A Fine Tuned Universe? 9 (RJS)

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Chapter 15 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology is entitled “An Emergent Creation and Natural Theology.” This chapter presents some rather interesting ideas.

First McGrath returns to Augustine – not to his cosmology or science, but to his view of God’s creative power.  According to Augustine God’s creative activity encompasses both an act and a process. While Augustine applied his ideas in the context of the understanding of his day, which knew nothing of star formation, nucleogenesis, or evolution, the idea is consistent with – and sheds some light on our thinking about creation in the context of 20th and 21st century science.  McGrath connects Augustine’s approach to modern ideas of emergence in science and in biology. 

…creation entails the origination of a potentially multileveled reality, whose properties emerge under certain conditions which did not exist at the origins of the universe. Furthermore, these properties are not predictable by human observers a priori; they are discovered a posteriori. (206)

I have significant reservations about some of McGrath’s discussion of emergence – especially the postulate of “unpredictability.”   But let us look into it more closely.

Do you think that it is reasonable to think about emergence in creation and is this a theologically relevant concept?

Ok – most of you are probably wondering what in the world is meant by emergence.  I will probably butcher some of this – but here goes…McGrath gives a description of emergence characterized by four general features (p. 208):

  1. Everything that exists in the world of space and time is ultimately composed of the basic fundamental particles recognized by physics. However, physics proves inadequate to explain how this material comes to be structured.
  2. When ensembles or aggregates of material particles attain an appropriate level of organizational complexity, genuinely novel properties begin to emerge.
  3. These emergent properties cannot be reduced to, or predicted from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.
  4. Higher-level entities exercise a causal influence on their lower-level constituents.

Emergence is seen in collective properties and complexity.  The properties of bulk gold metal is very different from the properties of isolated gold atoms.  The properties of water are completely different from the properties of isolated hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  The properties of a cell are very different from the properties of the constituent molecules and the properties of mammal is very different from the properties of the constituent cells. In fact there is a general principle at  work:

Each stage of advancing complexity makes possible still further advances, which could not have taken place at earlier stages. The spontaneous self-organization of cosmological structures leads to the formation of planets; molecular and chemical evolution leads to living cells and life in general; and a Darwinian process of natural selection leads to the emergence of high-level functionality, including the emergence of mind, with its capacity to reflect on the natural world. (p. 209)

McGrath takes a leap off the deep end in some of his discussion in this chapter (in my educated opinion) – particularly when he starts to talk about the distinction between chemistry and physics as an example of emergence. The claim that chemistry cannot be reduced to physics is a semantic argument that requires formulation of definitions to make it true. (Basically it is baloney.)

However, the idea that complexity enables greater complexity is an interesting insight, as is the suggestions that higher-level entities exercise a causal influence on their lower-level constituents. There is – or appears to be – a stratification in nature that leads to the emergence of complexity.  This stratification can be thought to move from the inorganic (material) to the organic (“life”) to the mental (eg. consciousness and pleasure) to the spiritual (eg. thought, knowledge, personality).  I would suggest that this last category also moves from the individual to the collective and includes the collective growth in knowledge and understanding.

McGrath suggests that natural theology represents an evaluation and appreciation of nature seen from a Christian perspective and that this includes an appreciation of all levels from elementary particles to complex organisms and everything between and beyond.  We see the hand of God active in at all levels. He concludes by noting:

…it can be seen that there is a case to be made for the concept of creation embracing both primordial actuality and emergent potentiality … There is clearly room for responsible theological development of this notion, which might be recommended to avoid some of the more speculative approaches presently in circulation. This does not, it must be emphasized, involve the distortion or subversion of traditional Christian notions of creation, but is seen as their legitimate and necessary expansion. (p. 216)

Have any of you heard of or thought about emergence in science or theology? Is this a theologically useful way to think about creation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • Jonathan

    Just a point of clarification:
    The expression “casual influence” is used several times here; e.g., “higher-level entities exercise a casual influence on their lower-level constituents”. Should that be “causal”? If not, what is meant by a “casual influence”?

  • http://pascalslager.wordpress.com Phil W.

    What is interesting to me, and not totally clear from this summary, is the metaphysical status of these “higher level entities.” What is meant by saying that they cannot be reduced to or predicted from the lower level constituents? Is this a practical problem, or a genuinely metaphysical one? Under this view, what is the metaphysical status of the spiritual part of a man, for example? It bothers me if it is being suggested that the spiritual is just a new level of complexity, a higher principle of organization. It seems to me that, while integrated into the material realm, and intertwined with it, the spirit should be viewed as ontologically distinct from matter. Is this possible under Mcgrath’s view?

  • RJS

    Thanks Jonathan – it is causal. I’ve corrected it twice, and didn’t see more – if there are I will correct them as well.
    One of those cases where I read what I meant, not what I wrote, and spell check was of no use.

  • Travis Greene

    Phil @ 2,
    Is there a biblical reason spirit has to be distinct from matter in this way? If we’re already agreeing that spirit is integrated with and intertwined with body, why the bright-line distinction?

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    Emergence is a very important concept in faith-science discussions. Phil (#2) you highlight the reason it’s important — metaphysics, specifically ontology. Emergence makes “room” for a deeper ontology than materialism in a way that remains consistent with what we observe with respect to natural laws. It is particularly important as we consider the concept of “mind” and the related theological notion of “soul” or the “spiritual.” I might go so far as to say that without some notion of emergence, we lack a compelling response to hard core materialism — though perhaps I’m wrong here and more of a Roman Catholic notion of soul creationism is the only response.
    But, Phil, I wouldn’t say “spirit” is “ontologically distinct” from matter if that means completely separable from matter in a sort of gnostic fashion. Under an emergence paradigm, spirit / soul / mind is “ontologically distinct” in that it is not reducible to, and exercises downward causation on, the material layers from which it emerges. This resonates, as Travis (#4) notes, with a Hebraic concept of the interdependence of body and spirit.
    RJS, I think you too quickly dismiss the notion of emergence in chemistry. What makes you think all chemical systems are entirely reducible to physics? As I understand it — and I’m getting out of my depth — the issue of whether chemistry can be reduced to physics, or whether complex chemical systems display emergent properties, is a very live one in the philosophy of science literature. (Here is an interesting summary of issues in the “philosophy of chemistry”: http://www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/scerri/pdf/poc_=JCE_article.pdf)
    A very important caution here is the one McGrath makes regarding emergence and traditional Christian doctrines of creation. Process theology uses the notion of emergence to connect God and creation — God, in many process theologies, is an emergent property of the universe. We need to maintain that God is transcendent of creation — that He is the creator, not a property of the creation.

  • http://www.precipicemagazine.com Darren King

    I remember raising this topic as a good one with RJS several months ago. To me, the potential of this line of thinking was fascinating – more so that it seemed to be to RJS at the time. Now, my background is certainly not in science – but still, if there is any validity to the plausibility of this kind of paradigm, I’m excited.
    I guess the reason why I see this as really intriguing is that it suggests to me the possibility that there is a kind of dormant code in the universe – if you will. And that this dormant code suggests, to me anyway, the possibility of a purposeful directionality in creation. In other words, this seems to me to point to the hand of a designer.
    Why do I say that? Well, because, while randomness might play a role in the first level of “upward” organization, perhaps this second level “downward” or “feedback” organization is less random. Or look at it this way, several levels later, conscious beings will ultimately feedback in constructive ways into the creation. And, try this on for size, working as those made in the image of God – the creation begins to then reflect more and more of the intentionality of the designer as a result, via the agents of the original designer – human beings (and who knows, maybe via intelligent aliens elsewhere).

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com craig v.

    I suspect there may be some confusion here between what we can do via language and reality. The language we use to describe a higher order complexity may not be reducible to the language we use to describe lower level components. What follows from this? Did something emerge or are we simply seeing limitations to our language?

  • dopderbeck

    Craig (#7) — I don’t think it’s just semantics, because the heart of the matter is causality. When critical realists such as McGrath speak of reality being “stratified,” they’re suggesting (among other things) that there are different levels of causality. So — a complex chemical system cannot be reduced to — explained and predicted completely in terms of — physical laws; or a “mind” cannot be reduced to neurobiology. Such systems can exert causation and thus become ontological “things” themselves. Notice something very interesting here: there are fascinating resonances with classical Christian theology, such as Aquinas’ ideas about causation, though the Aristotelian science has been exchanged for contemporary science.
    Darren (#6) — interesting thoughts, but I think it’s a mistake to think of “emergence” as depending on some kind of front-loading of information. The elegance of emergence theory is that it shows how order and directionality can arise from stochastic (unpredictable, “random”) systems. If there’s front-loading of information, then the result in principle is empirically predictable, which would be something other than emergence. I think McGrath’s point re: natural theology isn’t about front-loading, but more about the fact that the boundary conditions of the system must be calibrated to facilitate a stochastic system from which directionality can emerge.
    A good analogy is the stock market. The stock market is a stochastic system — the market is driven by millions of individual moves that can’t be predicted with any statistical certainty, but an ordered system arises out of those stochastic moves. Yet, although the individual choices within the system are “random” (unpredictable), the system requires very specific boundary conditions for that order to emerge (e.g., a functioning exchange with definable rules for trading).

  • Steve

    In my experience, when interacting with emergence in science/theology, the concept is used to eliminate the need for God… because, if we can ‘explain’ mind/spirit in terms of emergence from lower strata, there is no need to (or it becomes a lot easier to avoid to) posit a non-emergent Mind/Spirit. This is just my experience.
    I would like to hear some thoughts on this. For example, is it true a Creator does not require emergence, but creations do (in order to have minds), or is emergence ‘just the way’ God creates (and why)?

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    As one whose research area straddles the boundaries of chemistry and physics I find that all these arguments of separability stem from misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Now I do not think that Roald Hoffman (quoted by McGrath) misunderstands, but I do think that he is misinterpreted. The JCE article seems a raft of misunderstandings – as far as I can tell Scerri is a philosophy of science expert who has published some very interesting thing, but he is not an expert in modern physics or physical chemistry/chemical physics.
    Bottom line – I will listen seriously to philosophy of science discussions when the speakers actually understand the underlying science and very very few chemists actually understand much physics. In this discussion the issue is either semantic and depends on definition or is not present.

  • AHH

    While I don’t claim expertise in the philosophical dimensions, or even in the scientific aspects beyond physics and chemistry, I join RJS in being unimpressed with some of the ways “emergence” is thrown around as a magic solution in some discussions.
    I think it is important to distinguish two different ways people talk about “emergent” properties in science:
    1) Properties that emerge at a higher level of organization that cannot be manifested at a lower level. Like bulk water can be “wet” but an individual water molecule can’t. Yet the bulk “wetness” (surface tension and so forth) is entirely predictable (given enough computing power) based on the underlying molecular physics. So if McGrath says this is an example of chemistry that can’t be reduced to physics, I agree with RJS that such a claim is “baloney”. And, in fact, I don’t know of any chemistry that can’t, in principle, be reduced to the underlying physics (I hope this opinion is not colored by the fact that about half my publications these days are in the Journal of Chemical Physics).
    2) Properties that emerge at a higher level of organization that somehow have “more” to them than one could get from the interactions of their components. An example of this second category would be the now discarded notion of vitalism in biology. Some people would put consciousness in this category, but I think the jury is still out on that.
    So we have category (1) that is non-controversial but I don’t know that it gets you anywhere metaphysically, and category (2) which may or may not even exist. If McGrath is mostly saying that God is at work in category (1) emergences and that God interacts at all the different levels, I guess I would agree but that is hardly novel. If McGrath is saying the fact that all sorts of higher-level things emerge (in the category 1 sense) bears witness to God’s creativity and design and we should praise Him for it, I guess I would agree with that as well but it doesn’t seem like much of a basis for a natural theology.

  • Marcos Paulo Reis

    I’m only a student and I’m here more to learn than to try to light on the topics discussed here. I see that when we thought about the “emergence” we can be guided to a route which can lead to ontology realms, but can we relate the “emergence” to the concept presented into Hegelian dialectic?
    I would like to see other point of views to expand my understanding about the way science and theology lens could make us see the image of Creation and its Creator.

  • RJS

    craig v #7, dopderbeck #8,
    I think that with respect to chemistry/physics the issue is semantic – there is a meaningful and useful language difference. But there is a unified reality behind the language. And it shouldn’t surprise you to find that I think that a complex chemical system can be reduced to — explained and predicted completely in terms of — physical laws. But the physical laws must include the multi-body interactions to the appropriate level of approximation.
    When we get to life (complex metabolism) and mind, consciousness, I think that we enter a different regime. While I think that there is still a “unified theory” (with no real clue what this theory is) the issue is complex because I think that it is clear that what we think and what we do influences the chemistry of our bodies which in turn influences what we think and do.

  • RJS

    Darren (#6)
    I remember you bringing this up before – and the ideas you bring up in your comment are worth discussion.
    Don’t these comments really tie back to the last post on McGrath’s book as well A Fine Tuned Universe? 8? There appears to be a directionality to evolution that makes complexity and the appearance of an conscious being capable of abstract creative thought inevitable. The simple reductionist approach is not enough.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — could you explain a little more, or provide some references, because I’m still not seeing why the issue is “semantic” (and if the difference is “meaningful and useful,” then it’s not just “semantic,” right?).
    Take McGrath’s example of gold (p. 206). Is he incorrect that the properties of metallic gold — its color and malleability — “cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual gold atoms”? It seems to me that this statement is correct, at the very least as to color. You can’t speak meaningfully of “color” without an entire system in place, which includes gold atoms organized into a metallic form, the right kind of light source, a perceiving apparatus, and I would say a consciousness that can attach the concept of “color gold.”
    You say “there is a unified reality behind the language.” I’m not sure what you mean here. The “stratification” of reality spoken of by critical realists doesn’t suggest a lack of underlying unity. This makes me think you are misunderstanding McGrath’s point. For example, McGrath says, “[t]he stratification of reality allows us to affirm that we live in a world that is ontologically unitary, while conceding that our knowledge of it is methodologically diverse.” (p. 215).

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    Both the properties of gold atoms and the properties of metallic gold bars are predictable and understood on the basis of the underlying physics. For that matter the properties of gold nanoparticles are also predictable and understood on the basis of the underlying physics… And this includes the energy levels that cause the absorption and reflection of light giving rise to the perceived colors of bulk gold and of nanoparticles.
    Now the issue of how the mind perceives color is a different (and complex) one.
    To claim that the properties of gold in aggregate are “emergent” and is a claim based in semantics.

  • AHH

    dopderbeck #15 asks about McGrath’s claim that the color and malleability of metallic gold “cannot be predicted from the behavior of individual gold atoms”
    Well, technically that is not false because you do need more than the “behavior of individual gold atoms” — you need a physical description of the interactions *among* gold atoms, and of the sea of electrons shared by the atoms in a metal. But that is all known physics not qualitatively different from the physics of one gold atom; it is “just” Schroedinger’s equation (famous last words of many a computational chemist). Give me (OK, not me, but some real quantum chemists) a powerful enough computer (probably needs to be orders of magnitude more powerful than current supercomputers) and we could give you the color and malleability of gold in bulk based only on the underlying physics of the gold nuclei and the electrons.
    Now, by “color” above I mean light reflected at certain wavelengths. If you define “color” to include human perception of something called “gold” then one is in a different realm (maybe that is what RJS meant by semantics?). But I believe the same wavelength of light is there whether a human is observing it or not.

  • dopderbeck

    AHH (Allan?) and RJS — now we’re getting somewhere. So, given a system with a certain set of boundary conditions, you can predict that a collection of gold atoms with form bonds that result in a solid substance that has the properties of being malleable and appearing to the human eye to have the color “gold.” But you can’t “get there” from individual gold atoms themselves absent the system. A bar of gold, then, is not reducible to a gold atom.
    In this (very real) sense, A gold atom is one “thing”; a bar of gold is a different “thing.” Now, the bar of gold obviously is comprised of gold atoms, so the bar of gold also is not separable from gold atoms. So how is it that we say, ontologically, a bar of gold is a different “thing” than a gold atom? This is where the concept of emergence, IMHO, is helpful.
    If what you want to say is that a bar of gold, ontologically, really is nothing more than a bunch of gold atoms, then I don’t see how you avoid materialist reductionism / determinism all the way down. All matter is comprised of atoms; all atoms of matter result from and are governed by physical laws; therefore, humans consciousness, the universe, and everything, is nothing but physical laws and is fully determined by physical laws. The concepts of emergence and stratification, IMHO, help us understand that ontology is thicker than this reductionist program.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com craig v.

    Dopderbeck (#8 and following)
    Perhaps an example that’s clearly a matter of changing a language might help to distinguish something truly emergent from semantical changes. In the math I was taught as a child I learned of the powerful things we can do when we express numbers as ratios. Unfortunately, certain numbers like the square root of two wouldn’t go along with the program and so we had to enrich our mathematical language to include irrational numbers. Then our textbooks had the audacity to ask about the square root of negative numbers and we had to enrich our language once again to include imaginary numbers. It should be clear that nothing really emerges here. Our math is posed with questions that we cannot answer. We don’t solve the problems with a reduction but rather with an enrichment. I suspect the same thing happens in the chemistry to physics examples (though I’m not a scientist in any sense so I’m just guessing). At a given state our physics may not be able to account for certain chemical phenomena. Strictly speaking, we don’t reduce the chemical phenomena to our current state of physics but we enrich our physics so that it can describe the new properties. Whether we do this (enrichment) or a simple reduction, it should be clear that we haven’t proved that anything has emerged. We’ve simply adapted our language.
    Your suggestion of looking at causality is a good one, but also brings new difficulties. In some circles it appears to me that talk of causality is being replaced with mathematical relationships. We might say the laws of objects in motion describe rather than cause the movements of the planets.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    But you can’t get to the properties of a forest by studying individual trees either – you need to know the interactions.
    You can’t get to a gold atom from the constituent nucleus and electrons without knowing the interactions between them.
    All you need to know to get from gold atoms to bulk gold is the interactions between the constituent pieces – electrons and nuclei. A gold bar is not an assembly of gold atoms – in a sense it is an assembly of gold nuclei with core electrons (sort of) confined to individual nuclei. The remaining electrons cannot be assigned to any individual nucleus and their contribution must be modeled in the context of the lattice of gold nuclei shielded by their “core” electrons. I don’t see how this is emergent in any meaningful sense. And both atoms and bulk are explained by the underlying physics.
    It seems to me that a fundamentally emergent property of gold, not predicted or explained by physics, would have to be inexplicable from Schrodinger’s equation with all terms retained. This just isn’t so – at least I have seen no convincing (or unconvincing) demonstration of it.
    The properties of a gold atom are explained by the SE; the properties of gold nanoparticles are explained by the SE; the properties of gold bulk are explained by the SE.
    Mind and consciousness are a different matter – I am not even sure what these are, much less how to go about explaining them.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS said: It seems to me that a fundamentally emergent property of gold, not predicted or explained by physics, would have to be inexplicable from Schrodinger’s equation with all terms retained.
    I respond: But as I understand it — and I understand it very little! — the SE is not as comprehensive as you suggest because of the effect of the observer. Thus we have the problem of Schrodinger’s Cat and the various proposed responses to it (Cophenhagen, many worlds, and so on). So, again, it seems to me that a “gold bar” is ontologically than a probabilistic lattice of gold atoms: either that probabilistic lattice becomes a “gold bar” when someone observes it, or it is a “gold bar” in only one of many possible worlds, or something equally weird.

  • Phil W.

    Travis Greene (#4) and dopderbeck (#5):
    The importance I see in drawing an ontological distinction between spirit and matter comes from the worry that emergence isn’t really any different from materialism. Maybe I just don’t understand it properly. I’m reading The Blind Watchmaker right now, written by the staunch materialist Richard Dawkins, and it seems to me he would fully acknowledge emergence as something that occurs. I guess I see it as important that “spirit,” beyond exerting a downward causal influence on matter, and not being predictable from the behavior of matter itself, have it’s “own reality.” I’m not sure whether or not this is being suggested by the concept of emergence or not. Which of these three would most accurately capture emergence (or are all three compatible with the concept)?:
    1. The view that God ordered the particles in such a way that the human spirit (whatever that is) would become manifested as an emergent property of biological life.
    2. The view that God, once biological life was established through other means that he set up, took special action so that the human spirit became manifest in biological life (and wouldn’t have otherwise).
    3. The view that the human spirit is itself a special creation of God, having existence independent of matter (but perhaps dependent on matter for functioning) brought about at a particular time, and deliberately “injected” into the material realm.
    As far as your initial question goes, Travis, I don’t know which view is really the most biblical…I don’t know how the biblical writers thought about these things. I would stress though that the distinction doesn’t necessitate a separation.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Can I ask what may be a dumb question?
    I followed the gold discussion. How about another example. Hydrogen is an easily combustible gas. Oxygen is, well, a powerful oxidier, necessary for combustion. Combining hydrogen and oxygen in a certain configuration produces water–compeletely non combustible and non flammable. In fact it is a pretty good quencher of both fires and thirst.
    Are the qualities of “wetness” and “non-flammablilty” emergent qualities? They do not exist in the constituents but only come into existence when the two constituents lacking the quality are combined.
    Am I missing the point?

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic,
    I think that those qualities are classed by some as emergent properties (and water from Hydrogen and oxygen is an example I’ve seen used). What bothers me about much of the discussion – including that given by McGrath, who should, I think, know better, are statements like those in 1 and 3 in the original post.
    However, physics proves inadequate to explain how this material comes to be structured.
    and
    These emergent properties cannot be reduced to, or predicted from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.
    All of these properties are well explained by physics and they can all be predicted from the electromagnetic interaction of charged particles with a quantum understanding and a few other details thrown into the mix.

  • AHH

    dopderbeck #21 (and yes, it’s me and you are missed on that other list where you used to hang out) brings up the measurement problem, Schroedinger’s cat, etc. in trying to maintain some different, emergent ontology between a bar of gold and individual gold atoms.
    This sometimes paradoxical quantum wierdness (which most working scientists ignore to no ill effect) does not provide any ontological difference between the gold atom and the gold bar, because exactly the same quantum interpretational issues arise for a gold atom, the gold bar, Fort Knox, or whatever. The gold atom has 1 nucleus and 79 electrons described by Schroedinger’s equation. The gold bar has a zillion nuclei and 79 zillion electrons described by Schroedinger’s equation. While the wavefunction of the bar is hugely more complicated, no new kind of quantum paradox exists for the bar that doesn’t already exist for one atom. In fact, the large numbers ensure that the *relative* significance of any quantum wierdness will be much less for the bar than for the single atom.
    So, while there may be interesting things about the relationship between quantum wierdness and Christian theology, it doesn’t do anything to give the sort of emergence you seem to be looking for. The properties of the bar are “reducible to physics” just like the properties of the atom are — the only thing quantum wierdness gets you is that at some level the “physics” can be strange and/or paradoxical.
    In another comment, you wanted to avoid “materialistic reductionism” “all the way down”. I think what RJS and I are saying is that we think reductionism is true for the relationship between chemistry and physics (in the sense of chemistry being a consequence of physics with no new fundamental principles needed). Maybe it is not true at higher levels (like consciousness) or lower levels (like interpretation of quantum physics), but the examples of a gold bar or the wetness of water do not in any way disprove the reduction of chemistry to physics.

  • dopderbeck

    Hmmm… (Hi Alan! )… so I think the hangup the physicists here are having is with McGrath’s perhaps sloppy reference to “prediction.” Let’s grant — Schroedinger’s Cat aside — that the Schroedinger Equation allows physics to “predict” within reasonable bounds of probability that gold atoms, under certain conditions, will form a matrix that results in what we call a “gold bar.” Where I remain uncomfortable is in saying that the “gold bar” therefore is “reducible” to “gold atoms plus the laws of physics.” This strikes me as an incredibly flat ontology. I don’t have the physics chops (by a long stretch!) to make this argument very well. I would grant that at one level the gold bar is reducible to gold atoms plus the laws of physics — but that’s the point of “stratification” — this is not the only level of “reality” that explains a “gold bar,” and I don’t think this is just semantics.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    Isn’t this a metaphysical question? I have a hard time visualizing any significant emergence between gold atoms and bulk gold. It seems to me more usefull to think about the difference between a collection of atoms and a person. This puts us in a different regime. (And of course people often attach a value or meaning to gold that is not reducible to the properties of the atoms.)

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    On emergent properties.
    What do you think of of Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of emergent properties?
    If I recall correctly, Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as a process towards increasing complexity with emergent properties appearing at each next level of complexity. Each lower level could be detected as a subunit of the next most complex level upon closer examination. So, protons could be observed in atoms that could be observed in molecules that could be observed in cells that can be ovserved in animals. One of those animals has now developed consciousness-a newly emergent property.
    I believe that Teilhard de Chardin called the sphere of consciousness the “noosphere,” a level of complexity above the “biosphere.” If I understand him correctly, he suggested that conscious beings will still evolve towards a unified consciousness which he called the Omega Point, soemthing that actually seems to be very close to the Communion of Saints.
    I dont think McGrath’s point about physics seems to support an idea of evolutionary teleology, and I’m not sure Teilhard de Chardin’s theory can ever be scientifically demostrated. It certainly won’t happen in my life time. I still take great comfort in the concept of Communion as a next step for humanity, however.

  • Travis Greene

    Phil @ 22,
    I share your concern re: materialism. My other concern, though, is that sometimes we get backed into fighting for certain conclusions (like the nature of “spirit”) for philosophical rather than biblical reasons. It’s difficult enough to get people to realize the Bible doesn’t teach Greek-style dualism, since many of us were quite explicitly taught that it does. Or for people admit that there is a development in the Bible’s teaching on that and related matters like the afterlife.
    I think your option 1 is the best description of emergence as it relates to spirituality. The idea being that God created the universe in such a way that life, and consciousness, would inevitably develop. I certainly can’t say I’m sold on that, but it’s interesting.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#27) — yes, it’s a metaphysical question! Emergence deals with metaphysics. In that sense, I suppose, emergence isn’t a “scientific” idea, at least as I understand it. It’s a metaphysical implication of scientific realities.
    Here’s how William Hasker defines the human mind as an emergent property of the brain (in “The Emergent Self”): “they are properties that manifest themselves when the appropriate material constituents are placed in special, highly complex relationships, but these properties are not observable in simpler configurations nor are they derivable from the laws which describe the properties of matter as it behaves in these simpler configurations.”
    This seems to be a decent working definition of an emergent property. John Searle identifies liquidity and solidity as emergent properties. Scanning through some other materials, I see now that John Polkinghorne does not like Searle’s use of liquidity and solidity for this purpose, for the reasons you and AHH identified: liquidity and solidity are derivable from the energetic properties of atoms. Actually it seems that Polkinghorne doesn’t like the idea of emegence at all and instead suggests the complexity of how the brain is “wired” precludes determinism (see his “Questions of Truth” on this).
    Well, I dunno. The idea of emergence still appeals to me.

  • RJS

    Parts of the idea of emergence appeal to me as well. Especially the downward influence of “mind over matter.” The complexity of thought and action is perplexing. But it must be held loosely for the time – and confined to regimes where it doesn’t seem either insupportable or simply a matter of semantics.


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