Any investigation of the relationship between wholes and parts must face the concept of emergence, but that concept has a chequered history in both philosophy and science. The talk illustrated a pluralistic and pragmatic way to evaluate concepts of emergence and applied it to a number of familiar conceptions of emergence. It focused on weak emergence, which is a hallmark of what we can call ‘complex wholes’, composed of nothing but certain parts organized in certain ways, whose behaviour is nothing more than the organized activity of their parts, while the underlying causal network is highly parallel, nonlinear, and synergistic, so that the behaviour of wholes cannot be derived from the behaviour of isolated parts. Complex wholes evoke terms like ‘holism’, ‘surplus’, ‘synergy’, ‘situatedness’, and ‘activity’. Bedau examined three kinds of complex wholes involving life: (1) a verbal Program-Metabolism-Container model of the origin of minimal chemical life, (2) a precise computational system that exhibits life-like global behaviour, and (3) the wet experiments in bottom-up synthetic biology laboratories that combine nonliving materials to create new and unfamiliar forms of life (or ‘protocells’).
Mark A. Bedau is professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Artificial Life, and regular visiting professor in the PhD program ‘Foundations and Ethical Implications of the Life Sciences’ at the European School of Molecular Medicine in Milan, Italy. His interdisciplinary collaborations have recently produced a number of books, including Emergence (2008, with Paul Humphreys), The Nature of Life (2010, with Carol Cleland), Protocells: Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter (2009, with Rasmussen et al), and The Ethics of Protocells: Moral and Social Implications of Creating Life in the Laboratory (2009, with Emily Parke). He is currently writing a book about the emergence and open-ended evolution of life, mind, and technology.
The lecture is part of the ICI Lecture Series Constituting Wholes. After the disenchantments of the postmodern post-cold-war period and in the face of global crises – be they financial, economic, political, or ecological – the critical need to include a holistic perspective is felt with renewed urgency, as is the concern that the situatedness of any such perspective and the multiple, incommensurable ways of constituting wholes may be forgotten.
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