Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Is Strong Emergence Vitalism?

Huh. Never made this connection, myself.

A refinement of vitalism may be recognized in contemporary molecular histology in the proposal that some key organising and structuring features of organisms, perhaps including even life itself, are examples of emergent processes; those in which a complexity arises, out of interacting chemical processes forming interconnected feedback cycles, that cannot fully be described in terms of those processes since the system as a whole has properties that the constituent reactions lack.

That's one hell of an interesting way of looking at it, especially when strong emergence is trotted out as (somehow) a physicalist reply to, for example, the hard problem of consciousness. Of course, that would suggest quite a rewriting of science history.

Whether emergent system properties should be grouped with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy.

Oh, I think there's more going on here than semantic concerns.

Emmeche et al. (1998) state that "there is a very important difference between the vitalists and the emergentists: the vitalist's creative forces were relevant only in organic substances, not in inorganic matter. Emergence hence is creation of new properties regardless of the substance involved."

So a key problem with vitalism was that it was too conservative?

"The assumption of an extra-physical vitalis (vital force, entelechy, élan vital, etc.), as formulated in most forms (old or new) of vitalism, is usually without any genuine explanatory power. It has served altogether too often as an intellectual tranquilizer or verbal sedative—stifling scientific inquiry rather than encouraging it to proceed in new directions."[17]

Of course, what makes the vitalis "extra-physical" anyway? We've revamped our definition of physical in the past. It seems likely we will in the future. Sounds like regarding vitalism as extra-physical is a semantic concern, eh?

On the flipside, let's say something akin to strong emergence or vitalism is possibly true. Then is it really "stifling scientific inquiry" to entertain the possibility, or even be persuaded by it? Or are some conclusions always to be rejected in science?

Ah, wait, I know the answer to that one.


Ilíon said...

It has long seemed to me that vitalism is a "spiritualized" from of naturalism/materialism, by which the naturalist attempts to ad hoc "explain" certain features of reality which cannot be accounted for under naturalism as being "natural" because they are (magically) "just there."

The emergence concept is at least as magical, and probably more so.

Crude said...

Strong emergence.. I think I wrote before that if that can be considered "materialism", what can't? And I notice it is a very popular move to try and cause confusion between weak and strong emergence, employing the latter but defending emergence by examples of the former. Usually employed by people who have trouble even describing weak emergence, at that. Having them recognize the distinction is a good way to make a person petulant.

But I enjoy it since one favored philosophical move is to compare this or that theory to vitalism, with the spoken or unspoken suggestion that vitalism was shown to be utter bunk. But if there's a link between vitalism and strong emergence, and strong emergence is a semi-popular to popular view...

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

You might want to look into Schopenhauer's thought, as I've been doing recently, since he was surprisingly anti-mechanist, anti-reductionist and even affirmed immanent teleology... albeit in a wretched, godless mode. I'd like to say he got everything right about what's wrong with the world and almost nothing right about how to make things right.

Crude said...

I recalled Schopenhauer was pretty fiercely critical of materialism as well. Anti-mechanist and anti-reductionist I got wind of, but affirming immanent teleology? That's a surprise.