9 Apr 2009

Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory, 6.i. Michael Polanyi, Clayton

by Corry Shores
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Philip Clayton

"Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory"

6. Strong Emergence Since 1970

6.i. Michael Polanyi

Polanyi was one of the few emergentists between the 1940's and the 1970's. On the basis of his emergentist ideas, he defended tacit knowledge and the irreducibility of the category of personhood.

According to Polanyi, thought is motivated by the anticipation of our discovering a hidden reality. There are at least two levels of reality:
a) the particulars, and
b) their comprehensive meaning.

He extended these levels of reality to many fields, including consciousness.
even physical randomness was understood as an emergent phenomenon (15c, emphasis mine, see Polanyi Personal Knowledge 390-391)
All living things are machines. They are systems controlled by their functions. And they exercise downward causation upon their biological parts (15d, see Polanyi Knowing and Being 226-227, Personal Knowledge 359ff.)

There was a first emergence in biological life. It was the prototype for all subsequent stages of evolution, including its highest level yet, consciousness. (16a)

Clayton mentions three aspects of Polanyi's theory that are found in later emergentist ideas. We here examine the very interesting third one.

(3) The theory of structure and information.
Something's structure is more than the complexity of its constitution. Consider the difference between the chemical composition of a crystal molecule and a DNA molecule. The crystal structure is complex. But it has little "information content." The DNA molecule is no less chemically complex. But it is highly improbable that the molecule would come to be composed in such a way, "since the nucleotide sequence is not determined by the underlying chemical structure." The crystal does not function as a code. But the DNA molecule can: "it is very high in informational content relative to the background probabilities of its formation." (17c) Today evolutionary biologists see their field as more than a physical science. It is a semiotic science too. There is significance and representation involved in DNA coding.

Clayton, Philip. "Conceptual Foundations of Emergence Theory." in The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. Ed. Philip Clayton and Paul Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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