The Atlas Society's Research Workshop in Objectivist Philosophy met on Wednesday, September 23, to discuss the debate between reductionist and emergentist views of causality.
The Atlas Society Research Workshop is a seminar for advanced scholars that meets monthly, on line. Meetings run for 90 minutes and involve a moderated discussion.
Human beings have free will: we can choose to focus our minds and direct our thoughts and hence our actions. This means a person is the cause of (some of) his actions. But is this the only case of "top-down" causation in nature? Some philosophers defend reductionism, which holds that all causal explanation must ultimately relate only to the principles of physics and the particles and fields studied there: there is no such thing as top-down causation, then. Other philosophers defend emergentism, which holds that when smaller particles and fields combine into more complex structures, sometimes novel causal properties emerge: top-down causation exists.
Eight advanced scholars from a variety of fields met to discuss the arguments in Richard Campbell's book, "The Metaphysics of Emergence".
This is an active area of research for philosophers in the Objectivist tradition, and it has relevance for methodological debates in fields as diverse as physics and psychology. Is physics necessarily incomplete without a grand unified theory tying relativity and quantum mechanics together? Reductionism says it is certainly incomplete; emergentism says maybe it is fine as is. Should psychologists focus on training people to control their thoughts? Reductionism says that is at best a stop-gap therapy: eventually neurosurgery on brain cells will be able to adjust the mind completely. Emergentism says the only way to manage thoughts is through training the will and the mind, because each person is the cause of his thoughts: neurosurgery will never be sufficient.
To understand this debate better, eight advanced scholars from a variety of fields met to discuss the arguments in Richard Campbell's book, The Metaphysics of Emergence. Campbell argues from a view that recognizes that people control their actions. He also recognizes that living beings are characterized by goal-directed action and that their existence as such is conditional on obtaining sustenance from their environment. (Objectivism shares these principles.) Clemson University psychology professor Robert Campbell (no relation) led the discussion. David Kelley and William R Thomas (pictured above) were the TAS scholars in residence.
Anyone interested in access to recordings of past workshops or in taking part in future workshops should contact William R Thomas, at wthomas[at]atlassociety.org