Cookies

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Normality, Magic, Miracle and Error: emergence along a reversibility spectrum

Formation of a butterfly from a pupa, extraction of a live dove from a magician’s empty hat, generation of new particles from high-energy particle collisions and spawning a new dream world from mind in sleep are all examples of a common, fuzzy notion called ‘emergence’. Emergence is intuitively defined in a subjective manner in various contexts, yet it eludes a universally acceptable objective definition. In this paper1 I pin the concept of emergence to the element of surprise in a phenomenon. I then propose a characterisation of emergence by first defining surprise in terms of an objective dimension called reversibility. Using this definition, I categorise the various notions of emergence into three main classes: (1) weak emergence in which the evolution from pre-emergence to post-emergence states is fully reversible and hence evokes the least amount of surprise, (2) quasi emergence in which the evolution from pre-emergence to post-emergence states holds surprise in the form of gaps in reversibility, but the gaps can be overcome via placeholders such as deterministic pseudo-randomness, and (3) strong emergence in which it is impossible to find any reversible description of evolution from pre-emergence states to post-emergence states, thereby making the element of surprise fundamental and impossible to redress. In fact, in the strong emergence case, the pre- and post-emergence states continue to co-exist despite an apparent transformation of the pre-emergence state to post-emergence state. These definitions are used to explain instances of emergence, organised along a continuous spectrum as normality, magic, miracle and error.

Insights

Vol 10 Article 17