International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion

edited by Philip Clayton , Paul Davies

Introductory Essay by Wesley Wildman

The Re-Emergence of Emergence is one of the volumes generated by scholars involved in the “Humble Approach Initiative” of the John Templeton Foundation, directed by Dr. Mary Ann Meyers. The conference giving rise to this volume was a three-day August 2002 consultation in Granada, Spain. Twelve essayists subsequently contributed their best thoughts on the subject to the book, which is further stabilized by Philip Calyton’s robust orientation and analysis in a pair of essays introducing and concluding the book.

This volume represents the state of the art in multidisciplinary debates over emergence. It is unique in engaging every level of the hierarchy of disciplines from physics and biology to consciousness and theology, with careful attention to conceptual similarities and differences in the way the term “emergence” is deployed by the various authors and within various disciplinary frameworks.

Clayton’s introductory chapter on the conceptual foundations of emergence offers a helpful survey of what he calls the “pre-history” of the idea of emergence. The key distinction in this chapter is between strong emergence and weak emergence, with the fundamental dispute being over whether genuinely new causal powers (agents, processes) come into existence through the evolutionary process that drives emergent complexity in our biosphere. The strong-emergence view asserts that such new causal powers do emerge. This view is classically exemplified by C. D. Broad and C. L. Morgan, and more recently by Michael Polanyi and Roger Sperry. Meanwhile, the weak-emergence position, classically exemplified by Samuel Alexander and the dominant view within philosophical circles today, asserts that causal powers are always and only at the microphysical level and are channeled into the complex organizational forms that underlie (or offer a convenient explanation of) emergent phenomena. Clayton points out that the validity of this strong-weak distinction is a matter of broad consensus and that the volume explicates positions on both sides of the debate.

Part I on “The Physical Sciences” contains essays by co-editor Paul C. W. Davies, Erich Joos, and George F. R. Ellis. Part II on “The Biological Sciences” offers essays by Terrence W. Deacon, Lynn J. Rothschild, and Barbara Smuts. Part III on “Consciousness and Emergence” presents essays by Jaegwon Kim, Michael Silberstein, Nancey Murphy, and David J. Chalmers. Part IV on “Religion and Emergence” boasts essays by Arthur Peacocke and Niels Henrik Gregersen, before Clayton’s concluding chapter.

The great strength of this book is that it does not pretend at unanimity, or even convergence toward a consensus. Rather, the rhetorical strategy of the volume is to acknowledge significant diversity among contributors and to insist that the whole that emerges from its diverse constituent parts be interpreted as a sourcebook for debates on the theme of emergence. Several contributors, including especially Ellis and Clayton, do attempt to mount intellectually adventurous syntheses across disciplinary perspectives. These efforts indicate that a comprehensive theory of emergence may be possible to construct, even if such a theory is not yet in hand. Of course, skeptics, well represented in the book, stand ready to scrutinize carefully any such attempt.