The Other I

August 22, 2010

Reductionism: where to from here?

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:11 pm
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If the laws of physics do not totally explain the universe, as reductionism claimed it would, what does?  Does anything?  Is there a scientifically viable alternative to reductionism?  Can the universe be explained in terms of natural law?

Although there seems to be increasing debate among philosophers and scientists, there is no consensus about what needs to be added to physics in order to understand the universe.  The possibilities are broad:

I.  Traditional reductionism might be re-invented. Mathematicians have devised proofs that all possible events cannot be encompassed by mathematics (don’t ask me to explain:  it’s the kind of thing I take on faith, except there do seem to be seriously brainy types who understand this and who, therefore, do not take it on “faith”.)  Nonetheless, it is possible that there will be some stunning paradigm that emerges within physics that returns it to its  position as a completely comprehensive explanation.

II.  The universe is controlled by natural laws which emerge as organization becomes more complex. Biology, therefore, operates in terms of its laws of genetics and evolution.  An individual person operates according to principles of psychology, cultures and communities in terms of  principles of sociology.  Higher levels of organization can be analyzed in terms of their component parts but they cannot to totally reduced to them.  In other words, when new levels of organization appear, something new has appeared which must be understood both in its own right and in terms of its component parts.

This approach requires a broader definition of “natural law” than that assumed by traditional reductionism, and thus far I have not found a completely satisfactory definition.  How does one recognize whether a proposed law is “natural”?  Saying simply that everything is “natural” and nothing is “supernatural” may be valid but it is vague and incomplete.

III.  Life, or even all the universe, is emergent, that is essentially creative – and therefore necessarily partially unpredictable. This possibility limits the potential of science to predict events but it does seem to describe much of what we observe.  Darwin’s theory, for instance, explains why and how species evolve, but it cannot predict the nature of that evolution.  It can predict that if the environment changes substantially, new organisms will emerge that are better adapted to the new conditions.  But Darwin’s theory cannot tell us ahead of time about which changes will emerge to make an organism better fitted to survive.

The problem with a creativity hypothesis is that it is an idea that can be used to explain just about everything we don’t understand.  It makes scientists like me nervous that it can be used as a blanket excuse for not trying to understand.  “Creativity,” attractive as the idea is, tends to hit a blank wall unless, like “natural law,” it is more closely defined to keep it from being used as a catch-all for whatever unpredictable event may occur.

IV.  There is an immanent sacredness, even an immanent god, in the essential unpredictability and apparent creativity of the universe. This god does not put aside the natural laws of the universe, but is manifest in its creative adaptability.

This position is similar, but with an added religious dimension, to the more secular creativity hypothesis.  It seems to me, however, to share both its potential strengths and weaknesses.  It can be used to explain some of our most profound human experiences.  On the other hand, it is even more difficult to define and can be used as an all-encompassing explanation for everything we don’t understand.

V.  There also remains the traditional dualist position, that God operates from beyond this universe to direct its course.  This God may intervene in events, superseding the natural laws governing the universe.  This is the idea of God of much of modern Christianity and Islam.

The difficulty with this position is that, because it is intrinsically untestable in empirical terms, it rejects the essential validity of the scientific approach.

Most scientists today, including strict reductionists of the traditional mold, now accept that the Newtonian belief that some day we could potentially explain everything that has ever or ever will happen is theoretically unachievable.  We cannot ever understand the universe totally.  But we can always understand more.

We may live in an eternal, infinite mystery, but we can always delve into it more deeply, unravel more of its unscrutability.  The mystery may not, in truth, become smaller.  But our understanding, our witness to it, can become greater.

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