Emergent Nature

The pentagon representing Emergent Nature consists of a background image generated by a cellular automata (CA) computer model. CA models posit simple rules for interaction between cells, from which highly complex patterns may emerge; thanks to David Griffeath of the University of Wisconsin for this image (for more information, click here). The foreground image suggests what may be one of the most complex emergent realities of all: human consciousness.

A major scientific understanding of biophysical and human nature hinges on emergence, which has been invoked to explain complex phenomena ranging from biological diversity to human consciousness. Emergent nature is becoming a unifying vision for a vast array of scientific disciplines, and sheds new light on traditional metaphysical questions of order and chaos, parts and wholes. Emergence has also been offered as a way to situate theology in a scientifically-valid framework.

Emergent nature champions antireductionist explanation. It has been recognized throughout the ages that nature exists at multiple scales of complexity; what is the relationship between these levels? The perennial Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy 1936) posited a vast hierarchy running from matter to spirit, joining levels of complexity (and, significantly, science and religion) with higher levels ultimately explaining lower levels. But many of the sciences have, especially in the last century, moved in the opposite, reductionist direction, seeking explanation at smaller and smaller levels of reality.

A good example is physics, which arguably encompasses a broader range of scales of complexity than any other science. A well-known advocate of reductionist explanation is Steven Weinberg (Weinberg 2001, 107-122). Weinberg believes that complex phenomena such as mind and life do emerge out of simpler systems, yet “The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level” (p 115). Reductionist explanation has generally been the hallmark of physics, but has not gone without criticism. A key early paper was written by condensed-matter theorist Phil Anderson in 1972, in an essay aptly titled “More is different” (Anderson 1972). One of Anderson’s main points is that “The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe” (p. 393). The early work of Anderson and other physicists has recently led to a burgeoning new cross-disciplinary field of complex systems analysis (see e.g. Science, 2 April 1999), which is explicitly devoted to establishing nonreductive modes of explanation of complex phenomena. This interest has spawned research centers such as the Santa Fe Institute and the New England Complex Systems Institute, with significant participation by physicists such as Murray Gell-Mann (1994).

Complex systems research has led to new ways of understanding the age-old question of the relationship between order and disorder in reality, leading to fundamental insights on nature, classically understood as part of an orderly cosmos. Pivotal to this work has been the concept of deterministic chaos, in which apparent disorder emerges from very orderly simple rules, yet this emergent disorder turns out to be quite orderly in other ways. These attributes of chaos are well-known, having been popularized over the last fifteen years, and have been extended to science and theology (Prigogine and Stengers 1984; Gleick 1988; Peitgen, Jürgens, and Saupe 1993; Murphy, Russell, and Peacocke 1995). The vision of emergent nature thus challenges the strict separation of cosmos and chaos, order and disorder in the universe. In emergent nature, randomness and pattern are linked; this very different metaphysical way of looking at nature has led to fundamental new insights in natural science fields such as ecology (May 1973; Levin 1992; May 1995; Ulanowicz 1997; Levin 1998, 1999; Ulanowicz 1999).

Perhaps the most breathtaking recent publication on emergent nature is The Emergence of Everything (Morowitz 2002). In this work, biophysicist Harold Morowitz assembles a continuum of twenty-eight steps of higher levels of emergent complexity rivaling in scope the classical Great Chain of Being, and running from the universe to planets to cells to animals to humans to culture to spirit. Morowitz ascribes much of the recent flurry of scientific discovery around emergence to the advent of high-speed computing, which has presented new opportunities for modeling complexity in nature. Major implications exist for science, as it potentially moves from mathematical to algorithmic modes of explanation (e.g., understanding the emergence of complex behaviors based on simple computational models such as cellular automata), as championed in Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science (2002).

Morowitz’s work reaches beyond science to religion in tracing implications of this vision of emergent nature. He advances the radical theological thesis that “Transcendence is an emergent property of God’s immanence…. We Homo sapiens are the mode of action of divine transcendence” (p. 195). Morowitz thus claims that, according to the vision of emergent nature, God is to be understood as the immanent laws of nature and people, who possess emergent consciousness, are the true transcendent agents in the cosmos. Others have also discussed theological implications of emergence with varying degrees of departure from traditional theism: for instance, John Polkinghorne has considered implications of chaos, complexity, and emergence, linking God with the possibility of top-down causation between levels of reality (Polkinghorne 1991). More recently, Philip Clayton’s forthcoming The Emergence of Spirit: God Beyond Theism and Physicalism (2004) argues that emergence theory in recent science offers an important opening for language about the spiritual dimension of human existence, including the concept of spirit and perhaps even the idea of God. He traces emergentist arguments from the emergence of the classical world out of quantum mechanics, through contemporary debates in evolutionary biology and neurophysiology, and up to the emergence of spirituality and metaphysical concepts.

Emergent nature is thus in many respects an even more wide-sweeping vision than evolutionary nature. It is quite recent, may signal major changes in science, and has afforded diverse theological interpretations. Its stronger scientific advocates have, however, not escaped criticism for their ambitious extension of this vision (e.g., Kadanoff 2002). In its theological extensions, emergence can, if not carefully articulated, become an inspiring but fuzzy “God of the gaps” argument; indeed, its popularity in certain new religious movements (click here and here for examples) bears little resemblance to its scientific origins. Yet these theological extensions suggest ways in which contemporary visions of nature can have significant spiritual dimensions, to be explored later under the cultural and philosophical vision of nature as sacred.

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