Differences Between the Great Chain of Being and Emergentism

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Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"“More is different,” a common refrain in emergence theory, means that more complexity in a system causes the qualities of its higher-level wholes to differ markedly (and often unpredictably) from those of its lower-level parts. The universe, it turns out, has different levels, and these different levels have their own laws.

The tiered, hierarchical nature of reality thus becomes an important aspect of emergence theory.

Alexander, writing in his 1920 book Space, Time, and Deity, writes:

- The emergence of a new quality from any level of existence means that at that level there comes into being a certain constellation or collocation of the motions belonging to that level, and this collocation possesses a new quality distinctive of the higher-complex. …The higher-quality emerges from the lower level of existence and has its roots therein, but it emerges therefrom, and it does not belong to that lower level, but constitutes its possessor a new order of existent with its special laws of behavior.

These “levels” emerge when more and more of reality is taken up and included together in deepening webs of relationship. That is how the universe complexifies through cosmic evolution. So Morgan stated in 1922, later published in his work Emergent Evolution, that just what emerges is precisely “some new kind of relation…at each ascending step.”

Such a theory of new orders of reality implies, says Morgan:

- (1) that there is increasing complexity in integral systems as new kinds of relatedness are successively super-venient;

- (2) that reality is, in this sense, in process of development;

- (3) that there is an ascending scale of what we may speak of as richness in reality; and

- (4) that the richest reality we know lies at the apex of the pyramid of emergent evolution up to date.

Perhaps this cosmic “pyramid” of “levels” and “ascending scales” is starting to sound a bit familiar? Despite taking a mortal blow from modern reductionism, was something like the “Great Chain of Being” (the metaphysical framework for holistic traditional religion) coming into focus in the Emergentist view of the world?

Despite similarities, there are also certainly crucial differences between these visions of a tiered cosmos. For one, the hierarchy of the early Emergentists was not value-based (evil to good), but complexity-based (simple to complex [“richness in reality”]). More importantly, there was no dualism here; the Emergentist hierarchy, though parting with reductionism, still allowed one to “keep the view that there is only one fundamental kind of stuff” as C. D. Broad put it in his 1925 book, The Mind and Its Place in Nature. This means that all scales remained natural, not supernatural—which leads to a fascinating implication: the “apex of the pyramid” here is not a supernatural Deity, but a natural (if emergent) “God.” So Alexander remarks in Space, Time, and Deity:

As actual, God does not possess the quality of deity but is the universe as tending to that quality… Thus there is no actual infinite being with the quality of deity; but there is an actual infinite, the whole universe, with a nisus [i.e., goal] toward deity… Deity is nisus and not an accomplishment."