Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lucha Libre and Laplace's Demon

Hold the front page! Again!

In Stonehenge May Have Been a Temple, say Archaeologists, I mentioned that New Scientist has a tendency to run the moldiest old theory on a double page spread, call it new, and expect us to faint from the shock.

We've got another one this month, the 10th May issue. New Scientist's Perspectives has a piece by Stuart Kauffman. The sub-head says that in "the war between science and religion" ... "we need some serious rethinking if we are to rescue our humanity." To which I'd say, "What war? Oh, that!" and "Huh?"

Anyway, Kauffman ("theoretical physicist and complexity theory pioneer...originally trained as a head of the institute for biocomplexity and informatics, University of Calgary") doesn't actually do any serious rethinking, which I suppose comes as no surprise to this long term New Scientist reader.

He has a problem with Laplace's Demon, an idea from 1814 that if a demon knew where all the particles in the universe were, in which direction they were going, and how fast they were traveling, then it could predict everything that ever happened subsequently. This construct is part of a concept called reductionism, in which everything in the universe can be reduced to the behavior of perfectly understood smaller parts.

He says, in part,

The process of reinventing the sacred requires a fresh understanding of science that takes into account complexity theory and the ideas of emergence. It will require a shift from reductionism...

OK, got it.

This world view has two features. One is determinism, abandoned in part when quantum mechanics began to emerge a century or so later. It is also the "nothing but" view of the universe which, for example, sees a man found guilty of murder as nothing but particles in motion.

OK, got that too.

Now we appear to be at the frontier of a new scientific world view.


Many physicists, from Philip Anderson back in the 1970s to, more recently, Robert Laughlin, are coming to doubt the adequacy of reductionism.

Wait, we're not at the beginning of it. Almost everybody has not only doubted it, but completely abandoned it, for nigh on a hundred years. Laplace's Demon was from the 19th Century. We're in the 21st. The 20th Century was all about the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, and how determinism just wasn't going to cut it. And without determinism, reductionism doesn't work. If it doesn't work at that level, then the more difficult concepts of emergence - that he fails to explain adequately in the article - aren't even necessary for the argument. Determinism has already lost.

Carrying on regardless, he explains why determinism is Bad, and why we should feel Joy and Holiness at complexity.

Here we cannot do what Newton taught us to do: state the variables, the laws linking the variables, and the initial and boundary conditions, and from these compute the forward trajectory of the biosphere.


We do not know the relevant variables - the middle-ear bones, lungs or livers - before they arise. We cannot even make probability statements about such pre-adaptations because, statistically speaking, we do not know the "sample space" of possibilities.

And you're very, very right there, she said, edging towards the door imperceptibly before he gets any weirder.

I believe there's a perception out there, possibly just catching on amongst scientists, who are a notoriously unfashionable lot, that if an article doesn't have Controversy and Much Upending of Treasured Paradigms, then no one is going to read it. Personally, I think scientists should pin their theories to Lucha Libre fighters, and have them go into the ring. The winning theory is the one pinned to the victorious fighter. With a bit of judicious reality TV and perhaps Paul Abdul as a judge, we can have some great new science in the 21st Century.

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