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Why Some Think Emergence Is Replacing Materialism in Science

Materialism, in the form of reductionism, posits a world without novelty — but that is not the world we live in

Many of us might need a pause to recall just what the word “reductionism” means. But we surely recognize it when we hear it: “Humans are nothing but big-brained apes,” “The mind is just what the brain does,” or “The Earth is a mere speck in a not-very-interesting galaxy.” That, materialists tell us, is What Science Shows. But is it? Really?

In an article at BigThink, University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank (pictured) argues that reductionism is — for good reasons — fading in science: “Reductionism offers a narrow view of the universe that fails to explain reality.” It is slowly being replaced:

Reductionism is the view that everything true about the world can be explained by atoms and their interactions. Emergence claims that reductionism is wrong, and the world can evolve new stuff and new laws that are not predictable from “nothing but” atoms. Which perspective on science is correct has huge implications, not only for ourselves but for everything from philosophy to economics to politics.

Adam Frank, “Reductionism vs. emergence: Are you “nothing but” your atoms?” at BigThink (April 29, 2021)

Frank intends a series of articles at BigThink on why emergence is replacing reductionism. The capsule version is that reductionism reduces everything to the behavior of elementary particles and “describes a world without fundamental novelty or essential innovation.” But that isn’t the world we live in.

And emergence?

As philosophers Brigitte Falkenburg and Margaret Morrison put it, “A phenomenon is emergent if it cannot be reduced to, explained or predicted from its constituent parts… emergent phenomena arise out of lower-level entities, but they cannot be reduced to, explained nor predicted from their micro-level base.” From an emergentist view, over the course of the universe’s history, new entities and even new laws governing those entities have appeared.

Adam Frank, “Reductionism vs. emergence: Are you “nothing but” your atoms?” at BigThink (April 29, 2021)

In Frank’s view, “The key is evolution” But evolution, as described by the emergentist, is not merely the sequence of events in which life forms have changed and adapted over time:

According to at least one kind of emergentist, the universe most definitely has the capacity to innovate and create novelty. The process it uses is evolution, and evolution is more than just physics. So, from this view, while you are obviously made of atoms, you are also more than just atoms. You, your dog, and the specifics of your person-dog affection could not be predicted, even in principle, even from perfect knowledge of all your elementary particles.

Adam Frank, “Reductionism vs. emergence: Are you “nothing but” your atoms?” at BigThink (April 29, 2021)

In that case, evolution is a creative force. Many biologists have been prone to speak of it that way, as philosopher Jerry Fodor pointed out, disapprovingly, in What Darwin Got Wrong (2010). But if they were conventional reductionists, they were not supposed to literally believe it. However, emergentists are comfortable with the idea and would point to the emergence of complex systems in nature, “wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.” The fractal patterns in nature (“plants, snowflakes, landslides, and galaxies”) are often cited as an example.

According to Frank, emergentism took root among British philosophers in the early twentieth century but then waned in the face of renewed reductionism, associated with the discovery of DNA. Now it’s coming back. One can only assume that the hard-to-fathom complexity of life forms has played a role in that re-emergence, so to speak. At any rate, he argues, reductionism “can no longer be seen as the only ‘sober’ view of science.”

The rise of panpsychism (“everything is, at some level, conscious”), as represented by philosophers like Philip Goff, Bernardo Kastrup, and Galen Strawson, coincides with emergence. Prominent neuroscientist Christof Koch is open about his panpsychism and the panpsychist roots of the currently most-popular theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory (IIT). The panpsychist perspective has been welcome at Scientific American in recent years. In short, while it’s not clear whether panpsychism is mainstream, it definitely isn’t dismissed — or even dismissible.

Fans of panpsychism and emergence seek to preserve the closed (no God) universe of materialism (often called naturalism or physicalism). But they also want to retain the idea that consciousness is real, not an illusion. To do so, they endow nature with consciousness (panpsychism) and the power to create, for example “new laws,” from nothing (emergentism). Is nature alone up to the task?

The debates of the next few years promise to be fascinating. They may change the nature of many arguments.


You may also wish to read: How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.


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Why Some Think Emergence Is Replacing Materialism in Science