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The Concept of Emergence

The complement to sciences’ natural tendency to reductionism (see an examination of reductionism) is emergence.

An emergent property is one describing a higher level of organization of matter, where the description is not epistemologically reducible to lower-level concepts.Peacocke, A, God and the New Biology (London: Dent, 1986) pp28-29.

A classic example would be that of an ecosystem. In order to understand organisms co-existing together we need this concept, and cannot reduce it out of our understandings. (Come to that, the concept ‘multi-cellular organism’ is itself emergent - simply to describe an animal as a collection of cells living together is to miss a great many properties characteristic of the way those cells co-operate.)

Two notes of caution:

  1. we are not here referring to temporal emergence - a more complex system developing over time from a simpler, but to emergence within our levels of description.
  2. the sort of reductionism on which we have just been concentrating concerns epistemology, the state of our ability to describe a subject. This is subject to change, and it is indeed conceivable that a property regarded at one time as emergent might later be deduced from the properties of a simpler system.

What actually happened in the history of molecular biology was most interesting. A number of scientists, Crick included, first began to consider questions of the chemistry of life because of a series of lectures given by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in Dublin in 1943, and published as What is Life?Schrödinger, E, What is Life? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, first published 1944)The remarkable success of the investigations of such figures as Linus Pauling, Max Perutz, Francis Crick and James D Watson gave momentum to this programme of redescribing biology in terms of physics and chemistry, but has not effected a reduction of the one to the other. Rather all sorts of emergent properties have been recognised at the interface between biology and chemistry.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp148-49 for an example. Francis Crick’s aim to reduce all biology to chemistry and physicsSee an examination of reductionismhas not been realised.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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