Emergence: A Scientific Primer

Emergence: A Scientific Primer

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Visitors to this website might have noticed the worldview tensions between those bloggers and essayists who accept that a fully naturalistic perspective is adequate for understanding and appreciating the universe at all scales and those whose metaphysics posit something more, something otherworldly.

The two of us share the former worldview; we are “religious naturalists.” As naturalists, we look to the self-correcting, peer-reviewed, and globally collective enterprise of science to offer up the most trustworthy (albeit ever-imperfect) account of what reality is and how it came to be. As religious naturalists, we make a practice of interpreting what is known about the natural world in ways that are deeply meaningful, practically useful, and profoundly soul-nourishing. As “evolutionary evangelists” we also energetically share those interpretations and promote the ideas of colleagues on a similar path.

Neuroscientist Terrence Deacon is one of the scholars we regularly look to for help in both understanding and interpreting the findings of science. A year ago, his newest interdisciplinary tome was published, titled, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. We regard it as the most important book written on the science and philosophy of what has come to be called “emergence.”

A desire to understand emergence is surely one of the attributes that most readers of this website share—regardless of our worldview differences. Deacon’s fully naturalistic (but nonreductionistic) synthesis is thus crucially important to understand and consider. Toward that end, the two of us interviewed Deacon earlier this year and posted the audio as the 12th episode in our Inspiring Naturalism podcast series. We have now linked the podcast summary to the best synopsis of the core elements of Deacon’s book that we have encountered online. It is a book review written by Sam MacIntosh in the current issue of Skeptic magazine. An e-version of this review is freely available. 

Here is an example of how this short book review serves as a synopsis: 

Key to this new perspective is that emergence “does not mean new physics and chemistry laws but new cause-and-effect laws.” And for that we need to examine more than the dynamic processes involving matter and energy. Deacon urges us to turn our attention to relationships. One aspect of relationship on which processes of emergence depend is constraint.

If you are intrigued, we recommend you read the full review, then listen to our podcast interview with Deacon. Those introductions will either be enough for you to get the gist of this new view of emergence or they will propel you into the far more arduous task of reading and comprehending this (necessarily) long, technical, and vitally important book.