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Putting Natural Processes in Context

As a thought experiment, let us ask: What did God have to do to make the universe? In the broadest possible sense, the question of emergence is how the radically nonclassical world of quantum mechanics ? or quantum gravity ? gave rise to the world of classical physics, which in turn gave rise to complex biological systems, which in turn gave rise to conscious beings like us."Strong emergence" is the view that rejects both reductionism and dualism and claims to occupy a middle ground. It says that under the right physical conditions, new properties, entities or laws with novel causal powers come into existence.Many on both the reductionism and dualism side doubt the very idea of such a middle ground, and they are even more suspicious of the idea that strong emergence could be of any real scientific value. Opponents of strong emergence claim that either it is supposed to be a brute fact that these new features come into existence or such emergence can be explained by science. These critics say that if the former is true, then strong emergence is just mystery-mongering and scientific defeatism.

But on the other hand, says the critic, if so-called strong emergence can be explained by science then it ? whatever "it" is ? is not anathema to reductionism. To explain is to reduce ? what else could scientific explanation be if not reduction? On the contrary, the kind of strong emergence that I have defended claims that strongly emergent phenomena can be explained by science, but the explanation in question is not a reductive one.Thus, strong emergence has to provide nonreductive scientific explanations for emergent phenomema and not merely assert explanatory gaps as explanation. Defending such a view requires rejecting the Platonic idea of transcendent fundamental physical laws that govern all phenomena in favor of an explanation of natural processes that is more contextual and relational.Current scientific attempts to work out this contextual and relational understanding of natural processes include some embodied and embedded accounts of mind in cognitive science and accounts of biological complexity ? specifically dynamics systems theory ? that argue for the equal importance of genes, environment and organism in biological development.

Strong emergence will ultimately stand or fall on such scientific grounds.But does strong emergence, if it can be proven, have any theological significance? If one defines strong emergence as being about brute features of reality forever beyond natural scientific explanation, then a theist can try and use such an explanatory gap to argue for the existence of God. For example, if consciousness is a feature of reality beyond scientific explanation, then perhaps the existence of God is the best explanation for its existence.Notice that if defined in this way, intelligent design proponents are paradigmatic purveyors of strong emergence about living processes. However, if we define strong emergence as I have advocated for above, then there are no in-principle explanatory gaps that need to be filled in by supernatural causes. Strong emergence so defined is no friend to the "God of the gaps" strategy.

Strong emergence does not preclude theism. Furthermore, some process-oriented theologians, or theologians who view the universe as a divinely inspired creative process manifested in evolutionary terms, might find strong emergence lends comfort to their conception of the Godhead.

.Michael Silberstein is an associate professor of philosophy at Elizabethtown College and an adjunct at the University of Maryland.

This article was written for Science & Theology News.

By: Michael Silberstein



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