Digital Emergence

Authored by: Susan Stepney

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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Aristotle (1924) has one of the earliest descriptions of what we now call emergent systems:

things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something beside the parts.

This is now commonly phrased as the whole is more than the sum of its parts, yet this formulation misses the essence of the original (or, at least, its translation): “something beside the parts”. That is, the whole is qualitatively different from its parts, rather than having a mere quantitative difference. The whole is other than the sum of its parts. Anderson (1972) pithily captures this essence in the title of his solid-state physics paper “More Is Different”. He goes on to say:

the behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each new level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.

(p. 393)
The whole is not a “mere heap”, because its parts have organisation, relationships, form patterns and exist in a context. For a more detailed discussion, see Stepney et al. (2006).

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