Pursuing Natural Piety: Understanding Ontological Emergence and Distinguishing it from Physicalism

Dialectica 68 (1):97-119 (2014)
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This paper focuses on two issues related to ontological emergence: whether it is a coherent notion, and its relation to the doctrine of physicalism. First, it is argued that ontological emergence is best understood as a thesis relying on three fundamental tenets claiming that emergents are basic, genuinely causal, and determined by the physical realm. The paper elucidates the roles of these tenets, and introduces an interpretation that is able to resolve any apparent contradiction between the tenets, thereby supporting the claim that the commitments of ontological emergence form a consistent view. The proposed understanding also hints that telling physicalism and emergentism apart is not a problem even if one subscribes to a supervenience-based formulation of physicalism. The difference in the modal strength of the supervenience relation physicalism and emergentism endorse readily distinguishes them – the former is committed to metaphysical determination whereas the latter to nomological determination. However, in a recent paper, Jessica Wilson has posed an objection to this way of differentiating physicalism from emergentism on the ground that the metaphysical/nomological distinction cannot be drawn in this context. The second part of this paper introduces Wilson's objection, and argues in detail that it fails to disqualify the modal strength-based distinction



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Peter Fazekas
University of Antwerp