What does it mean to say that some thing, quality, relation, or constellation of combinations of any of the above (as well as whatever I might not have mentioned) is “emergent”? What does it mean for something to be genuinely new, for the universe to be genuinely creative?
One obvious response falls out along the lines that, “Well, something is there now that wasn’t there before.” Despite its initial plausibility, I would suggest that such an account is badly off-base. For one thing, the reliance on a difference over time is quite naïve. The evolution of eukaryotic cells on the primordial Earth took place over time, and in a sense such nucleated cells “emerged” from an earlier situation where they did not exist. But this is a kind of “weak tea” emergence that is easily accounted for within ordinary evolutionary theory. No, when philosophers speak of emergence, they mean something radically new, seemingly unaccountable within the existing scheme of things. In a very real sense, they mean something genuinely creative.
(I suppose I must say a word here about the “Intelligent Design” people and their desperately ill-informed (when not blatantly deceptive) attempts to point to various biological structures and manufacture the claim that said structures are “irreducibly complex.” Which is to say, the structures in question are hopelessly emergent, and only an intelligent agency could have brought them about by purposive, creative action. There are numerous sites where this fatuous twaddle is roundly debunked, and so I’ll simply alert the reader to a few, such as HERE, HERE and HERE. Actual science of evolution, rather than ideological drivel, may be found HERE and HERE. Serious, peer-reviewed texts on the subject may be freely downloaded from the National Academies Press HERE.)
Emergence is supposed to be a genuinely hard problem, so hard, in fact, that many dispute whether it has ever really occurred. Now, one author on the side of emergence is Thomas Nagel, who has argued that our current concept of nature (as this is manifested in the physical and biological sciences) is inadequate to the task of accounting for the existence of consciousness, cognition, and value in the world. Another recent book arguing for the need of a broader conception of nature is Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. Deacon makes some very specific arguments about the reality of emergence, and the need to incorporate a robust such notion into our concept of nature.
But there is an issue here that is, if anything, even more subtle than the reality or unreality of emergence itself: how do we distinguish “real” emergence – the “ontological” problem – from the merely logical issue of discursive machinery that cannot encompass all of reality within a single universe of discourse – the “semantic” problem?
Said another way, are emergent phenomena (“mind” and “consciousness” are the two commonest examples) emergent because the “stuff” of physical reality is unable to provide a meaningful, credible foundation for these phenomena? Is the issue an ontological one?
Or is the problem, rather, that the language we use to talk about physical phenomena inadequate to characterize, describe and explain the other phenomena we find within the scope of our experience, such as mind and consciousness? Are the logical and semantic relations adequate to, and focused upon, talking about physical structures insufficient when we wish to talk about other types of relational structures (such as mind and consciousness)?
For example, back in 1970 a philosopher named Donald Davidson wrote an essay called “Mental Events” in which he appealed to the idea that brains and minds were ultimately the same “stuff” (a kind of “monism”) but that the talk about the mental versus the physical characteristics of this neutral “stuff” could not be mapped onto one another in a law-like way: in other words, they were “anomalous” (which is from the Greek term meaning “unlawlike.”) While many people recognized the importance of Davidson’s argument, his essay was poorly organized, almost to the point of being chaotic. It wasn’t until some 35 years later that an article was published that sorted out Davidson’s premises and arguments, and put them into a formal structure that illustrated both the systematic arrangement of the argument and a computational basis for understanding the non-lawlike behavior of the two languages with respect to one another. (Two points to add here: (1) the above named article was published in Synthese, easily one of the top 10 journals in philosophical analysis in the English speaking world, which gives some indication of its quality and importance, and (2) lest there be any lingering doubt on the matter, yes, I am bragging. Get over it.)
Davidson’s argument is one of the best known examples of a semantic (i.e., logical) account of two phenomena that are “emergent” with respect to one another because the languages used to describe and account for those phenomena are mutually irreducible. (In my argument from 2005, this irreducibility can be given a scientifically formalized account using known tools of the theory of computability.) None of this requires invoking any new, spooky kind of “stuff” with which to anchor these different facets of reality, only a recognition that the languages in which their respective characterizations are formulated cannot be reduced the one to the other. On the other hand, this also means that the underlying “stuff” that is reality – the “monism” in Davidson’s “anomalous monism” – is much more deeply mysterious than we are habituated (by the endless streams of physics triumphalism, found throughout the popular and science oriented presses) to believe.
So which is the more credible position with regard to emergence? The ontological version, which insists on genuinely new kinds of “stuff,” or the semantic version which more or less hews to the idea of a single kind of stuff that is only ever partially characterized (from its various perspectives) by our various kinds of languages and symbolic tools? There are reasons to lean toward the semantic view, and one is (I believe) particularly telling: the ontological school must already admit to the facts of the semantic version. So what reason might be given to believe that we are so wise as to “leap outside” of our semantic limitations, and thus just “know” (rather magically, it would seem) that the issue is more than semantics, and is genuinely ontological?
One other quick thought about semantics. Unlike in the physical sciences, talk about minds and consciousness require the invocation of “intentional” terms. Intentional terms are ones that involve such concepts (in all their various forms) as “believe,” “purpose,” “interpret,” “meaning,” “understand,” and “intend” (“intention”) itself. So here’s the thing: physics cannot talk about any of the above items, their variations, or any of the other constellations of intentional terms out there. But physics, and physical theories, in order to exist at all, can only exist if they are completely wrapped up in an intentional framework. Someone must believe that physical theory, even if they only believe that it is false. Someone must intend that a physical theory serve a scientific purpose. Someone must interpret that theory in order to understand its purpose and meaning. So while mind gets on well enough without physical scientific theories, physics cannot even exist without the mind whose fundamental semantic categories physics is precluded from the outset from even talking about, much less “explaining.”