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    The New Religion Of Emergent Properties
    By Michael White | January 5th 2009 12:01 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    Salon has an interview with Stuart Kauffman, a biologist who has written multiple fascinating books about complex systems. Kauffman has a new book, Reinventing the Sacred, in which he argues that we need to toss out scientific reductionism and take a new, holistic approach to science and rename it God. But how bad is the problem really?

    Laplace famously claimed that if we knew the initial position and momentum of all the particles in the universe, we could confidently predict the future of the universe - that is, the universe is completely deterministic. Quantum mechanics seems to indicate that it is not - there is a graininess to the universe at a fundamental level (unless there are so-called 'hidden variables' determining the quantum behavior of particles).

    But whether or not the universe is ultimately deterministic at the particle level, I always find arguments over reductionism a bit hazy - what does it really mean to say that we can reduce biology to chemistry and physics? I'm not sure many biologists are the extreme reductionists Kauffman is making them out to be: if we knew the position, momentum, etc, of all the atoms in a single bacterium living in your gut, could we then, in principle, with a powerful computer, predict the entire future behavior of that bacterium?

    Well, no, because you'd need to know all of the relevant information about the cell's immediate environment to do that, and to know that, you need to know everything about the larger environment, etc. etc. - in practice, you need to know the relevant information about all of the particles in the universe to in order to calculate the behavior of a complex biological system from the position and momenta of its basic particles.

    Kauffman and many others argue that it's not possible, even in principle, to make such a calculation. They argue that even if we did have all the information about every particle in the universe, we could not predict say, consciousness from the basic laws of physics. (That's not to say that conscious beings aren't made up of matter obeying, without exception, basic physical laws - Kauffman is not doubting that.)

    And since we can't make this calculation even with complete information and a powerful computer, the universe is not deterministic. As Kauffman says,

    To take one example, I argue that the evolutionary emergence of the human heart cannot be deduced from physics. That doesn't mean it breaks any laws of physics. But there's no way of getting from physics to the emergence of hearts in the evolution of the biosphere. If you were to ask Darwin, what's the function of the heart? he would have said it's to pump blood. That's what Darwin meant by adaptation. But there may be other causal consequences of the heart, or any other part of you, that are of no functional significance in the current environment, but may become useful in a different environment.


    The implication of all this, Kauffman argues, is that

    Once one gets beyond reductionism, it leads to a radically new scientific worldview, which changes our place in the universe as human beings. We are not meaningless chunks of particles spinning around in space. We are organisms with meaning in our lives, and the way the biosphere will evolve is ceaselessly creative.

    My feeling is, why do we care? Whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or not doesn't make a damn bit of difference in how I experience life. We still experience consciousness, we make decisions, we have relationships - all of that makes life meaningful, whether or not it can be calculated from the laws of physics.

    And the fact is that we can't do science by calculating everything from basic physical laws. We have to understand the world at various levels of abstraction. Genetics would be impossible to understand without higher-order concepts of causality, above the level of particles.

    So I don't really see the significance of Kauffman's conclusion:

    I'm saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That's the God of Spinoza. That's the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity. One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe.


    Whether the universe is deterministic or not, it is still creative - look around you! Systems self-organize, new forms of life evolve, conscious beings evolve. We're here - deterministic universe or not. I don't see that the distinction Kauffman is trying to make is of much consequence.

    Comments

    Is integration and complex adaptive systems a radically new world view?

    Unlikely - it is the basis of most Eastern world views. It appears that many of us are pathetically ignorant and arrogant.

    adaptivecomplexity
    It's not necessarily a radical new view. In terms of science, I can understand the excitement, because some of these ideas in complex systems are leading to interesting applications in fields like physics, biology and economics - that's new, even if the idea of holism isn't.
    Mike
    aaanouel
    If we need to know the relevant information about all of the particles in the universe to in order to calculate the behavior of any system, it becomes imposible to make this calculation with complete information because we previously should know the influence of the calculation itself on the universe to include it into the original variables, information will be always incomplete and we'll inevitably be into a vicious circle.
    Gerhard Adam
    " ... if we knew the position, momentum, etc, of all the atoms in a single bacterium living in your gut, could we then, in principle, with a powerful computer, predict the entire future behavior of that bacterium? "

    I've always felt that reductionism was fundamentally foolish except as a tool to examine specific processes.  Once completed, any knowledge gained would always needs to be incorporated into the larger view.  With respect to the assertion of calculating particle positions, I've never understood what supposed knowledge that was going to convey.  What possible difference does it make for me to know the position of every atom within a cell?  Since even that information would be insufficient, since I would need to know what the previous position was to derive anything useful of what why they were in the position they were.

    Heisenberg prevents us from knowing absolutely a particle's position and momentum simultaneously so that clearly means that determinism isn't likely to occur in any meaningful way.  Chaos theory tells us that all complex systems are unequivocally dependent on initial conditions, so that argues against any absolute determinism.  If quantum physics teaches us anything it's that we live in a probablistic universe and not one subject to reductionist ideas.  If anything we are forced to conclude that we can never absolutely predict the future behavior of the universe, since we can't know whether this is the only way in which it could've formed or operate.  We must take it as it is and use scientific principles within the context we're given and not attempt to conclude that it's the only way events could have occurred.
    Mundus vult decipi
    adaptivecomplexity
    I've never understood what supposed knowledge that was going to convey.  What possible difference does it make for me to know the position of every atom within a cell?  Since even that information would be insufficient, since I would need to know what the previous position was to derive anything useful of what why they were in the position they were.
    I don't get it either. Various physicists have at times made provocative comments about this kind of reductionism, but even if those comments were true in principle, I have no clue how that would work in practice, in the absence of omniscience.

    It makes sense to talk about chemistry being reducible to physics - it's right there in the equations of physical chemistry, and from statistical mechanics you can nicely go from molecular interactions to macroscopic properties of chemical systems with a fairly straightforward formalism. But I don't see how that's possible with biology.
    Mike
    Gerhard Adam
    "It makes sense to talk about chemistry being reducible to physics .....But I don't see how that's possible with biology."

    I think it has to be true.  While it might be a difficult journey, biology is ultimately the product of chemistry.  Therefore if chemistry can be reducible to physics, then biology must also be reducible in a similar fashion via the chemical pathway.

    If you'll permit me a computer analogy, physics is like the instruction set of a particular computer chip, while chemistry is the collection of instructions called programs.  From this we can see that an application (like your internet browser or the operating system) would be the biological equivalent representing the collection of programs.  While one could not predict a browser simply by examining the instruction set of a chip, it is clear that these three elements are inextricably linked together in the same fashion that physics, chemistry, and biology are ultimately linked.
    Mundus vult decipi
    rholley
    It makes sense to talk about chemistry being reducible to physics
    My first reaction is HERESY – call him before the Stinkwisition!  But when you say:
    you can nicely go
    I reply – can? How many people actually do? In ancient times (i.e. between 1880 and 1950, roughly) there arose people who could hold together their physics and their chemistry in one mind, but where do we find their like today?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    adaptivecomplexity
    How many people actually do?
    I certainly don't! Maybe this was a naive thought, but I was under the impression that if you write a partition function based on quantum mechanics and then calculate the macroscopic thermodynamic properties of (very very simple) chemical system, you've gone from physics to chemistry. Another example is transition state theory for chemical reactions - Henry Eyring seemed to be one guy who could hold physics and chemistry in his head. I'd put Linus Pauling in that category too.
    Mike
    rholley
    Certainly I would call that going from physics to chemistry.  It’s a very useful technique, and with it one can show that in regard to certain remarkable physico-chemical behaviour, as Simon Stevin would have said:
    Wonder en is gheen wonder
    meaning more or less “it isn’t really magic after all!”

    What I was thinking of, rather, was the idea one could start from the most basic physical theories and derive everything from that, rather like Russell and Whitehead tried to derive all mathematics from logic in their Principia Mathematica.  On page 362 of the first volume of that magnificent work, they say:
    From this proposition it will follow, when arithmetical addition has been defined, that 1 + 1 = 2.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    adaptivecomplexity
    I see what you're saying  -  people don't in practice go from the standard model, for example, to macroscopic thermodynamic properties - they write partition functions based on theories which are not really the most basic physical theories.
    Mike
    Nicholas Horton
    My feeling is, why do we care? Whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or not doesn't make a damn bit of difference in how I experience life. We still experience consciousness, we make decisions, we have relationships - all of that makes life meaningful, whether or not it can be calculated from the laws of physics.
    I think people are concerned with the "free will" problem.  Western philosophy is nearly obsessed with it.  If the world is deterministic, then fate rules all, including our behavior.  I was destined to write this comment.  From that perspective, the "meaning" of life becomes diluted.  

    I'm not convinced by that.  I don't think the world is deterministic.  And I'm not sure that if it was, life would not have meaning.  But, I can see the reasons why others might disagree with me.
    Gerhard Adam
    I would argue that life is deterministic only from the sense that even our concept of "free will" isn't truly free since, by definition, it must operate within the parameters of our own minds.  However, just like the idea of the "bufferly effect", we can argue that the flying butterfly ultimately produced a hurricane, we don't have enough information to absolutely determine the relationship between the butterfly wings and the hurricane crashing ashore. 

    In the same way, we have to concede that we are as much a product of our atoms&molecules as anything else on the planet and consequently we behave in fundamentally predictable ways.  However, the variables are so large as to create the illusion of "free will" and with the variablility of initial conditions, any predictably is long since lost.

    In a sense, you were destined to write that comment because all the events in your life, including your biology conspired to produce an individual that would have the interests you have.  However, given that there are also millions of variables conspiring to prevent you from achieving your potential, the illusion of "free will" prevails.  I realize that this can rapidly become a semantics argument, but my point is that perhaps arguing about determinism or "free will" is too far ranging and that we simply need to realize that everything is deterministic with specific initial conditions and explicit boundary conditions to define the possible outcomes.
    Mundus vult decipi
    adaptivecomplexity
    However, the variables are so large as to create the illusion of "free will" and with the variablility of initial conditions, any predictably is long since lost.
    That's my feeling. Whether it really is an illusion or not, I don't experience life any differently.
    Mike
    Gerhard Adam
    That's true, but you also can't exercise "free will" and experience life in any sense except that dictated by your brain chemistry, your biology, and your initial conditions.  That's not really meant to be frivolous, but rather to illustrate that it is precisely because it is OUR life, that our experience is completely determined by ourselves.  There is no "choice" because we aren't capable of exercising an alternative that is outside of ourselves.

    I realize that there may be an argument suggesting that we can make choices freely, but my point is that we can only make those choices based on the boundary conditions of our existence and therefore they are limited and not truly "free".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Michael White..."I don't see that the distinction Kauffman is trying to make is of much consequence."

    I think the distinction Kauffman is attempting to make (and this is only my interpretation of his article entitled "Beyond Reductionism") is that life and consciousness are ontologically emergent with causal-efficacy (i.e. agency). And he appears to ascribe agency at a very fundamental level (e.g. at the level of a bacterium, if not the first self-replicating molecular systems in the primordial soup). IOW, there are two basic types of causes or explanations in the universe: efficient causation (or physical explanations) and final causation (or teleological explanations). I would think that this would be anathema to scientific materialism.