Biological Mechanisms, Emergence, and Some Reflections on the Neuroscientific Account of Human Action

Jonathan Davies


The aim of the paper is to illuminate the epistemic challenges that confront attempts to uncover the mechanisms underlying the properties of complex systems. In so doing I will attempt to counter a number of confusions that give rise to notions such as the causal redundancy and/or inexplicability of emergent phenomena. I then propose an understanding of emergence, rooted in an analysis of the practices of biologists that avoids some of the more worrisome metaphysical problems of other accounts and illuminates some important methodological and epistemological strategies for overcoming the problems of explaining emergent features. My approach focuses on the spatio-temporal distribution of causal factors (or functions) in the production of an emergent property or entity rather than on an ontology of levels. An understanding of the relationships that hold between system components and the emergent whole has a direct bearing on long-standing questions in the philosophy of the life sciences and mind.


emergence; causation; mechanisms

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