Stephen C. Pepper
Univeristy of California
Journal of Philosophy 23 (1926): 241-245.

Emergence signifies a kind change. There seem to be three important kinds of change considered possible in modern metaphysical discussion. First, there is chance occurrence, the assertion of a cosmic irregularity, an occurrence about which no law could be stated. Second. there is what we map call a "shift," a change in which one characteristic replaces another, the sort of change traditionally described as invariable succession and when more refined described as a functional relation. Thirdly, there is emergence, which is a cumulative change, a change in which certain characteristics supervene upon other characteristics, these characteristics being adequate to explain the occurrence on their level. The important points here are first, that in discussing emergence we are not discussing the possibility of cosmic chance. The emergent evolutionists admit a thorough-going regularity in nature. And secondly, we are not discussing the legitimacy of shifts. These also are admitted. The issue is whether in addition to shifts there are emergent changes.

The theory of emergence involves three propositions:
  1. that there are levels of existence defined in terms of degrees of integration;
  2. that there are marks which distinguish these levels from one another over and above the degrees of integration;
  3. that it is impossible to deduce the marks of a higher level from those of a lower level, and perhaps also (though this is not clear) impossible to deduce marks of a lower level from those of a higher.
The first proposition, that there are degrees of integration in nature, is not controversial. The specific issue arises from the second and third propositions. The second states that there is cumulative change, the third that such change is not predictable.

What I wish to show is that each of these propositions is subject to a dilemma:
  1. either the alleged emergent change is not cumulative or it is epiphenomenal;
  2. either the alleged emergent change is predictable like any physical change, or it is epiphenomenal.
I assume that a theory of wholesale epiphenomenalism is metaphysically unsatisfactory. I feel the more justified in making this assumption because I have been led to understand that the theory of emergent evolution has been largely developed as a corrective of mechanistic theories with their attendant psycho-physical dualisms and epiphenomenalisms.

Let us now exhibit the first dilemma. There seem to be two theories as to the nature of the marks which emerge and distinguish levels of integration. One theory states that these are qualities like sensory qualities, metaphysical simples. Alexander's system contains a theory of emergent qualities. The term "quality" is ambiguous and frequently made to cover both qualities like Alexander's and laws of activity. Bearing this ambiguity in mind, one will find that most emergent evolutionists have theories of emergent laws -- emergent laws being the other sort of marks thought of as emerging.

Now, a theory of emergent qualities is palpably a theory of epiphenomena. It is not so obvious that a theory of emergent laws must also be such -- or else cease to be a theory of emergence.

Accurately speaking, we must first observe, laws can not emerge. Emergence is supposed to be a cosmic affair and laws are descriptions. What emerge are not laws, but what the laws describe. This distinction is important, for I maintain that the same natural regularities can be described by a whole hierarchy of different laws and that this ladder of laws has been mistaken by the emergent evolutionists for a ladder of cosmic regularities. But I do not care to develop this matter here.

What I wish to show is that all natural regularities are shifts and can not be otherwise described. Let us suppose a shift at level B is described as a function of four variables q, r, s, and t. Let us then suppose that r and s constitute an integration giving rise to level C at which level a new cosmic regularity emerges that can be described as a function of four variables r, s, a, and b. r and s must necessarily be variables in this emergent law even though they arc variables of level B, because they constitute part of the conditions umler which the emergent law is possible. Theoretically, to be sure, the emergent law may be thought of either as a function of new variables or as a new function of C-level variables. But actually only the former is possible. For if the new law were not f1 (q, r, s, t), but were f2 (q, r, s, t), then, of course, it would never be f1 (q, r, s, t), unless the event were a chance occurrence in which case no regularity could be described anyway. The point is, either f1 adequately describes the interrelationships of (q, r, s, t) or f2 does; or if neither adequately describes the interrelationships there is some f3 that does, but there can not be two adequate descriptions of the same intcrrelationships among the same variables.

An emergent law must, therefore, involve the emergence of new variables. But these new variables either have some functional relationship with the rest of the lower level variables or they haven't. If they haven't, they are sheer epiphenomena, and the view resolves itself into a theory of qualitative emergenee. If they have, they have to to be included among the total set of variables described by the lower level functional relation; they have to drop down and take their place among the lower level variables as elements in a lower level shift.

Such being the case, our dilemma is established so far as concerns cumulative change -- either there is no such thing or it is epiphenomenal. Now for predictability.

The assumption in theories of emergence is that mechanical changes, single level changes (call them shifts) are predictable, but that emergent changes are not. Now, it must be pointed out at once that in an ultimate sense, no changes of any kind are predictable. One event can never be deduced from another event. Even the first law of motion is not self-evident. From the state of rest or motion of an unmolested body at one moment, you can not deduce the state of rest or motion of that body at the next moment. And what will be the states of two bodies that do molest each other is equally not deducible from their states previous to molestation. Deduction from the states of bodies under certain conditions to their states under other conditions is possible only through the mediation of a descriptive law summarizing a set of shifts in which these bodies and their conditions are variables. It follows that events and qualities occurring on the same level are no more deducible from one another than if they occur on different levels. Cosmic events don't deduce or predict one another; they occur. It is only we who describe them by laws, who also make predictions concerning them by means of our laws. Cosmically speaking, nothing is deducible, and hypothetical emergent qualities or events would be no more peculiar in this respect than the qualities and events that occur on the bed rock level.

It is only humanly speaking that anything is deducible. And what are strictly deducible are neither qualities nor events, but laws. There is a loose sense in which qualities and events are predictable. Thus by a process of interpolation we can and have predicted the properties of missing elements in the periodic table. And by a process of analogy we predict the states of consciousness of other people and of animals. But such loose predictions are not the sort meant by emergent evolutionists. For obviously emergent events and qualities could be predicted in this manner if there were any occasion to predict them. Just such a prediction Alexander makes about God. What the emergent evolutionists mean is that an emergent law could not be deduced from lower level laws as a mathematieal theorem can be deduced from other theorems. The condition under which such deduction is strictly possible is that by substitution of one sort or another, one law may be derived from another law or set of laws. It is a natura ideal of science to derive all laws from a certain limited number of primitive laws or principles -- not necessarily from one single law -- and so to convert science into a mathematics. If it could be assumed that there are no chance occurrences such a system of laws should be obtainable, though it might look very different from the traditional mechanics. The assumption of science appears to be that such a system is obtainable. I do not know what else the dissatisfaction of science with inconsistencies could mean.

Now, there seems to be no intention on the part of emergent evolutionists to deny that such a system is possible or to assert that there are chance occurrences. If that is so, they seem to be faced with the following dilemma: either the emergent laws they are arguing for are ineffectual and epiphenomenal, or they are effectual and capable of being absorbed into the physical system. But apparently they want their laws to be both effectual and at the same time not part of the physical system. Professor Lovejoy, for instance, contrasts laws of behavior with physico-chemical laws. The laws of behavior imply that "some movements of certain complexes of protons and electrons are, in part, functions of other movements which are to occur afterwards. And this determination of some character of a present motion by some character of a yet unrealized future is a conception obviously foreign to the laws of physics and chemistry . . . and it is, in fact, incongruous with the most fundamental methodological assumptions of those sciences."1 But at the same time he affirms that there is an "assumption that intelligence is capable of being a factor in the control of human actions and thereby of man's physical environment. . . . If that postulate, at least, be not true, universities are absurdities and laboratories are costly monuments of delusion" (p. 208). Now clearly, if these laws of behavior are going to step down out of an epiphenomenal heaven and "be a factor in the control . . . of man's physical environment" they are bound soon to get into conflict with physico-chemical laws as now described. I am here, of course, not interested in whether the present movements of electrons and protons are functions of future electrons or prtons, or not. But if they are, that important relation would have to be stated among the primitive laws of the physical system or would have to be deducible from some of these laws. That is to say, if the laws of behavior enter into the physical system at any point they must constitute either primitive laws in that system or be deducible from the primitive laws. There is no other way out of it. These supposed emergent laws are either epiphenomena or physical laws. For if they represent irreconcilable inconsistencies in the physical system, they are not laws at all, but statements of chance occurrences.

So, regarding the characteristics of unpredictability, the situation is the same as regarding the emergent marks; it is a possible charactcristic, but only as an epiphenomenal one.


1 Essays in Metaphysics; Univ. of Cal. Publications, V. 5, pp. 208-209.

Commentary: Wilfrid Sellars and Paul Meehl, "The Concept of Emergence," in Minnesota Studies in The Philosophy of Science, Vol. I: The Foundations of Science and the Concepts of Psychology and Psychoanalysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Michael Scriven (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956): 239-52.