Emergence and Reductionism

An awkward Baconian alliance

Authored by: Piers Coleman

The Routledge Handbook of Emergence

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138925083
eBook ISBN: 9781315675213
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter discusses the relationship between emergence and reductionism from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist. Reductionism and emergence play an intertwined role in the everyday life of the physicist, yet we rarely stop to contemplate their relationship: indeed, the two are often regarded as conflicting worldviews of science. I argue that in practice, they complement one another, forming an awkward alliance in a fashion envisioned by the philosopher-scientist, Francis Bacon. Looking at the historical record in classical and quantum physics, I discuss how emergence fits into a reductionist view of nature. Often, a deep understanding of reductionist physics depends on the understanding of its emergent consequences. Thus, the concept of energy was unknown to Newton, Leibniz, Lagrange or Hamilton, because they did not understand heat. Similarly, the understanding of the weak force awaited an understanding of the Meissner effect in superconductivity. Emergence can thus be likened to an encrypted consequence of reductionism. Taking examples from current research, including topological insulators and strange metals, I show that the connection between emergence and reductionism continues to provide a powerful driver for frontier scientific research, linking the lab with the cosmos.

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