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Institute of Advanced Study

Emergent Systems and Relations

Emergence: where is the evidence? 

Emergence, or dependent novelty, is once again a major focus of interest in science and philosophy. In weak emergence, the novelty concerns knowledge of the world, or our description of it: emergence is unpredictability, or the applicability of new concepts. The existence of weak emergence is uncontroversial. Strong emergence is novelty in the world itself: new properties, objects, laws or causal powers, which might act as constraints on behaviour at some lower level (‘downward causation’), where the hierarchy might be one of size, complexity or composition. The existence of strong emergence, and even its intelligibility, is highly controversial. The Durham Emergence Project is a major interdisciplinary research initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation, based in the Departments of Philosophy and Physics, running from October 2013 to June 2016. For the IAS Emergence theme, members of the project have planned a series of four workshops which aims to bring scientists and philosophers together to re-examine the terms of the debate over reduction and emergence. 

The Completeness of Physics: where is the evidence?

December 2014 

Opposition to the existence of downward causation is closely associated with the causal completeness (or closure) of the physical (CCP). If CCP is true, then downward causation (and therefore strong emergence) is arguably precluded. But how should CCP be formulated, and what evidence is there for it? This workshop will bring together philosophers of mind, philosophers of science and physicists to review the arguments, aiming to identify the unstated assumptions that underlie current disagreements. The aim is to cut through the current impasse in the debate. 

Powers and Human Agency

March 2015 

This workshop will explore how recent powers theories of causation affect the debate about the existence of downward causation and strong emergence. Powers theories of causation potentially offer new conceptions of what downward causation could consist in, distinctive approaches to the traditional problems of personal agency and mental causation, and new ways of challenging strongly held convictions about CCP. 

Physics and Emergence

July 2015 

Scientists and philosophers have developed a range of different mathematical and qualitative theoretical criteria for weak and strong emergence, but their mutual relevance is not always clear. This workshop aims to develop the connections so as to bring out the scientific significance of the philosophical criteria and the philosophical significance of the scientific criteria. Discussion will focus on how mathematical and qualitative theoretical criteria for weak and strong emergence apply to specific physical systems and properties, as modelled in quantum and statistical mechanics. It will examine how these examples fit into the philosophical debate on emergence, reduction and the existence of downward causation. 

Downwards causation in the biological and social sciences

September 2015 

Methodological/ontological individualism teaches that the behaviour of systems is fixed by the behaviour of the parts that make them up, by ordinary 'upwards' causal relations. This venerable and popular doctrine has never been uncontroversial, but recent work in the philosophy of science offers new challenges to it, especially in biology and in the social sciences. Mechanistic explanation is currently a central focus in philosophy of biology, a mechanism being a (usually) complicated arrangement of parts whose interactions give rise to causal relations constraining behaviour at a lower level. Or consider game theory in the study of society. Although the theory aims to explain social phenomena (e.g. socially suboptimal outcomes) by the rational behaviour of individuals, the explanations assume individual behaviour to be constrained by the rules of the game, which are features not of individuals but of the system. Are these cases of downward causation? 

For further information about this series and to register interest please contact Professor Robin Hendry ( Workshop dates are listed on the IAS Events Page (IAS Events Calendar)


Re-imagined Communities: emergent human-non-human relations in river catchment areas 

Building on a Roundtable discussion at the IAS’s international conference in July 2014, the aim of this sub-theme activity will be to develop a substantial funding proposal to support innovative interdisciplinary research into human-environmental relations. 

This research aims to develop a coherent interdisciplinary approach to river catchment research. While ethnographically examining human relationships with water, it will also investigate the engagement of non-human species and the material environment in these interactions, thus ‘re-imagining community’ to encompass not just human agency but also the co-constitutive role of the non-human and material world and the emergent relations between them over time. The project will therefore contribute to theories of human-environmental relationships and assist the development of more genuinely integrative approaches to research in this area. It will also encourage the application of interdisciplinary research in environmental policy and practice, in particular with regard to water governance and management. 

Scholars in a range of disciplines are expected to participate. Anthropologists, historians, archaeologists and human geographers will focus on the social and cultural dynamics within the catchment area with a view to providing archaeological, historical, demographic and ethnographic accounts. Working with specialists in inter-species ethnography, biologists and botanists will provide accounts of key animal and plant species within the river catchment area, and their interrelations with human groups, and with the material environment. Natural scientists – physical geographers, earth scientists and hydrologists – will provide data on the materiality of the research context: its topography; its soil systems and geology, and the flow of water through these. There would also be a role for specialists in the evaluation of water quality, and the implications of this and water flow regimes for the multiple species within the catchment area. It is anticipated that the diverse datasets generated will be brought into productive ‘layered’ alignment for analytic purposes using GIS mapping techniques. 

The major output of this sub-theme activity will be an interdisciplinary funding proposal, for submission to the Leverhulme Trust, the ERC or the ESRC (or possibly a combination of RCUK bodies). The sub-theme activity will also be used to test new methods of interdisciplinary project development, currently being designed at the IAS. The activity will therefore also assist the University’s broader endeavours to foster and support interdisciplinary research. 

For further details, contact Professor Veronica Strang (