The Scientific Emergentist and her Striking Metaphysical Mutualism

Part III of the book focuses on reconstructing the scientific emergentism of writers like Anderson, Freeman, Laughlin, Prigogine, and others, and providing a theoretical framework for its claims. I argue that scientific emergentism is a philosophically overlooked, and profoundly important position, that I dub ‘Mutualism’ with a range of novel ontological features and implications. Most obviously, Mutualism allows mutually determinative and interdependent “parts” and “wholes” of a kind overlooked by philosophers. And I show that appreciating Mutualism reveals that the most common parsimony reasoning, beloved by scientific and philosophical reductionists alike, is actually invalid. Mutualism thus offers an alternative view of nature, compatible with our core empirical evidence from compositional explanation, as a rival to the Fundamentalism of scientific reductionism.

It bears emphasis that there are lots, I means LOTS, of different notions of ‘emergence’ though people continue to wrongly talk about ‘the’ concept of emergence – and hence talk past each other. In Chapter 5, I distinguish a number of concepts of emergence to assess if any answer the challenge of scientific reductionism and I show only one has any viability in resisting the arguments of Fundamentalism. I won’t repeat those arguments here. The viable concept of emergence, I argue, is that developed in response to actual scientific findings by scientific emergentists like Laughlin, Anderson, Freeman, et al. I focus on sketching this concept below and I will neutrally term it ‘S-emergence’. (Elsewhere I call it ‘Strong’ emergence, but that term is used for other concepts, too.)

Scientific emergentists like Anderson, Freeman, Laughlin, Prigogine, and others, are not working from the arm-chair and offering a priori ideas about determinative relations. Instead, these scientists focus upon mundane scientific examples where we have both qualitative accounts of components from compositional explanations and also quantitative accounts of the components in such cases. Using the resulting evidence about such cases, the scientific emergentist claims that in sthese cases of compositional explanation we find that “Parts behave differently in wholes” whether this is electrons in superconductors, or proteins in cells, or neurons in the populations we find in the brain, and so on.

We get a sense of the consequent claims of the scientific emergentist when the physicist Robert Laughlin tells us that:

I think primitive organizational phenomena… have something of lasting importance to tell us about more complex ones, including ourselves: their primitiveness enables us to demonstrate with certainty that they are ruled by microscopic laws but also, paradoxically, that some of their more sophisticated aspects are insensitive to the details of these laws. In other words, we are able to prove in these simple cases that the organization can… begin to transcend the parts from which it is made. What physical science thus has to tell us is that the whole being more than the sum of the parts is not merely a concept but a physical phenomenon. Nature is regulated not only by a microscopic rule base but by powerful and general principles of organization. (Laughlin (2005), p.xiv. Original emphasis)

There is a lot to unpack here, but let me focus on the bare bones. Laughlin argues that we know the “microscopic laws” in simpler systems, but in certain complex collectives we now see that further laws must also come into play given what our quantitative understanding illuminates about the behavior and powers of the relevant components in these complex collectives.

Laughlin and other scientific emergentists are apparently rejecting a key assumption of scientific reductionists in what I term the “Simple view” of aggregation under which the aggregation of components, as they form relations to each other, is continuous and only involves determination by other components according to the laws and/or principles of composition holding in simpler systems. Aggregation is central to a world like ours where large chunks consist of aggregated matter. Given Simple aggregation, the powers of components are only determined by other components, in so far as they are determined, since we only find components in simpler systems.

In contrast, Laughlin and others endorse what I call the ‘Conditioned’ view of aggregation. For Laughlin is suggesting that our empirical findings show that certain components sometimes contribute different powers, and hence behave differently, under the condition of composing a certain higher level entity, but where the component would not contribute these powers if the laws applying in simpler collectives exhausted the laws applying in the complex collective. Let us call such powers contributed to a component by one of its properties ‘differential powers’. Finally, as the diagram below from the complexity scientist Chris Langton highlights, a scientific emergentist like Laughlin apparently contends that it is the emergent composed entity, that determines that the property of the relevant component contributes its differential powers.


In this type of situation, we apparently have an emergent realized property G in a higher level individual that is composed by the lower level individual individual having realizer property P1 (and other constituents and realizers). And G determines that P1 contributes a certain differential power to the lower level constituent individual. The relation of G and P1 is not causal, since these entities are synchronous, collocated, in some sense the same and in a mass-energy neutral relation. However this novel, non-causal relation is also plausibly not a compositional relation. This relation is not based upon joint role-filling, since the processes and powers of the emergent composed entities are not such that they can fill the roles of their components. Instead, we have non-causal and non-compositional determination of components by composed entities through something like role-shaping or role-constraining, rather than role-filling, in the composed entity determining that the components have certain differential powers.

Our scientific researchers have thus been concerned with a novel kind of downward determination that has been overlooked by philosophers. We therefore need to coin a new term to mark this kind of determination relation and I have consequently made the following suggestion. Combining the Greek words ‘macro’ and ‘chresis’, where the latter is roughly the Greek for ‘use’, we get the terms ‘machresis’, and ‘machretic determination’, for the general phenomenon of composed, or ‘macro’, entities that non-causally, and non-compositionally, determine the nature of their components through causal role-shaping.

It bears emphasis that all manner of further questions arise about the nature, and implications, of machresis. In Parts III and IV of the book, I seek to answer some of these questions. But I also note there is still much further work to be done in understanding machresis and why this work often requires detailed engagement with concrete scientific cases and their findings. Here let me briefly highlight the potential significance of machretic relations.

The deeper point I want to highlight about the situation where we have machresis is the following. When the Conditioned view of aggregation holds true, then a realizer property instance like P1, i.e. a component entity, may only contribute certain differential powers when realizing a certain higher level “emergent” property like G. And this provides the space for the scientific emergentist to take the realized instance to machretically determine the contribution of differential powers by its component realizers. As a result, it appears that such a composed property instance can be determinative not simply by contributing powers itself, with consequent causal relations at its own level, but also by machretically determining the contributions of powers by other property instances in its own components.

Just as Laughlin suggests in our last quotation, we thus finally have a coherent way to defend the claim that ‘Wholes are more than the sum of their parts’ because ‘Parts behave differently in wholes’. For, in such a situation, we would have properties that are realized, but which still play a determinative role in nature both by machretically determining the powers of their realizers, their ‘parts’, and also by their own contributions of powers causally resulting in effects at their own level. Contrary to the longstanding claims of scientific reductionists, we would thus have composed properties that we ought to accept as determinative despite their being realized – and would hence have just the type of “emergent” properties championed by scientific emergentists.

I defend the coherence of the latter type of situation at length in the book. But here let me just consider one negative implication, and then one positive implication, of this kind of scenario, though I outline many more in the book.

First, the negative: Appreciating machresis highlights how the simple parsimony reasoning used by the scientific reductionist, and many ontological reductionists in philosophy, is actually invalid. Crucially, the Argument from Composition claims that from the fact of composition, and/or possession of a compositional explanation, we may conclude that we can account for all powers of both higher and lower level entities just using components alone. But we now see that this crucial sub-conclusion can be false even when the premise is true. Even when we have compositional relations, and/or compositional explanations, then in the kind of case outlined above we still need to posit a composed entity to account for differential powers of components. Simple parsimony arguments, like the Argument from Composition, are thus plausibly invalid.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the positive: Scientific emergentism offers an important positive position in its own right in a view of a comprehensive compositional hierarchy with many levels of determinative entities, but where we have mutually determinative, and interdependent, composed and component entities. I consequently dub this position ‘Mutualism’ since it has mutually determinative “parts” and “wholes”. And I show Mutualism offers the only viable form of an ontologically non-reductive physicalism. Alongside its embrace of comprehensive composition, I also illustrate how Mutualist scientific emergentism accepts the ubiquity of compositional explanation and various types of derivability and predictability, including for S-emergent entities. I also provide an account of the kinds of fundamental “organizational” or “emergent” laws that go along with this position.

Scientific emergentists have trenchantly pressed the point that we have been led astray about emergence, and  the overall structure nature, by unsupported ontological assumptions and arguments of scientific reductionism, or what they term “myths”, at odds with our empirical findings. Thus Laughlin tells us that:

The world we actually inhabit, as opposed to the happy world of modern scientific mythology, is filled with wonderful and important things we have not yet seen because we have not looked… The great power of science is its ability, through brutal objectivity, to reveal to us truth we did not anticipate. (Laughlin (2005), p.xvi)

As I sketched above, it appears the scientific emergentist is correct that recent scientific findings have revealed overlooked ontological options – scientists and philosophers have used flawed ontological arguments to reach mistaken conclusions about the options for a nature that is a compositional hierarchy. Far from being strange in the manner of a logically impossible square-circle, my work shows that the S-emergence endorsed by Mutualism is actually more akin to the historical situation of the duck-billed platypus — a creature that is odd only in conflicting with our prevailing presumptions about the way nature must be. Furthermore, just as in the case of the platypus, and so many other times in the past, reflecting on the results of our empirical inquiries allows us to throw aside mistaken ontological assumptions and the theoretical frameworks and arguments based upon them.

The metaphysical Mutualism of scientific emergentism thus presents us with a live view of nature under which it is a compositional hierarchy, but where it has many levels of compositionally related, but nonetheless determinative, entities. This may seem like a full vindication of the Scientifically Manifest Image, and non-reductive physicalism, but Mutualism adds to these positions. To accept that there are compositional walls rising up in the house of nature one must accept that there are is a roof of machretic relations pressing down — and hence go beyond the received views. In the final part of the book, I explore what my findings about scientific reductionism and emergentism illuminate about our new debates about reduction/emergence. I sketch these new debates in my last post.