The Revival of 'Emergence' in Biology

Croatian Journal of Philosophy 3 (3):217-229 (2003)
Abstract
Holism and emergence are coherent notions. The paper points to the classes of emergent phenomena -- such as autocatalysis -- that are taken as commonplace phenomena in biological sciences. Thus it questions the Democritean credo, “wholes are completely determined by their parts” (in some of its forms, called mereological determinism), that has become a dogma of contemporary philosophy. A living thing requires the ability to initiate, mediate and terminate processes that produce products that make up the whole. Autocatalysis is one such mechanism, and its action at the level of the whole produces effects on the parts such that the properties, manifested by the parts in the absence of the whole engaged in autocatalysis, are altered. For these reasons, some writers suggest that autocatalysis is a law of organization and that it is emergent. It also appears that this is a case of downward causation -- one that clearly occurs in nature. If this is not a case of downward causation on Kim’s terms, then biological systems that are claimed to be emergent do not need to involve downward causation in his sense. The author thinks that this constitutes downward causation in an important sense -- the causal properties of the whole drive the behavior of the parts. Another set of examples comes from chaos dynamics. Relying on this evidence, the author challenges the Democritean credo (and mereological determinism) and shifts the onus of proof
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