Holism and Emergence: Dynamical Complexity Defeats Laplace's Demon

South African Journal of Philosophy 30 (2):229-243 (2011)
The paradigm of Laplacean determinism combines three regulative principles: determinism, predictability, and the explanatory adequacy of universal laws together with purely local conditions. Historically, it applied to celestial mechanics, but it has been expanded into an ideal for scientific theories whose cogency is often not questioned. Laplace’s demon is an idealization of mechanistic scientific method. Its principles together imply reducibility, and rule out holism and emergence. I will argue that Laplacean determinism fails even in the realm of planetary dynamics, and that it does not give suitable criteria for explanatory success except within very well defined and rather exceptional domains. Ironically, the very successes of Laplacean method in the Solar System were made possible only by processes that are not themselves tractable to Laplacean methodology. The results of some of these processes were first observed in 1964, and violate the Lapacean requirements of locality and predictability, opening the door to holism and nonreducibility, i.e., emergence. Despite the falsification of Laplacean methodology, the explanatory resources of holism and emergence remain in scientific limbo, though emergence has been used somewhat indiscriminately in recent scientific literature. I make some remarks at the end about the proper use of emergence in its traditional sense going back to C.D. Broad
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DOI 10.4314/sajpem.v30i2.67786
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