I recently read an interesting article on Medium.com by Paul Austin Murphy on the concept of emergence in science, specifically on the ideas of the physicist Sean Carroll in relation to it. There are two types of emergence theorised, weak and strong. Here is how Carroll defines the latter: “In strong emergence, the behaviour of a system with many parts is not reducible to the aggregate behaviour of all those parts, even in principle”. In simpler language, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be explained by them. It is debated whether such systems exist, but many scientists believe that they do.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to account for the cause of the emergent property. This idea is therefore in direct conflict with the principle of reductionism, which has been a long held assumption in science, and by implication materialism, which assumes that complex systems have been built up gradually from simpler forms, and therefore in theory should be able to be explained in terms of them.
I’m not going to go into a discussion of the validity of the concept here; there is plenty of material readily available on the internet. I’m more interested in how this concept of strong emergence is viewed by scientists. Wikipedia puts it quite mildly:
“Strong emergence is a view not widely held in the physical sciences”.
“The plausibility of strong emergence is questioned by some as contravening our usual understanding of physics”¹.
My purpose in writing this article is rather to bring to your attention this striking quote in Murphy’s piece from the American philosopher Mark Bedau, which puts it much more strongly:
“Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing”.
All this suggests to me that the concept of strong emergence may be at the cutting edge of a scientific revolution, a new paradigm breaking through, hopefully something that may eventually consign materialism to the dustbin of history. Scientists may be reluctant to accept it for precisely that reason; as Bedau put it, it is something uncomfortably like magic. We know, of course, that most scientists do not like feeling uncomfortable; they are much happier in their rational, logical, material world. It is, however, often uncomfortable anomalies that lead to great breakthroughs in science.