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Emergence

Psychology is not applied biology,” the physicist and Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson wrote in 1972, “nor is biology applied chemistry.”…By Michael Segal

Psychology is not applied biology,” the physicist and Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson wrote in 1972, “nor is biology applied chemistry.”

Anderson was bemoaning the fallacy of moving from the reductionist hypothesis (that all natural phenomena obey the same set of fundamental laws) to the constructionist hypothesis (that we can start from those laws and “reconstruct the universe”).

In fact, he argued, at each level of complexity in nature, “entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.” In other words, we should expect new scientific foundations to emerge from complex systems.

His paper in Science went on to be cited nearly 3,000 times and helped make emergent phenomena an object of study in themselves. But it was far from the beginnings of the field, which stretches back at least to Aristotle’s observation in Metaphysics that “the whole is something beside the parts.”

That the reductionist program has mostly overshadowed emergence is to be expected—in a sense, reductionism had to come first. But we may finally be ready for the next act.

Welcome to “Emergence.”


Lead image credit: Alija/Getty Images

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