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At Mind Matters News: Why some think emergence is replacing materialism in science

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Adam Frank

As U Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank points out, materialism, in the form of reductionism, posits a world without novelty:

In an article at BigThink, University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank (pictured) argues that reductionism is — for good reasons — fading in science: “Reductionism offers a narrow view of the universe that fails to explain reality.” It is slowly being replaced:

Reductionism is the view that everything true about the world can be explained by atoms and their interactions. Emergence claims that reductionism is wrong, and the world can evolve new stuff and new laws that are not predictable from “nothing but” atoms. Which perspective on science is correct has huge implications, not only for ourselves but for everything from philosophy to economics to politics.


Frank intends a series of articles at BigThink on why emergence is replacing reductionism. The capsule version is that reductionism reduces everything to the behavior of elementary particles and “describes a world without fundamental novelty or essential innovation.” But that isn’t the world we live in.

And emergence?

As philosophers Brigitte Falkenburg and Margaret Morrison put it, “A phenomenon is emergent if it cannot be reduced to, explained or predicted from its constituent parts… emergent phenomena arise out of lower-level entities, but they cannot be reduced to, explained nor predicted from their micro-level base.” From an emergentist view, over the course of the universe’s history, new entities and even new laws governing those entities have appeared.


Frank argues that evolution is the creative force that does all this (including evolving new laws?) But it’s not clear that what he means by “evolution” is the garden variety change in life forms over time.

To the extent that emergence marches with panpsychism, it probably is catching on. That means we may see ourselves in different kinds of philosophy of science arguments over evolution.

See also:

Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems.


How a materialist philosopher argued his way to panpsychism. Galen Strawson starts with the one fact of which we are most certain — our own consciousness. To Strawson, it makes more sense to say that consciousness is physical — and that electrons are conscious — than that consciousness is an illusion.

2 Replies to “At Mind Matters News: Why some think emergence is replacing materialism in science

  1. 1
    tjguy says:

    So imagining some sort of mysterious emergence that cannot be tested or demonstrated in any way – that’s fine, but positing intentional creation, that’s not.

    Got it! I guess scientists are free to place their faith in anything they want as long as it is within their worldview and has nothing to do with a Creator.

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    Reductionism is much more than atoms and physical interactions. Lewis’ “nothing buttery” applies to many (perhaps even all?) branches of human investigation. When a historian, for example, tries to explain some past event in terms of one person’s decision or one group’s tendency, that is reductionism: ignoring the (possibly lesser) effects of other aspects of the (usually complex and not fully known) situation.
    In science, of course, reductionism comes into play when someone discovers a new causality and begins to attribute many aspects of reality to it, while ignoring or downplaying others – especially the unknown ones. The tendency to attribute results to things you know about, rather than remaining open to other effects, is a very human tendency. It is very widespread in psychology, I imagine (think of Freud’s attempts to attribute every form of mental disturbance to past or present sexual problems).
    The obvious example for us is Darwinian thinking applied to DNA: “we understand (sort of) how proteins are made based on DNA sequences, and proteins do everything (mostly) in lifeforms, but most of DNA does not code for proteins (as far as we know), therefore, it must be evolutionary “junk”, and we do not need to study it further.” This reductionist view reigned for a couple of decades before biologists took the ID prediction of other functions in non-coding DNA seriously enough to start looking. Then they found all sorts of new functionality they had been overlooking.

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