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Philosopher wants to free “emergent” universe from the clutches of mystics

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f course, once he uses the term “emergent,” it’s game over.  Philosopher Paul Humphreys explains,

While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex. …

Emergence was popular in philosophy of science more than a century ago. Reputable figures such as John Stuart Mill, Henri Bergson and C D Broad suggested that chemistry and biology would struggle to account for the origins of life; perhaps life could only be said to ‘emerge’ from these domains, demanding its own special laws and explanations. Beginning in the 1930s, though, advances in quantum chemistry and the discovery of the structure of DNA and RNA showed the potential of atomistic approaches. Soon enough, a cloud of suspicion formed over emergence and its scientific potential.

Nowadays, the concept is often invoked by quantum mystics, believers in souls, and advocates of the inscrutable nature of consciousness.

The real problem with Humphrey’s attempt to save emergence for materialism (naturalism), is that remarkable new things don’t happen simply because a system is large or complex. A billion rocks may feature a number of one-in-a-million oddities like an half-tonne lump of gold. But you can have a very much larger number of rocks and not one of them will come to life.

Thinking about emergence opens up a set of questions that are quintessentially philosophical, even though the answers might require substantial scientific input. For example: were all the laws of nature in place at the origin of the Universe, or did they emerge through some kind of transformation? If so, does this imply a set of ‘superlaws’ to explain how and why such transformations occurred? Such questions do not arise naturally within an atomistic ontology – but guided by a careful approach to emergence, we might make headway and free the concept from the clutch of mystics. Paul Humphreys, “Out of nowhere: Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?” at Aeon

As noted earlier, mystics are not the problem. And, while we are here, the materialistic study of consciousness is collapsing into nonsense. For all practical purposes, consciousness is inscrutable on those terms.

See also: Post-modern science: The illusion of consciousness sees through itself


From Scientific American: “we may all be alters—dissociated personalities— of universal consciousness.”


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