Skip to main content
Log in

Complex emergence and the living organization: an epistemological framework for biology

  • Published:
Synthese Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

In this article an epistemological framework is proposed in order to integrate the emergentist thought with systemic studies on biological autonomy, which are focused on the role of organization. Particular attention will be paid to the role of the observer’s activity, especially: (a) the different operations he performs in order to identify the pertinent elements at each descriptive level, and (b) the relationships between the different models he builds from them. According to the approach sustained here, organization will be considered as the result of a specific operation of identification of the relational properties of the functional components of a system, which do not necessarily coincide with the intrinsic properties of its structural constituents. Also, an epistemological notion of emergence—that of “complex emergence”—will be introduced, which can be defined as the insufficiency, even in principle, of a single descriptive modality to provide a complete description of certain classes of systems. This integrative framework will allow us to deal with two issues in biological and emergentist studies: (1) distinguishing the autonomy proper of living systems from some physical processes like those of structural stability and pattern generation, and (2) reconsidering the notion of downward causation not as a direct or indirect influence of the whole on its parts, but instead as an epistemological problem of interaction between descriptive domains in which the concept of organization proposed and the observational operations related to it play a crucial role.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

References

  • Abel D. L., Trevors J. T. (2006) Self-organization vs. self-ordering events in life-origin models. Physics of Life Reviews 3: 211–228

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson P. W., Stein D. L. (1985) Broken symmetry, emergent properties, dissipative structures, life: Are they related?. In: Yates E. F. (eds) Self-organizing systems: The emergence of order. Plenum Press, New York, pp 445–458

    Google Scholar 

  • Banzhaf W. (2002) Self-organizing systems. In: Mayers R. (eds) Encyclopedia of physical science and technology (Vol. 14). Academic Press, New York, pp 589–598

    Google Scholar 

  • Beer S. (1980) Preface. In: Maturana H., Varela F. (eds) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht, pp 63–72

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Bedau M. (2003) Downward causation and autonomy in weak emergence. Principia 6: 5–50

    Google Scholar 

  • Bedau M. (2008) Is weak emergence just in the mind?. Minds & Machines 18: 443–459

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bich, L. (2008). L’ordine invisibile: Ripensare il vivente oltre la metafora computazionale. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Bergamo.

  • Bich L. (2009) Downward causation and relatedness in emergent systems: Epistemological remarks. In: Minati G., Pessa E., Abram M. (eds) Processes of emergence of systems and systemic properties: Towards a general theory of emergence. World Scientific, Singapore, pp 591–601

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Bich L., Damiano L. (2007) Theoretical and artificial construction of the living: Redefining the approach from an autopoietic point of view. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 34: 459–464

    Google Scholar 

  • Bich L., Damiano L. (2008) Order in the nothing: Autopoiesis and the organizational characterization of the living. In: Licata I., Sakaji A. (eds) Physics of emergence and organization—Electronic journal of theoretical physics, Special Issue 2007. World Scientific, Singapore, pp 343–373

    Google Scholar 

  • Bitbol M. (2007) Ontology, matter and emergence. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science 6: 293–307

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ceruti M. (1989) La danza che crea. Feltrinelli, Milano

    Google Scholar 

  • Crutchfield J. P. (1994) Is anything ever new? Considering emergence. In: Cowan G. A., Pines D., Meltzer D. (eds) Complexity: Metaphors, models and reality. Westview Press, Redwood City, pp 515–533

    Google Scholar 

  • Damiano L. (2009) Unità in dialogo. Bruno Mondadori Editore, Milano

    Google Scholar 

  • Emmeche C., Køppe S., Stjernfelt F. (2000) Levels, emergence, and three versions of downward causation. In: Andersen P. B., Emmeche C., Finnemann N. O., Christensen P. V. (eds) Downward causation: Minds, bodies and matter.. Aarhus University Press, Århus, pp 13–34

    Google Scholar 

  • Engels F. (1952) Dialektik der Natur. Dietz Verlag, Berlin

    Google Scholar 

  • Humphreys P. (1997) How properties emerge. Philosophy of Science 64: 1–17

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kim J. (1992) Downward causation’ in emergentism and nonreductive physicalism. In: Beckermann A., Flohr H., Kim J. (eds) Emergence or reduction? Essays on the prospects of nonreductive physicalism. de Gruyter, Berlin, pp 119–138

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Kim J. (1993) Supervenience and mind: Selected philosophical essays. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kim J. (1997) Explanation, prediction and reduction in emergentism. Intellectica 25: 45–57

    Google Scholar 

  • Kim J. (1998) Mind in a physical world. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  • Lyon P. (2006) The biogenetic approach to cognition. Cognitive Process 7: 11–29

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lloyd Morgan C. (1923) Emergent evolution. Williams and Norgate, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Maturana H., Varela F. (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Maturana H., Varela F. (1984) Elárbol del conocimiento. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago del Chile

    Google Scholar 

  • Minati G., Pessa E. (2006) Collective beings. Springer, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Nicolis G., Prigogine I. (1977) Self-organization in nonequilibrium systems. Wiley, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Pessa E. (1998) Emergence, self-organization, and quantum theory. In: Minati G. (eds) First Italian conference on systemics. Milano, Apogeo, pp 59–80

    Google Scholar 

  • Piaget J. (1967) Biologie et connaissance. Gallimard, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  • Prigogine I., Stengers I. (1979) La nouvelle alliance: Métamorphose de la science. Gallimard, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosen R. (1958) A relational theory of biological systems. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 20: 245–260

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rosen R. (1978) Fundamentals of measurement and representation of natural systems. North-Holland, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosen R. (1991) Life itself: A comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin, and fabrication of life. Columbia University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Silberstein M., McGeever J. (1999) The search for ontological emergence. Philosophical Quarterly 49: 182–200

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spencer Brown G. (1969) Laws of form. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Varela F. (1979) Principles of biological autonomy. North-Holland, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Varela F., Maturana H., Uribe R. (1974) Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5: 187–196

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Varela F., Thompson E., Rosh E. (1991) The embodied mind: Cognitive mind and human experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  • Waddington C.H. (1968) The basic ideas of biology. In: Waddington C.H. (eds) Towards a theoretical biology: Prolegomena. Adline, Chicago, pp 1–41

    Google Scholar 

  • Weiss P. (1969) The living system: Determinism stratified. In: Koestler A., Smythies J.R. (eds) Beyond reductionism: The Alpbach symposium. Hutchinson & Co, London, pp 3–55

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiener N. (1948) Cybernetics: Or control and communication in the animal and in the machine. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Leonardo Bich.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bich, L. Complex emergence and the living organization: an epistemological framework for biology. Synthese 185, 215–232 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-010-9722-6

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-010-9722-6

Keywords

Navigation