James O’Brien

Source: James O’Brien.

Project (2018-)

The Development of Emergence in Physics

From the 1970s, emergent phenomena in condensed matter physics—non-derivable from lower level properties—were presented as a clear opposition to the long established reductionist view that any scale phenomena would ultimately be reduced the elementary theory: the so-called Final Theory.

However, emergence is still an ill-defined concept in physics, that in some cases has more to do with unpredictability than with irreducibility. This vague definition is comprehensible if one takes into account that the concept of emergence was borrowed from the British Emergentists of the early 20th century, who introduced it to argue against the mechanist view on the origin of life. Later on, that debate was broadened to the debate on the reducibility of special sciences—such as psychology and biology—into chemistry and physics, at a time where reducibility within physics was not a challenge itself.


Source: James O’Brien.

This project's point of departure is to trace back this transfer of ideas, from the philosophical debate on life and special sciences to the debate on the reducibility within physics, with a special emphasis on the use of potentially problematic analogies and dis-analogies. For that purpose, we will focus on the philosophical trajectory of the concept of emergence, to find evidence of a plausible reconciliation with reductionism. The aim of the project is to shed light on the question of whether the opposition between emergentists and reductionists in the 1970s was based on a strong conceptual dichotomy, or was rather magnified by the socio-political context in the battle for recognition and funding.