that there were several areas of divergence. In particular, Barnes’s characterisation classes some entities as emergent, which would not commonly be thought to be, for example, necessarily covariant entities would be classified by Barnes as emergent, simply in light of their covariance (whilst other theories, such as those focusing on causal dependence [cf. O’Connor and Wong, 2005], would not so classify these). Barnes also classes some entities as non-emergent that would commonly be thought to be emergent, for example, those entities that are causally dependent in an appropriate way on a concrete contingent entity in this world, but not in all possible worlds (many take emergence to be a nomologically but not metaphysically necessary property of an entity creating a contrast with Barnes, [cf. van Cleeve 1990]).

A second area of research continued on the theme of fundamentality, this time focusing on the possibility of there being entities whose existence emerges from infinite chains of ontological dependence without dependence on a fundamental level (with fundamental now being contrasted with dependent) (cf. Morganti 2014). In the literature, it has been argued that emergent entities can be seen to arise from infinite chains utilising an analogy with a case from epistemology and the emergence of justification (cf. Peijnenburg and Atkinson 2013). This analogy was examined, and found wanting on the grounds that the ontological case had characteristics making it crucially distinct from the epistemological case: no ontological ground can lose relevance even if an epistemological one can.

- Barnes, E. (2012). Emergence and Fundamentality. Mind 121 (484): 873 – 901.

- Cameron, R. (2008). Truthmakers and Ontological Commitment. Philosophical Studies 140: 1–18.

- Morganti, M. (2014). Metaphysical Infinitism and the Regress of Being. Metaphilosophy 45 (2). p.232-244.

- O’Connor, T. and Wong, H. Y. (2005). The Metaphysics of Emergence. Nous 39: 658–678.

- Peijnenburg , J. and Atkinson, D. (2013). The emergence of justification. Philosophical Quarterly 63 (252). p.546-564.

- Tugby, M. 2012. The Metaphysics of Pan-Dispositionalism. In Properties, Powers and Structures, A. Bird, B. Ellis, & H. Sankey (eds.). Abingdon, Routledge: 165-179.

- van Cleve, J. (1990). Mind-dust or Magic? Panpsychism versus Emergence. Philosophical Perspectives 4: 215 – 226.

- Zalta, E. (1988). Intensional Logic and the Metaphysics of Intentionality. MIT.

- Zalta, E. (2006). Essence and Modality. Mind 115: 559-693.


(Forthcoming) Catelan, S. 'Emergence and Causation: Conference Report.' Rivista Internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia.

(2018) Pearson, O. 'Emergence, Dependence, and Fundamentality' Erkenntnis: 391-402.

(2015) Pearson, O. 'Rationality and the First-Person'. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 132-148.


• Rationality and the Emergent Self Presented by Pearson at Toward a Science of Consciousness Helsinki, Finland, (2015)

• Reasons and Emergence Presented by Pearson at the Durham Emergence Project Seminar, Department of Philosophy, Durham, (2015)

• Strong Emergence and Quinean Existence: An Essay in Meta-Ontology Presented by Catelan at the international conference Emergence and Causation, University of Macerata, Italy, (2015)

• Strong Emergence and Quinean Existence: An Attempt to Understand Presented by Catelan at the Durham Emergence Project Seminar, Department of Philosophy, Durham, (2015)

• Ontological Dependence and the Fundamental Level Presented by O’Conaill (on behalf of O’Conaill and Pearson), at the Epistemology of Metaphysics Project Seminar, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki, (2015)