Ethical Realism

May 14, 2010

Emergence: A New Worldview of Reality

Filed under: metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 11:10 pm
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I believe in timeless elements of reality and irreducible elements of reality. Minds, morality, and mathematics seem to be beyond the reality as described in physics, but the view that only material reality exists is also very attractive. The solution that some philosophers have come up with is to combine the two. The only reality is physical and everything is connected to the reality as described by physics, but some elements of reality is more than the sum of their parts.

I will discuss the following:

  1. Why materialism is attractive.
  2. Why the alternatives are unattractive.
  3. Challenge to materialism.
  4. The new worldview of reality.

Materialism is attractive because it is based on our understanding of science and our instinctive assumptions of the world, and it poses only one domain of reality. It is quantifiable and can be represented geometrically. Posing one domain of reality is preferable as long as that one domain can fully account for our experiences. The alternatives to materialism are mysterious and difficult to model. Additionally, they usually require a strange domain of reality to account for experiences that might be equally explainable for a materialist.

The problem for materialism is that we have minds, morality, and mathematics, and these elements of reality don’t seem to be anything like atoms or energy.

I will discuss the new worldview of reality insofar as it relates to minds, morality, and mathematics. I believe that minds and morality are both irreducible elements of reality. They are emergent phenomenon that arises from matter in motion combined with undiscovered laws of physics. Mathematics and logic are constraints on reality but nothing has to actually exist to make it so. 1+1=2 is true whenever you can add two unities because it would be impossible for it to be any other way. Minds, morality, and mathematics are not merely human inventions or psychological tendencies of human beings. They could have a relation to human inventions and psychological tendencies, but they are are also part of reality itself.

Why materialism is attractive.

Materialism is attractive for the following reasons:

  1. It’s based on our understanding of science.
  2. It’s based on our instinctive assumptions.
  3. It only posits one domain of reality.

It’s based on our understanding of science.

Scientists talk about electrons, atoms, and chemicals. The assumption is that these things exist outside of us and they really do exist as the scientists describe them. Even if a scientist is wrong about what electrons really are, we assume that something really exists that we currently call “electron” just like something really exists that we call “water.” Only given time could we find out what an electron really is just like only with time could we find out that water is really H2O.

The view that science tells us what really exists (even when unobservable) is called scientific realism. Scientific anti-realists tend to only question the existence of unobservable phenomenon, such as electrons. When it comes to thinks we an observe, such as germs, they still usually agree that they exist. So, some scientific anti-realists do think it is possible that electrons really exist. They just don’t want to say that electrons exist until they can be observed. (Once upon a time germs couldn’t be observed, but now they can.)

It’s based on our instinctive assumptions.

We seem to instinctively assume various things that involve a material world. For example, (a) there is a world that exists external to us and (b) objects that exist are extended.

It only posits one domain of reality.

If one domain of reality could explain a phenomenon just as well as two, then we would prefer the view that posits only one domain. If we can explain reality as we know it through one material world, then we should prefer that view to a view that requires us believe in other domains of reality. For example, if our world as we understand it can explain our experiences of UFOs (e.g. as government experiments), then it seems like a bad idea to posit the existence of aliens.

Why the alternatives are unattractive.

I will discuss the following alternatives to materialism:

  1. Substance Dualism
  2. Platonic Idealism
  3. Subjective Idealism

Substance Dualism

Substance dualism says that there are two totally different kinds of reality. There is material and there are minds. So, the material world does exist, but dualism posits two domains of reality instead of one. One problem with dualism is that it can’t explain how the mind and brain can interact. They are both so different that my will to raise my arm shouldn’t be able to explain how my material arm actually lifted up.

Platonic Idealism

Platonic idealism is the view that the most real part of reality is an eternal realm (of the Forms). This realm is completely different than our experience of the material world. It is unchanging, creative, and outside space and time. The problem is that we have no idea how such a realm could interact with the material world or produce it, which is quite similar to the objection to dualism.

Some contemporary philosophers seem to think that Plato’s forms exist in addition to the material world. This sounds like a sort of dualism that posits two equally existing domains of reality.

Subjective Idealism

Subjective idealism says that only a world of minds exists and the material world is an illusion that only exists in a dream world. The view that some objects really do exist outside of us is something that everyone seems to believe, and the view that such a reality “doesn’t really exist” seems to be in need of a great deal of explanation. For example, we could all be in a dream world, but then we want to hear the story about how such a dream world came about and how we all ended up in it. Additionally, if we are in a dream world, then we would want to know why I can’t change reality from thought alone. It seems like I have to pick up an object with my hand and I can’t just move it by wanting it to be moved.¬† I would expect that we could do that in a dream world.

Additionally, if we are in a dream world, then we want to know why we all have similar experiences. Why do we both see the same world and same objects? If we are just like ghosts, then I would expect that we couldn’t really see, touch, taste, or smell anything. Perception seems to require some sort of causal connection, but no such connection exists in a dream world. One object wouldn’t reflect light into two different people’s eyes. Perhaps God could cause such shared experiences, but it isn’t clear how that could happen either.

Challenge to materialism.

The challenge to materialism is that not all parts of reality, such as the mind, can be explained by it. As far as we can tell the mind is nothing like atoms and so on. I can know everything about the brain and never know anything about the mind. To fully know what seeing the color green is like requires us to actually see it.

Some materialists seem to think that the mind is an illusion, but there are at least two problems with this view. First, illusions are “deceptive experiences,” but deceptive experiences seem to be mental in character. You need a person to have a mental experience of deception in order to experience an illusion. You could ask a person who has hallucinations, “What is it like for you to experience hallucinations?” We can’t even understand what a hallucination is without understanding that a mind is involved because the point to a hallucination is that there is a mental experience that doesn’t match the external world.

Second, it seems very important that the mind can actually do something. We think that we can make choices and use reasons to make better choices. For example, we experience pain and we don’t like it. We would like to think that our experience of pain isn’t in vain. Our experience of pain seems to help us decide to do one sort of thing instead of another. If the mind is an illusion and can’t do anything, then the brain does everything for us. In that case you would choose to take your hand out of a fire because of brain activity rather than your experience of pain.

Some materialists agree that the mind exists, but they have to then accept that material reality can be quite strange. Minds are part of material reality, so material reality can’t be entirely understood in terms of the reality described in physics (moving particles and waves).

The new worldview of reality.

I have already discussed the new worldview of reality in quite a bit of detail, such as in my essay, “What is Emergence?” I will quickly discuss how the new worldview of reality relates to the following:

  1. Minds
  2. Morality
  3. Mathematics


The view that minds exists and are not reducible to the reality described by physics is what I call “mental realism” and I have already talked about it quite a bit in my essay, “Searle’s Philosophy of the Mind.” The main idea is that the mind is more than the sum of its parts. Some people think that the mind is nothing but some configuration of moving particles, but the mind is more than the sum of its parts.

I agree with mental realism and I agree with emergence theorists. They believe that the mind comes into existence because of the material world. There are probably some sort of laws of nature that make minds come into existence given the right material conditions. The mind is part of the material world, but it is a different and more strange sort of material reality.

Although I don’t think emergence is incredibly popular among philosophers, many philosophers of science believe that emergence is pretty normal even in chemistry. You might want to take a look at Eric R. Scerri’s “Reduction and Emergence in Chemistry.”


Morality is also an emergent phenomenon. Nothing is right or wrong, good or bad, until the right material (and mental) conditions arise. Minds might have real value, so the existence of minds might be sufficient for the existence of value and morality. Additionally, we believe that pain is relevant to morality. Once an organism can experience pleasure and pain, there will be good and bad experiences. I have discussed the view that morality is emergent many times in the past.


I am not convinced that mathematics is emergent in the way that minds or morality are. I suspect that mathematics and logic are both restraints on reality itself. These facts are eternal in the sense that it would be impossible for anything else to be true about math or logic. 1+1=2 because it would be impossible for anything else to be true. “Every object is identical with itself” because it would be impossible to be otherwise. Same goes for “a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense, place, and time.”

Additionally, we can say that facts of math and logic are eternal and unchanging in at least two ways. One what is impossible for reality seems to stay the same. Two, if there is a manifestation of logic or math, then it will do so in the only way possible. “If you ever get 1+1, then you will get 2.” If you ever get a true statement, then it won’t be false “in the same sense, place, and time.”

I find mathematical facts to be timeless in a similar way as facts of dinosaurs are timeless. William J. Wainwright argues that there are facts about dinosaurs that are true (and timeless) despite the fact that dinosaurs no longer exist (“In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism”).


I find materialism to be attractive because it seems to make a lot of sense. Materialism attempts to answer questions that we are currently unable to answer, so it is highly speculative, but something like materialism plus emergence seems to be a very legitimate hypothesis (and possibly the best hypothesis at this moment in time). Such a worldview can explain reality as described by physics as well as minds, morality, an math. Philosophers can’t always give us the answers we desire, but they know the positive and negative implications of each hypothesis and can try to figure out which hypothesis is the most plausible given our current information.


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