Reductionism

When we look at the whole reality, it all makes sense and we see how everything fits together in a harmonious fashion. As soon as we try to understand how every individual thing works by reducing them in smaller and smaller pieces, the very act of reduction makes the understanding impossible. It is almost a fact that a whole is more than the sum of its parts. As a consequence, understanding the parts does not result in understanding the whole. Let’s take an example of DNA. DNA encodes the information required to pass down the hereditary information from generation to generation. When human genome project to sequence human DNA was announced, it was thought that once the DNA was sequenced, we would be able to exactly determine what a person would look like by simply looking at the person’s DNA. It has now been more than a decade since the genome was sequenced. Now, there are even ways to quickly sequence individual genome. Still, we are nowhere near the earlier promise of the complete understanding. One of the reasons for that is that the DNA does not live in isolation. It is simply a part of a bigger piece of a puzzle called life.

The same thing can also be said about the particle physics. There are various physical models that try to explain how the physical reality works. One particular model is called “Standard Model” and in that model, the Higgs boson was the last remaining piece. After the discovery of Higgs boson in 2014, scientists proclaimed that the last missing piece of the puzzle had been found and everything could now be explained. These scientists seemed to have failed to heed Anderson:

The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society. (“More is Different”, PW Anderson)

If one is honest about what he knows, he can never proclaim that everything is known. And when one proclaims such, we must know what to do with that proclamation: ignore.

If we continue looking at the various fields of modern intellectual endeavors, we see such things play out in many different fields. There are economists and behavioral scientists who claim to be able to model and forecast the human behavior. There are neuroscientists who claim that they can explain what consciousness is. This urge to explain things now seems to have come to computational field as well. People are giddy with excitement at the partial successes of machine learning in providing features that the customers seemed to like at the moment. These successes are mostly fueled by the availability of extremely large datasets made possible by the Internet-based very efficient data collection mechanism and extremely large computational power made possible by the advances in fabrication technologies among other things. Extrapolating these successes into the future, people now see the possibility of artificial consciousness.

It is such a pity that we always seem to fall into this reductionist trap. We seem to think that once some fundamental law or solution is found remaining can simply be put together step-by-step to construct a bigger whole. We seem to forget that:

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 biology applied chemistry. (PW Henderson – “More is Different”)

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