Submergent Properties

14 May 2010


An Exercise in Theoretical Parallelism

If I have any careful readers they will know by now that I have a penchant for theoretical parallelism, i.e., formulations of a prospective theory based upon and parallel to an existing theory employed as a point of departure. My recent writings on integral history and on philosophy as a kind of integral science are in the same spirit, although in a more subtle way. By employing parallel formulations we are extending the scope of an initial theory beyond its intended scope of validity and thereby employing the theory in an extended sense (essentially, an anti-Kantian project). In so far as I called integral history history in an extended sense and philosophy science in an extended sense, these are also parallel formulations. So today I will briefly explore another parallel formulation.

A few days ago in Negative Organicisms I suggested the possibility of organic wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, as distinct from the familiar idea of organic wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. This seems to me to be a largely unobserved ontological phenomenon. We can develop the idea of negative organicism a little more systematically by appealing to a negative instantiation of what are called emergent properties, and which I will here call submergent properties.

Emergent properties are properties that emerge from complex systems as a result of the unforeseen interaction of the component parts of that system, and which properties did not subsist in the components taken individually. Examples of emergent properties include the social structures that emerge from groups of living organic beings when assembled in sufficiently large numbers. Nothing in the constitution of the individual taken as individual would allow us to project or predict the emergence of complex social codes or hierarchies such as have consistently appeared in history.

In parallel with emergent properties, we can define submergent properties as properties that do subsist in the individuals that are components of a system (or a whole) but which are lost or disappear or are submerged when these individuals are assembled together into a systematic relation or a whole. We see then that submergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes exemplify negative organicism, just as emergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts are able to exceed the sum of their parts. Both are examples of ontological mechanisms such as I recently discussed in A Short Note on Scientific Thought.

The most obvious example of a submergent property that occurs to me as I write this is the loss of individuality that members of a crowd or a mob experience. I have written about what at the beginning of the First World War was called the “August Madness” when crowds came out onto the streets of European cities to “celebrate” the outbreak of the war (and I wrote about this again in The August Madness). People who have experienced being part of such mass movements often speak of their feelings of being part of something greater than themselves, and while they do not often speak of it, I suspect that this feeling of community, at least to a certain degree, supplants the feeling of individuality. The loss of individuality would in turn account for the negative organicism of human compassion, such that we often observe that crowds are brutal, stupid, and violent and rather less caring and benevolent than individuals taken individually. It is no surprise that revolutionary violence emerges from a mob.

This is not the pure ontological example that I would like to produce as an example of submergent properties, but I think that it is one that many people can poignantly recognize in themselves if they will honestly search their memories. A generalization of this experience of the loss of individuality might lead us to an adequate definition of mass man, which in turn might make possible an adequate definition of the mass society that has emerged from the world transformed by industrialization. At these greater levels of generality — abstract from the individual, in a certain sense — we might approach more purely ontological instances of submergent properties, but I will leave discussion of such instances for future posts when such examples happen to occur to me.

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One Response to “Submergent Properties”

  1. Pablo Segundo García said

    I do not think it wise to use humans or other living organisms to explain emergence.

    One might not detect certain social characteristics of people, such as hierarchies, by looking at humans isolated. But those properties are inside the individual and will spark when needed or nurtured.

    Evolutionary biological thinking would bring to your attention that the living organism you see in social action has already faced that social action and is now “made” for that social action. Evolutionary organisms are a reflection of the past they have lived.

    So in order to find emergence in living beings you would have to be sure that that specific emergent property is not addressed in the individual. Either because letting the emergent property on its own is good enough a solution for the being, or because it does not care about what the property does.

    For ontological thinking I would stick to physical, non-biological, phenomena.

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