California State University, Los Angeles
Last modified: April 25, 2006
Emergence—macro-level effects from micro-level causes—is at the heart of the conflict between reductionism and functionalism. How can there be autonomous higher level laws of nature (the functionalist claim) if everything can be reduced to the fundamental forces of physics (the reductionist position)? We cut through this debate by applying a computer science lens to the way we view nature. We conclude (a) that what functionalism calls the special sciences
(sciences other than physics) do indeed study autonomous laws and furthermore that those laws pertain to real higher level entities but (b) that interactions among such higher-level entities is epiphenomenal in that they can always be reduced to primitive physical forces. In other words, epiphenomena, which we will identify with emergent phenomena, do real higher-level work. The proposed perspective provides a framework for understanding many thorny issues including
the nature of entities, stigmergy, the evolution of complexity, phase transitions, supervenience, and downward entailment. We also discuss some practical considerations pertaining to systems
of systems and the limitations of modeling.