The Higgs Boson – The End of Reductionism?

The above article is another fantastic one by Ashutosh Jogalekar on his SciAm blog “The Curious Wavefunction”.  In this post, he discusses the limits of the current paradigm under which science operates: reductionism.  Further, he proposes the vast evidence for the role of emergence in science, especially when it comes to origins (a point which I, of course, look upon with great interest).

I wrote a response to this blog post, and have copied it below:

“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 own 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…”

So, what do you think?  Is emergence useful for the everyday practicing scientist??

I will write a more extended post on this topic in the coming weeks (first, I must finish my series on the origin of DNA…but it is on the list) – comment with any ideas you may have!


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