Emergence, Supervenience, and Personal Knowledge: A Response to Philip Clayton

Emergence, Supervenience, and Personal Knowledge: A Response to Philip Clayton

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My response to Philip Clayton’s paper is in four parts:

  1. a “Reader’s Digest” version of Clayton’s basic positions
  2. an attempt to show that Clayton’s positions are closer to Polanyi than he indicates
  3. a brief suggestion about the theology/science engagement
  4. a question about logos and telos-in Aristotle, Aquinas, Polanyi, and Clayton, particularly as it pertains to analogy and personhood, two major topics for both Clayton and my own work.

Clayton’s Basic Positions

I suspect that “Emergence, Supervenience, and Personal Knowledge” (as well as God and Contemporary Science) is a sort of prolegomenon, a part of a larger, grander strategy. In pursuit of this strategy Clayton repeatedly displays three things:

  1. A serious engagement with science, one that allows science the first word as the locus of contemporary rationality, that genuinely respects science as for its demonstrable prowess, and that allows whatever the current scientific consensus may be veto power over positions that cannot or will not speak its discourse.
  2. His own non-negotiable position: a robust form of top-down causality in which mental events can cause physical (brain) events. Hence, even though the eminent neurobiologist William Newsome “took [him] to task” for it, Clayton retains the position and offers several possible scientific or quasi-scientific warrants for it, his favorite being a “dynamical systems approach.” This system represents “a shift from the neuronal level to broad brain systems,” in which an interactive, complex, and essentially holistic model “offers the most promising solution to the mind-body problem” (See, 8-9 and God and Contemporary Science, henceforth, GCS, 255-256). Couple this understanding of brain function with “radical kind emergence” (7,9) and you have the kernel of his committed stance vis-a-vis biology.
  3. Once Clayton has established the above foothold, he restates his two commitments as a “dual wager”: first, the ultimate victor will preserve a place for mental causation; and second, it will not nullify or make irrelevant scientific study of the brain. He adds that anyone who argues against mental causation must unwittingly believe in it in order to do so (9). Now, however, in the penultimate paragraph of the essay, he is ready to suggest what he is really up to:

    I have not been able to list and develop all the dimensions of human personhood suggested by this account, at least not today. But if I am right, no conceptual roadblocks stand any longer in the way of a full theory of human personhood. It can now draw freely not only on the neurosciences and cognitive psychology, but also on the whole range of the social sciences: . . . . Indeed, given the universality of religious rites, rituals and beliefs across human cultures, a full understanding of the human person will have to incorporate the spiritual dimension and those disciplines that address it as well. But this is an exercise for another talk. (10, and also, GCS, 233)

Now, all bets are on the table. Clayton’s further concern, perhaps his main one, i.e., divine causality, can be eventually explained (after the prolegomenon) as analogous to human mental causality. (See especially, GCS 233, where human consciousness is the “lynchpin” of the discussion with science, one that Clayton insists will have an emergence that subsequently exerts its own causal powers, both on other mental events and on the physical (GCS 255-256)).

Polanyi and Clayton

On some positions that are vital for Clayton, I would like to show that, rather than having “been superceded by the emergence theories” of some more recent writers, especially the radical-kind emergence theorists, Polanyi, with or without Aristotle (and Driesch), is remarkably close to the theories upon which Clayton’s own position is based.

For instance, Clayton rejects Cartesian dualism, and Polanyi likewise insists on “the bodily roots of all thought, including man’s highest creative powers” (TD, 15). Clayton equally rejects determination of the mental by the strictly neural: “explanation through the micro-determinism of neural firings can never explain thought because it has not left a place for ideas to have any causal effect on the brain and central nervous system-and thus on one’s actions in the world (9-10, my emphasis). Likewise, Polanyi repeatedly makes the same point, e.g., “the operations of a higher level cannot be accounted for by the laws governing its particulars forming the lower level. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive the grammar of a language from its vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose. . . . it is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars” (TD, 36). In remarkable similarity to Polanyi, and in a passage so central to Clayton that he cites it twice (both on 7), van Gulick says that, “accepting radical kind emergence would be conceding that there are real features of the world that exist at the system or composite level that are not determined by the law-like regularities that govern the interactions of the parts of such systems and their features.” In his discussion of engineering and physics, Polanyi recognizes that the higher level operations cannot account for its breakdown; instead, such breakdowns are controlled by the lower level laws. In other words, Polanyi, without using the term, has anticipated the gist of the kind of Supervenience and radical kind emergence that Clayton rightly desires-the lower level restricts but does not algorithmically determine the higher level.

Following Jaegwon Kim, Clayton claims emergence as a “separate ontological option in the debate” due to the twofold dependence of evolutionary brain development (diachronic) and the brain state at a given time (synchronic). Here again Polanyi has been there done that.

Furthermore, Polanyi’s insights on the structure of creativity have suggested an apropos analogy between the problem of discovery and the problem of change in organic forms (I am indebted to Phil Mullins for this line of reasoning). Thus the general case of Emergence is analogous to creative problem solving where a “logical gap” is crossed. At the beginning, one does not possess the logic to solve the problem; that is why it is a problem. In the creative movement in which the problem is solved a new logic emerges. (See PK, 123-130, passim).

Likewise, Clayton’s key point of a “dynamical systems approach” (8-9) bears a strong similarity to Polanyi’s focal/subsidiary distinction where undue concentration on particular features can destroy the more comprehensive activity, e.g., a pianist who begins to focus on her fingers and thus loses her place in the music (TD, 18). All these examples are to suggest that Polanyi is hardly superceded and is instead the kind of ally that can be quite useful to Clayton’s project.

Theology and Science

Here again there is a kinship between Clayton and Polanyi that could be beneficially thematized. Since Polanyi was a renowned scientist (a colleague of Einstein’s at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft), his corpus-wide critique of scientific reductionism, what Marty Hewlett calls his “simple demonstration of the fallacy inherent in the assumptions of modern biology,” could put another arrow in Clayton’s quiver for engaging science. For example, Clayton points out that science functions poorly as a world view for establishing morality and human meaning (GCT, 155) and that science “underdetermines its metaphysics” (GCT, 238). Here, making use of Polanyi to display the error, even the absurdity, of reductionism, could render a service to the many scientists and philosophers who continue to produce the fallacy in new garb.

In other words, I think that Clayton needs to be more critical of science when it is dogmatically reductionistic; otherwise, there remains a strange Levinasian asymmetry in which science confronts him from a height as the Other. Scientists as well as theologians might learn something from a reciprocal encounter.

Logos in Aristotle, Aquinas, Polanyi, and Clayton

One of Clayton’s many real services to the Polanyi Society is his criticism that Polanyi adopted an Aristotelianism that is simply a contretemps to the current neo-Darwinian synthesis. In showing how Polanyi is not entirely au courant, Clayton helps us see why some, even many, scholars overlook Polanyi. Of course, what is not au courant at the AAR is not necessarily false. Last week at the ACPA there were few if any scholars who were not, at least to some degree, Aristotelian.

The larger theological question is how a doctrine of creation can be articulated without there being some logos in all that is created. Here the etymology of the scandalous entelechy might be helpful, at least to sharpen the issue: en (in)- tel (purpose)- echy (having), i.e., having a purpose within. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle applauds Anaxagoras: “When you find a person saying that there is an intelligence at work in nature, it is like finding a single sober person amidst a gang of drunks” (I.3, 984b,14-17, Pierre-Marie Emonet’s translation). Does a doctrine of creation not imply a logos within the created order?

Does emergence not demonstrate potentiality? Is emergence movement into a random void, or, is there some control, perhaps something like Polanyi’s “passive constraint”?

I want to conclude by suggesting that two things are necessary to any resolution of the issues that Phil Clayton’s paper raises: there must be levels of reality and there must be a way of unifying them. So how might person, spirit, mind, soul, body, etc. be unified? Is mind the same as soul? And finally, I want to thank Phil Clayton for guiding us into these issues with new information and insight.