- Emergence: Towards a New Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science by Mariusz Tabaczek
The concept of "emergence" is invoked in discussions of novel and robust phenomena in complex physical systems that seem to be inexplicable in terms of the properties of their parts, and in investigations of various kinds of spontaneous organization observed to occur in biological systems, from individual cells to ecological systems. While the philosophy of science has traditionally concerned itself with epistemological questions, even defining itself in opposition to metaphysics in the early twentieth century, the subsequent revival in metaphysics in analytic philosophy—much of it inspired by Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysics—has encouraged philosophers to begin honing and applying their metaphysical tools once again to scientific inquiry and the philosophy of nature. Mariusz Tabaczek believes the concept of emergence requires a serious metaphysic, and his book offers an impressive, wide-ranging analysis of the challenges facing this undertaking.
Tabaczek's analysis is shaped by a reading of the "major turning points" in Western philosophy's search for causal explanations that will be familiar to any Thomist (1). It begins with the creation of Aristotle's fourfold account of causation in terms of "formal," "material," "efficient," and "final" causes (2-17), [End Page 159] which emerged from the primordial turmoil of ancient philosophy to attain its clearest expression in the Middle Ages in the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of hylomorphism (17-20). His narrative includes a Fall in the modern era (20-25), in which a reductionist and mathematics-based approach to nature dispensed with formal and final causes in favor of a material world of efficient causes. We learn little about how or why this descent into causal monism took place, nor do we find any indications of possible weaknesses to which some Scholastic appropriations of Aristotle might have been susceptible. While there may be less nuance in this narrative than some would wish, however, Tabaczek does not indulge in the overblown rhetoric against the "analytic philosophy" of our era that characterizes (and ghettoizes) fashionable theology. He finds within contemporary philosophy two movements that harbor promise of a Restoration.
In the first place, the problem of emergence in the sciences has given rise to the need for a concept of "downward causation," in which the "higher levels" of a system are permitted to act upon their lower-level parts (27-34). While many attempts to articulate this concept are problematic, as Tabaczek argues, it is ripe for analysis in terms of Aristotle's fourfold conception of causation, in which emergent behaviors find a stable footing in the substantial forms that were banished from philosophy by the early mechanists. In the second place, a "dispositionalist" account of causation in terms of an ontology of "causal powers" has shaken itself free of the reductionist shackles of standard causal theories (36-38). While this metaphysical breakthrough has not yet manifested its full potential, in Tabaczek's opinion, it provides a framework for a richer account of causation that admits final causes. His project is to bring these two movements together to produce a metaphysical account of downward causation in terms of the Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine of hylomorphism (part 2), in which the world consists of various kinds of substances which are metaphysically composed of both matter and form. In these respects, he shares the aspirations of a number of "neo-Aristotelian" analytic philosophers who are drawing inspiration from Aristotle and Aquinas.
The first part of the book is focused on the necessity of providing an adequate account of downward causation. Tabaczek complains that, on the one hand, "it seems relatively easy to say what EM (emergence) is not—that is, which tools of mathematical description commonly used in scientific research are inadequate for describing the cases of global organization of entities and dynamics," but on the other hand, "attempts at a positive description of EM (emergence) are usually methodologically troublesome and confusing" (64). The nonreductive physicalism that dominated analytic philosophy in...