I have taken two classes with Manuel DeLanda at PennDesign. It has expanded much of my ontology, really. Here is an excerpt from “Philosophy and Simulation” :
EMERGENCE IN HISTORY
The origin of the modern concept of emergence can be traced to the middle of the nineteenth century when realist philosophers first began pondering the deep dissimilarities between causality in the fields of physics and chemistry. The classical example of causality in physics is a collision between two molecules or other rigid objects. Even in the case of several colliding molecules the overall effect is a simple addition. If, for example, one molecule is hit by a second one in one direction and by a third one in a different direction the composite effect will be the same as the sum of the two separate effects: the first molecule will end up in the same final position if the other two hit it simultaneously or if one collision happens before the other. In short, in these causal interactions there are no surprises, nothing is produced over and above what is already there. But when two molecules interact chemically an entirely new entity may emerge, as when hydrogen and oxygen interact to form water. Water has properties that are not possessed by its component parts: oxygen and hydrogen are gases at room temperature while water is liquid. And water has capacities distinct from those of its parts: adding oxygen or hydrogen to a fire fuels it while adding water extinguishes it.
The fact that novel properties and capacities emerge from a causal interaction was believed to have important philosophical implications for the nature of scientific explanation. In particular, the absence of novelty in physical interactions meant that explaining their effects could be reduced to deduction from general principles or laws. Because deductive logic simply transfers truth from general sentences to particular ones without adding anything new it seemed like an ideal way of modeling the explanation of situations like those involving rigid collisions. But the synthesis of water does produce something new, not new in the absolute sense of something that has never existed before but only in the relative sense that something emerges that was not in the interacting entities acting as causes. This led some philosophers to the erroneous conclusion that emergent effects could not be explained, or what amounts to the same thing, that an effect is emergent only for as long as a law from which it can be deduced has not yet been found. This line of thought went on to become a full fledged philosophy in the early twentieth century, a philosophy based on the idea that emergence was intrinsically unexplainable. This first wave of “emergentist” philosophers were not mystical thinkers but quite the opposite: they wanted to use the concept of emergence to eliminate from biology mystifying entities like a “life force” or the “élan vital”. But their position towards explanation gave their views an inevitable mystical tone: emergent properties, they said, must be accepted with an attitude of intellectual resignation, that is, they must be treated as brute facts towards which the only honest stance is one of natural piety.
Expressions like these were bound to make the concept of emergence suspect to future generations of philosophers. It was only the passage of time and the fact that mathematical laws like those of classical physics were not found in chemistry or biology – or for that matter, in the more historical fields of physics, like geology or climatology – that would rescue the concept from intellectual oblivion. Without simple laws acting as self-evident truths (axioms) from which all causal effects could be deduced as theorems the axiomatic dream eventually withered away. Today a scientific explanation is identified not with some logical operation but with the more creative endeavor of elucidating the mechanisms that produce a given effect. The early emergentists dismissed this idea because they could not imagine anything more complex than a linear clockwork mechanism. But there are many other physical mechanisms that are nonlinear. Even in the realm of human technology we have a plurality of exemplars to guide our imagination: steam engines, thermostats, transistors. And outside technology the diversity is even greater as illustrated by all the different mechanisms that have been discovered in chemistry and biology. Armed with a richer concept of mechanism the emergent properties of a whole can now be explained as an effect of the causal interactions between its component parts. A large portion of this book will be dedicated to describe the wide variety of mechanisms of emergence that have been elucidated in the decades since the original emergentists first wrote.
Thus, what is different today from the early twentieth century views is the epistemological status of emergence: it does not have to be accepted as a brute fact but can be explained without fearing that it will be explained away. What has remained the same is the ontological status of emergence: it still refers to something that is objectively irreducible. But what kinds of entities display this ontological irreducibility? The original examples of irreducible wholes were entities like “Life”, “Mind”, or even “Deity”. But these entities cannot be considered legitimate inhabitants of objective reality because they are nothing but reified generalities. And even if one does not have a problem with an ontological commitment to entities like these it is hard to see how we could specify mechanisms of emergence for life or mind in general, as opposed to accounting for the emergent properties and capacities of concrete wholes like a metabolic circuit or an assembly of neurons. The only problem with focusing on concrete wholes is that this would seem to make philosophers redundant since they do not play any role in the elucidation of the series of events that produce emergent effects. This fear of redundancy may explain the attachment of philosophers to vague entities as a way of carving out a niche for themselves in this enterprise. But realist philosophers need not fear irrelevance because they have plenty of work creating an ontology free of reified generalities within which the concept of emergence can be correctly deployed.
What kinds of concrete emergent wholes can we legitimately believe in? Wholes the identity of which is determined historically by the processes that initiated and sustain the interactions between their parts. The historically contingent identity of these wholes is defined by their emergent properties, capacities, and tendencies. Let’s illustrate the distinction between properties and capacities with a simple example. A kitchen knife may be either sharp or not, sharpness being an actual property of the knife. We can identify this property with the shape of the cross section of the knife’s blade: if this cross section has a triangular shape then the knife is sharp else it is blunt. This shape is emergent because the metallic atoms making up the knife must be arranged in a very particular way for it to be triangular. There is, on the other hand, the capacity of the knife to cut things. This is a very different thing because unlike the property of sharpness which is always actual the capacity to cut may never be actual if the knife is never used. In other words, a capacity may remain only potential if it is never actually exercised. This already points to a very different ontological status between properties and capacities. In addition, when the capacity does become actual it is not as a state, like the state of being sharp, but as an event, an event that is always double: to cut-to be cut. The reason for this is that the knife’s capacity to affect is contingent on the existence of other things, cuttable things, that have the capacity to be affected by it. Thus, while properties can be specified without reference to anything else capacities to affect must always be thought in relation to capacities to be affected. Finally, the ontological relation between properties and capacities displays a complex symmetry. On one hand, capacities depend on properties: a knife must be sharp to be able to cut. On the other, the properties of a whole emerge from interactions between its component parts, interactions in which the parts must exercise their own capacities: without metallic atoms exercising their capacity to bond with one another the knife’s sharpness would not exist.
- MANUEL DELANDA via Lebbeuswoods’ blog.