“All-praise to the unity of God, and all-honor to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things“
June 3, 2012. Steven Weinberg is a stunningly good physicist.
His seminal work in elementary particle theory led to the extraordinarily successful Standard Model – and a Nobel Prize. His many other important contributions to physics and cosmology put him at the apogee of 20th century science. His writings for the general public – including The First Three Minutes – are highly regarded and have won him wide renown outside of science.
So, what are we to make of his well-known quote about the purpose of the universe?
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
Weinberg’s insights into particle physics, according to Anderson and the growing field of emergence studies that he helped launch, are irrelevant to other issues. Here is how he puts it:
[T]he more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.
In today’s blog, we discuss Anderson’s objections to what he calls the “reductionist” and “constructionist” hypotheses as described in his widely read More Is Different article in the prestigious journal Science (1972). But before doing so, lets first consider what’s at stake for our discussion of science and religion.
Reductionism, Evolution, and Religion
In the large picture, what Anderson’s objections to reductionism mean is that an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of things doesn’t translate into an understanding of what is built from those fundamental building blocks. Rather, science dictates that you have to understand things at the appropriate level of complexity.
So, if I understand particle physics, it doesn’t mean I understand chemistry. Yes, chemistry is based on molecules and atoms, which are in turn based on elementary particles, but that doesn’t mean that chemistry is applied particle physics.
Here is how Anderson puts it:
[I]t seems to me that one may array the sciences roughly linearly in a hierarchy, according to the idea: The elementary entities of science X obey the laws of science Y. But this hierarchy does not imply that science X is “just applied Y.” At each stage entirely new laws, concepts, and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry.
Or, to put it another way, if I understand the mechanisms of hereditary and natural selection of evolution, it doesn’t mean that I then understand the mind. To paraphrase Anderson, the study of thought and the mind is not applied biology.
I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That’s a good thing.
Most scientists I know don’t care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science — that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.
Now, we must ask the question: “Does Weinberg’s undoubted expertise in particle physics give him any special insight into religion?”
No, according to what we are learning about the hierarchy of understandings in the sciences as outlined by Anderson. Even the staunchest critic of religion will agree that the building blocks of religion are people and their minds. If an understanding of the mathematical foundations of particle physics doesn’t give us an understanding of people and their minds – as assuredly it doesn’t – how can it pretend to give an understanding of religion?
Or to put in broader terms, an understanding of particle physics or any other fundamental science doesn’t make you an expert – or give you interpretive authority – on those things outside of the domain of your knowledge.
And certainly, given the complexity of the mind, the intellect, and the very existence of the laws of nature that make the fundamental sciences possible, it doesn’t make you an expert on religion and God.
Science rules out these leaps of faith – these assumptions of interpretive authority – in religion. It rules them out in science as well.
Lets explore Anderson’s thinking a bit further because it is closely related to the study of emergence, which we want to talk about next. Here is how he presents his case in More is Different:
Scientists understand – and accept – reductionism:
The reductionist hypothesis may still be a topic for controversy among philosophers, but among the great majority of active scientists I think it is accepted without question. The workings of our minds and bodies, and of all the animate or inanimate matter of which we have any detailed knowledge, are assumed to be controlled by the same set of fundamental laws, which except under certain extreme conditions we feel we know pretty well.
The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.
In particular, constructionism (read “reductionism” if you like) fails when confronted with complexity:
The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.
Basically, what Anderson is saying is that a valid understanding requires an understanding of the system, not the parts of the system. Anderson is most closely associated with condensed-matter physics – phenomena in semiconductors where the properties of crystals are central, – of phenomena in superconductivity – where ensembles of electrons and their interactions with materials create unique frictionless behavior, and what is called localization, another group phenomena inexplicable from the behavior of individual component particles.
Now, the idea of emergence doesn’t automatically follow from his discussion, but it is closely related.
Beyond Reductionism: Emergence and Complexity
Emergence, according to Wikipedia, is
[T]he arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.
We are out space now, but we will follow up on the idea next week, where we will discuss how emergence takes the hierarchical distinctions that Anderson draws between levels of complexity and uses them in studies of complex systems and how their emergent properties come to be.
For our discussions on randomness and evolution, the relevant questions are those like how cells and DNA emerge, or how humans evolve from animals. Randomness plays a major role in driving these transitions, according to complex systems theory.
More on the phenomena of emergence – and how this is consistent with thinking about ideas of divine creation from the world’s great religions.
This is the 17th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.