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result, we’re at one of those relatively unusual (so far) junctures where there is genuinely important multidisciplinary conceptual clarification waiting to be done.

We’ve been in this situation before. The mechanistic revolution of the scientific enlightenment forced us to confront the question of how humanity might fit into a world that was fundamentally physical, leading to an explosion of new philosophical ideas about man and his place in nature. More recently, the non-classical revolution in the early 20th century forced us to refine concepts that we’d taken to be rock-solid in our conception of the world, and the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and relativity are still being fought out in ways that are actually relevant to the progress of science.[1] There is similar room for conceptual work here. The time is ripe for philosophical analysis, which makes it all the more distressing that so little philosophical attention has been paid to the topic of complexity.

One of the consequences of the piecemeal way in which complexity-theoretic considerations have taken hold in the special sciences is that there’s a good deal of confusion about how to use some of the central concepts. It is instructive to note that many of the same terms (e.g. “emergence,” “self-organized,” “chaotic”) show up in complexity-motivated discussions of very diverse sciences, and there’s surely a sense in which most variations of those terms show a kind of family resemblance. Still, the fact that they are often defined with a specific context in mind means that it is not always easy to explicitly state the common core of these important terms as

  1. The question of how to interpret the formalism of non-relativistic quantum mechanics, for instance, still hasn’t been answered to the satisfaction of either philosophers or physicists. Philosophical attention to the measurement problem in the mid-20th century led directly to the overthrow of the Copenhagen Interpretation, and (more recently) to work on decoherence and einselection (e.g. Zurek [2003]). For an accessible survey of some of the ways in which philosophical thinking has contributed to physics in the 20th century, see Maudlin (2007). For examples of excellent current work in these areas, see Wallace (2011) and (2009), as well as Albert (2000).