Reductionism or Emergence?

Here are some quotes about the controversy between reductionism and emergence as basic paradigm for physics.

Robert Laughlin: A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. 2005. From the Introduction:

“Much as I dislike the idea of ages, I think a good case can be made that science has now moved from an Age of Reductionism to an Age of Emergence, a time when the search for ultimate causes of things shifts from the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective. It is difficult to identify a specific moment when this transition occurred because it was gradual and somewhat obscured by the pretense of myths, but there can be no doubt that the dominant paradigm now is organizational. That is why, for example, electrical engineering students are no longer required to learn the laws of electricity –which are very elegant and enlightening but irrelevant to programming computers. It is why stem cells are in the news but enzymatic functionalities are confined to the fine print on boxes of soap. It is why movies about Marie Curie and Lord Rutherford are out while Jurassic Park and Twister are in. The protagonists in these newer movies are not concerned with the microscopic causes but with capricious organizational phenomena – as in, “Arrrggghhh! It’s coming right for us!”

Ironically, the very success of reductionism has helped pave the way for its eclipse. Over time, careful quantitative study of microscopic parts has revealed that at the primitive level at least, collective principles of organization are not just a quaint side show but everything – the true source of physical law, including perhaps the most fundamental laws we know. The precision of our measurements enables us to confidently declare the search for a single ultimate truth to have ended – but at the same time to have failed, since nature is now revealed to be an enormous tower of truths, each descending from its parent, and then transcending that parent, as the scale of measurement increases. Like Columbus or Marco Polo, we set out to explore a new country but instead discovered a new world.

The Transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case. We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them. Their inability to do so is similar to the difficulty the Wizard of Oz has in returning Dorothy to Kansas. He can do it in principle, but there are a few pesky details to be worked out. One must be satisfied in the interim with empty testimonials and exhortations to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The real problem is that Oz is a different universe from Kansas and that getting from one to the other makes no sense. The myth of collective behavior following law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it, such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.”

Other opinions:

  • Ernest Gellner, Legitimation of Belief, p. 107: “Reductionism, roughly speaking, is the view that everything in this world is really something else, and that the something else is always in the end unedifying. So lucidly formulated, one can see that this is a luminously true and certain idea. The hope that it could ever bee denied or refuted is absurd. One day, the Second Law of Thermodynamics may seem obsolete; but reductionism will stand for ever. It is important to understand why it is so indubitably true. It is rooted … not in the nature of things, but in our ideal of explanation. Genuine explanation, not the grunts which pass for such in “common sense”, means subsumption under a structure or schema made up of neutral, impersonal elements. In this sense, explanation is always “dehumanising”, and inescapably so.”
  • Einstein was a reductionist. He stated, “The grand aim of all science is to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms.”
  • Poincare, in contrast to Einstein, was not a reductionist: “We seek reality, but what is reality? The physiologists tell us that organisms are formed of cells; the chemists add that cells themselves are formed of atoms. Does this mean that these atoms or these cells constitute reality, or rather the sole reality? The way in which these cells are arranged and from which results the unity of the individual, is not it also a reality much more interesting than that of the isolated elements, and should a naturalist who had never studied the elephant except by means of the microscope think himself sufficiently acquainted with that animal?” 
  • Seyyed Hossein NasrA Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World: “ The ideal of the 11th/17th century physicists was to be able to explain all physical reality in terms of the movement of atoms. This idea was extended by people like Descartes who saw the human body itself as nothing but a machine. Chemists tried to study chemical reaction in this light and reduce chemistry to a form of physics, and biologists tried to reduce their science to simply chemical reactions and then finally to the movement of physical particles. The idea of reductionsm which is innate to modern science and which was only fortified by the tehory of evolution could be described as the reduction fo the spirit to the psyche, the psyche to biological activity, life to lifeless matter and lifeless matter to purely quantitative particles or bundles of energy whose movements can be measured and quantified.”
  • William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization: “We have come to understand the phenomena of life only as an assemblage of the lifeless. We take the mechanistic abstractions of our technical calculation to be ultimately concrete and “fundamentally real,” while our most intimate experiences are labelled “mere appearance” and something having reality only within the closet of the isolated mind. Suppose however we were to invert this whole scheme, reverse the order in which it assigns abstract and concrete. What is central to our experience, then, need not be peripheral to nature. This sunset now, for example, caught within the network of bare winter branches, seems like a moment of benediction in which the whole of nature collaborates. Why should not these colours and these charging banners of light be as much a part of the universe as the atoms and molecules that make them up? If they were only “in my mind,” then I and my mind would no longer be a part of nature. Why should the pulse of life toward beauty and value not be a part of things? Following this path, we do not vainly seek to assemble the living out of configurations of dead stuff, but we descend downwards from more complex to simpler grades of the organic. From humans to trees to rocks; from “higher grade” to “lower grade” organisms. In the universe of energy, any individual thing is a pattern of activity within the flux, and thereby an organism at some level.”
  • Richard P. Feynman: “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”