When the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

It has reached the status of a colloquialism to claim that sometimes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Most Westerners today occasionally say or hear this phrase without giving it a second thought. But in fields such as metaphysics and the philosophy of science, the main idea that this phrase is suggesting is understood as tapping into a far deeper and more complex reality.

My aim in this post is simply to suggest to the reader that thought-leaders in the Church should look more closely into this idea. We should understand the serious claims that it is making about the real world in which we live, and consider what impact it could or should have for the life of the Church and for our understanding of the Christian faith.

The idea that often the whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts is known in academic parlance as emergence. (And no, this post has nothing to do with the “emergent” church.) I first encountered the concept of emergence roughly five years ago, when I was just starting out in graduate school studying sociology. Since that time, I have come to see its importance for properly understanding society and for doing sociological research.

One of my joys is to disseminate ideas, concepts, data, and theories from the world of peer-reviewed journals and university presses to the Church world. And I have noticed over the last few years that for all of the good work and reflection that has been done on emergence, it seems that no one in my church circles (at least) has heard of it—much less reflected upon it.

So in what follows I provide a brief introduction to emergence followed by a few examples of where it has been claimed to show up in the world. After that, I briefly lay out a few ways that I think emergence might help us to understand the Christian faith in more robust ways. As you will see, these suggestions are not fully worked out, let alone settled. It is all up for discussion at the end. To spark this, I have ended the essay with some questions and a short list of published works that readers can dig into.


Although one can find traces of the idea in the writings of Aristotle, the concept of emergence in its modern form dates back to the final quarter of the nineteenth century, mostly in debates in the fields of chemistry and biology. It was relegated to the margins of academia throughout the first half of the twentieth century by the growing dominance of positivism and empiricism. But attention to emergence was revitalized beginning in the 1960s by the works of Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, and Ernst Mayr, among others.

The main insight of emergence is that the interaction or combination of two or more things at one analytic level of reality brings forth a genuinely new thing at a higher analytic level. And this new, emergent, “higher-order” thing has characteristic properties and capacities that are dependent upon but not present in the “lower-level” components from which it arose. Or put more simply, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Immediately at this point, a few clarifications are needed. First, by “emergence,” I am not merely talking about an epistemological tool that analysts can use to make sense of the world. Emergence is neither a product of nor contained in our theories or analyses, but rather occurs out in the world. That is, if the concept of emergence is right, then the reality of emergence is an objective fact—happening whether or not we acknowledge it in our minds.

Furthermore, I am talking about ontological emergence in particular, and not just (or even necessarily) temporal development. The central point here, in other words, is not that some new thing is the result or outcome of a process—like a new house is the product of a weeks-long construction project. Instead, what matters is that some new thing has come into existence ontologically, even possibly at the exact same time as its constituent parts.

Ontological emergence only makes sense if one grants that reality is stratified into multiple interpenetrating layers or levels. Importantly, though, these are not spatial levels (literally higher and lower, above or below), but analytic levels. Examples include the subatomic, atomic, molecular, chemical, biological, personal, social, institutional, global, and cosmological levels. We already talk like this. And a person who affirms ontological emergence might argue that we talk like this, not because we have structured the various departments and research centers at our universities in a certain way. But rather, we have structured our departments this way because they map roughly onto the different analytic levels—connected via emergence—that we find wrapped up within each other in reality.

One last clarifying point before moving on: Ontological emergence is the counterpoint to reductionism. Reductionism is the tendency to account for and explain something by breaking it down into its component parts at a more basic lower analytic level. Emergence, in contrast, insists that things are usually best understood and explained by specifying the mechanisms, structures, and processes at work on the same analytic level at which the thing exists. The different levels of our stratified reality have characteristic dynamics not reducible to the levels “below” them.


Up to this point, what I have said has all been pretty abstract. Perhaps just a few actual examples of ontological emergence in the world will help to bring it all together in a more graspable way. To start with a simple example, some say that water molecules are ontologically emergent from the interactive combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and that this is evidenced by the fact that water has properties that neither hydrogen nor oxygen have. For instance, water can put out fires while hydrogen and oxygen inflame it.

To take another everyday example, one might even say that the laptop I am typing this on is ontologically emergent from the pieces of plastic, metal, and other materials of which it is composed. My computer certainly has properties and causal powers (i.e., the ability to do things) that one wouldn’t find if we just placed all its parts in a wheel barrel.

In more complex ways, emergence also is thought (by some, certainly not all) to play a role in our scientific and philosophical understandings. For example, in the fields of neuroscience and philosophy of mind, some argue that human consciousness and intentionality are emergent from the human brain. In sociology, some scholars say that social structures and institutions are real entities emergent from patterned human activity and interactions in the world. In philosophical anthropology, some thinkers argue that personhood is emergent from the particular capacities that humans normally have.


Having described emergence in some detail, where I want the conversation to go is what we as Christ followers are to make of this concept, and how it might contribute to our understandings of Christianity. Where might the concept of ontological emergence apply to theology, liturgy, ecclesiology, etc.? As I noted above, most Christians I know have never thought about this. I myself have only started considering it recently. Here are a few ways—off the top of my head—that ontological emergence might come into play.

The first place my mind goes is toward the issue of Christian community and the body of Christ. Certainly here the whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Persons in genuine Christian community are hopefully edified and stretched in their character and faith. And this is done in a way that cannot be understood simply by setting people in the same room. Some genuinely new dimension is added when persons join together in community.

Another possibility for where we might say emergence is happening is with the so-called “Great Tradition” of the Christian faith. To the extant that a two millennia long tradition is “its own thing” developed from the collective memory and experiences of Christians over time, one might suggest that this “Great Tradition,” however broadly or narrowly construed, is ontologically emergent in the sense that I have been outlining here.

Related to this, I think of the Catholic concepts of sensus fidei (the internal “sense of the faith” that individual Christians have) and sensus fidelium (the shared “sense of the faithful” that collectively testifies to the character and contours of the truth). Whatever one thinks of the specific doctrines that this teaching is meant to defend, to me it raises an interesting pair of categories—and it seems like we can understand them more fully by saying the latter (the shared testimony) is emergent from the former (individual sensing).

One also might move along these lines toward the questions of ecclesiology. The Church universal or maybe even the Kingdom of God itself could possibly be thought of as existing as a thing at a higher-order analytic level—all the while in a very meaningful sense wrapped up within the lower-level reality of local congregations and everyday life. In this case, the Church itself would be the emergent outcome (at the global level) of the combinations and interactions of bodies of Christians at the social or community level.

These are just a few preliminary ideas. No doubt we could come up with several more. One might consider the nature and meaning of the Eucharist (depending on what is believed about transubstantiation and consubstantiation). Or how competing theories of the atonement connect to the larger reality of the person and work of Jesus. The fact that emergence says that much of our lived reality is inescapably relationally constituted may lead one to think about other things that are relationally constituted, like the Trinity.


(1) Do you find the concept of ontological emergence compelling—and specifically, the idea that it really happens objectively out in the world? Why or why not?

(2) How might grasping and applying ontological emergence as an analytic tool help us to understand better Christianity and the Christian life?

(3) Which concepts, disputes, or areas of Christian thought might be brought more clearly into light by recasting it within a strongly emergentist ontology?

(4) How does ontological emergence (the concept of which is necessarily post-positivist and post-empiricist) relate to postmodernist thought? Is it pre-modern?


Bedau, Mark A., and Paul Humphreys (eds.). 2008. Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Clayton, Philip, and Paul Davies (eds.). 2006. The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. 2000. “The Concept of Emergence in Social Science: Its History and Importance.” Emergence 2(4): 65-77.

Polanyi, Michael. [1966] 2009. “Emergence,” pp. 27-52 in The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sawyer, R. Keith. 2002. “Durkheim’s Dilemma: Toward a Sociology of Emergence.” Sociological Theory 20(2): 227-247.

  • http://www.brynelewis.com Bryne Lewis

    Bradley, great article! One of the things that I think religion does well, at least theoretically, is walk people toward effective crisis of agency (What is this for?). However, the thing that religion does badly is that it then over-stewards people through that crisis. I think of the Church as being a little like Job’s friends who should have held their silence in sympathy instead of trying to realign his experience to what they believed to be doctrinally correct. Given that the sum is not just “greater,” but in fact “other” than, do you think this same unwillingness to let go at crucial moments is in part why the idea of emergence is not more widely (or comfortably) applied in the Church?

  • John Keister

    Interesting article but a bit complex for this reader; while I have no doubt that an entirely new quality can sometimes “emerge” from the union of two or more seperate parts into a single whole; I believe you are missing the most basic and common truth of a simple increase in mass i;e;{ synergy} that occurs.