Friday, August 17, 2007

Emergence, Supervenience, and Indeterminacy

While Ross Cameron, Elizabeth Barnes and I were up in St Andrews a while back, Jonathan Schaffer presented one of his papers arguing for Monism: the view that the whole is prior to the parts, and the world is the one "fundamental" object.

An interesting argument along the way argued that contemporary physics supports the priority of the whole, at least to the extent that properties of some systems can't be reduced to properties of their parts. People certainly speak that way sometimes. Here, for example, is Tim Maudlin (quoted by Schaffer):

The physical state of a complex whole cannot always be reduced to those of its parts, or to those of its parts together with their spatiotemporal relations… The result of the most intensive scientific investigations in history is a theory that contains an ineliminable holism. (1998: 56)


The sort of case that supports this is when, for example, a quantum system featuring two particles determinately has zero total spin. The issues is that there also exist systems that duplicate the intrinsic properties of the parts of this system, but which do not have the zero-total spin property. So the zero-total-spin property doesn't appear to be fixed by the properties of its parts.

Thinking this through, it seemed to me that one can systematically construct such cases for "emergent" properties if one is a believer in ontic indeterminacy of whatever form (and thinks of it that way that Elizabeth and I would urge you to). For example, suppose you have two balls, both indeterminate between red and green. Compatibly with this, it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be uniform; and it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be variegrated. The distributional colour of the whole doesn't appear to be fixed by the colour-properties of the parts.

I also wasn't sure I believed in the argument, so posed. It seems to me that one can easily reductively define "uniform colour" in terms of properties of its parts. To have uniform colour, there must be some colour that each of the parts has that colour. (Notice that here, no irreducible colour-predications of the whole are involved). And surely properties you can reductively define in terms of F, G, H are paradigmatically not emergent with respect to F, G and H.

What seems to be going on, is not a failure for properties of the whole to supervene on the total distribution of properties among its parts; but rather a failure of the total distribution of properties among the parts to supervene on the simple atomic facts concerning its parts.

That's really interesting, but I don't think it supports emergence, since I don't see why someone who wants to believe that only simples instantiate fundamental properties should be debarred from appealing to distributions of those properties: for example, that they are not both red, and not both green (this fact will suffice to rule out the whole being uniformly coloured). Minimally, if there's a case for emergence here, I'd like to see it spelled out.

If that's right though, then application of supervenience tests for emergence have to be handled with great care when we've got things like metaphysical indeterminacy flying around. And it's just not clear anymore whether the appeal in the quantum case with which we started is legitimate or not.

Anyway, I've written up some of the thoughts on this in a little paper.

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