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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)

Reductionism and Theology

Index - God, Humanity and the Cosmos, 1999 T&T Clark

The Concept of Emergence

Related Book Topics:

Can Reductionism Rule Out Truth in Religion?
Can Darwinism Rule Out Truth in Religion?
Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson Against the Possibility of the Truth of Religion
An Examination of Reductionism
The Particular Case of Genetic Reductionism
Criticisms of Genetic Reductionism Within Science
Ethical Concerns Raised by Genetic Reductionism
Cross-Explanatory Reductionism


Dr. Christopher Southgate in God, Humanity and the Cosmos.Published by T&T Clark.

See also:

What Religion Can Learn From Science
Books on Science and Religion