Is emergence the only avenue to follow in order to successfully short-cirquit full reductionist explanations?

What other recourse does one have to avoid full-fledged reductionism without risking back-tracking to some sense of essentialism?

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    This is impossible to answer without more details on what "full-fledged reductionism" or "some sense of essentialism" are (essentialism in the usual sense is perfectly compatible with reductionism, so this must mean something else). Even "emergence" has multiple gradations, and it is sometimes used almost synonymously with holism, which is the opposite of reductionism. So then by definition lack of "reductionism" would have to involve "emergence".
    – Conifold
    May 26, 2018 at 19:51
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    by full-fledged reductionism I mean something along the lines of Dawkins' argument about the selfish gene which is considered by eg Mayr as excessively reductionist; by essentialism I mean exactly that-I am not saying it is a component of non-reductionist explanations; I'm asking for possible routes to avoid it either by somehow incorporating emergence or possibly using other notions; sure, holism sounds like one possible route; are there others?
    – user43583
    May 26, 2018 at 20:14
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    You need to add some substance here, not more empty words. What is it specifically that is "bad" about "reductionism"? How do you imagine "essentialism" avoids it? How does "emergence"? "Holism" is not "other notion", all these terms are very vague and used inconsistently by different authors, what one calls reductionist is emergent to another, to some holist and emergent are the same, to others not, etc. Try to describe what you want and what you want to avoid without these words.
    – Conifold
    May 26, 2018 at 20:29
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    what exactly do you mean by empty words? in what sense are the words empty? I am not saying there's anything bad-or good-about reductionism; my question is not about essentialism; you do realize you are asking me to answer my own question, right? anyhow, I apologize but I cannot be more-or less- precise; if you feel my question is vague or devoid of content I would sincerely request you downvote it or even consider voting it closed;
    – user43583
    May 26, 2018 at 20:40
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    I gave an example of what I mean by full-fledged reductionism; I understand the unqualified nature of the concept of emergence in the question; I guess someone conflating emergent with irreducible would answer the question appropriately; further reading will depend on the content of the answers this question receives;
    – user43583
    May 27, 2018 at 9:28

4 Answers 4


It depends how much goes into the emergent properties as regards the kind of causal power (if any) they possess. I'm going to take part of an argument from J. Kim. It doesn't represent his full view but the premises are relevant, I think, to what you are asking.

(1) Emergent mental properties are real properties (the thesis of emergent realism).

(2) To be a real property is to have causal powers ('Alexander's Dictum').

(3) Emergent mental properties are irreducible (the irreducibility thesis).

(4) To be an irreducible property, is to be a genuinely new addition to the ontology of the world (the ontology thesis).

(5) To be an irreducible real property, is to have new and irreducible causal powers. (From 2 and 4.)

(Cited in more complete form in Achim Stephan, 'Armchair Arguments against Emergentism', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 46, No. 3 (May, 1997), 305-314 : 308.Also see Kim reference below.

The question and the problem are : do emergent properties have new and irreducible causal powers ? If they do, then this is one argument against reductionism. If they don't then this argument against reductionism fails but another might succeed. Whether and which if any emergent properties have new and irreducible causal powers seem not to be a philosophical but empirical issues.


Kim, J.: 1993b, 'The Nonreductivist's Troubles with Mental Causation', in J. Heil and A. Mele (eds.), Mental Causation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 189-210; reprinted in J. Kim: 1993, Supervenience and Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 36-357.

Stephan, Achim, 'Armchair Arguments against Emergentism', Erkenntnis (1975-), Vol. 46, No. 3 (May, 1997), 305-314.

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    If a property has irreducible causal power, doesn't that make it a substance instead of a property? May 27, 2018 at 13:34
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    @elliot svensson. Thanks. I need to think. You've alerted me to a point that didn't occur to me. I'd rather hold back for a while than shoot off an instant answer. Comment much appreciated : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 27, 2018 at 14:41

"Reductionism, Emergence and Levels of Reality: The Importance of Being Borderline" by Sergio Chibbaro, Lamberto Rondoni, and Angelo Vulpiani is particularly good with issues of emergence, reductionism and essentialism.

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    Interesting looking book, so +1 for that. It's $100 at amazon but there is a free pdf available online.
    – nwr
    May 26, 2018 at 16:40
  • @NickR Thanks for suggesting the easy-to-find site. (And note that their homepage has lots of additional interesting stuff -- most of which seems legitimately downloadable.)
    – user19423
    May 26, 2018 at 18:48

Like others I struggle with your use the of the words.

I would use the term 'emergence' to mean the opposite of 'reduction' such that anything that is emergent can be reduced and anything that can be reduced is emergent. So for me a reductionist explanation is an explanation in terms of emergence.

Holism is the opposite of reductionism as a method but if we keep going long enough we end up in the same place, (viz. the 'world-as-a-whole), so in the end the difference of approach is not metaphysically important.

Which only goes to show that these words may be used in various ways.

  • I think this is the right answer. To be precise I would say that emergence is the opposite of reductionism assuming monism because one can also be a dualist or a pluralist (including vitalism etc). Emergence has always defined itself as a program looking for a middle ground between dualism and reductionism, being neither one nor the other, and that's its defining characteristics beyond the variety of emergentist accounts. May 29, 2018 at 8:10
  • Holism is the opposite of separability, which is something distinct. May 29, 2018 at 8:11

Practical emergentism, is compatible philosophically with reductionism. Reductionism must hit problems in ability to make predictions, based on the limits of total matter and energy in the universe and what data could be held and computed. Non linear dynamics mean the universe can only fully compute a single timeline of everything in it. The multiverse may be a computation of all possible initial conditions and timelines: https://phys.org/news/2014-12-universe-dimensions.html

Emergentism, such as predicting behaviour based on psycology, can offer huge shortcuts on computation for predicting outcomes. This treats an explanatory layer as supervening on a more fundamental one, while accepting that it is in principle reducible.

Another example is Multi Level Selection. Group Selection is problematic, because it implies that the new group-unit can become more fundamental than it's constituent genes. MLS resolves this by proposing additional explanatory order, which does not.

When we look at humans, we see a future of digitally uploading and otherwise seeming obviations of the gene. But the gene is actually a record of adaption to niche, a kind of timeline of being. We can never create a digital mind 'from nothing', it must be attached to such a timeline, in the same way we need exposure to culture as well as genes. Additional layers of order occur, but never supercede previous ones. I am thinking of Deutsche's description of understanding genetics as crucial to understanding The Fabric Of Reality.

We expect simplicity and elegance to the order of the universe, as shown by the increasing unification of fields and expectation of a unified field theory. Many expect a unified substance https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics#Wheeler.27s_.22it_from_bit.22 Reductionism in this context is really saying, we expect a timeline that goes from simple to complex.

Do we also need holism? Yes, anc again it is compatible. In that early simplicity, all particles were probably entangled. The emergeging idea of an axiom of purification, suggests the arrow of time is in the direction of increased mixing of initially pure states, which means a particle cannot be fully accounted for without reference to all previously entangled partners.

My impression is that this can picture all possible futures as part of a multidimensional surface. So then you think, why do you subjectively experience just this one worldline? Just like a fundamental particle, in this picture we in fact experience all possible worldlines, 'seperated' by 6 of the dimensions being rolled up (ie having limited extent into our universe).

It is not a dichotomy. Reductionism and emergentism can both be essential to a working understanding of, and creation of a meaningful model of, our universe and wider reality.

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