The Other I

August 21, 2010

Essential problems for today’s reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

According to traditional reductionism, all phenomena in the universe can ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics and the interactions of fundamental particles.  Nothing else is real in its own right.  Originally, reductionism argued that all events are both completely determined and predictable.

With quantum physics and the principle of uncertainty, the commitment to determinism has been greatly diluted.  There is still no room for choice or free will, for values or meanings, but there is certain wiggle room for random events within the limits of probability.

But a commitment to the total sufficiency of the laws of physics for explaining events has remained firmly in place.

Until quite recently.

The problem – actually there are several, but there are two difficulties I find particularly intriguing.  According to reductionism, events should be reversible and predictable.  Right now, once we are beyond the simplest levels, they are often neither.

If all objects are really only the interaction of particles, it should be possible to return the objects to their initial state.  In other words, they should be reversible, the way water can be returned to two atoms of hydrogen and one oxygen.  But except on the simplest level, they do not reverse.  A drop of ink dropped into water will disperse automatically.  But it never coalesces as a drop of ink again.  A boiled egg cannot be returned to its unboiled state.

This may seem to be a fairly niggling unimportant observation.  And it might be.  Except that the higher up the level of complexity and organization one goes, the less reversible events are.   A fertilized egg develops forward, not backward.  Seed-bearing plants may ultimately evolve into egg-laying birds, but birds do not seem to evolve eventually into simpler organisms like plants again.  Even the entire universe is not characterized by the entropy that should be there if the combination of particles reversed as often as they combined.

What seems to be happening instead is that the universe is increasing in complexity in higher and greater levels of organization.  Fundamental particles combined to make simple atoms which combined to make molecules which combined in stars where further combinations have produced the molecules out of which simple life emerged.  Here on earth we have seen single cell bacterial combine for billions of years into higher and higher forms of living organisms.

The second problem for reductionism is its inability to predict.  If everything is the result of the laws controlling the operations of fundamental particles, then it should be possible to predict what is going to happen.

But we can’t predict the future.   Except for the motion (within a certain tolerance of error) of the planets and stars, the future cannot be foretold with anything resembling accuracy or precision.  Economists didn’t see the credit crunch coming, and can’t predict what will happen if governments increase spending or raise interest rates and taxes to pay down the deficit.  Nobody foretold the popularity of the internet or foresaw the floods in Pakistan which thus far have displaced twenty million people.  Nobody knows when or if we will ever find a cure for cancer, if a pandemic might again reduce the human population the way the Black Death did, or humans will colonize  another planet.  We don’t know how technology or cultures will develop or whether books and newspapers will survive the cyber age.

Even after the fact, we are unable to point with certainty to those conditions which produced events like these or almost anything else that surprises us when it happens.

Life does not break any laws of physics.  But it seems to go beyond them.  On a grand scale, the path of evolution cannot be predicted.  On a more immediate scale, we cannot predict with certainty how even a single individual will vote, who they might marry, or the career they will embark on.

Reductionism continues to notch up an incredible analytical record.  It has moved into the very center of living organisms, analyzed the way DNA is structured and operates, and has even been able to create new life forms by re-organizing it.  But no one, at this point, is under the illusion that science can predict the future.  In practice, we all live in a world we cannot fully predict or understand.

The question is why.  And what are the alternatives to scientific reductionism?

That is the question for tomorrow’s post.


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