South African Journal of Philosophy

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Holism and Emergence: Dynamical Complexity Defeats Laplace’s Demon

J Collier


The paradigm of Laplacean determinism combines three regulative
principles: determinism, predictability, and the explanatory adequacy
of universal laws together with purely local conditions. Historically,
it applied to celestial mechanics, but it has been expanded into an
ideal for scientific theories whose cogency is often not questioned.
Laplace’s demon is an idealization of mechanistic scientific method.
Its principles together imply reducibility, and rule out holism and
emergence. I will argue that Laplacean determinism fails even in the
realm of planetary dynamics, and that it does not give suitable criteria
for explanatory success except within very well defined and rather
exceptional domains. Ironically, the very successes of Laplacean
method in the Solar System were made possible only by processes
that are not themselves tractable to Laplacean methodology. The results
of some of these processes were first observed in 1964, and violate
the Lapacean requirements of locality and predictability, opening
the door to holism and nonreducibility, i.e., emergence. Despite the
falsification of Laplacean methodology, the explanatory resources of
holism and emergence remain in scientific limbo, though emergence
has been used somewhat indiscriminately in recent scientific literature.
I make some remarks at the end about the proper use of
emergence in its traditional sense going back to C.D. Broad.
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