Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

The Status of Emergence

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

The Status of Emergence

Article excerpt

The Status of Emergence

Paul Henle (with an introduction by Jeffrey A. Goldstein)

Originally published as Henle, P. (1942). "The status of emergence," Journal of Philosophy, 39(18): 486-93. Reprinted with kind permission.

The Hard Problem of Emergence is its Property of Self-transcendence

I first read this classic paper on emergence by the American philosopher Paul Henle over ten years ago. Rereading it, I am surprised by several themes which did not strike me so the first time around. First is Henle's early avowal - this article is after all from the early nineteen forties and was published in the prestigious Journal of Philosophy - that the idea of emergence had become generally accepted as a corollary to the theory of evolution "and there can be little doubt as to its truth." Clearly the idea of emergence was not just a fly-by-night notion that was awaiting for complexity science to give it substance. On the contrary, Henle's paper and others like it around that time touched on many issues concerning emergence that were hotly debated, and fostered important insights which complexity science can learn much from and need not waste time by continually reinventing the wheel. It appears to me that the divide between the two cultures, science and the humanities, that C. P. Snow so strongly derided is not only still with us, but may have grown wider, much to the detriment of both sides.

One particularly salient topic Henle took up was emergent novelty since he believed the soundness ofthe concept of emergence depended in large measure on whether the novelty it proclaimed was plausibly construed. This issue of novelty was closely connected to the way Henle thought emergence defied explanation although he, at the same time, somewhat paradoxically insisted that emergent phenomena necessarily retained a causal linkage with the substrate out of which they emerged. This is very much pertinent to current complexity science inspired disputes placing the idea of emergence against reductionist strategies of explanation.

Looking over these themes now, I suggest we view Henle's argument as his unique grappling with the central conceptual crux of the idea of emergence, what I'll call here the "hard" problem of emergence, borrowing the phrase (but altering the meaning a bit as I shall say more about below) from the Australian philosopher David Chalmers's famous characterization ofthe refractoriness of consciousness to scientific explanation (see, e.g., Chalmers, 1995-1997; see also Rosenberg, 2004, for a intriguing answer to Chalmers's hard problem by incorporating emergence into the fundamental nature of nature). Shifting from Chalmers's views on consciousness to the idea of emergence is not a far reach given two relevant facts. The first is that Chalmers studied for his Ph.D. under Douglas Hofstadter whose magnum opus, Godei, Escher, Bach (1979) is a very long (742 pages!) speculation aiming to understand consciousness as an emergent phenomena, a proposal that comes to a head in the last several pages when the fertile notions of Gödelian "strange loops" and "tangled hierarchies" are employed in order to account for how consciousness could emerge from the brain. The relevant second fact has to do with a growing trend in consciousness studies that seeks to explain consciousness as emergent in ways apart from Hofstadter's meta-mathematical approach (see Freeman, 2001; and Clayton, 2006).

According to Chalmers, the "easy" problem of consciousness lies in coming up with credible scientific explanations, couched in terms of computational or neural mechanisms, of such phenomena as the ability to react to environmental stimuli, the integration of information by a cognitive system, the focusing of attention, and similar cognitive functions. The easy problem aims to explain cognitive or mental functioning according to constructs having to do with brain dynamics, the latter which I'll generalize as the substrate or component level. …

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