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The Higgs boson and the future of science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Philip Anderson: Anderson first described the so-called Higgs mechanism and also fired the first modern salvo against strong reductionism (Image: Celeblist)

The discovery of the Higgs boson (or the “Higgs-like particle” if you prefer) is without a doubt one of the signal scientific achievements of our time. It illustrates what sheer thought – aided by data of course – can reveal about the workings of the universe and it continues a trend that lists Descartes, Hume, Galileo and Newton among its illustrious forebears. From sliding objects down an incline to smashing atoms at almost the speed of light in a 27 kilometer tunnel, we have come a long way. Dissecting our origins and the universe around us scarcely gets any better than this.

Yet even as the exciting discovery was being announced, I could not help but think about what the Higgs does not do for us. It does not speed up the time needed to discover a new cancer drug. It does not help us understand consciousness. It does not tell us how life began or whether it exists elsewhere in the universe. It does not explain romantic love, how to design the best solar cell, why people have certain political preferences and how exactly to predict the effects of climate change. In fact we can safely predict that the discovery of the Higgs boson, as consciousness-elevating as it is, does not impact the daily work of 99% of all pure and applied scientists in the world.

I do not say all this to downplay the discovery of the particle which is an unparalleled triumph of human thought, hard work and experimental ingenuity. I also do not say this to make the obvious point that a discovery in one field of science does not automatically solve problems in other fields. Rather, I say this to probe the deeper reality beyond that point, to highlight the multifaceted nature of science and the sheer diversity of problems and phenomena that it presents to us at every level of inquiry. And I say this with a suspicion that the Higgs boson may be the most fitting tribute to the limitations of what has been the most potent philosophical instrument of scientific discovery – reductionism.

In one sense the discovery of this fundamental component of matter can be seen as the culmination of reductionist thinking, accounting as it does for the very existence of mass. Reductionism is the great legacy of the twentieth century, a philosophy whose seeds were sown when Greek philosophers started mulling the nature of matter. The method is in fact quite intuitive; ever since they stepped down from the trees, human beings have tried to solve problems by breaking them down into simpler parts. In the twentieth century the fruits of reductionism have been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Reductionism is what told us that molecules are made of atoms, that the universe is expanding, that DNA is a double helix and that you can build lasers and computers. The reductionist ethic has given us quantum mechanics, relativity, quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Over the centuries it has been used by its countless practitioners as a fine scalpel which has laid bare the secrets of nature. In fact many of the questions answered using the reductionist method were construed as being amenable to this method even before their answers were provided; for instance, how do atoms combine to form molecules? What is the basic nature of the gene? What are atoms themselves made up of?

Yet as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that reductionism as a principal weapon in our arsenal of discovery tools is no longer sufficient. Consider some of the most important questions facing modern science, almost all of which deal with complex, multifactorial systems. How did life on earth begin? How does biological matter evolve consciousness? What are dark matter and dark energy? How do societies cooperate to solve their most pressing problems? What are the properties of the global climate system? It is interesting to note at least one common feature among many of these problems; they result from the buildup rather than the breakdown of their operational entities. Their signature is collective emergence, the creation of attributes which are greater than the sum of their constituent parts. Whatever consciousness is for instance, it is definitely a result of neurons acting together in ways that are not obvious from their individual structures. Similarly, the origin of life can be traced back to molecular entities undergoing self-assembly and then replication and metabolism, a process that supersedes the chemical behavior of the isolated components. The puzzle of dark matter and dark energy also have as their salient feature the behavior of matter at large length and time scales. Studying cooperation in societies essentially involves studying group dynamics and evolutionary conflict. The key processes that operate in the existence of all these problems seem to almost intuitively involve the opposite of reduction; they all result from the agglomeration of molecules, matter, cells, bodies and human beings across a hierarchy of unique levels. In addition, and this is key, they involve the manifestation of unique principles emerging at every level that cannot be merely reduced to those at the underlying level.

The traditional picture of science asserts that X can be reduced to Y. Reality is more complicated (Image: P. W. Anderson, Science, 1972)

A classic example of emergence: The exact shape of a termite mound is not reducible to the actions of individual termites (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

This kind of emergence has long since been seen as key to the continued unraveling of scientific mysteries. While emergence had been implicitly appreciated by scientists for a long time, its modern salvo was undoubtedly a 1972 paper in Science by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Philip Anderson titled “More is Different”, a title that has turned into a kind of clarion call for emergence enthusiasts. In his paper Anderson (who incidentally first came up with the so-called Higgs mechanism) argued that emergence was nothing exotic; for instance, a lump of salt has properties very different from those of its highly reactive components sodium and chlorine. A lump of gold evidences properties like color that don’t exist at the level of individual atoms. Anderson also appealed to the process of broken symmetry, invoked in all kinds of fundamental events – including the existence of the Higgs boson – as being instrumental for emergence. Since then, emergent phenomena have been invoked in hundreds of diverse cases, ranging from the construction of termite hills to the flight of birds. The development of chaos theory beginning in the 60s further illustrated how very simple systems could give rise to very complicated and counterintuitive patterns and behavior that are not obvious from the identities of the individual components.

Many scientists and philosophers have contributed to considered critiques of reductionism and an appreciation of emergence since Anderson wrote his paper. These thinkers make the point that not only does reductionism fail in practice (because of the sheer complexity of the systems it purports to explain), but it also fails in principle on a deeper level. In his book “The Fabric of Reality” for instance, the Oxford physicist David Deutsch has made the compelling point that reductionism can never explain purpose; to drive home this point he asks us if it can account for the existence of a particular atom of copper on the tip of the nose of a statue of Winston Churchill in London. Deutsch’s answer is a clear no, since the fate of that atom was based on contingent, emergent phenomena, including war, leadership and adulation. Nothing about the structure of copper atoms allows us to directly predict that a particular atom will someday end up on the tip of that nose. Chance plays an outsized role in these developments and reductionism offers us little solace to understand such historical accidents.

Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman who has written about the role of contingency as a powerful argument against strong reductionism (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

An even more forceful proponent of this contingency-based critique of reductionism is the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman (supposedly an inspiration for the Jeff Goldblum character in “Jurassic Park”) who has laid out his thoughts in two books. Just like Anderson, Kauffman does not deny the great value of reductionism in illuminating our world, but he also points out the factors that greatly limit its application. One of his favorite examples is the role of contingency in evolution and the object of his attention is the mammalian heart. Kauffman makes the case that no amount of reductionist analysis could explain tell you that the main function of the heart is to pump blood. Even in the unlikely case that you could predict the structure of hearts and the bodies that house them starting from the Higgs boson, such a deductive process could never tell you that of all the possible functions of the heart, the most important one is to pump blood. This is because the blood-pumping action of the heart is as much a result of historical contingency and the countless chance events that led to the evolution of the biosphere as it is of its bottom-up construction from atoms, molecules, cells and tissues. As another example, consider the alpha amino acids which make up all proteins on earth. These amino acids come in two potential varieties, left-handed and right-handed. With very few exceptions, all the functional amino acids that we know of are left handed, but there’s no reason to think that right handed amino acids wouldn’t have served life equally well. The question then is, why left-handed amino acids? Again, reductionism is silent on this question mainly because the original use of left-handed amino acids during the origin of life was to the best of our knowledge a matter of contingency. Now some form of reductionism may still explain the subsequent propagation of left-handed amino acids and their dominance in biological processes by resorting to molecular level arguments regarding chemical bonding and energetics, but this description will still leave the origins issue unresolved. Even something as fundamental as the structure and function of DNA – which by all accounts was a triumph of reductionism – is much better explained by principles of chemistry like electrostatic attraction and hydrogen bonding.

Life as we know it is based on left-handed amino acids. But there is no reason why right-handed amino acids could not sustain life (Image: Islamickorner)

Reductionism then falls woefully short when trying to explain two things; origins and purpose. And one can see that if it has problems even when dealing with left-handed amino acids and human hearts, it would be in much more dire straits when attempting to account for say kin selection or geopolitical conflict. The fact is that each of these phenomena are better explained by fundamental principles operating at their own levels. Chemistry has its covalent bonds and steric effects, geology has its weathering and tectonic shifts, neurology has its memory potentiation and plasticity and sociology has its conflict theory. And as far as we can tell, these sciences will continue to progress without needing the help of Higgs bosons and neutrinos. This also seems to make it unlikely that the discovery of a single elegant equation linking the four fundamental forces (the purported “theory of everything”), while undoubtedly representing one of the greatest intellectual achievements of humanity, will give sociologists and economists little pause for thought, even as they continue to study the stock market and democracies using their own special toolkit of bedrock principles.

This rather gloomy view of reductionism may sound like science is at a dead end or at the very least has started collapsing under the weight of its own success. But such a view would be as misplaced as announcements about the “end of science” which have surfaced every couple of years for the last two hundred years. Every time the end of science has been announced, science itself proved that claims of its demise were vastly exaggerated. Firstly, reductionism will always be alive and kicking since the general approach of studying anything by breaking it down into its constituents will continue to be enormously fruitful. But more importantly, it’s not so much the end of reductionism as the beginning of a more general paradigm that combines reductionism with new ways of thinking. The limitations of reductionism should be seen as a cause not for despair but for celebration since it means that we are now entering new, uncharted territory. There are still an untold number of deep mysteries that science has to solve, ranging from dark energy, consciousness and the origin of life to more supposedly pedestrian concerns like superconductivity, cancer drug discovery and the behavior of glasses. Many of these questions require interdisciplinary approaches which result in the crafting of fundamental principles that are unique to the problem statement. Such a meld will inherently involve reductionism only as one component.

Now there are some who may not consider these problems as “fundamental” enough but that is because they would be peering through the lens of traditional twentieth century science. One of the sad casualties of the reductionist undertaking is a small group of people who think that cosmology and particle physics constitute the only things truly worth doing and the epitome of fundamental science; the rest is all detail that can be filled in by second-rate minds. This is in spite of the inconvenient fact that perhaps 80% of physicists are not concerned at all with fundamental questions. But you would be deluding yourself if you are thinking that turbulence in fluids is a second-rate problem (still unsolved) for second-rate minds, especially if you remember that Heisenberg thought that God would will be able to provide an explanation for quantum mechanics but not for turbulence. The fact is that “pedestrian” concerns like superconductivity have engaged some of the best minds of the last fifty years without fully succumbing to them, and at their own levels they are as hard as the discovery of the Higgs boson or the accelerating universe. Exploring these worthy conundrums is every bit as exciting, deep and satisfying as any other endeavor in science. Those who are wondering what’s next should not worry; a sparkling journey lies ahead.

To guide us on this journey all we have to remember are the words of one of the twentieth century’s great reductionists and one of Peter Higgs’s heroes. Paul Dirac closed his famous text on quantum theory with stirrings that will hopefully be as great a portent for the emergent twenty-first century as they were for the reductionist twentieth: “Some new principles are here needed”.


1. P. W. Anderson, More is Different, Science, 1972, 177, 393

2. David Deutsch, “The Fabric of Reality”, 2004

3. Stuart Kauffman, “Reinventing the Sacred”, 2009; “At Home in the Universe”, 1996

Other reading:

1. Terrence Deacon, “Incomplete Nature”, 2011

2. John Horgan, “The End of Science”, 1997

3. Robert Laughlin, “A Different Universe”, 2006

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jhorgan 4:14 pm 07/23/2012

    If you’re going to take a swipe at the end of science, the least you can do is cite my book (which has a whole section dedicated to complexity theory and other anti-reductionist movements) in your endnotes. Otherwise, nice piece.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rloldershaw 6:07 pm 07/23/2012

    String theory has failed to even generate a single definitive prediction after 44 years of hype.

    SUSY promises much, but nature (via LHC, Tevatron, etc) says: “No, no, no”.

    The more you objectively study the “Higgs Mechanism” the more it sounds like it was cribbed off the back of a cereal box. Expect multiple additional epicycles to keep the thing floating.

    The standard model has 7 serious problems that clearly show that it is purely heuristic model-building.

    Conclusion: We need to start over with a new paradigm for the 21st century. New ideas from a new generation of theoretical physicists. Trying to patch up the old paradigms of cosmology and particle physics is just going to keep us wandering in the desert for another 40 years.

    The new paradigm will almost certainly be based around the discrete cosmological self-similarity of Discrete Scale Relativity.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Fractal Cosmology

    Link to this
  3. 3. OriginsSkeptic 8:24 pm 07/23/2012

    Again, fantastic article, and timely! As an origin of life scientist, I completely agree that one of the areas where reductionism fails to provide a complete picture is when trying to describe origins, but this is not something that is widely accepted amongst scientists. Reductionism, as you have described here, is the tried and true paradigm under which science has successfully operated for many years now. Thus, any new paradigm is difficult to introduce without causing a little dissension in the ranks.

    It doesn’t help that emergence once had strong ties to vitalism, the once popular (but now mostly dormant) theory that there was a vital force which separates life from non-life – essentially proposing that living things weren’t even composed of the same “stuff” as non-living entities. British Emergentism (as described by Brian McLaughlin) unfortunately resembled vitalism in that it proposed the existence of configurational forces, which were an attempt at quantifying emergent properties, but required new laws of physics (a new fundamental force for aggregates).

    The emergence you describe here is not the same emergence as what was proposed originally by British Emergentists – and yet the bias still remains in some circles. Emergence is as of yet poorly defined in terms of practical applications, and thus to the common scientist it is more or less useless. So, the question I pose to you (and which I will also post to my blog) is how is emergence useful to the everyday, practicing scientist? We all understand how to operate under the reductionist paradigm – we constantly strive to break-down every phenomenon into its most fundamental parts – but how would this change if we all acknowledge the existence of emergence in science?

    Please do not misunderstand me – I fully believe that emergence is essential to a full understanding of scientific phenomena – most especially when we are talking about origins. And yet, something that has bothered me is whether or not thinking of things such as emergence is merely a task for the more philosophically minded people, or whether there is some application for the everyday scientist…

    Anyways, thanks again for the great article! I look forward to reading more from you!

    Link to this
  4. 4. curiouswavefunction 9:19 pm 07/23/2012

    @jhorgan: Thanks. Interestingly, I was not thinking of your book (which I genuinely enjoyed in spite of my reservations) when I wrote that sentence! Instead I was thinking of Lord Kelvin’s pronouncements about the end of physics at the turn of the century and Dirac’s statement about everything about the world now being understood except for the details. I would be happy to provide a link though.

    @OriginsSkeptic: Great question about emergence. It’s interesting that in one sense chemists like me already use emergence in our everyday research since we are not calculating almost anything from first principles. But your question is very cogent since unlike reductionism, emergence does not seem to provide a rigorous set of laws that we can apply to generate a number. I will have more on this in another post.

    @ rloldershaw: As no expert on string theory, I only note that your skepticism seems to be widespread.

    P.S. Please bear with me if comments are not appearing right away, I am working on this.

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  5. 5. rloldershaw 11:02 pm 07/23/2012

    For anyone who is interested in the reductionism/holism and emergence issues, I offer the following thought.

    Do we really want to imply that something ephemeral emerges up from lower scales or diffuses down from upper scales? Probably not.

    An alternative way of looking at nature is that it has an inherently multi-leveled, or hierarchical, organization of scales that co-exist. Possibly this hierarchy has always existed in an eternal cosmos.

    Yes, lower-scale phenomena have causal/deterministic effects on higher scale systems and upper-scale phenomena have causal/deterministic effects on lower scale systems. However, I have trouble with the word “emerge”, which sounds uncomfortably like backdoor reductionism. There is also a serious vagueness in the meaning of “emergence”, as there is for the term “complexity”. The terminology seems unfortunate to me.

    Why not just say that reductionism only works for limited sections of nature’s hierarchy and that multi-leveledness is the more realistic and fundamental paradigm for the whole hierarchy?

    Finally, perhaps those who regard subatomic particles as more fundamental than galaxies are led to do so because our resolution for the subatomic scale sysytems is so low and crude, while our resolution for galactic scale systems is relatively high and detailed.

    The infinite, eternal, hierarchical paradigm has been around since Democritus (5th century BC), with reinvigoration by Spinoza, Kant and a host of others.

    It has never been the leading paradigm, or even a major contender. Perhaps to the detriment of science.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity

    Link to this
  6. 6. OriginsSkeptic 11:27 pm 07/23/2012

    I am also a chemist (my research is chemical origins…maybe I should have specified that…) and look forward to reading your future post regarding a better defined notion of emergence. It is definitely needed (I know others, most being philosophers, have tried with varying degrees of success in my opinion) and from your response, it appears you have a different definition than I currently hold… Either way, I look forward to hearing what you have to say!

    Link to this
  7. 7. MJGlaser 11:44 pm 07/23/2012

    First – a belated kudos on the fancy new digs!

    As always, an interesting and thought-provoking post from you. I am intrigued by the question raised above on the role of emergence for the practicing scientist. There’s the old “take it apart and only put it back together enough until you obtain (most of) the intact system behavior/properties” method which many still use (myself included, more often than not), but something a bit more prescriptive – rather than descriptive – would be of great interest.

    - MJ (@ Interfacial Digressions)

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 12:34 am 07/24/2012

    curiouswavefunction – The widespread skepticism is reportedly also held by relevant CERN scientists…

    As I understand, there is about a 5 sigma probability that some new particle has actually been detected rather than the case that some spurious signal noise has been misidentified as a particle detection. The 5 sigma does not apply to the probability that the particle detected is actually a Higgs boson.

    Much more must be determined about the new particle’s characteristics before a valid claim can be issued that this new particle has the many specific properties required of the predicted Higgs boson…

    Link to this
  9. 9. S. N. Tiwary 3:01 am 07/24/2012

    What God particle does for us and what it does not do.
    It explains (1) Standard Model, (2) Origin of universe and (3) Unification of fundamental forces.
    It does not explain (1) Origin of life, (2) Origin of consciousness and (3) Love or Romance in life.
    S. N. Tiwary

    Link to this
  10. 10. Petros1513 4:32 pm 07/30/2012

    This article was very illuminating but definitely misunderstands something very important. Reductionism does not entail that things at different levels of scale and organization should not be looked at differently, only that from the fundamental ingredients and their interactions everything can emerge, including collectively new behaviors of different systems. Sean Carroll puts it best in an article of his at Cosmic Variance, when speaking about the ‘reality’ of free will. Baseball exists, he says, as an organized event that is carried out by human beings.

    Despite this, it is not at all fundamental to the world. It wouldn’t do much good to characterize baseball in terms of the interactions of quarks and gluons of every object from the pitcher to grass in the outfield, but that does not mean something spooky has occurred and a new thing now exists in the universe. Baseball is still made of those fundamental entities and the interactions between them. It is simply the fact that it is impractical and doesn’t add any valuable information to someone who might carry out such a simulation on an extremely powerful supercomputer. I will say this, if, as I suspect most scientists agree, the universe obeys natural laws and is causally deterministic (don’t come back at me with the stochastic nature of QM, there are many interpretations that are fully deterministic and recent evidence suggests the wavefunction is real), then in theory a simulation that starts with a massive amount of initial particles and evolves from that point will form galaxies, planets, life, humans, and cultures.

    This does not make life less beautiful, in fact its unifying nature is amazing to the point of a religious feeling. Emergence does exist, and obviously, if we start with a large group of particles we would be hard pressed to find out what things will exist later in its evolution, but thats where the (fully causal and deterministic) simulation comes in. We cant predict everything about a system without carrying out a large number of computations, but that in no way suggests reductionism is incomplete.

    Emergence is a bottom up process, and to suggest otherwise would be to bring magical forces into the arena of science that have no place in it. Yes, reductionism, cant answer origin questions; then again, nothing can. If you want to believe in God or pre-existing matter, pick whatever, but origins will always likely be beyond our grasp. We can, however, understand how the universe operates in a reductionist sense.

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  11. 11. donhill 10:21 pm 07/30/2012

    The Ultimate particle is Planck size surrounded by force field vibrating at unmeasurably high frequencies fills 100% of the Universe.
    5% combine in strings to make everything measurable, 95% race through the universe penetrating everything and carrying data of light, electrical, magnetic, and gravity fields
    The Higgs boson is akin to the nous of Anaxagoras

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  12. 12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:01 pm 08/1/2012

    I don’t know if the higgs mechanism will impact the daily life of 99 % of scientists. In fact I doubt if anyone knows if the higgs mechanism will be any more important than the dopant mechanism of semiconductors, that has impacted the daily life of 100 % of scientists.

    I can however guarantee that the the purported demise of reductionism will impact the daily life of exactly 0 % of scientists. That is because it is philosophy and not relevant to science.

    In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be testable since there is never any definition presented. The
    best Jogalekar comes up with here, for example, that systems consists of parts, applies as well to emergent systems. (Which happens to be defined in science as having properties predicted by effective theories.)

    But in the rest of the article it seems to mean a laplacian clockwork mechanistic universe. Such a model has been rejected since a century ago with stochastic quantum mechanics and later deterministic chaos. That is no problem for science method that continues its analysis by identifying processes and their mechanisms as well as systems and their parts.

    “the Oxford physicist David Deutsch has made the compelling point that reductionism can never explain purpose”.

    Not at all compelling seeing that most scientists agree there is no purpose other than what we make for ourselves.

    It is poignant that the deist (AFAIK) Kaufmann, those ideas seems to be founded in trying to merge religious magical spiritualism with science, is walked around as an example.

    The same dubious example is consciousness, since biologists and neurobiologists have never been able to define it testably. Rather, it is enough that our behaviors emerge out of biological and social templates. Different species have different behaviors, most of ours are known elsewhere.

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  13. 13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:21 pm 08/1/2012

    @ OriginsSkeptic:

    Reductionism is an idea in philosophy as witnessed by its untestable definition, not some science method.

    Effective theories on processes are well known, such as classical mechanics or classical gravity. It is known that modern theories like general relativity are effective. So no one denies emergence of properties out of the system as opposed to all of its parts.

    I don’t think astrobiologists are strangers to effective theories, since chemistry and biology are both such effective theories.

    Examples of more isolated emergent systems would be Szostak’s protocells from self-assembling lipid membranes and heteromers of nucleotides. Those systems are all over astrobiology.

    @ MJGlaser:

    Your definition of non-emergence (reductionism) seems to be that incomplete theories have something to do with emergence.

    I don’t understand that.

    @ Petros:

    I think deterministic chaos is enough, it shows you need infinite resources to model some systems, but even so I think deterministic quantum mechanics isn’t deterministic in this one universe (see for example many world theory). So “fully deterministic” doesn’t mean you can simulate.

    That is a minor point that one doesn’t need to agree on. Same goes for astrobiology, where many think we can start to reduce the possibilities by testing. Even a minor set of tested pathways would be enough to know how it can happen.

    On the rest, well said.

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  14. 14. 16ton weight 7:33 pm 08/12/2012

    Mr. Jogalekar,

    Judging from your reply to Petros you seem to have confused two versions of reductionism, metaphysical and epistemological. The metaphysical version claims that everything there is is built out of some fundamental building blocks and abides by some fundamental (that is, as far as we know, microphysical) laws of natural, from which all higher-level laws and phenomena are derived. (This is, I take it, the view Petros was urging.) The epistemological version, put crudely, is the view that higher-levels laws (the ideal gas law, for example) can be translated into fundamental laws in some *neat and tidy* way. What you said about chaos and stuff only shows, at most, that the epistemological version is untenable. It doesn’t touch the metaphysical version at all. And metaphysical reductionism is, I can assure you, alive and well in both philosophy and science. Check out the work of e.g. Barry Loewer, David Albert, and (as Petros mentioned) Sean Carroll.

    Your remarks on historical contingency is neither here nor there. A reductionist (of whichever brand) can allow that our ignorance about the initial condition of the universe (which isn’t reductionists’ fault) renders accurate prediction of later development impossible. Which makes it *seem* contingent. But this appearance of contingency is consistent with both versions of reductionism.

    You seem pretty sure that reductionism can’t explain purpose. Let me just say that your confidence is baseless. Huge amount of work has been done (mainly in philosophy of mind) to explain how purposes can originate in a materialistic world, and as far as I know none of such work is inconsistent with metaphysical or epistemological reductionism. (Nor does it usually presuppose either view — the two issues, reductionism and explaining purpose, are pretty much orthogonal to each other.)

    Thanks for the article, but I’d expected more philosophical sophistication from someone who claims an interest in philosophy.

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  15. 15. Ashutosh Jogalekar in reply to Ashutosh Jogalekar 11:03 am 08/13/2012

    I am aware of the distinction you are making, but don’t you think the metaphysical version of reductionism (“Everything is made up of atoms/quarks/strings”) is a trite, trivial statement that only states a fact and conveys no information about how higher-level entities are actually built up from their lower-level counterparts? If that’s all metaphysics reductionism says then I don’t see why it can be useful in describing the real world at all and in fact I never disagreed with it. Most adherents of strong reductionism that I am familiar with like Steven Weinberg and Jacques Monod have really pushed epistemological reductionism and that is where things start to get interesting; that is also where I happen to have disagreements.

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  16. 16. Ashutosh Jogalekar in reply to Ashutosh Jogalekar 11:08 am 08/13/2012

    Petros: Naturally I am not advocating for the intervention of magical forces, nor am I saying that we will have to go beyond the four fundamental forces to explain the world. This is again a point related to epistemological vs metaphysical reductionism that the other commenter pointed out. What you are advocating for is the metaphysical version; with that I have no disagreement but I also think it’s a trivial statement, an obvious fact akin to saying that “It’s hot today because of climate”. Of course nobody disagrees that societies are ultimately composed of atoms, but it’s a real challenge to explain how we go from QED to sociopathic tendencies for instance. While this causal link has not been established in practice, I have not seen cogent arguments for establishing it in principle either.

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  17. 17. Bryan Sanctuary 11:05 am 10/7/2012

    Science does not worry about “purpose”–that is like asking “why”, and science only asks “how”. As for origins, knowing how particles condense out of energy is important because it leads to the periodic table and then, in our cold place in Nature, 300 k, we form bonds.

    So we have the origin too.

    I agree however, a new paradigm is needed in some areas (like what happens beyond our ability to measure) but that will also come from a reductionist approach: the devil is in the detail. When the detail is known, things become clear and simple, usually.

    I have not put much time into emergence but I do not see a logical formalism, more philosophy. I actually think that string theory has more successes, but correct me if I am wrong.

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