Emergence: Theology or Materialism?

The emergence of emergence as a hot topic ought to send up a red flag. Every new scientific advance, every new organizing concept, offers a fresh opportunity to the forces of ideological obfuscation.

There is a history here, as well as a current terrain. While scientific work need not always be mindful of that part of its history not directly involved in current research, examination of its inner tensions, factions, and muddles may well be informed by a recovery from historical amnesia. As I outlined in my first entries in the old version of this blog, standard anglophone reference sources give highly incomplete and biased versions of this history, with a focus on the British emergentists, i.e. the idealist wing of emergentism.

There is, however, a whole other history. In the history of emergent materialism I want to single out two important philosophical strains: dialectical materialism and the critical realism of Roy Wood Sellars. (Sellars’ philosophy is also known by other names, and is not to be confused with the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar). Dialectical materialism is a known philosophy, of course, though some of its input into the outlook of practicing scientists may not be as widely known. This is not the place to tell this story, which of course is also complicated by the dogmatic, ideological institutionalization of this philosophy which caused a great deal of mischief and intellectual stagnation. Sellars, on the other hand, is a home-grown, American phenomenon, one of the classics of classic American philosophy, who elaborated his philosophy in dialogue with a number of philosophical schools and without the encumbrance of insitutionalized dogmatism. Yet Sellars lacks the cachet of other currents of “American Philosophy”, though he is more deserving than all the other schools of American philosophy up through the midpoint of the 20th century.

You will find a number of texts by Sellars referenced in my American Philosophy Study Guide. To trace the development and elaboration of his philosophy I suggest a look at Principles of Emergent Realism: Philosophical Essays.

I call your attention to three of these essays: Why Naturalism and Not Materialism, Is Naturalism Enough?, Reformed Materialism and Intrinsic Endurance. (This last is a recent addition to my web site). Sellars at first wishes to distance himself from the limitations of past materialism (particularly its reductionism), as he compares it to naturalism. But then he reverses himself, finding naturalism an ambiguous and inadequate legacy and seeking to elaborate a new materialism. In the process he criticizes pragmatism, the pragmatic naturalism of Dewey and Hook. Sellars’ realist stance is also demarcated from all positivist currents. In this last essay he confronts the theological, panpsychist assault on naturalism–neo-Thomism, the British emergentists, and Whitehead.

The theological onslaught against naturalism, combatted by Sellars in the 1940s, supplies the text for our sermon today.

First, we need to make a few working distinctions. Emergence as a recent buzzword usually refers to the softer interpretation of the concept, i.e. the unpredictable appearance of some new pattern or phenomenon out of a complex situation, tied in with the notion of complexity. This, however, is a shallow interpretation, compared to the much more challenging ontological issues traditionally associated with the concept and still a going concern. Here I would insert another working distinction. There is purely technical elaboration of the concept, involving such notions as supervenience and downward causation, which may or may not be tied in with various metaphysical positions under debate. Perhaps for some of these people, the intellectual history of the concept is not so important as its technical elaboration now.

But finally there are the ontological or metaphysical implications of emergence which concern us here. And here is where the mischief is to be found, for the minions of irrationalism and theocracy have descended upon emergence in order to once again divert science into obscurantist metaphysics in the service of mysticism and religion.

One of the most dangerous institutions is this regard is the John Templeton Foundation, which has an impressive treasure chest with which to subvend religious obscurantism. Note that Emergence is one of its funding areas. Note the featured grant on its web site: Stanford Emergence Project: Pursuing Knowledge of God in a Scientific Age awarded to Professor Philip Clayton of the Harvard Divinity School. And note his books: Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness, and The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion co-edited with the notorious Paul Davies. (See the review by Johannes Lenhard.)

If this weren’t sickening enough, there’s more. Another beachhead has been established, the Cambridge Templeton Consortium, with the intent to lavish millions on research on the emergence of biological complexity.

This constitutes a prodigious threat to the future of science. The theocratic obscurantists have sought out all the fault lines of existing scientific knowledge and have pounced on the inadequacies of reductionism in order to attack naturalism. This is another zigzag in the continuing vacillation of bourgeois ideology between its twin poles of positivism and irrationalism, neither of which could subsist without the other. This dangerous swing to the metaphysical right is consonant with the rise of the political Right and the decimation of what Americans call “liberalism”, i.e. the labor movement, the Democratic Party, etc. As limited as technocratic managerialism was, there remained at least some notion of rational accounting. Even that limited rationality has been thrown out the window by the reckless, unaccountable, and irrational new American fascism. The counterculture and the New-Agers had their agendas in attacking the technocratic liberal order of the 1960s, but the real beneficiaries proved to be the Christian fascists terrorizing America and the world today. The crackpot nonsense consumed by marginalized hippies in the ’70s has metastacized into a dominant right-wing ideological force.

Victor J. Stenger’s new book God: The Failed Hypothesis is gaining popularity and is far superior to other popular books in this area such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The whole tribe of atheist/humanist publicists in the Anglo-American sphere is sadly deficient in matters of social theory and historical sophistication. Neither Dawkins nor anyone else has learned a thing from the sociobiology wars of the 1970s. However, even the most flagrant biological reductionism causes less damage than the current theological incursions into science.

Stenger’s scanty references to emergence are to be noted. On the self-organizing properties of matter, Stenger argues against holism and anti-reductionism (61). Later he takes up the topic of emergent properties (105-6). But the key issue here comes to a head on p. 162. Of the various conceptions of emergence I have outlined, Stenger is cognizant of two. First, there is the weak version of emergence, dealt with by chaos and complexity theory. That is not Stenger’s problem. His concern is to oppose holism, teleology, and the theological view of nonreductive physicalism. That he feels the need to make this the focus of his treatment of the subject indicates the seriousness of the threat.

Note also that emergent materialism is no more in Stenger’s purview than is social theory. This reflects the limitations of the American secular humanist movement, which under prevailing intellectual, ideological, and political conditions has never advanced beyond the defense of the natural science perspective. This defense, however, is mandated by the ever-present threat and now dominance of religious obscurantism. As far as it goes, Stenger’s book is a salutary counteroffensive to the theological mystification of the natural sciences.

Under the circumstances, we’re not going to hear much about the legacy of emergent materialism, nor will we be rid of the noxious influence of Teilhard de Chardin, Whitehead, biosemiotics, and the like. I think though that one day, if civilization survives the threat of fascism and of extinction we now face, that Engels and Sellars will receive their due recognition as pioneers.

Naturalism & Materialism (Reason & Society Blog)