THE PHYSICS OF EMERGENCE.
What options are available when thinking about the physical and material universe? Are all phenomena and behaviors reducible to the fundamental laws of nature, perhaps in a single comprehensive materialist "theory of everything"? Or must any comprehensive account of the material universe be necessarily dualist, perhaps even one in which physical theory needs to be supplemented by some type of non-material essence or possibly by divine intervention? Or is there a middle way, one in which reductionism is inadequate and dualism unnecessary? In this book Robert Bishop affirms the latter by arguing that the structure of physics itself indicates that the universe displays contextual emergence, a type of emergence in which lower-level structure is insufficient to account for higher-level properties and behavior, owing to the role contextual and contingent factors play in shaping higher-level structure.
Bishop, currently John and Madeleine McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Wheaton College, is well positioned to address such a challenge. He earned a BS and MS degree in physics and a PhD in philosophy, all from the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the foundations of the physical and social sciences, particularly on determinism and free will, irreversibility, and theories of mind and consciousness. Bishop codeveloped the concept of contextual emergence along with Harald Atmanspacher (Robert C. Bishop, "Patching Physics and Chemistry Together," Philosophy of Science 72, no. 5 (2005): 710-22; Robert C. Bishop and Harald Atmanspacher, "Contextual Emergence in the Description of Properties," Foundations of Physics 36, no. 12 (2006): 1753-77). In The Physics of Emergence, Bishop further explains the concept and argues that it is grounded in physics.
Given the checkered history of the concept of emergence with a spectrum of diverse meanings, any work on emergence is well served by explaining its use of the term. Bishop does so clearly and succinctly in the introduction and first chapter. He notes the common belief among the scientific community in reductionism, whereas emergence denies these reductionist views without resorting to dualism. Essentially, reductionists believe "that everything else in the Universe reduces to the play of elementary particles under elementary forces (or the action of quantum fields)" (p. xii). In contrast, emergentists believe that fields such as condensed-matter physics, biology, or psychology study phenomena that "aren't explainable or derivable from elementary particles/forces ..." (p. xii).
In the first chapter, Bishop provides a brief but helpful history of emergence. He cites key comments from luminaries such as Einstein, Pauli, Schrodinger, Anderson, and Laughlin that indicate an openness to emergence while the scientific community tended to hold firmly to reductionism.
In the second chapter, Bishop wastes no time in addressing the primary objection usually raised against emergence, namely "the belief in the causal closure of fundamental physics (CCFP)." In other words, knowing only the elementary laws of nature and the initial conditions, the subsequent evolution of any system over time can be determined. No contextual or external factors are needed. The universe is thought to be fully explained by "bottom-up" factors. Bishop points out that there are two basic assumptions in this objection:
Atomism: Law-like regularities of macrostates are fully determined by the law-like regularities and micro features of microstates in all cases regardless of context.
Context freedom: All features of macro contexts are fully determined by context-free features of the underlying law-like features of microstates. (chapter--page, 2-5)
The rest of the book is a thorough refutation of the CCFP and related objections to emergence. Chapter three is devoted to showing specifically how factors that cannot be derived solely from fundamental laws are necessary for understanding complex phenomena. Chapter four presents several case studies illustrating the need for higher level contexts in physics. One of the examples he describes is the very concept of temperature which depends on stability conditions that are not often articulated in statistical mechanics.
In chapter five, Bishop returns to the objections to contextual emergence he earlier listed in chapter two and convincingly dispenses with them, arguing that, without contextual information, the fundamental laws are inadequate for explaining the world around us. Finally, Bishop concludes with chapter six, in which he discusses the broader implications of contextual emergence. In biology, for example, collective interactions of large ensembles of microbes, cells, or biomolecules set the contextual conditions for novel structures to emerge.
Though the book is short, it is decidedly not a casual fireside read. A solid grounding in theoretical physics and philosophy is helpful in following the key arguments and examples. Nevertheless, going beyond the details of his argument to the big picture, Bishop has provided us with a powerful, seminal work. He has given us a compelling refutation of the reigning perspective of reductionism, together with a rich new paradigm of contextual emergence for a path forward in understanding our universe.
As he explains, the laws of nature provide a necessary but not sufficient set of conditions for behavior and properties at a larger scale. The specific context of an application of those laws provides additional necessary and sufficient conditions for the behavior of that system. That is, the characteristics we observe at a larger scale emerge from the laws of nature operating in a specific context that is related to but not derivable from the fundamental laws.
Another important implication relates to the understanding of determinism and free will. Bishop shows how the laws of nature in and of themselves are neither deterministic nor indeterministic. Rather, "... contextual emergence makes explicit that determinism and indeterminism are contextually-emergent features of our world as opposed to an absolute feature of the Universe" (chapter--page, 6-17). In some contexts, the laws of nature, such as the Newtonian laws of motion, lead to systems that are deterministic while in other contexts they do not. Thus, "determinism is a contextual feature of reality" (chapter--page, 6-11).
Finally, dualism is not required to explain complex phenomena that cannot be derived solely from fundamental laws. Rather, the conditions that emerge from the interaction of an ensemble of components provide the contexts in which the lawful behavior of nature produces those phenomena. Contextual emergence recognizes the top-down conditions that influence the bottom-up work of the laws of nature. Those conditions are not independent of but are related to the fundamental laws and particles of which the system is composed.
Bishop has laid the philosophical foundation in physics for the rich concept of contextual emergence. It is likely to bear much fruit in the future as it is applied to all the domains such as biology and sociology in which we describe our universe.
Reviewed by Randy Isaac, ASA Executive Director Emeritus, Topsfield, MA 01983.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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