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A new look at emergence. Or when after is different

  • Original paper in Philosophy of Science
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In this paper, we put forward a new account of emergence called “transformational emergence”. Such an account captures a variety of emergence that can be considered as being diachronic and weakly ontological. The fact that transformational emergence actually constitutes a genuine form of emergence is motivated. Besides, the account is free of traditional problems surrounding more usual, synchronic versions of emergence, and it can find a strong empirical support in a specific physical phenomenon, the fractional quantum Hall effect, which has long been touted as a paradigmatic case of emergence.

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  1. In this we follow van Gulick (2001)’s suggestion. We must bring to the reader’s attention that this construal of the weak/strong distinction is not the most widespread. It is indeed often appealed to in order to mark a dividing line between what we have chosen to refer to here as the epistemological versus the ontological character of emergence (see for instance Smart 1981; or Bedau 1997). Accordingly and for example, whereas Bedau qualifies his own account as “weak” – for it is to be contrasted with ontological accounts essentially based on downward causation –, we will rather consider it as “strongly epistemological”, insofar as the (epistemological) irreducibility involved has an objective – rather than merely subjective – character. At the end of the day, this turns out to be purely terminological.

  2. A similar diagnosis is made, in the peculiar case of cognitive science, by Stephan (2006). It should be noted that there of course exist in contemporary philosophy of science accounts of emergence that encapsulate both a synchronic and a diachronic dimensions (e.g. Morrison 2006; or Batterman 2011). To avoid any ambiguity, in what follows we then reserve the generic term of “synchronic emergence” to denote accounts that can be considered as “purely” synchronic.

  3. Whereas we claim that, as such, the account proposed here is unprecedented in the literature, it is of course not without forerunners. In particular, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Paul Humphreys, who presented to us the original idea and coined the term “transformational emergence”. A similar intuition is also to be found in Ganeri (2011), though in a very different context.

  4. As it has been stated, what (dep d ) tolerates is that contextual elements jointly participate with S 1 to bring about S 2. What (dep d ) denies, though, is that these elements act as radically extrinsic influences that should bring the novelty in emergence from the outside. It should also be pointed out that we take determinism to mean that, should S’s evolution be deterministic, S’s history would be univocally fixed. This doesn’t entail that S’s future evolution can be predicted (Earman and Butterfield 2007), nor that previously inexistent laws cannot appear now and then during S’s evolution (Sartenaer 2015).

  5. This definition supposes that S’s dynamics is entirely captured by the relevant set of natural laws.

  6. We thank an anonymous reviewer for having drawn our attention on this point.

  7. As the first of these slogans makes clear, the very notion of a “whole” is radically deflated in the transformational perspective, as it is claimed to be simply identical with – or reducible to, in the synchronic sense – the sum of its transformed parts (the notion of “sum” is taken here metaphorically, as a way of echoing the traditional slogan; it can actually capture any kind of combinatorial principle, linear or not). Accordingly, one can of course still talk about wholes or collectives, but this is simply a linguistic shortcut that doesn’t have any ontological import over and above what happens at the level of the parts (which is the only ontologically significative level). Of course, one could combine this diachronic and “flat” approach to emergence with a synchronic and hierarchical perspective, and hence devise an hybrid notion that encapsulates both the perspectives discussed here. But this simply isn’t [te] as we conceive of it.

  8. Here we take “dynamics” in an unrestricted sense that can be distinctively implemented in different disciplinary contexts, and that can be construed as whatever fixes the possible kind of evolution of a system with respect to a given model. In the case of physics, one can expect to detect (C2) into what codes for the dynamics of systems, namely their Lagrangian or Hamiltonian. It is noteworthy that focusing on the way in which the dynamics evolves has already been considered elsewhere as the best way to ground claims about what counts as “truly” novel or not in the evolution of a physical system. See for instance Rueger 2000 or Morrison 2006. It is also noteworthy that here we take [Tr] as what leads from S 1’s dynamics to S 2’s dynamics, but not as a dynamical process in itself. As with respect to the possible relation between laws and dynamics, the scope of this paper compels us to remain agnostic.

  9. The diachronic and ontological nature of fusion emergence is obvious from what has just been said. The fact that it is strongly ontological has to be contrasted with the weakly ontological character of [te]. As we’ve seen, [te] actually tolerates causal closure as well as supervenience, beside not being committed to the existence of high-level causal powers.

  10. The way we formulate Rueger’s novelty thesis here is somewhat cumbersome, but we don’t know of a better way to phrase it, insofar as it rests on a confusion within Rueger’s own account. At some point, Rueger indeed states that the relata of emergence are the behavior of a system at a given moment and the behavior of the same system at some earlier moment (typically when, in between, a critical point in a control parameter has been reached; see p. 300). But at some other places (p. 303), the relata of emergence are supposed to be a given system (for which a control parameter is at critical value) and another so-called “reference” system (for which the control parameter is not at critical value). Perhaps the fact that both interpretative options are available is the reason why Rueger doesn’t explicitly formulate a dependence thesis, for it doesn’t fully make sense in the second case. In any case, we embrace the first option here – viz. when the relata of emergence are successive behaviors of one and the same system –, for we think it captures Rueger’s intuition and it involves embracing a dependence thesis along the lines of (dep d ).

  11. Rueger himself qualifies his account as “weak”, but this seems to cover what we refer to here as “epistemological”. For him, “weakly” emergent properties are indeed properties that are also structural or “resultant”, that is, properties that are defined in terms of lower-level properties and relations (in the diachronic, purely intralevel case, this notion is somewhat degenerate). This is in sharp contrast with ontological accounts that consider non-structurality as a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) requirement for emergence (e.g. Humpheyrs 1997 in the diachronic case; O’Connor 1994 in the synchronic case).

  12. This can be seen on the basis of the empirical illustration of Rueger’s diachronic emergence that is the originally damped oscillator that becomes undamped (so the control parameter – the damping – reaches its critical null value). There is emergence in this context, for the undamped oscillator has a phase space portrait that looks like an ellipse, whereas the phase space portrait of the damped oscillator is a topologically non-equivalent spiral. In spite of this emergence, one could thoroughly predict in practice what would be the behavior of an undamped oscillator from knowledge of the laws governing its damped counterpart.

  13. Of course the fact that irreducible (classes of) Hamiltonians are supposed to mirror irreducible laws and powers is questionable, especially given that philosophers of science sometimes consider Hamiltonians as being mere models. We think nonetheless that this is a key component of Hendry’s intuition about the relationship between physics and metaphysics.

  14. It is at this point that Hendry appeals to a specific construal of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which is systematically used in order to be able to solve molecular Schrödinger equations that otherwise would remain untractable. According to Hendry, far from being a mere approximation, this procedure leads to adding a structure to molecules by hand, insofar as it involves breaking the symmetry of what the solutions (of spherical symmetry) to the exact molecular Schrödinger equation would be.

  15. True, Hendry’s account leads to a breaking of the causal closure of physics, but it remains consistent with the weaker principle that is the “ubiquity of physics”, according to which “physical principles constrain the motions of particular systems though they may not fully determine them” (Hendry 2010, p. 188).

  16. That’d better be the case, for, as we will see, people won the Nobel prize for their discovery and account of phenomena that we will qualify as transformationally emergent.

  17. Note that the long range interaction implied here does not contradict the second characteristics above because the interaction necessary for the fractional statistics is of the Aharonov-Bohm type and, in consequence, does not require displacement of energy.

  18. For a good survey of orders based on symmetry breaking, see Chaikin and Lubensky 1998.

  19. A similar claim has been made recently by Lancaster and Pexton (2015). According to them, fractional quantum Hall states can be said to be emergent in a sense “ E 3” that they construe as a modification of Humphreys’ original fusion account, where basal properties are not lost upon emergence, but rather become “inherently relational” (due to a specific kind of entanglement at play, viz. long-range entanglement that characterize topological states of matter). Such an account of the emergence involved in the fractional quantum Hall effect differs from ours in an important respect: as with fusion emergence, it is essentially holistic and hierarchical (with levels failing to be related by a relation of mereological supervenience).

  20. We thank an anonymous reviewer for having drawn our attention to these possible worries.

  21. More on the 2-dimensional idealization can be found in Shech (2015).

  22. Because of the coupling to the external magnetic field, there is more than one Chern-Simons term.


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We would like to thank Paul Humphreys, Philippe Huneman, Peter Verdée and two anonymous referees of this journal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, as well as the audiences of the Taiwan Conference on Scientific Individuation, the Paris conference Emergence in Materials, the Annual meeting of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science and the Paris conference New Trends in the Metaphysics of Science, where different parts of this paper have been presented by either one or both of its authors. Olivier Sartenaer also gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS).

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Guay, A., Sartenaer, O. A new look at emergence. Or when after is different. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 6, 297–322 (2016).

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