[TL;DR at the bottom]
Emergence is the mechanism that makes gods real.
Emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them.
Essentially: A thing which has properties its own parts don’t have.
I’ll outline some examples then explain why this phenomena is important to Terranism.
Made up of many simple pieces, water is one of the most important chemicals on our planet. As most know, water is made up of molecules which are themselves made up of three atoms, one oxygen atom and two hydrogen. The H2O molecule has a few properties (themselves emergent) which are important to know. H2O is polar; meaning it acts like a magnet. There is a positive end to H2O and a negative end. H2O’s polar nature is simple; the negative end of the molecule will be attracted to positive charges, and the positive end to negative charges.
While the implications for a single H2O molecule are obvious, putting many H2O together makes things more interesting. When we find many H2O molecules in one place, we call what we find water. Ignoring the chronology of scientific discovery, why do we call it water instead of “many H2O molecules”? The reason is that water has new properties that a single H2O molecule does not have.
When a bunch of water molecules are bumping up against each other, they are always interacting with each other’s polar nature. Some water molecules will even lock into place for a little while, forming what’s called a hydrogen bond. On a grand scale, all these little polar reactions give water the ability to defy gravity, form a solid less dense than its fluid, have a strong surface tension, cause wetness, and be the universal solvent. To see some of these abilities in action, just dip some toilet paper into a bowl of water. You’ll see the surface tension immediately because the paper won’t just move straight down into the water, it’ll come to rest on the surface. You’ll also see the water defy gravity as it begins to climb its way up the paper. You’ll also find that if you put a sugar cube in the water, it’ll slowly dissolve away, and faster if you stir the bowl. This is because the polar water molecules are plucking away at the structure of the sugar, making it dissolve.
What is crucial to understand is that H2O cannot do any of these things. An H2O molecule will just stick to the side of a sugar cube without dissolving it, or toilet paper without climbing it. Water has different properties than the H2O that makes it up. Putting lots of H2O together doesn’t just give you more/bigger H2O, it gives you something new. More is different.
A common example of emergence is the ant colony. The ant colony can be regarded as an organism unto itself, with the capacity to sense the world around it and solve problems with the goal of self-preservation. There is evidence that the colony can make decisions about where to explore or to figure out the shortest distance between two points. No individual ant possesses the powers needed to orchestrate the whole colony, not even the queen. What they do have are pheromones and the ability to learn about the colony and its surroundings based on them.
When an ant goes exploring into the world it will use pheromones to communicate with other members of the colony and itself. For themselves, these pheromones give the ant a trail to help them navigate back home. But for the colony, these pheromones act as a memory for all the ants that come after. One trail is not confined to one pheromone, allowing for a wide variety of messages to be left. An ant will commonly leave trails that designate a large cache of resources rather than something they can pick up themselves, meaning that the colony will know the difference between picking up something small and digging into something big. They will leave a trail marking the paths they chose, which will act as the colony’s memory of where it has already looked. A burst of pheromones can be used as a broad-spectrum signal, which functions as the colony’s senses. It is these messages moving between the ants that keep the colony cohesive as a whole and allows it to emerge.
An individual ant, even if they used all their pheromones correctly, would be incapable of thinking the way its colony thinks. Divorced from its fellows, a single ant wanders aimlessly, unable to understand where it is or what it needs to do. An ant cannot survive without its colony, and a colony vanishes without its ants.
Role in the Universe
These two examples are fairly simple and easy to understand, but they are far from the only examples. In fact, everything is emergent to some degree; it is a foundational component of our universe. When molecules make proteins, the proteins have emerged. But in the same way, molecules are themselves emergent of the atoms that make them up. They are not just bigger atoms or many atoms jammed together, they are now molecules; units with functions that an individual atom does not have. Societies are emergent of people. Bodies are emergent of organs. Houses are emergent of their materials. Suns are emergent of their gasses. Planets are emergent of their rocks. No matter how big or small you go, you will find emergence.
The crucial principle of emergence is that there must be a mechanism between the fundamental units. When birds flock overhead in a tight cloud that swirls as if it is of one mind, it occurs because of instincts that reside within every bird. These instincts include staying a particular distance away from their neighboring birds and avoiding predators. What is crucial to understand is that with one individual, these instincts would not matter. The presence of even two birds will activate the instincts, keeping them at a certain distance from each other and avoiding predators. The instincts are a mechanism that only occurs in the relationship between the birds. These relationships cause a network to appear, visible as an emergent entity; the flock. In the same way, hydrogen bonding acts as the mechanism between H2O molecules, and the instincts of pheromones act as the mechanism between ants. Mechanisms between units are the difference between an iteration of the units and their emergence.
If there are diverse mechanisms, the emergence becomes flexible and hearty. Even the relatively simple mechanism of a hydrogen bond allows H2O to take two primary forms; water and ice. Add mechanisms and the emergent entity becomes more versatile. The best example of this is humanity itself. The mechanisms that humans can exercise between each other are so varied that it allows for a plethora of emergent entities. The state is a prime example. Not only do humans emerge into new entities called states and nations, there is incredible variety in how the they manifest. Will they contain a few hundred members or billions? Will they censor the interactions between people or platform them? Will they create hierarchies or clusters? Will they value the abstract or the concrete? The emergent possibilities are endless primarily because the mechanisms are diverse.
In sum, emergence describes phenomena that are more complex than their parts and is contingent upon mechanisms between the parts.
Role in Terranism
Emergence is core to a lot of syntheistic beliefs. I will not definitively say all syntheists rely on emergence, but you can rest assured it is important for many. The reason is that emergence provides an explanation for why gods are (or will be) important. Put simply, gods are emergent of people. Whether the syntheist believes a god will emerge from the internet or has already emerged from the people who believe in them, emergence is foundational. The concept acknowledges the power a god can wield, while also grounding belief in a naturalistic (no supernatural), monist universe (the universe is all the same thing; namely physics in our case). Emergence is the bedrock for how humans create gods.
Terranism recognizes that gods are emergent of the people, myths, and ritual that make them up. To believe that a god is emergent is to recognize that it has power and abilities which its faithful do not have individually. Gathering believers together does not just make a larger group of believers, it makes something new. The believers begin to act, organize, and think together according to the mechanisms laid out in their doctrine. Each believer becomes a part of something greater than themselves. This is the essential syntheist component of Terranic thinking; Gods are emergent of the people who make them up.
As for Terranism, it extends the logic of emergence towards the planet. Terranism characterizes the planet as an emergent god called Terra. This is not a philosophical or scientific assertion, though the logic is inspired by scientific principles. If the planet is eventually viewed as a living entity by academics, Terrans will be thrilled, but this is not the goal of Terranic doctrine. Terra is a theological entity and will always remain as such. To Terranism, this is the god of core relevance. Terranism is not jealous of its god, it is willing to share it with others and it is willing to accept other gods into its pantheon. Terra’s emergence is the only necessary god belief within Terranism, other gods are freely accepted or denied by Terrans. Terra is not a personal god, so a Terran may adopt or invent personal gods according to their needs. Nor does Terranism assert that Terra is the only god of its caliber, personal or otherwise. After all, if the god has a following, it has power that a Terran is free to partake of. All that Terranism asserts is that the planet is emergent, a living entity unto itself that is likely unconscious. The future may hold a conscious Terra; perhaps sparked by the futuristic realization of a “singularity” caused by the internet or some other mechanism. However fun to think about, it is not relevant at the current time. As far as Terranism is concerned, the planet is emergent as a god, and we call it Terra.
TL;DR – Emergence describes the phenomena of a whole having novel properties from the parts that make it up. Terranism asserts that planet earth emerges into a god we call Terra and worship as core of any Terranic pantheon.
Reinventing the Sacred – Kauffman