is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month
from 7.30 to 9.30pm
in the The Bull
in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics
. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line
? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!
Emergence and Complexity
It may be confidently claimed that science and technology has made a more important contribution to the way we live our lives than any other discipline.
In effect, most physical and biological processes are explained in terms of the interactions of electrons, atoms and molecules, although some features require the addition of nuclear processes.
In philosophical terms, the success of science rests firmly on the basis of 'reductionism', ie, the behaviour of a system is explained in terms of what happens at a smaller scale. In this case, fundamental interactions define the essential characteristics on a 'microscopic' scale and consequently determine the behaviour that we are able to observe in 'our' world. However, we are now more aware of the complexity of natural phenomena that are not easily seen as an automatic result of the basic properties.
How do physical characteristics lead to 'life'? What properties are required to construct a brain? How does consciousness arise? It seems that something else is needed to explain the hierarchical nature of our perceived worldview.
These ideas have led to a focus on the concepts of complexity and cooperativity in the natural world, both of which are fundamentally linked to the process of development where new features that seem to be unrelated to the basic properties can and do occur.
The relatively new topic of emergence is attracting much interest from both scientists and mathematicians. The discussion will examine what is meant by emergence and emergent properties and how they can arise in physical systems (you do not need to be a scientist to understand this part!). Several examples will be presented and the philosophical consequences of this approach will be considered for a range of scientific disciplines—it is a relatively new and exciting topic that may change our perceptions of the world and lead to uncertain outcomes!
Stuff to read and watch
- Emergent Properties (1 min video)
- If you read/watch nothing else—watch this. Short and sweet introduction.
- David Chalmers on Emergence (8 min video)
- David Chalmers is a leading thinker in contemporary philosophy of mind. He is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Consciousness at Australian National University.
- Complexity (In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 (43 min audio)
- Emergence is related to Complexity in that complexity is a necessary condition for emergent proprties. It is mentioned towards the end of this programme.
- Emergence—A short description
- Emergence refers to the existence or formation of collective behaviours — what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone. The perspective that considers emergence is often contrasted with a reductionist perspective, which thinks about parts in isolation. Reductionism is the often vilified "anti-complex systems" view of the world.
- 'Emergence: From Chaos to Order' by John Holland (Book)
- Consider one particular copper atom at the tip of the nose of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill that stands in Parliament Square in London. Let me try to explain why that copper atom is there. It is because Churchill served as Prime Minister in the House of Commons nearby; and because his ideas and leadership contributed to the Allied victory in the Second World War; and because it is customary to honour such people by putting up statues of them; and because bronze is the traditional material for such statues, and so on. Thus we explain a low-level physical observation---the presence of a copper atom at a particular location ---through extremely high level theories about emergent phenomena such as ideas, leadership, war and tradition.
- Emergence (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- If we were pressed to give a definition of emergence, we could say that a property is emergent if it is a novel property of a system or an entity that arises when that system or entity has reached a certain level of complexity and that, even though it exists only insofar as the system or entity exists, it is distinct from the properties of the parts of the system from which it emerges. However, as will become apparent, things are not so simple because “emergence” is a term used in different ways both in science and in philosophy, and how it is to be defined is a substantive question in itself.
- Emergent Properties (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- George Henry Lewes coined the term in its philosophical sense in his 1875 'Problems of Life and Mind'. Emergent entities (properties or substances) 'arise' out of more fundamental entities and yet are 'novel' or 'irreducible' with respect to them. Epistemological conceptions of emergence have clear and straightforward applications in current scientific contexts. Whether there are any instances of ontological emergence is highly controversial. Some contend that there are strong first-person, introspective grounds for supposing that consciousness, intentionality, and/or human agency are ontologically emergent. Other philosophers reject such appeals to introspection. Some of these grant the appearance but dismiss it as of little evidential value and likely, on indirect grounds, to be illusory.
- Emergence and Complexity (102 min video)
- Professor Robert Sapolsky gives a lecture on emergence and complexity. He details how a small difference at one place in nature can have a huge effect on a system as time goes on. He calls this idea fractal magnification and applies it to many different systems that exist throughout nature. (May 21, 2010).
- Emergentism (Wikipedia article)
- Emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and as it contrasts (or not) with reductionism. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself unexpected and different from them.  Emergent properties are not identical with, reducible to, or deducible from the other properties. The different ways in which this independence requirement can be satisfied lead to variant types of emergence.
- Emergent materialism (Wikipedia article)
- Emergent (or emergentist) materialism is a theory which asserts that the mind is an irreducible existent in some sense and that the study of mental phenomena is independent of other sciences.
- Downward causation (Wikipedia article)
- In philosophy, downward causation is a causal relationship from higher levels of a system to lower-level parts of that system: for example, mental events acting to cause physical events, The term was originally coined in 1974 by the philosopher and social scientist Donald T. Campbell.
- Emergence: Where Science Meets Philosophy (120 min video)
- Symposium at Chicago Humanities Festival 2010
- Strong vs Weak Emergence by Mark Bedau (pdf doc)
- An innocent form of emergence---here called "weak emergence"---is now a commonplace in a thriving interdisciplinary nexus of scientific activity (sometimes called the "sciences of complexity") that include connectionist modelling, non-linear dynamics (popularly known as "chaos" theory), and artificial life. After defining it, illustrating it in two contexts, and reviewing the available evidence, this paper concludes that the scientific and philosophical prospects for weak emergence are bright. (M. A. Bedau, "Weak Emergence". In James Tomberlin, ed., Philosophical Perspectives: Mind, Causation, and World, vol. 11 (Blackwell Publishers), 1997, pp. 375-399.)
- Emergence (Wikipedia article)
- In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.
- Emergence (60 min audio)
- What happens when there is no leader? Starlings, bees, and ants manage just fine. In fact, they form staggeringly complicated societies -- all without a Toscanini to conduct them into harmony. We ask how this happens.
- Supervenience (Wikipedia article)
- Supervenience is an ontological relation that is used to describe cases where (roughly speaking) the upper-level properties of a system are determined by its lower level properties. According to this view, social properties supervene on psychological properties, psychological properties supervene on biological properties, biological properties supervene on chemical properties, etc.
- Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Book)
- Steven Johnson explains that an individual ant, like an individual neuron, is just about as dumb as can be. Connect enough of them together properly, though, and you get spontaneous intelligence. Starting with the weird behaviour of the semi-colonial organisms we call slime molds, Johnson details the development of increasingly complex and familiar behaviour among simple components: cells, insects and software developers all find their place in greater schemes.
- Emergent Properties (27 min video)
- Varieties of Emergence by David Chalmers
- The term 'emergence' has the potential to cause no end of confusion in science and philosophy, as it is used to express two quite different concepts. We can label these concepts strong emergence and weak emergence. Both of these concepts are extremely important, but it is vital to keep them separate. We can say that a high-level phenomenon is strongly emergent with respect to a low-level domain when truths concerning that phenomenon are not deducible even in principle from truths in the low-level domain. Strong emergence is the notion of emergence that is most common in philosophical discussion of emergence. We can say that a high-level phenomenon is weakly emergent with respect to a low-level domain when truths concerning that phenomenon are unexpected given the principles governing the low-level domain. Weak emergence is the notion of emergence that is most common in recent scientific discussion of emergence, and is the notion that is typically invoked by proponents of emergence in complex systems theory.
- Systems Theory: Emergence (6 min video)
- 'The Sacred Emergence of Nature' by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon
- Scientists have had spectacular success with reductionism. Response to this success has been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, people slurp up the technologies and medicines that spin off from these reductionist understandings. On the other hand, they often decry the Humpty Dumpty fragments that appear to be all that remains of their whole-egg world where the human is the point. And so we are awash in science wars and Darwin wars even as we are also awash in cell phones and Viagra. There's a lot of existential and religious havoc out there, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. (This essay is a chapter extract from a book).