Why focus on emergentism, a term obscure to most people who profess interest in science? Many initially profess their interest in science. When interested adults discover that some science concepts are difficult and obscure instead of merely interesting and fascinating, they sometimes shrink back. Young people pose a similar scenario. Young children have a natural curiosity concerning events in their environment. Parents and science teachers must insure they do not become overly pedantic with young children. The result could smother the child’s natural tendency to question and thereby hinder the budding scientist.
Adult non-scientists may react to the difficult scientific concept of emergentism in a similar way. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became a theologian, has thoughtfully connected many difficult concepts such as emergence and reductionism in two fields of knowledge--science and theology. He has written about reductionism in which a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts. That is, accounts of everyday phenomena can be “reduced” to accounts of its individual constituents. Everyday examples include events in our kitchens or the workings of our automobiles. If some things are working well (or poorly), there is a cause and effect sequence responsible for their workings. If the meal burns or the automobile stalls, there are causes and effects. We are, therefore, reductionists.
Consider acquired human knowledge in life science. Polkinghorne says although the observable universe contains ten sextillion stars, cosmology is a great deal simpler than human biology. For many questions we pose in life science, we are reductionists. We reduce an effect to a cause occurring at a lower level in the event sequence. In many cases, reductionism functions effectively to explain events. High level events are explained by events at a lower level. In other cases reductionism proves completely inadequate to explain reality.
We now introduce a more difficult science concept. The “emergentism” model had its origin back in the nineteenth century. The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “…emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them.” The encyclopedia continues with the example that “consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.” Human consciousness is not “reducible” to the activity of atoms and molecules in the brain. It is fundamentally a mystery. Claiming that consciousness “emerges” does not explain the phenomenon; it merely describes it.
The sudden origin of life and the sudden appearance of new species on earth are additional examples of emergence. Bio-science literature frequently repeats principles describing emergence. For instance: Complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Also, complex systems, novel and coherent, “self-organize” into novel and coherent systems. Another example: “Sudden evolution.” In the geological history of the earth, paleontologists would describe most evolutionary events as “sudden,” affirming to the record of paleontology told by fossils. Gradual evolution is not a feature of the history of earth life.
Naturalistic scientists poke fun at theistic beliefs held by creationists. They insist upon naturalistic explanations and strive to achieve them. What accounts, therefore, for abrupt changes in complexity in the phenomena of the natural world? Theistic believers leave the door open for belief in occasional miracles of divine intervention. But there are no scientific explanations for divine intervention according to the naturalistic view of science because naturalistic scientists investigate only natural phenomena.
Sociologist Christian Smith has written in The Secular Revolution on the subject of the struggle between religious and secular activists for institutional control and authority over the broad field of science. The Christian view of God as Creator permits miraculous interventions in our temporal sphere. Theistic scientists acknowledge some miraculous interventions along the timeline of earth history. Naturalistic scientists, on the contrary, rule such acknowledgements out of bounds. The interventions accord with the scientific search for truth, nonetheless. “What really happened?” is a perfectly valid question for the scientist. Sadly, this question is often subsumed under the philosophy of the strict worldview of scientism.
Many authors have commented on the interplay among science, theology, and philosophy. They have wrestled with these related issues in countless volumes of commentary, asking how science relates to theology. Scientific definitions and descriptions of reductionism and emergence connect with the laws and activity of the Creator. Questions and answers on these topics should engage thoughtful Christians at a profound level.