Emergence and Singular Limits

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Wayne, Andrew
preprint description
Recent work by Robert Batterman and Alexander Rueger has brought attention to cases in physics in which governing laws at the base level “break down” and singular limit relations obtain between base- and upper-level theories. As a result, they claim, these are cases with emergent upper-level properties. This paper contends that this inference—from singular limits to explanatory failure, novelty or irreducibility, and then to emergence—is mistaken. The van der Pol nonlinear oscillator is used to show that there can be a full explanation of upper-level properties entirely in base-level terms even when singular limits are present. Whether upper-level properties are emergent depends not on the presence of a singular limit but rather on details of the ampliative approximation methods used. The paper suggests that focusing on explanatory deficiency at the base level is key to understanding emergence in physics.