Emergent phenomena belong only to biology

Synthese 185 (2):257-272 (2012)


In this philosophical paper, I discuss and illustrate the necessary three ingredients that together could allow a collective phenomenon to be labelled as “emergent.” First, the phenomenon, as usual, requires a group of natural objects entering in a non-linear relationship and potentially entailing the existence of various semantic descriptions depending on the human scale of observation. Second, this phenomenon has to be observed by a mechanical observer instead of a human one, which has the natural capacity for temporal or spatial integration, or both. Finally, for this natural observer to detect and select the collective phenomenon, it needs to do so on account of the adaptive advantage this phenomenon is responsible for. The necessity for such a teleological characterization and the presence of natural selection drive us to defend, with many authors, the idea that emergent phenomena should belong only to biology. Following a brief philosophical plea, we present a simple and illustrative computer thought experiment in which a society of agents evolves a stigmergic collective behavior as an outcome of its greater adaptive value. The three ingredients are illustrated and discussed within this experimental context. Such an inclusion of the mechanical observer and the natural selection to which this phenomenon is submitted should underlie the necessary de-subjectivation that strengthens any scientific endeavor. I shall finally show why the short paths taken by ant colonies, the collective flying of birds and the maximum consumption of nutrients by a cellular metabolism are strongly emergent

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References found in this work

The Rediscovery of the Mind.John Searle - 1992 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55 (1):201-207.
More is Different.P. W. Anderson - 1994 - In H. Gutfreund & G. Toulouse (eds.), Biology and Computation: A Physicist's Choice. World Scientific. pp. 3--21.
The Major Transitions in Evolution.John Maynard Smith & Eors Szathmary - 1996 - Journal of the History of Biology 29 (1):151-152.
Weak Emergence: Causation and Emergence.Ma Bedau - 1997 - Philosophical Perspectives 11:375-399.

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