Emergence in the Natural Sciences: Towards a New Paradigm

Principal Investigator:

David Yates

Funding Institution: FCT (PTDC/FER-HFC/30665/2017)
Date: 2018-2021


The main purpose of this project is to challenge a fairly standard dilemma in the philosophy of science, viz. mechanistic reduction vs. emergence. According to the former, complex things (both in physics and in the special sciences) are to be understood via a combination of mereological composition and functional realization. Complex things reduce to fundamental physics, in the sense that they are fully composed of fundamental physical particles and their properties are fully realized by those of their components by functional role-filling. According to the latter, at least some complex entities have emergent properties that cannot be mechanistically explained in terms of the properties and relations of their proper parts.

As is by now familiar, mechanistic reduction seems to place very strong limitations on how novel complex things get to be in relation to their fundamental components, and many have shared the view that there are certain kinds of novelty (new causal powers, for instance, but perhaps also some kinds of qualitative novelty) that you can only get if you give up on grounding explanations altogether and embrace a mysterious brute emergence.

The guiding hypothesis of this project is that this is a false dilemma. There are grounding relations available other than mereology + realization, and it’s not at all clear that they are similarly limited in respect of novelty. For instance, Laurie Paul has called for an alternative to standard mereology that doesn’t require spatiotemporal relations among the fundamentals, which offers the promise of explaining how to construct the spatiotemporal from the non-spatiotemporal; and the project’s PI, David Yates, has argued that non-functionalist accounts of property realization are consistent with new causal powers in the sense typically associated with strong ontological emergence. There’s also scope for arguing that the standard account is not as limited as is commonly supposed: for instance, Carl Gillett suggests that functional properties can play a novel role (which he calls ‘machresis’) in determining which powers their realizers below.

The project’s core aims are to:


  • Look at putative cases of emergence in physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, and examine the sort of novelty (causal, nomic, qualitative…) they seem to involve
  • Explore the limitations of standard mechanistic accounts of complex entities in the light of these case studies
  • Develop alternative grounding models to see if we can get what’s good about emergence without the mystery

Research Team

Umut Baysan (Oxford), Elena Casetta (CFCUL), Robert Clowes (CFCUL), João Cordovil (CFCUL), Klaus Gärtner (CFCUL), Daniele Molinini (CFCUL), Gil C. Santos (CFCUL), Davide Vecchi (CFCUL), Alastair Wilson (Birmingham), Postdoc (CFUL).