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William Mathews
Understanding Levels: Redefining Science in an Emergentist World View


An emergentist world view challenges us clearly to identify different emergent levels of reality. These include the emergence of the living from the non living, the conscious from the non-conscious, and within consciousness itself the distinctive emergence of the creative powers of the mind and its insights, and of the will and its freedom in decision making. All of these feed into a transdisciplinary approach to personhood.

The paper will open with some reflections on the molecular and biological levels. In addressing the relation between the non-living and the living, the significance of Watson’s remark that ‘life is exquisitely organized chemistry’ will be explored. The debate in evolutionary developmental biology about whether the developing organism is the product of its genes or genome or their organizer will illustrate the complexity of the problem. The field of neuro-linguistics opens up the problem of the distinction between the neural, the sensory—qualia involved in phonetics, and the intellectual—involved in sense and meaning. This will lead to the conclusion that Chalmers’ thesis that there is an irreducible property dualism involved in the neural and experiential (qualia) levels, does not take the issue far enough. To them, there needs to be added the further irreducible levels and their properties of creative insights, and finally of decision-making.

Moments of insight and decision-making are largely articulated in narratives of discovery. The middle part of the paper will engage with accounts of such moments in the memoirs of Crick, Watson, Fran├žois Jacob and, more briefly, Kary Mullis and Craig J. Venter. It will establish the core foundational role of such moments of insight in the scientific enterprise. It will suggest that the properties of such insight events are not reducible to the experiential (qualia). It will point towards the importance of this further and much neglected level of reality involved in the first person consciousness that does science. It will further engage with such narratives in order to open up the level of decision-making and freedom in that consciousness.

The final part of the paper will move from description to explanation. A scientific explanation of levels will entail an analysis of what is distinctive about the properties and activities on the different levels, the worlds that they operate in, and the upward and downward causal relations involved with other levels. The upward openness of the higher levels of consciousness to the transcendent will be suggested.

William Mathews is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin and resides at the nearby Jesuit community. He has an educational background in science, theology and philosophy and has held research fellowships in the University of Manchester, Boston College, and the Taylor Chair in Loyola Marymount University, LA. His teaching focus has been on philosophical anthropology with an emphasis on human origins and narratives, and the philosophy of mind. His major publication to date has been an intellectual biography of Bernard Lonergan, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005. He has recently presented a paper on the problematic relation between reductionism and the idea of a University. Provoked by the reductionism of scientific materialism, he is currently authoring a book entitled Emerging Realities. Through engaging with narratives of scientific discoveries, the first part will explore their emergent nature. The second part will explore in these and parallel cosmic emergences in the universe the ground of the relations between the major scientific disciplines.


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