Emergence (Part 1): Friend, or New Atheist Foe?

By Adam Lloyd Johnson


November 9, 2017

Introduction & Background

Christians have often used objective morality and human consciousness as building blocks from which to craft arguments for God’s existence.[1] This is usually done by arguing that theism provides a better explanation for these two phenomena than the most popular form of naturalism, that is, reductive materialism.[2] Reductive materialism claims that the only things which exist are physical materials and that all things, as well as all causes, can be explained by reducing them to their most basic material elements.

Francis Crick, Nobel laureate and one of the co-founders of the DNA molecule in 1953, summarized the implications of this view well when he wrote that

“your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”[3]

For an example of a Christian contrasting theism with reductive materialism, consider a recent work by R. Scott Smith in which he wrote that

“[c]learly, naturalism is an ontologically reductive approach, in that what we thought were mental or immaterial things (such as souls, thoughts, propositions or even virtues and moral principles) can actually be reduced to what is physical.”[4]

However, there are a growing number of naturalists who agree that reductive materialism does not provide a plausible explanation for consciousness and morality. Instead of turning to theism though, these thinkers have proposed various forms of non-reductive naturalism. One of the most popular forms of non-reductive naturalism centers around the idea of emergence.

Naturalists who adhere to emergence (from here on out referred to as emergent naturalists) differ from reductive naturalists in that they claim certain properties and entities cannot be explained by the lower level physical materials of which they are constituted (Data from Star Trek explains emergence here). New properties, some claim even new entities, emerge when certain physical parts achieve a particular level of organizational complexity. These novel properties and possible new entities cannot be explained by their particular parts but are only understood properly when considered as a whole. Proponents of strong-emergence go further and claim that some emergent entities, such as consciousness, have their own causal powers which cannot be reduced to, or explained by, the physical causes associated with their micro level material parts.[5] This is a radical departure from reductive naturalism, leading Philip Clayton to note that strong-emergence

“may represent one of the most significant philosophical developments of the late twentieth century.”[6]

It is for this reason that Christians must move beyond merely criticizing reductive naturalism, showing how it struggles to explain consciousness and morality, and also engage with non-reductive forms of naturalism such as emergentism. How should Christians respond to emergence? I propose that it should be considered a friend in that it helps point out the failings of reductive materialism, still the most predominant form of naturalism. Such critiques encourage people to consider alternative explanations of reality, including theism. On the other hand, it should be considered a foe in that it is often presented as an alternative to theism, one that can provide a better explanation of reality.

Christians should seize this opportunity which has been opened up by movements away from reductive materialism, join this exciting conversation, and show how theism provides the best explanation for morality and consciousness. Over two articles I will first provide an overall framework for understanding emergentism. Then I will argue that if strong-emergence is true, it should be used as evidence for theism as part of an overall fine-tuning argument for the existence of God.

Historical Background

Emergent ideas were proposed as far back as the mid 1800s, most notably by British Emergentists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. John Stuart Mill is often considered the father of British Emergentism, though he never used the term itself.[7] He wrote that:

This explains why mechanics is a deductive or demonstrative science and chemistry is not. In the one, we can compute the effects of all combinations of causes… from the laws which we know to govern those causes when acting separately… [but with bodies] new uniformities arise, which are called the laws of life. All organized bodies are composed of parts… but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents… it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself.[8]

The actual term “emergence” was first used in this context by George Henry Lewes.[9] By the late 1800s, emergentism was fully embraced by many British philosophers. C. D. Broad’s ‘The Mind and Its Place in Nature’ is the most well known work from this group, but Conway Lloyd Morgan was the movement’s most influential advocate.[10] He wrote that the levels of order in reality imply

“that there is increasing complexity in integral systems as new kinds of relatedness are successively supervenient… there is an ascending scale of what we may speak of as richness in reality… the richest reality that we know lies at the apex of the pyramid of emergent evolution up to date.”[11]

The concept of emergence fell out of favor by the mid 1900s, mostly because of two related developments. First, emergent ideas were often associated with vitalism, the notion that all living organisms have a non-physical animating element, a vital spark or élan vital.[12] As vitalism became discredited in the scientific community, it was quickly discarded, taking emergence down with it, presumed guilty by association. Second, the reductionist approach made several key advances in explaining life and physics in terms of more basic elements, for instance genetics, molecular biology, and DNA as well as subatomic particles, nuclear energy, and quantum mechanics. As McLaughlin noted, it is “no coincidence that the last major work in the British Emergentist tradition coincided with the advent of quantum mechanics.”[13]

However, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in emergentism. In 2006 Paul Davies noted that “…during the last couple of decades, the mood has shifted [back towards emergence]… [i]n large part this is due to the rise of the sciences of complexity. This includes subjects such as chaos theory, network theory, nonlinear systems, and self-organizing systems.”[14] Two men in particular played important roles in resurrecting strong-emergence: Michael Polanyi and Roger Sperry.[15] Michael Polanyi was a world-renowned physical chemist but became an influential philosopher who advocated for strong-emergence.[16] Roger Sperry was a neuropsychologist, neurobiologist, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1981. He wrote that

“if we are correct about… ‘emergent determination,’ these lower-level physical forces… are successfully enveloped, overwhelmed, and superseded by the emergent forces of higher and higher levels that in our own biosphere include vital, mental, political, religious, and other social forces of civilization.”[17]

Emergence as a Friend

Christians should consider emergence as a friend in the sense that it helps point out the inadequacies of reductive materialism. There are a growing number of naturalists who agree that reductive materialism is unable to explain key aspects of our reality, including consciousness and morality.[18] Some even consider this topic to be one of the most important issues being discussed in philosophy today. John Searle wrote that

“for many of us, myself included, the central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles.”[19]

Many recognize that reductive materialism provides little to no explanation for the parts of our lives we hold most dear. Thomas Nagel wrote that:

The conflict between scientific naturalism and various forms of antireductionism is a staple of recent philosophy. On one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences… On the other side there are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts.[20]

At its best, reductive materialism tends to ignore important aspects of our humanity such as purpose, meaning, and moral values, and at its worst, it denies they even exist. While arguing for ‘pluralistic moral realism,’ which he maintains is metaphysically naturalistic, Kevin DeLapp commented, concerning reductive materialism, that

“[a]ccording to such a conception, both physical phenomena and ‘human nature’ alike may be satisfactorily understood in purely materialistic, if not mechanistic, terms. Despite the apparent explanatory and pragmatic successes of such a program, it seems prima facie difficult to account for ‘values’ in a plenum of pure ‘facts’.”[21]

Some argue that reductive materialism has failed, not only when it comes to explaining important aspects of our humanity, but also when it comes to empirical explanations, its most celebrated arena. Philip Clayton remarked that

“[n]ot only has there been a complete failure to achieve the sort of downward reduction once triumphantly proclaimed by the unity of science movement, but we also now have good empirical reasons to think that such reduction is not even possible in principle.”[22]

Consciousness in particular seems to present tremendous difficulties for reductive materialists; naturalist David Chalmers claimed that

“[i]n their own domains, the physical sciences are entirely successful. They explain physical phenomena admirably; they simply fail to explain conscious experience…”

yet he quickly noted that

“to deny materialism is not to deny naturalism.”[23]

Some naturalists point out that reductive materialism has come to be embraced by many with a near religious fervor. Searle commented that

“[t]here is a sense in which materialism is the religion of our time… Like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and it provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed, and answered.”[24]

However, some hope that change is on the horizon:

“There is a growing band of scientists who are pushing at the straightjacket of orthodox causation to ‘make room’ for strong-emergence, and although physics remains deeply reductionistic, there is a sense that the subject is poised for a dramatic paradigm shift in this regard.”[25]

Nagel wrote of “reductive materialism,” that it is a “world view… ripe for displacement.”[26] Stuart Kauffman is one thinker in particular who has declared his intention to “demolish” the “hegemony” of “the Pythagorean dream, the dream of the ‘theory of everything,’ reductive materialism” because he believes by it

“[w]e have lost… our consciousness and free will… and with that loss, lost our humanity.”[27]

All of this pushback against reductive materialism might be one of the reasons why philosophers have become interested in metaphysics once again, even open to theism. Dean Zimmerman observed that

“[n]owadays, hardly any analytic philosophers will still try to argue that theological statements are meaningless, or that the very idea of God is obviously incoherent.”[28]

In fact, some naturalists are concerned that the failures of reductive materialism might lead us back down this path. In his critique of materialism, Howard Robinson warned that

“[i]f science cannot encompass the subjective, then subjectivity becomes a door through which mystical, irrational and religious notions can enter and reassert themselves against the modern metaphysic of scientific realism.”[29]

As a case in point, Lawrence Cahoone, whose work centers around the concept of emergence, admits of being impressed with the fact that our universe “exhibits far more organized complexity than we have a right to expect given the laws of physics.”[30] Presumably this led him to re-consider the idea of God:

“I will confess that it never occurred to me in my career as a professional philosopher to make an argument for the existence of God, or that a reasonable argument could be made, until I began reading the works of current physical cosmologists.”[31]

Emergent naturalists have played an important part in pointing out the inadequacies of reductive materialism, showing how it leads to the dead end of determinism and a meaningless universe. Emergence thus should be considered a friend to Christianity in that, in its critique of reductive materialism, it encourages people to consider alternative explanations of reality, including theism. However, Christians should also consider emergence as a foe if and when it is presented as a naturalist alternative to theism, an alternative that better explains the origin of life, consciousness, and morality.

Emergence as a Foe

Emergent ideas can be, and have been, paired with various types of ontologies, including theism. Some of the early British Emergentists were theists, including the two key figures discussed above, C. D. Broad and Conway Lloyd Morgan. Broad maintained that emergence is consistent with theism and Morgan saw God as the “immaterial source of all.”[32]

More recently, some Christians have begun incorporating emergent ideas in their theology.[33] Emergence has also been paired with panentheism, the view that the physical universe is part of God but God is more than merely the physical universe, and panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades all of matter, even at the most microscopic level.[34] Responding to all these forms of emergence would take us well beyond the scope of this essay; my purpose here is simply to note the many types of ontologies that have been paired with the concept of emergence.

However, emergence has mostly been put forth as a naturalistic theory. In El-Hani and Pereira’s thorough definition of emergence, they explain four features which are usually associated this concept, the first being “Ontological Physicalism.”[35] Some of the early British emergentists were naturalists; Roy Wood Sellars, who helped draft the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, opposed any sort of religious interpretation of emergence.[36] More recently, Terrence Deacon adamantly maintained that emergence is strictly a physical explanation.[37]

Besides atheism, I also consider most forms of pantheism to be naturalists in the sense that pantheists believe the material universe is all that exists; it is just that they attribute some divine characteristics to the material universe as a whole. For example, Clayton described Samuel Alexander, another early British Emergentist, as

“a naturalist who believed that only the natural world exists; and yet he argued that, as the universe evolves, it gradually takes on the properties formerly associated with deity.”[38]

Alexander wrote that “as being the whole universe God is creative, but his distinctive character of deity is not creative but created.”[39] In other words, he thought divine attributes would be the ultimate result of the emergent process, not the orchestrator behind it.

For a more recent example of emergent pantheism, consider biophysicist Harold Morowitz; he proposed that what has historically been considered the transcendence of God should now be thought of as the pinnacle of nature’s accomplishment—human consciousness. Morowitz even used familiar Christian terms to explain what he claimed strong-emergence has accomplished naturally:

“The emergence of the societal mind resonates with the theologians’ concept of ‘the Son’ or ‘being made in God’s image.’ This argues that the human mind is God’s transcendence, and miracles are what humans can do to overcome ‘the selfish’ gene and other such ideas in favour of moral imperatives.”[40]

Up next: How Christians should respond!


[1] Robert M. Adams, “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in Rationality and Religious Belief (ed. C. F. Delaney; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 116–40. For an argument for God from morality and consciousness, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, (2d ed.; New York: Clarendon Press, 2004), 192-218.

[2] For this paper I will use Plantinga’s definition of naturalism: the “thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.” Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), ix. According to Stroud, the very charm of naturalism is that it rescues ethics from religion. Barry Stroud, “The Charm of Naturalism,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 70, no. 2 (1996): 43-55.

[3] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Scribner, 1994. Repr., New York: Scribner, 1995), 3.

[4] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2014), 108.

[5] Philip Clayton, “Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory,” in The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion (eds. Philip Clayton and Paul Davies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2–4.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Brian P. McLaughlin, “The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,” in Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (eds. Mark A. Bedau and Paul Humphreys; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 26.

[8] John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1858), 211.

[9] George Henry Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind (London: Trübner & Co., 1874).

[10] C. D Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (London: Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925).

[11] Conway Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution: The Gifford Lectures, Delivered in the University of St. Andrews in the Year 1922 (New York: Henry Holt, 1923), 203.

[12] Henri Bergson, L’évolution créatrice (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1907). It is worth noting that this work was heavily referenced in Morgan’s Emergent Evolution.

[13] McLaughlin, “The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism,” 23.

[14] Paul Davies, in The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion (eds. Philip Clayton and Paul Davies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), xi.

[15] Proponents of strong-emergence (also called ontological emergence) claim that emergent entities develop their own causal powers that can be exerted even upon the physical parts of which they are constituted (downward causation). Whereas proponents of weak-emergence (also called epistemological emergence) believe that all causes can ultimately be traced back to an entities micro-physical elements. For a detailed comparison of weak-emergence and strong-emergence, see M.. Silberstein and J. McGeever, “The Search for Ontological Emergence,” Philosophical Quarterly 49 (1999): 186.

[16] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 381–407.

[17] Roger Sperry, “Discussion: Macro- Versus Micro-Determinism,” Philosophy of Science 53 (1986): 269.

[18] Not all of the authors quoted in this section are necessarily emergentists, but I have included them in order to show that emergentism is part of a larger movement within naturalism that is critiquing reductive materialism.

[19] John R. Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7.

[20] Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.

[21] Kevin DeLapp, Moral Realism (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 4.

[22] Philip Clayton, “Emergence from Quantum Physics to Religion,” in The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion (eds. Philip Clayton and Paul Davies; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 310-311. For evidence to back up his claim, Clayton refers readers to, among others, Terrance Brown and Leslie Smith, eds., Reductionism and the Development of Knowledge (Mahwah, N.J: Psychology Press, 2002) and Stephen Rothman, Lessons from the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2001).

[23] David John Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 170.

[24] Searle, Mind, 34.

[25] Clayton and Davies, The Re-Emergence of Emergence, xii–xiii.

[26] Nagel, Mind & Cosmos, 12.

[27] Stuart A. Kauffman, Humanity in a Creative Universe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), xv.

[28] Dean Zimmerman, “Three Introductory Questions,” in Persons: Human and Divine (ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 9–10.

[29] Howard Robinson, Matter and Sense: A Critique of Contemporary Materialism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 2.

[30] Lawrence Cahoone, The Orders of Nature (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2014), 269.

[31] Ibid., 336.

[32] Morgan, Emergent Evolution, 298.

[33] William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999). Hasker argued for an emergent dualism, that mind should be conceived as an emergent individual. See also Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism: Philosophical Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (eds. Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). Murphy, a Christian materialist at Fuller Theological Seminary, argued for emergent mental properties.

[34] For an example of emergence paired with panentheism, see Arthur Peacocke, God and the New Biology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986). For an example of emergence paired with panpsychism, see Stuart A. Kauffman, Humanity in a Creative Universe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[35] Charbel Nino El-Hani and Antonio Marcos Pereira, “Higher-level Descriptions: Why should we preserve them?” in Downward Causation: Minds, Bodies and Matter (eds. Peter Bogh Andersen et al.; Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2001), Chapter 7.

[36] Roy Wood Sellars, Evolutionary Naturalism (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1922).

[37] Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).

[38] Clayton, “Emergence from Quantum Physics to Religion,” 319.

[39] Samuel Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity, vol. 2 (New York: Humanities Press, 1920), 397.

[40] Harold Morowitz, “Emergence of Transcendence,” in From Complexity to Life: On The Emergence of Life and Meaning (ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 185.

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About the Author

By Adam Lloyd Johnson

Adam Lloyd Johnson serves as a full time missionary with Ratio Christi. He also teaches philosophy at Rheinland Theological Seminary in Wölmersen, Germany. Adam is a PhD candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Having worked in the field of actuarial science for 10 years after college, he then served as a Pastor for 8 years. While in his twenties he went through a crisis of faith: are there good reasons and evidence to believe God exists and the Bible is from Him? His search for answers led him to apologetics and propelled him into ministry with a passion to defend the truth of Christianity. He desires to serve others by equipping Christians and reaching the lost for Christ. Adam has presented his work at the National Apologetics Conference, the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the International Society of Christian Apologetics, the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith, and the Evangelical Theological Society. His work has been published in the Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Philosophia Christi, the Westminster Theological Journal, and the Canadian Journal for Scholarship and the Christian Faith. Adam has spoken at numerous churches and conferences in America and around the world – L.A., Chicago, Charlotte, Boston, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. He is currently putting a book together with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig; Adam will serve as the Editor and author the first chapter.