The strong emergence of molecular structure

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One of the most plausible and widely discussed examples of strong emergence is molecular structure. The only detailed account of it, which has been very influential, is due to Robin Hendry and is formulated in terms of downward causation. This paper explains Hendry’s account of the strong emergence of molecular structure and argues that it is coherent only if one assumes a diachronic reflexive notion of downward causation. However, in the context of this notion of downward causation, the strong emergence of molecular structure faces three challenges that have not been met and which have so far remained unnoticed. First, the putative empirical evidence presented for the strong emergence of molecular structure equally undermines supervenience, which is one of the main tenets of strong emergence. Secondly, it is ambiguous how the assumption of determinate nuclear positions is invoked for the support of strong emergence, as the role of this assumption in Hendry’s argument can be interpreted in more than one way. Lastly, there are understandings of causation which render the postulation of a downward causal relation between a molecule’s structure and its quantum mechanical entities, untenable.
Original languageEnglish
Article number45 (2020)
Number of pages25
JournalEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Science
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

The MetaScience project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's (EU) Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 771509.


  • Strong emergence
  • Molecular structure
  • Downward causation

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