Friday, December 23, 2011

Against the arrogance of the reductionists

Phil Anderson is one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the second half of the twentieth century. He has also been a strong critic of reductionism, emphasizing the role of emergence in all of science. He recently published a book of his essays, More and Different: notes from a thoughtful curmudgeon. I highly recommend it. Here is small extract from an essay "Emergence vs. Reductionism".
Physicists - and scientists in general - love to do two things; (a) to take apart, to analyze into simpler and simpler components; (b) to mystify, to say it is not really this, it’s that. They like to take upon themselves the role of the shaman or the mullah. Everything comes from a First Cause – the First Equation – and only the appropriate scientist can investigate this with his very expensive equipment, and understand it with his abstruse theories. 
The arrogance this attitude fosters has to be experienced to be believed. Such books as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time covers the whole of science in six brief chapters, spending the rest of the book on personal speculations about the first millionth of a picosecond of time when, he seems to feel, all that matters happened.

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