Religion / Science

What and why are “we”? And what does it mean that we care?

“The … book [The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion] arose out of papers delivered at a multi-disciplinary conference on the topic held in Spain in 2002. The book offers an excellent introduction to the diverse perspectives on this subject. The 13 authors represent the specialist fields of quantum physics, astrophysics, philosophy, anthropology, astrobiology, psychology, biology, and theology.

So, what is emergence? It depends who you ask. Broadly, it’s the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, the carbon atoms in diamond and in graphite (lead pencils) are identical. Both materials have identical building blocks. But graphite is black and soft, while diamond is hard and transparent. Properties such as colour and hardness cannot be ascribed to individual atoms. Rather, these properties are ‘emergent’; they are properties of collections of atoms. Consciousness is often given as the ultimate example of an emergent phenomenon.

What, then, is the ‘emergentist hypothesis’? It is a form of strong emergence which first arose in philosophy and is sometimes equated with vitalism. It claims that there are emergent phenomena such as consciousness which cannot be reduced to nor understood in terms of lower level phenomena. Hence, mind and brain are two distinct entities. In his excellent introduction to this volume, Philip Clayton describes four key features of this emergentist hypothesis: ontological physicalism, property emergence, the irreducibility of emergence, and downward causation.

Weak emergence, on the other hand, is a much milder position. Many scientists (especially in biology, chemistry, and condensed matter physics) would support this position. Essentially, they acknowledge that collective systems have emergent properties that cannot be reduced purely to properties of lower leves. Furthermore, although the principles (e.g., symmetry breaking) which describe these emergent phenomena can be deduced from theories describing the constituents, these principles are in practice virtually impossible to deduce or predict from the lower level theories. Hence, scientific progress is made from the top down. For example, progress in theoretical chemistry is made by formulating emergent principles and concepts (such as aromaticity and electronegativity) from chemical experiments and then seeing how such principles might follow from the laws of quantum physics.”

Rene Girard has argued that we became differentiated from the animals when the concept of mimetic violence as a way of maintaining relationships. It’s not directly related this discussion of emergence of consciousness, but it seems to me to be an attempt to answer the same question.

Read the rest here: Philip Clayton and Paul Davies: the re-emergence of emergence

(Via Faith and Theology.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...