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In this excellent, inspiring, and hugely relevant volume, 13 philosophers, scientists and theologians debate the concept of emergence. The physical world generates higher level systems, but are these fully explained by, predicted from, and reducible to the originating physical state? Or is there an ontology of emergent entities which require higher level analysis, and exert downward causation?
Philip Clayton follows Michael Polanyi in proposing the irreducibility of personhood (p15, 312). David Chalmers writes that ‘consciousness alone is a strongly emergent phenomena, since its nature is not deducible from physical facts’ (p246). George Ellis argues for ‘a richer ontology than simple physicalism’, pointing out that ‘goals, symbols and expectations are all strongly emergent phenomena that are causally effective, but are certainly not derivative from physics or chemistry’ (p104). Michael Silberstein agrees that ‘mental properties are not fully determined by the neurochemical properties of underlying brain states’. He opts for ‘ontological emergence (which) does violate causal closure of the physical’ (p204). For Arthur Peacocke ‘mental properties are …epistemologically irreducible to physical neurological ones’ (p267). Flock behaviour affects birds, and group behaviour humans. Lynne Rothschild applies the ‘salt’ test of the unpredictability of saltiness from sodium and chlorine to claim that ‘emergent phenomena are unpredictable’ and furthermore that ‘if emergence exists, absolute reductionism fails’ (p156). She argues that ‘life can never be truly understood from only a reductionist perspective’ (p163).
Paul Davies however points out that ‘strong emergence over-determines a Newtonian system’ (p46). Neils Henrik Gregersen writes that all emergents are also resultants (p285) so that reductionism survives. There are no new entities or forces at the emergent level. Terrence Deacon proposes a complex circle of causality whereby an ‘amplification dynamic’ yields emergent phenomena and ‘decries using emergence as an anti-reductionist code word in holistic criticisms of standard explanations’ which he regards as ‘pointless semantic debates’ (p123). For Jaegwon Kim, physicalism survives undented by emergence (p189-202).
In one sense, physicalism has it, in that there are no emergent properties without physical matter. But it cannot yet unambiguously determine life. Moreover, whilst physicalism generates and hosts emergent properties, they cannot yet be explained physically. And even if they could, this does not necessarily mean that they should then be perceived physically. A musical tune can be fully explained by reductionist physicalism, but is still perceived as emergent. Human consciousness cannot yet be explained physically, but, if it is, will still retain its own ontology.
We are still more than our molecules, and can still develop our being as intellectual, emotional, and spiritual beings, and not just as physical bodies.
Geoff Crocker Editor ‘Atheist Spirituality’ web site
The Re-Emergence of Emergence is a collection of thoughtful essays on emergence. I read this initially last year (?) but keep coming back to my favorite essay of the book by Terrence Deacon, Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel's Hub. Deacon's thesis is: "emergent phenomena grow out of an amplification dynamic that can spontaneously develop in very large ensembles of interacting elements by virtue of the continuing circulation of interaction constraints and biases, which become expressed as system-wide characteristics. In other words, these emergent forms of causality are to a curious type of circular connectivity of causal dynamics, not a special form or causality." Deacon goes on to make a pretty compelling case.
As one other reviewer noted, there are parts of this books which are pretty technical (for the Deacon essay mentioned above, I liberally used the dictionary and a couple of science reference books in my library)---that said, this volume is worth the price.