Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Reductionism, Emergence and Holism, Lead: Val Dusek


Summary by Jen Reynolds:

Reductionism, Emergence and Holism

The seminar began with Prof. Dusek relaying background information on the topic, Reductionism, Emergence, and Holism. In this introduction Stephen Gould, author of The Panda's Thumb, and Steven Weinberg, author of Dreams of a Final Theory, had their ideas briefly summarized. Weinberg championed the reductionist views as the way to seek truth. For example, the laws of particle physics are more fundamental than ideas regarding atoms. Conversely, Gould held criticism for reductionism. This then led to the background regarding types of reductionism. The first of which is compositional reductionism. An advocate of constitutive reductionism-sometimes referred to ontological reductionism-is Ernst Mayr. Ontology is the study of what really exists. Ontological reductionism is an example of classical physics regarding atoms. Another kind of reductionism is theory reductionism, which states that one theory can be deduced by another theory. The fact that the laws of physics can be deduced from one another is a working example of theory reductionism. Mayr also described expletory reductionism. He stated that mere knowledge is sufficient for explanation. This method is often related to theoretical reductionism. The final method explained was methodological reductionism. Cell biology is an example of this type of reductionism.

At this point more discussion regarding the topics emerged. Prof Dusek stated that Weinberg disagrees with Mayr in that all the methods of reductionism are the same and that those ideas included too much regarding method and not enough about reality. A student then stated that we don't always reach the best theory right away. He stated that we once thought atoms were the smallest entity, but now we know that not to be true. The question then raised was could the reductionist method work?

A response was given stating that by approaching the truth it can motivate physicists to go further. However, it was also brought up that if there are infinite levels of structure then the whole process will never come to an end.

Prof. Mobius stated that one can explain the interactions in the world by fundamental forces; however, there has yet to be the unification of all the forces. In the past scientists thought they were close to total knowledge, but the emergence of relativity and quantum mechanics hindered their efforts.

This then led back to Prof Dusek stating that Weinberg thought that particles are artifacts and that forces are the causes of the artifacts. He also stated that he blames philosophers for the mechanical view of the world.

Prof. Brockelman then stated an idea about the verbs "to be" and "is." He stated that one can't define these. Therefore, the quest for a fundamental particle such as the atom can not occur because we do not know what that is.

Prof Dusek responded by stating that one can't define matter, only give properties and relationships for matter.
Prof. Mobius brought up the two ideas of the "particle view" and the "force view." He followed this with the fact that we can't find the "isness," only build models. We can then determine what is the best model.

A student then stated that just because there is no end it doesn't mean that we should give up.

Prof Davis referred to Weinberg's reading on page 52 and asked why is there a desire to bring things down to a few simple laws? Weinberg stated that scientific principles are the way they are because of other principles and can be brought to a few simple laws. Prof Davis then asked if this parallels with monotheism.

This question sparked some discussion and reached a point when many people were speaking at once. Prof. Brockelman stated that fundamentally there are two paradoxes, the drive for control and security and then the appreciation for life. Science emerges from the drive for control and then the spiritual and religious ideas come from the admiration for life aspect. He stated that there is a drive towards monotheism because it gives us security. It is not an affirmation of life, but an affirmation for security and control and scientists giving us answers denies our affirmation for life.

A student responded by saying that he likes what Prof. Brockelman said regarding denial for affirmation of life. The question was raised that if we were to become machines would we have no fear? We would know so would we keep going and going? He then continued by saying that the thing about life is we don't know what's coming so we want control. Millions of dollars are spent for security when we don't have security within ourselves.

Prof. Brockelman responded by saying that the deep human dilemma is between the two.

A student responded by stating that religion should be in the drive for control and security category because people try very hard to believe.
Prof. Brockelman replied by stating that in western religions, this is true. Dogma and doctrine in western religion is the opposite of true religion. There is an ultimate god beyond reality and ultimate reality is beyond God. This is what significant theologians state. In Islam there is no imagery. God could be any entity. Many religious groups think they have the answer, but this idea of knowing the answer contradicts this view.

A student refuted this by stating that there is a difference between religion and science. In science one looks for a model. One can't build a bridge if that person does not know how to put one together.

Prof. Brockelman then related to Socrates by stating "I don't know what this means." People shooting people for justice and then say they don't know why. Science begins because we don't know. Water is H2O, but what is that? The state of ignorance is not a great state to be in, but it drives things.

A student interjected stating that there doesn't seem to be much mystery left.

Prof Davis then stated that scientists would be out of work.

The student responded by stating that it is good to get questions answered and get to the end. Science is there to give us something in the end.
A second student questioned what would you want in the end?

Yet another student responded by stating that it would be boring.

The first student responded by stating no.

The third student stated that religion is the wrong choice of words. Instead we should use faith.

Prof. Mobius then changed the topic and posed the question if we assume one can work in steps, will the reductionism work if there is a limit in the steps or is there a better method?

A student then asked how do we define what is good? Is it what we desire because what we desire can be harmful? Is it something equivalent to the greater good? Religion has a view of the greater good, but does science?

A second student stated that the words good and bad are not an issue.

A third student brought up the fact that if one does something, it is usually because that person believes that it is good. Maybe the drive towards understanding is what drives things- the will to understand it.

Yet another student asserted that understanding brings comfort and security, so yet again, it is security that is the motivation.
Prof. Brockelman declared that humans need to affirm living and dying.

A student stated that if reductionism is taken literally, one can understand many things by understanding little particles. He did not agree with this. One can not mix slime and make a human. If one takes holistic approach it takes into account everything; however, by taking the reductionist approach, it says that hydrogen and helium can explain everything. This does not make sense.

Another student questioned why one should take one approach over another when they both seem to work?
Prof. Dusek stated that complete reductionism is not always the best method, but it can be helpful at times. Both sides accuse each other and both have moral and social imperatives. The atomistic view develops in societies that are more individualistic and holism develops in a more communal society.

A student then compromised by stating that when there is a problem that can not be solved holism aids by seeing the whole picture and then the details are considered. It is therefore a melding of the two techniques that is effective.

Prof. Dusek brought up the point that in extreme holism, monism, there is only one entity. For example, Einstein said that there is only space and time and everything else stems from them. In the reductionist view the gene is the ultimate object of selection. Gould stated that the organism is the object of selection because the environment is in contact with the organism. These two ideas have a great debate surrounding them. In the sociobiological formula, one helps out relatives and ensures that the genes live on. By doing this selection is not just in relation to genes, but also to species.

Prof Davis offered the conclusion that our own existence is the mechanism for our genes to replicate.

A student maintained that there is nothing cold and impersonal, in relation to genes wanting to survive unless, someone makes it that way.
A second student questioned the point that if science is to serve its own needs, but it doesn't give us an answer that we need, yet this answer is correct, then is science doing its job?

The question was then brought up of is the point of science to search for the meaning of life? We should just live it. If we keep searching for the meaning of life we will miss it.

A student then refuted that we won't miss everything by searching for meaning. The search causes experience.
At this point there was a great deal of arguing and I was unable to record what was being said.

Prof. Davis then slowed down the conversation and stated that if one was to ask why people died in Hiroshima the answer could contain completely different information. It could include how the bomb worked, but it would not tell the complete why because it was a political decision. If one wants to know how Microsoft Word works, one does not have to speak of the physics of a circuit.

A student affirmed that the answer that is given depends on what the person is truly wondering.

Prof. Davis then said that one needs to stop and look at the question formulated and see if that will get you where you want.
A student stated that reduction is a hypothesis. When given a question, there is the option to go deeper until the hypothetical level is reached or that level can be surpassed.

A second student then expressed that it depends on how satisfied the person is with the answer.
The first student replied with the response that how the universe works does not depend on the person.
At this point a bunch of students disagreed.

A third student said that answering why with a how is unnecessary.

Another student stated that this problem can be resolved by finding out what the person is actually looking for.

A fifth student responded by saying that one can explain things based on differences in what else could have happened to make it come out differently.

Yet another student questioned how can we know which answer to give?

The fifth student replied that the only interesting answers are the ones we can follow.

A student assessed that the how can be explained by a variety of different viewpoints, but the why only has one.
Another student then asked if we need to understand every part to understand the whole?

Prof. Davis brought up the idea of the bacterium tuberculosis. The question of how to get rid of it can be answered by finding an antibiotic and killing the bacteria. There is also the conflicting idea that people have the disease because they are living in bad conditions and being exploited. Therefore, the reason people were sick can be answered both ways.

A student deduced that one needs to use the reductionist method, but one also needs to decide when to come back to the whole picture.

A second student questioned the idea of having to go through the social issues during reduction.

Prof. Davis responded saying that one can start wherever the need is, but must always go to the "bottom" and find the same answer.
Another student asked how do we know when to switch methods?

Yet another student stated that it still depends on what one defines as the greater good. The people could be left to heal themselves. This can help solve population growth. The bomb on Hiroshima-in terms of population explosion-was beneficial.

A different student stated that if we don't go all the way down the correct answer might not be reached; therefore, we must go all the way down when reducing.

This concluded the discussion.


*Everything stated was paraphrased and grouped by speaker in paragraphs.