Metaphysics, etc.

January 2, 2007 at 11:20 pm | Posted in nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

My friend Dave posed a question on his blog a while back, to the effect of “Can non-physical things exist, and how?” Far from being exhausted by philosophers over the years, the topic has inspired some interesting and modern ideas. A recent article in the NYTimes on free will mentions one such idea that I’ve been trying to get my mind around for a long time. It’s called emergent phenomena, or emergence, and provides a sort of explanation for the metaphysical conundrums that give scientific positivists a lot of grief.

Simply put, emergence is the idea that things we consider “abstract” can often be produced through the combination of many simpler, less abstract building blocks. The complexity of the combination is what then gives the phenomenon its non-physical nature. For example, neural synapses combine in the billions to produce not only the functions of a biological brain, but an arguably metaphysical construct–the mind. In a less dramatic (and more tenable) way, billions of simple on-and-off transistors combine to form a computer, and the possible metaphysical manifestations of software. The survival instincts of individual creatures combine to produce an ecosystem, and those of investors, a stock market. As the article explains, hopelessly complicated systems such as

brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then sculpts it — a concept sometimes known as “downward causation.” A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity? (NYTimes)

The last question there is the “deepest” question, because it relates directly to a form of emergence called strong emergence. In addition to acknowledging the composite nature of complex systems, strong emergence traces the properties of a complicated whole ONLY to the interactions between parts, rather than any property of the parts themselves. This is how non-physical existence can be rooted in physical existence: concrete objects interact in abstract ways, and that abstraction is the basis of non-concrete meaning. The article mainly deals with how this idea has been used to reconcile free will and determinism, but one can imagine a similar argument to refute mind/body dualism, and in effect account for metaphysics in a fundamentally physical way.

I’m not completely satisfied with this explanation, and as many much wiser folks have already pointed out, strong emergence relies on a long chain of assumptions that are far from universally valid. Somehow along the way, we jump from simply adding together finitely complex things to something that is infinitely complex, the proverbial whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. While various forms of logical and mathematical finagling seem to provide evidence of such an effect, nobody completely understands how or when it occurs. In fact, examples of emergence in science or math require very specific, sometimes esoteric conditions, and their existence is a far cry from the kind of overarching philosophical emergence required to explain metaphysics. It is certainly convenient to treat the metaphysical as being equivalent to infinitely complex physical phenomena, but how can we be sure something is truly infinite in the first place? Is complexity an inherent characteristic of a system, or an artifact of our perception of that system? Before my brain explodes, I’ll leave you a few links in case you want to ponder these questions yourself.

Links: “Free Will: Now you have it, now you don’t,” New York Times. “Emergence,” Wikipedia. Chalmers, David, “Strong and Weak Emergence.” Corning, Peter, “The Re-Emergence of ‘Emergence’: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory.”


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  1. […] The dreaded words of “emergent phenomena” were uttered today in class. Yes, I know that I (and kleinschmidt, sort of) have been beating the subject to death for the past couple of months. […]

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