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In philosophy, emergentism is the belief in emergence, particularly as it involves consciousness and the philosophy of mind, and as it contrasts with reductionism. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is more than the sum of the properties of the system's parts.
Emergentism involves a layered view of nature, with the layers arranged in terms of increasing complexity and each corresponding to its own special science. Some philosophers hold that emergent properties causally interact with more fundamental levels, while others maintain that higher-order properties simply supervene over lower levels without direct causal interaction. The latter group therefore holds a stricter definition of emergentism, which can be rigorously stated as follows: a property P of composite object O is emergent if it is metaphysically possible for another object to lack property P even if that object is composed of parts with intrinsic properties identical to those in O and has those parts in an identical configuration.
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill outlined his version of emergentism in System of Logic (1843). Mill argued that the properties of some physical systems, such as those in which dynamic forces combine to produce simple motions, are subject to a law of nature he called the "Composition of Causes". According to Mill, emergent properties are not subject to this law, but instead amount to more than the sums of the properties of their parts.
Mill believed that various chemical reactions (poorly understood in his time) could provide examples of emergent properties, although modern chemistry has shown that these reactions can be given satisfactory reductionist explanations. This raises the possibility that the emergentist position is more a matter of epistemology than metaphysics.
C. D. Broad
British philosopher C. D. Broad defended a realistic epistemology in The Mind and its Place in Nature (1925) arguing that emergent materialism is the most likely solution to the mind-body problem. Broad's definition of emergence amounted to the claim that mental properties would count as emergent if and only if philosophical zombies were metaphysically possible. Many philosophers take this position to be inconsistent with some formulations of psychophysical supervenience.
C. Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander
Samuel Alexander's views on emergentism, argued in Space, Time, and Deity, were inspired in part by the ideas in psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan's Emergent Evolution. Alexander believed that emergence was fundamentally inexplicable, and that emergentism was simply a "brute empirical fact":
"The higher quality emerges from the lower level of existence and has its roots therein, but it emerges therefrom, and it does not belong to that level, but constitutes its possessor a new order of existent with its special laws of behaviour. The existence of emergent qualities thus described is something to be noted, as some would say, under the compulsion of brute empirical fact, or, as I should prefer to say in less harsh terms, to be accepted with the “natural piety” of the investigator. It admits no explanation." (Space, Time, and Deity)
Despite the causal and explanatory gap between the phenomena on different levels, Alexander held that emergent qualities were not epiphenomenal. His view can perhaps best be described as a form of non-reductive physicalism (NRP) or supervenience theory.
General Systems Theory
Ludwig von Bertalanffy founded General System Theory (GST), which is a more contemporary approach to emergentism. A popularization of many of the elements of GST may be found in The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra.
- Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. Penguin, 2002.
- Laughlin, Robert B. A Different Universe. 2005.
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