In response to Disunity of sciences? (Yes, but you must be allowed to think that, Massimo, without getting your head bashed in), physicist Rob Sheldon responds to philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci::
Anti-reductionism is a restatement of gestalt philosophy, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. For example, a live worm is more than simply two half-worms superglued together. This is such a commonplace statement, there are probably a 100 aphorisms on this observation. Life doesn’t result when we stitch together Frankenstein and zap him with electricity. Why? Because the parts are irreducibly complex–we destroy life when we subdivide it, and we cannot create life by gluing pieces together.
For some reason, physicists like the word “emergent” to describe this new thing that happens when an irreducibly complex system behaves in ways that cannot be expected by looking at the parts. Of course, materialists want that “emergence” to be accidental, but as we ID types know, “emergence” or IC is consequence of design.
Since Dembski has published Being as Communion which dematerialized design, we can now talk about gestalt and/or emergence as an information puzzle. In all Pigliucci’s examples, there is information in the whole that is lost when it is subdivided. Or we could say that there is not just information in the combination of parts, but in the permutation of parts.
The mathematical difference is huge. In a combinatorial universe of 10^80 protons, MIT’s Seth Lloyd computes something like 10^120 information bits because he figures there’s equal numbers of photons and electrons and perhaps a volume of some 10^12 lightyears divided into cells of Planck-length size to store them in. But such big numbers should not blind you to the shell game he is playing–he’s being a reductionist.
Say we have five boxes and four marbles, Lloyd is saying that there is no difference between permutations, so a 11011 is no different from a 10111 or a 01111. How do I know this? Because the number of permutations of 10^80 protons is not 10^120 but “(10^80)!” where “!” is shorthand for “factorial”
or 10^80 * 10^79.99999 * 10^79.9998 …. * 1.
If your calculator has a factorial button, you can test it out, but here’s the first few: 2! = 2*1=2.
3!=3*2*1=6. 4!=4*3*2*1=24. And I couldn’t get bigger than about 60! without producing an overflow error on my calculator. Fortunately there’s an approximation for really big factorials that works better the bigger the number–Stirling’s approximation: log(n!) = n log(n) – n.
So how big is “(10^80)!” ? About exp[10^80 * log(10^80)]. If we switch from base e (~2.7) to base 10, then we have the number of bits in our universe is about 10^[80*(10^80)]. In laymen’s terms that is 1 with 80 zillion zeroes after it. And that is the power of permutations over combinations. That is the power of gestalt over reductionism. That is the information in the whole versus the information in the parts. That is why irreducible complexity is so very very much more information than the sum of the parts.
My favorite physics word for this difference between IC and parts is “coherence”. It means that there is new information in the whole that cannot be found in the incoherent sum of the parts. Darwin lived in the 19th century when atomic theory of matter, heat conduction, Maxwell’s description of diffusion, Boltzmann’s theory of thermodynamics were all based on the statistics of incoherent or random particle motion. The 20th century opened with the QM discoveries that distant locations could impact the local behavior through “spooky-action-at-a-distance”. Einstein famously wrote the EPR paper that dissed QM as an “incomplete theory”. But by the end of the 20th century, Einstein was shown to be wrong, QM coherence was real, and the whole was found to be fundamentally greater than the sum of the parts. I have said on several occasions that the 21st century will be the century where we master coherence the way the 19th century mastered incoherence.
Quantum computing, consciousness, irreducible complexity, intelligent design, mathematical topology, evo-devo, are all examples of the triumph of coherence.
I don’t want anyone to mistake this as substance dualism. It is true that information is immaterial, but in some sense, information has to be instantiated without being simply “a part” of the whole. It is not like Frankenstein can be stitched together and “information” added to make him alive. Information is not a substance, even though it can be quantified. Physicists would not be so very confused by entropy and Boltzman’s identity— S = -k ln(Omega) — if information was easily extracted from
its material instantiation. But I defer to Dembski’s book (which I am reading now) [*] for a more rigorous treatment.
All this to say that I disagree with Pigliucci on just about every conclusion he draws. Laws are not simply inductive regularities a la Hume, but just as it means something absolute to say “the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle is pi” instead of “long observation shows that pi is approximately 3.1416”, so also it means something to say “in hyperbolic geometry pi > 3.1416” or “since pi < 3.1416 we must live in a spherical space”. That is to say, the outcome of the universe depends crucially on whether pi is less than, greater than, or precisely 3.141592653589. It is the difference between a whimper or a bang, the difference between heaven and hell.
Nor is anti-reductionism the same as anti-realism. Just because we can’t get Frankenstein to sit up after stitching his parts together doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a living being, or that living beings are indescribable to science. It simply means that we don’t understand coherence, or that we have not yet expanded our science description to contain the missing information. Perhaps one day we will make a novel virus “from scratch” or even a novel “synthetic” bacterium. But it clearly will take a lot more information than we have at present.
I can be an anti-reductionist without being an anti-realist, and Pigliucci’s dabbling with vitalism is logically unnecessary (and, as the late Stanley Jaki might say, a metaphysical dead end.)
[*] Note: “Dembski’s book” is Being as Communion.
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