Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Reductionism, Emergence and Holism, Lead: Val Dusek


Summary by Alicia Sprague:

Assigned reading:
The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould;
Dreams of a Final Theory by Stephen Weinberg;
The Holistic Inspirations of Physics by Val Dusek.

Guest: Paul Brockelman

Note: In this class discussion, comments were flying fast and furious. Most students did not identify themselves by name.

Reductionism, Emergence and Holism

Professor Dusek began the class on a personal note stating that he had never been involved in teaching INCO 979 before and credited much of the class beginnings to Paul Brockelman and Eberhard Mobius.

Professor Dusek went on to talk of the different notions of reductionism,
   • 1) compositional reductionism:
   • 2) constitutive reductionism: studying objects by knowledge of their basic constituents
   • 3) theory reductionism: one theory is accounted for by another theory
   • 4) explanatory reductionism: mere knowledge of components sufficient enough to explain a system.
   • 5) methodological reductionism: should you analyze by breaking down by methods?

At this point in the lecture a student broke in with the statement that reductionism may have a lot more weight if it got us to an end. He asked, ‘Is reductionism a fruitless endeavor?’ Professor Dusek answered that many theoretical physicists are saying that we can get to an end and that it is in sight. Professor Moebius stated that in the scientific community there is not an ultimate sense of consensus that unification has not yet been reached. He went on to say that in the late 1800’s, scientists had felt that they had come pretty close to the end with only two or three nagging questions left, ‘two small clouds.’ Then relativity and quantum physics threw everything up in the air. Dusek stated that Weinberg (author of one of the articles) blamed philosophers for mechanism view of the world.

Paul Brockelman brought up string theory. According to Robert Dijkgraaf’s ‘String theory is at this moment the most promising candidate theory for a unified description of the fundamental particles and forces in nature including gravity’. Brockelman spoke of ‘mysteries’ ‘To Be’ and ‘is ness’ and the undefinable quest for a particle. He stated that it may be the wrong track, that you may not be able to find a model for reality. Professor Eberhard stated that we can only build models. That is what science is good for. There is no right or wrong but what is good to measure or test. A student then stated that there is value in searching for understanding. Brockelman said not to give in to despair, that we need to question how we think of the infinite.

In an attempt to bring the class discussion back to the assigned readings, Professor Thomas Davis questioned Weinberg’s statement ‘...that all these principles can be traced to one simple connected set of laws’ (pg. 52). He then asked Brockelman if the need to reduce all explanations down to one- parallel religious monotheism beliefs? Brockelman response was to talk of two human paradoxes:
1) the drive for control and security.
2) the need to live with and affirmation for life- in actual living.
He stated that monotheism is the magical element in our affirmation of life. Brockelman stated that in our passion for security and to gain control, we attempt to find a theory for everything, to account for everything. He went on to state that when scientist say there is an answer for everything they are denying the ambiguity of life. Insecurity is not something to play with.

A student stated that our drive for control and security comes from our fears. If we were machines we wouldn’t have fears. That is the difference between life and machines. It is about comfort. Brockelman stated that we (humanity) create things and then they become out of control, ‘Frankenstein in our modern culture’. He said this is a deep human dilemma, that there is no difference between genuine science and genuine spiritual life. A student stated that religion should have been included as part of Brockelman’s two human paradoxes. Brockelman answered most western religions are absolute, which is a great shame. He spoke of dogma and doctrines and how they are the opposite of genuine religious experience. He stated that the ultimate reality of ‘God’ could’t be an entity because an entity is mysterious. That the ultimate reality is not a particle, not an entity-- when we talk of God we should talk of what isn’t! A student stated that the difference between science and religion is that science is looking for a model and that mystery is another word for ignorance. Brockelman answered that mystery is not ignorance that we should recognize what we don’t know. He stated that religion is the beginning of science. A student stated that without mystery we would know all the rules, we could build anything, anywhere we want. Professor Mobius jokingly asked, wouldn’t that be a let down? A student asked where would you build? The student stated that we could then get out of this rinky dinky solar system. Another student stated that to know everything would be boring. Shawn stated that in the discussion on religion and science, faith was left out.

Professor Moebius brought the discussion back to the topic of the readings by stating that in striving toward an understanding of everything, does reductionism cut it or do we need something else?

A student said that under the surface of this discussion, there is the question of what is good and how do we define what is good? Is it what we desire? Or is something equivalent to the greater good? Another student stated that good is understanding what we’re doing and assuming that it is good. David said that behind the strive for scientific understanding is the desire for comfort and security. Paul Brockelman then asked what about the human need for life affirmation? Sean spoke of the reductionism view, how the method we have of looking at atoms, could help us understand the end by understanding fundamental particles- two fighting ideologies (religion, science). A student asked why is it that one vs. the other?

Professor Dusek stated that both have their place, that there are different levels of organization, methods, ways to get started. He said that holistics such as the romantic poet Wordsworth say it is murder to dissect. Dusek then asks the question, is it murder to dissect? What of the moral implications? Sean stated that when there is a problem to solve, it is better to take in the whole picture. Brockeman said reductionism and holism are contradictions that you have to take into consideration the elements of the whole.

Professor Moebius brought up emergence, that to find a golden way around is to find a way to bring it all together. The whole is more then the sum of it’s parts. Dusek spoke of extreme holism and monism, that one entity could be like reductionism as it would explain things. He also made the connection to Einstein’s space time as the only entity. Other non-monist holism’s allows the parts independence.

Professor Davis quoted page 53 of Weinberg’s article, ‘The reductionism worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works’. Davis brought up funding in scientific research and stated that he found it ironic that Weinberg uses his article to plug what he feels is important and what he is studying.

The discussion then turned gene selection. Dusek stated that Gould believed in other levels of organization, that an organism is the object of selection, not just a gene. He stated that the environment sees an organism, not a gene. Dusek went on to say that other people claim that genes are bookkeeping devices or that selection begins at group levels.

A student stated that science’s objective is to find out what the world is. Another students said that it may not be a good thing to believe that we exist to create our own genes. A student said ‘We look too hard, a rock is a rock’. Science has to delve deeper, you can’t know you’ve gone too far until you get to the end.

Professor Davis brought up the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. He stated that if you asked someone to tell you about the bomb, they could explain about the scientific workings of the bomb but that the dropping of the bomb was more political. He said the question is more what do you really want to know. A student asked, how far back do you want to go? Davis said, we need to stop and look at the question. A student stated, that we need to find out who asked the question and what type of answer they want. Another said what kind of answer are you looking for.

Professor Davis said that if you take a problem, reductionism-holism, depending on the stance you take, you will come up with different solutions. As an example, the topic turned to tuberculosis. Davis said that in looking for a way to prevent tuberculosis, do you look at the virus and attempt to find a cure? Or do you try to change the living conditions of those most affected? A student asks how do you know when to stop? When do you switch from reductionism to holism?