The Myth Of Emergence: Magic Masquerading as Science

As strange as this may sound, many if not most scientists seem to believe in one form of magic. This form of magic is also believed by most mainstream “skeptics” and all atheists. This magical thinking is probably traceable to the magical thinking introduced to all of us in the form of certain religious teachings. The magical thinking involves a very primitive understanding of the concept of emergence.

The term emergence refers to properties or traits of a system that are not traits of the things the system is made of. For example, a block of iron has the property of hardness whereas the iron atoms do not have a hardness property. When enough iron atoms come together and are heated then cooled they form a mass with a hardness property. Under these conditions the new property of hardness has magically arisen out of nowhere. The overriding problem is that most people do not perceive this effect for what it is, an illusion. The hardness property does not exist at the level of the atom. There you see only the property of atoms sticking closely together. Because of our perceptual limitation that we can’t see individual atoms, we instead experience an illusion. This is what emergence is, an illusion. It refers to something but not what at first appears.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[1]
-Arthur C. Clarke

Whenever we understand a system well enough, we see that its emergent properties are illusory. There is no colour, only photons of particular wavelengths that our brains interpret as colour. There is no sound only a certain range of vibrations that our brain interprets as sound. There is no smell only molecules that exude off of things which are collected by receptors in our nose to be interpreted by our brain as odor.

Yet when many people don’t understand systems enough, any emergent properties tend to be seen as having truly arisen out of nowhere. The most obvious examples are mental states. A human being has mental states like awareness, thought and feeling. Humans however are complex collections of atoms and other particles. Human mental states then must be explainable in terms of atomic properties. Or in other words, human mental states must be based on atomic properties. But how can a fundamental unique property like thought be based on something with no mental capacities?

To simplify things I would argue that thought, awareness and consciousness are one and the same thing. Thought is the awareness of ideas and the processing of information. Awareness is recognizing that something is there. In other words, awareness is processing information. Consciousness is being aware of your self as a system. In other words, consciousness is awareness of ideas or concepts and processing information. So really, all three terms refer to thought.

A human being is made only of particles like atoms and photons. These particles in turn are ultimately composed of packets or simple systems of energy. The interactions of these packets of energy in a sufficiently complex system result in human-level thought. If the mind is the brain, the mind is energy. Energy is thought. Energy must have some kind of simple thought. When simple energy systems interact together in complex ways, complex thought emerges. There is no way around this obvious fact except though the manic application of sophistry. This is just what the magical thinker does. Instead of thinking of where the emergent property comes from he simply assumes the property magically arises from nothing.

Where does this tendency towards magical thinking come from? One obvious source is religion. All religions involve a creation story that involves a divine being, the creator, creating the world out of nothing. This magical something from nothing idea also permeates the lay understanding of physics. It is disturbing how many people believe that the Big Bang involved the entire Universe arising out of nothing. Writers like Lawrence M. Krauss with his deceptively titled book “A Universe from Nothing” do little to help dispel this delusion.

By exorcising magical thinking from science we can enter an new era of rationality. By finally recognizing the undeniable conclusion that the building blocks of matter have simple mental states, we prove pantheism. When pantheism is recognized as an undeniable reality, atheism in turn is proven false. Pantheism then becomes a core spiritual outlook entirely compatible with science. Pantheism also can act as a core to all religions with their extra purely faith-based notions bolted on. Instead of the current divisional state of theism vs atheism we have a common uniting ground between science and religion. Similarly, all religions have a common uniting core instead of the overwhelming destructive divisions that have caused such untold misery though the ages. When even scientists and mainstream skeptics finally realize magical thinking is wrong, this in turn could influence religious people to draw close to the world of science. By finally recognizing emergence for what it really is, an illusion, we can achieve a new world order based on respect and cooperation instead of the current one of division and derision.


1. “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962, rev. 1973), pp. 14, 21, 36.

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