When I am reading Philosophy and Simulation, I encountered the phrase:

"concrete wholes"

But I could not understand what does the phrase refer? Could you give me real world examples of concrete wholes and meaning of it?

And even if one does not have a problem with an ontological commitment to entities like these it is hard to see how we could specify mechanisms of emergence for life or mind in general, as opposed to accounting for the emergent properties and capacities of concrete wholes like a metabolic circuit or an assembly of neurons. The only problem with focusing on concrete wholes is that this would seem to make philosophers redundant since they do not play any role in the elucidation of the series of events that produce emergent effects.

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    This looks like "Intelligent Design" waffle about "irreducible complexity" to me. That's a pseudoscientific argument maintaining that evolution can't be true because a metabolic circuit or an assembly of neurons is too complicated to arise all at once, but an incomplete early version would have no survival advantage (because it wouldn't work at all), so evolution couldn't lead to improvements. Essentially, concrete wholes are complex integral structures (which the author thinks only God could have created). Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 12:52
  • I think this concrete is the opposite of abstract, i.e., a concrete whole is something that emerges from the sum of its parts. To be sure, I'd need to read more, so I'll leave this as a comment. In any case, you can still understand the gist of the sentence, I believe, by skipping this concrete. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 12:57
  • @Damkerng: In context, you need to be careful about using emerges there, since emergent complexity refers to the (abstract?) qualities / behaviours / capabilities of an "irreducibly complex" biological component, rather than the physical "object, body part" instantiating that complexity. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:04
  • @FumbleFingers - Brilliant comments, as usual. I wish you would post your first comment above as an answer, which would successfully put this question to bed before it starts a discussion or invites humor (e.g., "concrete wholes" are dense neutron stars filled with gravel and cement from which no light can escape, etc.). Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:36
  • @Mark: It looks like waffle to me, but firstly, some Intelligent Design proponents are very good at using language, and secondly, "concrete whole" could be philosophically useful terminology that doesn't necessarily imply something irreducibly complex as shoehorned into the specious ID argument. If there was a link to the full source I might be able to get a clearer idea of exactly what the author is getting at here, but for the most part I think it should suffice simply to know that two typical examples are a metabolic circuit or an assembly of neurons (they're concrete = really exist). Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:48

2 Answers 2


In OP's context, concrete effectively means actual, real-world, as opposed to hypothetical. One particularly common usage is the example in this dictionary.reverso.net definition...

concrete - relating to a particular instance or object; specific as opposed to general
a concrete example

The text specifically identifies metabolic circuit and assembly of neurons as typical "concrete wholes", meaning that these are actual real-world structures we can observe, that are "complete, irreducible".

In context, the writer seems to be saying such things are problematic for philosophers, because they seem to "spring into existence" in their entirety. Thus they're difficult to explain, since "half a metabolic circuit" wouldn't function at all (so evolution couldn't incrementally improve it, since it would have no reason to exist in the first place, but that's just a specious "Intelligent Design" argument).

  • While I can understand how you might arrive at "Intelligent Design" from the excerpt given by the OP, I think if you read on in the link, the author is not making an argument for "Intelligent Design" but possibly the opposite. The author goes on to refute his "the only problem with focussing on..." sentence later in the book. The premise of the book is to defend explaining "emergence" in a non-hierarchal way and the author explicitly refers to "experiments" (simulations). An argument for "Intelligent Design" would imply hierarchy and the lack of "experiments" for explanation.
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 18:05
  • @Peter: It's a lengthy and dense argument, so I must admit I didn't take the trouble to follow it all through. But I did notice he seemed to be distinguishing his own metabolic circuit, assembly of neurons examples from typical earlier ones like Life, Mind, Deity, and since "half a mind" is obviously better than "no mind at all" (and can thus be an evolutionary stepping stone), I just supposed that was where he was heading. Whatever - my last paragraph above is really just irrelevant opinionating. The basic "meaning" of concrete as asked about is covered by the preceding text. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 18:20

Concrete whole is a concept used in Aristotle's *Metaphysics B to talk about the combination of "matter" (substance) and "shape" (form) to create a concrete whole

"By the matter I mean, for instance, the bronze, by the shape the pattern of its form, and by the compound of these the statue, the concrete whole" - Aristotle's Metaphysics B

The "concrete" (real world, substance/matter) is only part of a concrete whole.

So what the author is giving the perspective of thinking about these pathways or structures as an entirety of form, function and abstraction. He makes the observation that science is usually left to explain function and philosophy to explain abstraction.

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