Although the concept of emergence has become very popular in the last few decades in connection with the development of chaos and complexity theories, it is actually a very old idea, dating at least to the nineteenth century, with some hints of it in ancient and medieval philosophy. The basic idea of emergence is that there are properties - perhaps even "laws" - at the upper hierarchical levels of nature that are not derivable from or reducible to the properties and laws of the lower levels. Thus chemistry has properties not derivable from physics, biology properties not derivable from chemistry, and psychology properties not derivable from biology. Reductionism, by contrast, argues that everything can be explained by (reduced to) the basic laws of physics. The world is said to be "causally closed." "Physicalism" is the idea that everything that is caused has a physical cause. Usually this is taken to mean that deterministic physical laws will eventually be found that explain everything. Though even if there were an indeterministic "uncaused" cause (a causa sui), it would still be a physical cause.
How Information Philosophy Explains EmergenceInformation is neither matter nor energy, although it needs matter to be embodied and energy to be communicated. Matter and energy are conserved. There is just the same total amount of matter and energy today as there was at the universe origin. See the cosmic creation process. But information is not conserved. It has been increasing since the beginning of time. Everything emergent is new information. What idealist, holists, and gestaltists think they see is actually this increase of immaterial information. Living things are dynamic and growing information structures, forms through which matter and energy continuously flow. As they grow, their information increases, new capabilities emerge. And information in living things (ideas, thoughts, intentions, purposes) can exert causal control over material things. This is the solution to the mind-body problem and the free will problem, which depends on the possibility of choosing between different actions. Information is the fundamental metaphysical connection between idealism and materialism. Information philosophy replaces the metaphysical necessity of reductionist naturalism and eliminative materialism with genuine metaphysical possibility. Determinist reductionists and eliminative materialists assume that causal control works "bottom-up." The motions and forces between the physical particles determine everything chemical, biological, and psychological. Mental causation is then redundant, rendering mental events epiphenomenal or non-existent, just an illusion. Emergence of new properties at the higher biological and psychological levels, on the other hand, requires that upper levels can exert "top-down" causal control on the motions of particles in lower levels - or at least that "bottom-up" causes can somehow be blocked.
This is the notion of downward causation, the highest version of which is mental causation. Can we defend "top-down" causation" and at the same time deny "bottom-up" causation? The idea of emergence was implicit in the work of John Stuart Mill and explicit in
the work of "emergentists" like George Henry Lewes, Samuel Alexander, C. Lloyd Morgan, and C. D. Broad. Some wanted to explain the direct emergence of mind from matter, to solve the mind-body problem, but as Alexander put it, there are at least two distinct steps -
mind emerges from life, just as life emerges from the physical-chemical. Information philosophy explores how information emerges at all these fundamental levels - matter, life, and mind - material information, biological information, and mental information. John Stuart Mill discusses the Laws of Nature in his System of Logic, Book III, chapter IV and describes the Law of Universal Causation in chapter V ("The truth that every fact which has a beginning has a cause"). Then, in chapter VI, Mill explores the "Composition of Causes" in mechanics where the parallelogram of two vector forces explains the resultant force. However, this simple principle from dynamics, says Mill, does not apply to materialist chemistry nor to more complex biological life. Although Mill did not use the term "emergent," he makes the concept clear enough:
This principle [of simple composition], however, by no means prevails in all departments of the field of nature. The chemical combination of two substances produces, as is well known, a third substance with properties different from those of either of the two substances separately, or of both of them taken together. Not a trace of the properties of hydrogen or of oxygen is observable in those of their compound, water. The taste of sugar of lead is not the sum of the tastes of its component elements, acetic acid and lead or its oxide; nor is the colour blue vitriol a mixture of the colours of sulphuric acid and copper. This explains why mechanics is a deductive or demonstrative science, and chemistry not. In the one, we can compute the effects of m combinations of causes, whether real or hypothetical, from the laws which we know to govern those causes when acting separately; because they continue to observe the same laws when in combination which they observed when separate: whatever could have happened in consequence of each cause taken by itself, happens when they are together, and we have only to "cast up" the results. Not so in the phenomena which are the peculiar subject of the science of chemistry. There, most of the uniformities to which the causes conformed when separate cease altogether when they are conjoined; and we are not, at least in the present state of our knowledge, able to foresee what result will follow from any new combination, until we have tried the specific experiment. If this be true of chemical combinations, it is still more true of those far more complex combinations of elements which constitute organized bodies; and in which those extraordinary new uniformities arise, which are called the laws of life. All organized bodies are composed of parts similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an organic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself.Brian McLaughlin, who dubbed all these thinkers the "British Emergentists, calls Mill "the father of British Emergentism." George Henry Lewes also used Mill's example of the properties of water not being reducible to those of oxygen and hydrogen. If all effects are only the consequences of their components, everything would be completely determined by mathematical laws, he said, and then coined the term "emergent":
Although each effect is the resultant of its components, the product of its factors, we cannot always trace the steps of the process, so as to see in the product the mode of operation of each factor. In the latter case, I propose to call the effect an emergent. It arises out of the combined agencies, but in a form which does not display the agents in action.In his 1912 book Instinct and Experience, C. Lloyd Morgan revived the term "emergent". In his 1920 book Space, Time, and Deity Samuel Alexander initially cited Lloyd Morgan as the source of emergentism, but Lloyd Morgan reminded Alexander about Lewes' 1875 work. Alexander wrote:
much of what I have to say has been already said by Mr. Lloyd Morgan in the concluding chapter of his work on Instinct and Experience. The argument is that mind has certain specific characters to which there is or even can be no neural counterpart. It is not enough to say that there is no mechanical counterpart, for the neural structure is not mechanical but physiological and has life. Mind is, according to our interpretation of the facts, an 'emergent' from life, and life an emergent from a lower physico-chemical level of existence. It may well be that, as some think, life itself implies some independent entity and is indeed only mind in a lower form. But this is a different question, which does not concern us yet. If life is mind, and is a non-physical entity, arguments derived from the conscious features of mind are at best only corroborative, and it is an inconvenience in these discussions that the two sets of arguments are sometimes combined. Accordingly. I may neglect such considerations as the selectiveness of mind which it shares with all vital structures.Later, in his 1922 Gifford Lectures and 1923 book Emergent Evolution, Lloyd Morgan defined emergent evolution and introduced the related "top-down" concept of hierarchical supervenience:
...in the physical world emergence is no less exemplified in the advent of each new kind of atom, and of each new kind of molecule. It is beyond the wit of man to number the instances of emergence. But if nothing new emerge - if there be only regrouping of pre-existing events and nothing more - then there is no emergent evolution. Such emergence of the new is now widely accepted where life and mind are concerned. It is a doctrine untiringly advocated by Professor Bergson. One could not foretell the emergent character of vital events from the fullest possible knowledge of physico-chemical events only...Such is the hypothesis of emergent evolution. Under emergent evolution there is progressive development of stuff which becomes new stuff in virtue of the higher status to which it has become raised under some supervenient kind of substantial gotogetherness.But Lloyd Morgan's idea of emergent novelty may have been an epistemic rather than an ontological claim. The laws of nature may still pre-determine all the higher-level properties, though our understanding of the laws may not be enough to allow us to predict the higher levels:
May we bring emergence itself under the rubric of causation?...Is emergent evolution itself the expression of an orderly and progressive development? If so (and such is my contention), then emergence itself takes rank, as Mill and Lewes also contended, among the "laws of nature." We may be unable to predict the probable nature of a character that is emergently new. We could not have foretold on the basis of physico-chemical events only what the nature of life would be. But that is due to our ignorance before the event of the law of its emergence. May we then, say:Vitalists like Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch may not have used the term emergence, but they strongly supported the idea of teleological (purposeful), likely non-physical causes, without which they thought that life and mind could not have emerged from physical matter. C. D. Broad's view of the mind was emergentist and vitalist. But Broad distinguished between what he called "Substantial Vitalism" (a dualist theory of an immaterial substance as a vital force, for example, Bergson's élan vital) and what Broad called "Emergent Vitalism" (some kind of non-reductive materialism, in which the vital property emerges from the body, and in the case of mind, from the highest bodily level - the brain). Broad says he borrowed the adjective "emergent" from C. Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander. Broad contrasted the two forms of Substantial and Emergent Vitalism with what he called "Biological Mechanism," which is essentially a reduction of biology to physics and chemistry. All the emergentists were of course also anti-mechanists or anti-reductionists. Broad also mentioned Hans Driesch, another anti-mechanist who developed a sophisticated form of vitalism that he called "neovitalism." Driesch saw clear evidence of a kind of teleology in the ability of lower organisms to rebuild their lost limbs and other vital parts. He used Aristotle's term "entelechy" (loosely translated as "having the final cause in") to describe the organism's capacity to rebuild. Driesch said this disproved the theory of preformation from an original cell. Driesch studied the original cells of a sea urchin, after they had divided into two cells, then four, then eight. At each of these stages, Driesch separated out single cells and found that the separated cells went on to develop into complete organisms. This is regarded as the first example of biological cloning. Broad rejected Driesch's idea of entelechy as a non-material, non-spatial agent that is neither energy nor a material substance of a special kind, but we should note that it well describes the information content of any cell that lets it develop into a complete organism. Driesch himself maintained that his entelechy theory was something very different from the substance dualism of older vitalisms. So what was Broad's criticism of Driesch? Neither thinker could produce a clear description of their vital element. Broad was sophisticated in his discussion of emergence. He saw that the kind of emergence that leads to water and its unique chemical properties, when compared to the properties of its molecular components hydrogen and oxygen, has no element of purpose or teleology. The emergence of life (and mind) from physics and chemistry, however, clearly introduces a kind of design or purpose. Modern biologists call it teleonomy, to distinguish it from a metaphysical telos that pre-exists the organism. "The goal of every cell is to become two cells." It seems likely that both Driesch and Broad were trying to grasp this teleonomy. Emergence supports the idea of mental causation in particular and the more general problem of downward causation, for example the downward control of the motions of a cell's atoms and molecules by supervening on biological macromolecules. Is the molecular biology of a cell reducible to the laws governing the motions of its component molecules, or are there emergent laws governing motions at the cellular level, the organ level, the organism level, and so on up to the mental level? The locus classicus of recent discussions of mental causation is Donald Davidson's 1970 essay "Mental Events," which was revisited in his 1993 essay, "Thinking Causes," published together with 15 critical essays on Davidson's work in the 1993 book Mental Causation, edited by John Heil and Alfred Mele. Davidson claimed three things:...That such novelty is for us unpredictable owing to our partial knowledge of the plan of emergence up to date, and our necessary ignorance of what the further development of that plan will be.
what options are there if we set aside the physicalist picture? Leaving physicalism behind is to abandon ontological physicalism, the view that bits of matter and their aggregates in space-time exhaust the contents of the world. This means that one would be embracing an ontology that posits entities other than material substances — that is, immaterial minds, or souls, outside physical space, with immaterial, nonphysical properties.Kim diagrams Davidson's view of mental events supervening on physical events, to illustrate Kim's claim that having both mental and physical causes would be "overdetermination" and thus one is redundant and must be excluded.
This view of the physical and biological world as made up of isolatable and discrete events is most simplistic. An "event" is singled out by a human observer. Its "cause" is arbitrarily abstracted from complex processes with enormous numbers of possible causes.
Emergence DeniedProminent philosophers of science - committed to the ability of physical science to explain everything as "unified science" - were confident that "emergence" would go the way of "holism" and "vitalism." For example, the former member of the Vienna Circle and leading reductionist Herbert Feigl wrote in 1958:
Inseparably connected with holism and the Gestalt philosophy is the doctrine of emergence. The old slogan "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" has of course no very clear meaning. Much of its obscurity is due to the lack of a definition of the phrase "the sum of the parts". Recent analyses of the still controversial significance of "organic wholeness" and of "emergent novelty" have contributed a great deal to the clarification of the issues. There is no imperative need for us to enter into details here. It will be sufficient for our concerns to realize that in modern natural science no sharp distinction can be made between resultants (as in the composition, i.e. vectorial addition of forces or velocities) and emergents. In the explanation of the properties and the behavior of complexes and wholes we always need laws of composition—be they as simple as the straightforward arithmetical addition of volumes, masses, electric charges, etc., or slightly more complicated as is vector addition, (or just a trifle more involved as is the relativistic "addition" formula for velocities), or extremely complex as are the so far not fully formulated composition laws which would be required for the prediction of the behavior of organisms on the basis of a complete knowledge of their microstructure and the dynamic laws interrelating their component micro-constituents. Modern quantum physics, on a very basic level, employs laws which have "organismic" character, as for instance the exclusion principle of W. Pauli which holds even for single atoms. It is conceivable that much of what is called "emergent novelty" on the chemical and biological levels of complexity may ultimately be explained in terms of the organismic or holistic features of the laws of atomic and molecular dynamics; and that, given those basic micro-laws, the only composition laws (which scientists often take for granted like "silent partners") are simply the postulates and theorems of geometry and kinematics. This is indeed my own, admittedly risky and speculative, guess; that is to say, I believe that once quantum dynamics is able to explain the facts and regularities of organic chemistry (i.e. of non-living, but complex compounds) it will in principle also be capable of explaining the facts and regularities of organic life.
The Three Kinds of Information EmergenceNote there are three distinct kinds of emergence, at the material, biological, and mental levels:
The Emergence of (the Idea of) DeterminismWhen small numbers of atoms and molecules interact, their motions and behaviors are indeterministic, governed by the rules of quantum mechanics. Werner Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy (mistakenly called "uncertainty," as if the problem is epistemic/subjective and not ontological/objective) gives us the minimum error in simultaneous measurements of position x and momentum p,
Δp Δx ≥ h,where h is Planck's constant of action. To see how "adequate" determinism emerges for large numbers of particles, note that the momentum p = mv, the product of mass and velocity, so we can write the indeterminacy principle in terms of velocities and positions as
Δv Δx ≥ h / m.When large numbers of microscopic particles get together in massive aggregates
( h / m approaches zero ), the indeterminacy of the individual particles gets averaged over and macroscopic "adequately" deterministic laws "emerge." The positions and velocities of large massive objects can be "determined" beyond our ability to measure. Determinism is an emergent property. The "laws of nature," such as Newton's laws of motion, are all statistical in nature. They "emerge" when large numbers of atoms or molecules get together. For large enough numbers, the probabilistic laws of nature approach practical certainty. But the fundamental indeterminism of component atoms never completely disappears. A Time When There Was No Determinism So determinism "emerges" today from microscopic quantum systems as they become a part of larger and more classical systems. But we can says that determinism also emerged in time. In the earliest years of the universe, large massive objects did not yet exist. All matter was microscopic and quantal.
Examples of Emergence
The Emergence of Immaterial Information ProcessingCan information provide the basis for a different kind of mental substance? Abstract information is neither matter nor energy, yet it needs matter for its concrete embodiment and energy for its communication. Information is immaterial.
It is the modern spirit, the ghost in the machine. Immaterial information is perhaps as close as a physical or biological scientist can get to the idea of a soul or spirit that departs the body at death. When a living being dies, it is the maintenance of biological and mental information that ceases. The matter remains. Information philosophy proposes a mind-body dualism in which thoughts (pure information processing) in our minds have genuine causal power over the body. This is not a metaphysical mind. It is purely biological and entirely dependent on the brain, which is one of the multiple realizations of physical/material "hardware" that can implement the "software" of our ideas. For example, when one person teaches another some new technique, or transmits some purely intellectual knowledge, the other person is another physical realization, different hardware now running the same software. To make this case, we need to establish the following: