Niche theory introduces the possibility of emergence. Let me be careful with that word because it has come to mean many things to many people and tends to be a fraught concept. I am defining it in the sense of Mark Badau (Not Badiou mind you). Badau argues for three concepts of emergence. In all three types, the foundational concept of emergence is the idea that a property is emergent if it is a property that can be possessed by the macro scale, which cannot be possessed by the micro scale. The classic example of this is the property liquidity possessed by water in a bucket, but is not possessed by a single water molecule. He then breaks this down into three kinds of emergence, nominal, weak and strong.
The first ‘nominal emergence’ is emergent in the sense that wholes are dependant on their parts, and are autonomous from their parts, but parts do not have the properties of the whole. Nominal emergent properties are just result from their parts coming together to make a whole. To take a biological example, a herd of wildebeest is a herd just as a result of individual wildebeest aggregating in a certain way. The herd emerges because of individual behavior structured by wildebeests just liking neighbors who can keep an eye out for lions. Everyone benefits with lots of lion detectors detecting lions.
On the other side of the spectrum of emergence, strong emergent properties, are characterized by supervenient powers that create irreducible causal powers. In this sense are although dependent on the micro level properties, they create causal powers that cannot be reduced. These are thought to be extra-scientific in that they cannot in principle be explored through reductive methods. The subjective experience of the mind is the only example that is usually given and there is skepticism that strong emergence is a coherent concept.
Between these kinds of emergence Badau defines weak emergence, he says, “The systems global behavior derives just from the operation of micro-level processes, but the micro-level interactions are interwoven in such a complicated network that the global behavior has no simple explanation.” Getting more specific he argues that weak emergence is un-derivable except through simulation, he suggests that micro level state changes are dependent on the situation in which they find themselves which allows updating of their reaction to this situation. A clear example of weak emergence would be a beehive in which individual bees are making ‘decisions’ based upon the needs of the hive and situation within the hive. A bee can the conditions and needs of a hive and change its behavior accordingly. Within a beehive individual bees are making decisions, but they are exchanging information with each other, assessing the situation within the hive themselves, and with the outside world in complex ways that make the hive much more than an aggregate of bees in the same sense that a herd is just an aggregate of wildebeest. Although, one can see that this a continuum and there is some assessment going on within a herd, (what is my neighbor looking at and why is it so nervous?), it is not as complex as the hive nor is its behavior as complex and information used to create such complex networks.
The beehive is especially interesting because this emergent appears to be a new kind of individual. Where the entire hive becomes the unit of evolutionary selection. Much has happened in the course of evolutionary history. Some individuals have given up their reproductive capability to become something new.
This outline gives a sense of the main themes of life: individuation, sociality among individuals, ecological relationships among the biotic and abiotic worlds, niche construction, and emergent complexity and continuance of this process.
What I will suggest shortly is that this ecology reflects something about deep existential ontology. This might be of service in saying some useful things in Mormon theology.
I’m going to be talking about agency soon, so let’s introduce it. By agency here I am following David Bokovoy, who in an excellent blog post on agency called, “Agency in LDS Theology: A Misunderstood Concept?” at Worlds Without End , wrote after some nice analysis:
“Simply put, freewill is not agency. Instead, the theological concept of agency in LDS scripture clearly refers to a person’s ability to serve as an agent, i.e. a culpable “steward” over his or her choices, so that when decisions are made, men and women are held accountable for exercising their freewill.”
I will use this definition of agency for what follows.