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Emergence ch1: The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism

in project: emergence-advent

Brian McLaughlin - The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism (1992)

The first and longest of the papers published in Emergence, McLaughlin's Rise and Fall puts the collection in context by providing an overview of the first major, sustained philosophical discussion of emergence: between a series of British thinkers, from JS Mill's System of Logic (1843) to the scientific advances of the 1920s onwards.

First, as the opening of this series, an overview of what's at stake. "Emergence" is the phenomenon of macro-level properties or behaviours that are a product of an aggregate of micro-level parts. Popular examples include nature's synchronised swarming behaviours, physical phase transitions (say, from solid to liquid) at a critical temperature, consciousness and thought, the phenomenological experience of colour, etc. The Stanford Encyclopaedia provides a potted overview.

Emergentism is a strong philosophical brand of belief in emergence, which states that there are emergent phenomenon which can in no way, ontologically or epistemologically, be fully explained from their lower-level constituents. Working from the assumptions that:

  • everything can be reduced to matter, with some underlying level of elementary particles; and
  • there is a hierarchy of levels above this; from bottom up: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology… (cf xkcd)

..the British Emergentists claim that, though the matter of a level B may be comprised of the same stuff as its underlying A, it may be able to exhibit special "configurational forces" which cannot be explained or deduced from the forces of A. The motivation for such thinking was the current interest in chemical reactions, and the unexplainability of (say) the dissolution of salt in water from elementary particles.

Unfortunately, as McLaughlin observes, although this form of emergence may be logically coherent, it only remains empirically viable so long as we have no scientific way of understanding how such laws can emerge without resorting to some mystical forces; this is a God of the Gaps scenario. McLaughlin refers repeatedly to the "natural piety" that Alexander recommends we adopt for such faith-reliant situations. And, as Schrödinger and Einstein's leaps in quantum mechanics provided explanations of chemical bonding which did, indeed, bridge between levels, the a posteriori basis of British Emergentism collapsed.

The punchline of the chapter is that, today, we must accept with "natural piety" the difficult fact that high-level concepts such as production do indeed supervene on the same minimal set of forces as electromagnetic bonds.