A few months ago, I began reading a book by the sociologist Christian Smith called What Is a Person? ”concerning which, though it is very interesting, I have nothing of consequence to report just at the moment. I mention it here only because its early chapters reminded me of a topic upon which I have intended to write for some time. Among the most crucial supports for Smiths central argument, you see, is an extremely strong concept of natural emergence: that is, the seemingly simple idea that in nature there are composite realities whose peculiar properties and capacities emerge from the interaction of their elements, even though those properties and capacities do not reside as such in those elements themselves.
An emergent whole, in other words, is more than”or at any rate different from”the sum of its parts; it is not simply the consequence of an accumulation of discrete powers added together extrinsically, but the effect of a specific ordering of relations among those powers that produces something entirely new within nature.