Emergence and Supervenience: A Reply to Phil Clayton

Emergence and Supervenience: A Reply to Phil Clayton

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Metanexus: Views 2001.11.17 2594 words

Today’s column by Greg Peterson is the fourth and final response to PhilClayton’s column on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi that appeared onFriday (2001.11.09) on Metanexus. More information about the chemist turnedphilosopher, Michael Polanyi, is included in the introduction to thatcolumn.

Greg Peterson is Associate Profesor of Religion at Thiel College. He is aregular contributor to Zygon and author of the forthcoming book The Godof Mind: Doing Theology Through the Lens of Cognitive Science. He beginshis response with a lovely story about the Taoist Chuang-tzu intended toreveal that how we perceive the world (epistemology) goes a long way toillustrate or explain how and what we think the world is (any -ology:biology, theology, or other systematic study).

Chuang-tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river.Out swim the minnows, so free and easy, said Chuang-tzu. That’s how thefish are happy. You are not a fish, replied Hui Shih. How do you know that the fishare happy?
You aren’t me, said Chuang-tzu. Whence do you know that I don’t knowthe fish are happy?
We’ll grant that not being you, I don’t know about you, said Hui Shih.You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that youdon’t know the fish are happy. Let’s go back to where we started, replies Chuang-tzu. When you said’Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’, you asked me the questionalready knowing that I knew. I knew it from above the Hao river.

So, what do we know standing above the Hao River? What do we know, forexample, about the ancient past or the infinite universe, standing here onplanet Earth today. To appropriate a line from the HBO film of Randy Shilts’book And the Band Played On?: What do we think? What do we know? And whatcan we prove? How much of what is involved in the science and religiondebate could be an artifact of our perceptions? What do we merely think?What do we actually know? And how much of it can we prove or should weprove? I would appreciate your comments for a future column on this topic.So please respond by clicking on the comment button at the bottom of thisarticle’s webpage or by responding to me, Stacey Ake at <ake@Metanexus.net>.

Good reading!

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Emergence and Supervenience: A Reply to Phil Clayton.From: Greg PetersonEmail: <grepeterson@yahoo.com>

I begin with a dialogue between the 4th century Taoist philosopher,Chuang-tzu, and his friend, intellectual opponent and eminent logician, HuiShih.

Chuang-tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river.Out swim the minnows, so free and easy, said Chuang-tzu. That’s how thefish are happy. You are not a fish, replied Hui Shih. How do you know that the fishare happy?
You aren’t me, said Chuang-tzu. Whence do you know that I don’t knowthe fish are happy?
We’ll grant that not being you, I don’t know about you, said Hui Shih.You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that youdon’t know the fish are happy. Let’s go back to where we started, replies Chuang-tzu. When you said’Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’, you asked me the questionalready knowing that I knew. I knew it from above the Hao river. (from Chuang Tzu, p. 17).

I find this debate between Chuang-tzu and Hui Shih, occurring as it didsome 2300 years ago, oddly relevant for today’s proceedings. In its ownway, the debate focuses on epistemology, and the two protagonists take quitedifferent approaches as to how to even approach the question. Hui Shih,takes the scientific approach. He wants facts and theories that can belogically categorized and from which can be deduced clear and preciseconclusions. Chuang-tzu, however, takes a different approach. In his finalreply, he shows that he is not interested in the knowledge, but the implicitbounds within which such knowledge occurs. More on this later.

Philip Clayton has presented to us his views on emergence andsupervenience, two concepts that have become central to his broadertheological and philosophical project. In doing so, he has also attemptedto show that some of the historical roots of modern emergence andsupervenience theory run through the though of Michael Polanyi, while at thesame time attempting to show that Polanyian perspectives on emergence can beenriched by contemporary developments in the supervenience debates. Whilethere are a number of points that can be pursued, I will quickly move to theissues that I consider central.

Phil’s position is essentially this. Polanyi’s position on emergence:good! Polanyi’s endorsement of dubious scientific theories that did not panout: bad! Reductive physicalism, non-reductive physicalism, strongsupervenience, token-token theories of mind-body relationship, and prettymuch everything but a type-type understanding of supervenience andemergence: bad! Epistemic emergence: Not enough! Full-blown, radical-kind,strongly emergent weak supervenience: really, really good!

I should note at the outset that there are a number of points that Philand I agree on. I largely concur with what Phil has to say about Polanyi.I generally agree with Phil’s rejection of reductive physicalism as ametaphysical program and his general endorsement of emergence theories. Onthe characterization of supervenience and emergence, I start to worry some.As such, I offer the following observations.

Observation 1: I’ve come to regard most articles I read aboutsupervenience theories supremely unhelpful for the philosophy of mind andhuman nature, mainly because, as far as I can tell, they have littlerelevance as to how any theory of the relation of mind-body-brain wouldlikely pan out. Phil quite rightly criticizes token-token theories, most ofwhich do not take into account issues of whole-part relations that wouldnecessarily be central to any theory of mind. Too often, it is assumed thatmental and physical properties are simple, discrete entities that can beeasily and unproblematically correlated, as if the problem was no morecomplicated than currency exchange rates. But any single mental eventinvolves thousands to millions of neurons, and it is not at all clear thatthis can be construed as a simple one-on-one relationship. I thereforeconcur with Phil on his brief and sweeping characterization of what he callsstrong supervenience, and I think he and others are correct in theirestimation that strong supervenience theories are necessarily reductive incharacter.

Observation 2: No doubt influenced by California’s fitness orientedculture, Phil speaks of weak and strong supervenience as well as weak andstrong emergence. Phil’s analysis seems to imply a relation between thetwo. Strong supervenience correlates with weak emergence; weaksupervenience correlates with strong emergence. In making thesedistinctions, Phil is, I think, following the currents of discussion as theynow stand. It is here, however, that the problems begin to emerge (orsupervene?), for there a range of possible meanings. Historically, theliterature that advocates forms of strong emergence have been unclear onprecisely what’s being implied. A range of possibilities exist, anddifferent forms are advocated by different authors.

For this reason, I have chosen a slightly different characterizationthat I hope more clearly brings out the issues involved. Rather thanspeaking of weak and strong emergence, I would rather speak of open andclosed emergence (or perhaps emergent systems). A closed emergent system isone in which all the lower level physical parameters are known. It is thusnot epistemologically emergent. Necessarily, then, a closed emergent systemwould obey known physical laws at the lowest levels, including the laws ofthermodynamics. Closed emergent systems arise in situations where the lowerlevels organize themselves or are organized into complex interactive wholesthat obey higher order laws and produce real and novel patterns. It is thiswhole-part relationship, combined with the development of higher order lawsand novel higher order behavior that characterize closed system emergence.It is important to note that many of the examples used to support aphilosophy of emergence are of precisely this sort, from David Campbell’ssoldier termites to William Wimsat’s regulators. Nancey Murphy and GeorgeF. R. Ellis have used the desktop computer as an example of emergence, andin some ways the desktop computer is the example of closed system emergencepar excellence, with clearly distinguishable levels of organization, fromthe physical elements to hardware organization to code to what appears onthe screen. Presumably, closed system emergence allows ontologicalemergence of a radical kind. Whether it supports top-down causality is morecomplicated. I would suggest that it does, but Phil might disagree.Certainly, closed system emergence has a price, inasmuch as it is relativelydeterministic at the lowest levels, even if indeterministic the higherlevels.

In contrast to closed system emergence, systems that betray open systememergence are systems whose full workings are not known and which may relyon principles heretofore unknown. Open system emergence necessarily impliesepistemic uncertainty. It may or may not imply ontological open-ness aswell. Philosophers like John Searle and Colin McGinn, for instance, canboth be seen as advocates of open system emergence, but in both cases theirclaim is that our understanding of the mind-body relation is epistemicallyopen (we currently and perhaps will never understand it) but ontologicallyclosed, in the sense that they both believe that no new physical orsuper-physical properties are required to explain the relation. RogerPenrose’s advocacy for a new theory of physics to explain the properties ofmind is open in both senses, epistemologically because we currently don’tunderstand the mind, and ontologically because new principles are calledfor. Most forms of substance dualism and panpsychism may be considered asradical forms of open system emergence. Not only do they call for newproperties currently unknown, but new properties which seem at considerablevariance with what we currently know about the world.

Observation 3: We might now ask, what kind of emergent supervenientistis Phil Clayton? Clearly, Phil wants both ontological status and causalpowers for the mind. One may argue that closed system emergence can giveboth. For many, this seems counterintuitive, for if the system is completeat the lower level, then that seems to imply there cannot be top-downcausality. This is not necessarily the case, however, and it relies on aconceptual confusion that assumes that the ontological levels in a physicalsystem are completely discrete. I would argue that this completelymisunderstands the emergent character of many physical systems. If the mindis a closed emergent system, it is mind-ful by virtue of the organization ofits physical constituents. One might say, borrowing Douglas Hofstadter’sfelicitous phrase, that closed emergent systems are not simply hierarchies,composed of independent levels, but tangled hierarchies, where levels arenot completely discrete from one another. On this account, the mind is aphysical system, but it is not merely a physical system, and we might saythe same for the person as a whole.

While I am not sure, I suspect that Phil would ultimately find thisunpalatable. Elsewhere in his writings, he has argued that there can bemental causation without physical causation, something that would beimpossible for a closed emergent system. If this is the case, when Philspeaks of radical kind emergence, he is not simply speaking of new and novelproperties that emerge out of the natural world as we understand it, but fornew ontological categories altogether. The question then, is what kind ofcategories or things are we looking for? Once we open this door, it canopen very wide very fast. Phil shows some sympathy for theories that invokequantum mechanics, but also acknowledges their limitations. Phil is alsoquite strong in his rejection of substance dualism, although in his advocacyof mental causation without physical causation, he may be closer to it thanhe is willing to admit. Or, perhaps, because it is open, we cannot know atall. We must remain agnostic for now, and acknowledge that the human personis a multi-layered thing that can be approached at differentphenomenological levels, while admitting ignorance as to how the levelsconnect.

Observation 4: All of this is very abstract. I tend to believe thatphilosophy works best when it can find concrete examples to mull over. So,I would pose three questions to Phil as a way of helping him clear me up.First, can there be robot minds, a la Cog and Kismet (the currentcelebrities), and what would that imply? Second, both cockroaches andchimpanzees have brains, but do they have minds? And does the answer tothis question tell us anything important? Third, are zombies possible?That is, is it possible to have intelligent behavior without that thing wecall consciousness or subjectivity?

In fairness to Phil, I’ll reveal my short answers to these questions:chimpanzees, yes; robots, probably; cockroaches, probably not; zombies, Ireally doubt it. In saying this, I present my own feeling that the evidenceon these questions remain difficult and the solutions less than clear-cut.In particular, I feel that there is a kind of dilemma most modern thinkersnow face. On the one hand, there is good scientific evidence to believethat some form closed system emergence is the best way to go forunderstanding the mind-brain-body relation. Functionalist programs(speaking very broadly now) have been highly successful in the fields thatcompose the cognitive sciences, and promise to be so for decades to come.At the same time, there are good philosophical reasons to suppose thatclosed system emergence must be wrong, not least because it leads toimplications for identity and personhood that are, from the first personperspective, both improbable and unpalatable. If Sophocles wrote aboutintellectual dilemmas rather than moral ones, he would, in my estimation,find a ripe subject here.

Concluding Observation: In truth, I felt much as Phil did when asked tospeak on this subject at a session of the Polanyi society. How forced willthe connection to Polanyi be? Will I be limited to pleasant platitudes?

While I have certainly read Polanyi, I have never focused on his work,although I have always been appreciative of his emphasis on the tacitdimensions of thought, and indeed have become more so in recent years. Itis with this in mind that I return to the dialogue between Chuang-tzu andHui Shih. Like Hui Shih, I believe that we should take both scientifictheories and philosophical constructs seriously, for the benefits of sucheffort are important in innumerable ways. Like Chuang-tzu, however, we mustalso take into account the boundaries within which such endeavors arepursued. Both scientific theories and more analytic oriented forms ofphilosophy aim for clarity, logical rigor, and completeness. At the sametime, we can sometimes let our theories too easily drive our values, andwhen we turn to that most important of subjects, the human person, suchdrives can be dangerous indeed. It is perhaps this caution that tips meover into the camp of open emergence, impressed both by what we haveachieved as well as by our own ignorance. And, by those boundaries withinwhich our experiences occur. I suspect Polany might agree with that. Atthe very least, it may open our eyes to the false polarities and uncertaincertainties that we sometimes are too eager to claim.

This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online https://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.

Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists.

Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.