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.