Thursday, June 11, 2015

Painting a picture of Reductionism

Reductionism, a theory of extreme simplicity that seeks to account for everything in the universe, is, as usual with such "terrible simplicities", itself a very complicated piece of philosophical and scientific reasoning.

Not the sort of thing, one might think, to easily or accurately summarize in a single big mural painted on the wall of some museum of natural science.

But not so.

All those museum murals of (drum roll please !) of The Marvelous Pageant of Life's Inevitable Progress, as made infamous by Stephen Jay Gould's withering critique, were - I argue - actually a portrait of the applied Theory of Reductionism.

Put another way, the fundamental reasoning behind the entire Era of Progress was actually "Reductionism-in-Action" in the sphere of Life ---- evolutionary progress towards inevitable ever greater complexity being an unconscious example of half-understood Reductionism.

So let us first review Reductionism.

Its most militant fans really believe (even if they don't publicly admit it) that one short sharp law about the motions of sub-sub-atomic articles (The Theory of Everything) will enable them to predict/control every activity in all the larger objects in the universe above the sub-sub-atomic level.

They will eventually know - far in advance and far far away (sitting in some multi-billion dollar taxpayer paid lab in Stanford) what I am about to say in the rest of this sentence (which is far more than I currently know).

Why hasn't aroused womanhood put all these men (and they are almost all men, rather like the Freemen on the Land movement) in a padded cell in Stanford, rather than in an expensive lab?

Beats me.

Here is how they say it all works.

Random (thermal) motion of various fundamental bits and bobs (fermions and bosons) eventually bangs themselves into bigger bits and these bigger bits in then bang themselves together into atoms and then these atoms bang together into bigger bits like CO2 and H20.

Sunlight energy then bangs these tiny molecules into simple sugars which link together to produce the beginnings of life and eventually lead to the bacteria.

Bang a few single celled bacteria together and you have a simple multi-celled beings and eventually you will have a multi-celled being called Einstein.

Much the same tale is used to account for the rise of entire massive galaxies from a few incredibly tiny fermions and bosons banging on (probably in some ancient physics lecture hall) back 14 billion years ago.

The alternative theory to Reductionism is that you will need to discover new laws to account for each new bigger grouping of the original fundamental particles.

Because, other physicists argue, at each new phase of matter, different and unexpected qualities have emerged that could not have been predicted by using the original theory of everything and simply multiplying everything up by a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion etc.

Now Reductionists don't deny that each new grouping together of smaller sub assemblies of matter and energy leads to a more complex bigger entity - far from it.

That is their basic claim ---- that bigger is inherently more complex : a granite boulder is the basic complexity of fermions and bosons multiplied by a trillion times a trillion and so collectively it can do more complex things.

But in explaining that complexity,they say we can de-construct it down to some very basic and simple motions multiplied trillions upon trillions of times.

And again another in their key claims ---- simply knowing the simple motions will let them predict/control the bigger more complex motions.

Still other scientists agree with the Reductionists that big objects are but the sum of trillions of tiny objects' basically simple motions but say that almost nothing useful can be predicted as a result of assuming this, at least in real time and with real world budgets, as a result.

(And this is putting aside the unexpected unpredictable complexities arising in each new phase of matter.)

But back a hundred years ago, this Reductionism was all heady stuff to the pre-naturally naive and the optimistic.

They believed that atoms' purpose was not to lead an independent existence long before and long after Man's 15 minutes of fame.

Instead, they were around simply to serve Man and to become Man - not existing as independent atoms - but bonding together into first small doublets and ultimately huge polymer molecules.

Similarly with all Life before Man.

Bacteria and all other life not Man were like skins discarded by individual snakes as they grew ever bigger.

So after two bacteria had banged together to produce the first multi-celled being, the rest weren't really needed on the voyage to the stars and should be killed off.

Ditto the monkeys and apes once they had spawned the beginnings of the human species - they were all now 'useless mouths'.

Not so atoms, elements, fermions and bosons - we would still need them to make humans and everything humans planned to synthesize the proper way, after God screwed it up so badly the first time.

Now not even the most extreme Reductionists in the physical sciences ever claimed CO2 and H2O had ceased to
physically exist after they had made the first simple sugars.

Or that they ceased to have a moral right to exist after having done so.

And no biologist ever really claimed that bacteria and apes had ceased to have an actual physical existence after they led to bigger more complex beings.

But these murals on museum walls clearly indicated their ( and our grandparents') Age of Progress belief that they ceased to have a moral right to exist.

These murals - taught as life lessons to generations of school kids - literally painted and justified the Holocaust, years before it actually happened.

These murals painted the reality of all Life as consisting of a series of panels left to right.

Bacteria on the lower left, small, inmobile, down in the bottom slime.

At centre left, a panel would show perhaps small reptiles.

Apes on higher ground, knuckles dragging on the ground, in the very middle panel, at middle height.

At centre right, a panel would show a buck naked coal black Aboriginal holding a crude spear and crouched down.

At the upper right panel, an upperclass rich white man in a smart suit, standing upright at the window of a skyscraper penthouse, gazing pensively out at his factory workers way down below.

In reality, in the very middle panel, we'd we'd still see apes, small reptiles and bacteria and in the rightmost panel, Man(civilized and"primitive"), ape, small reptile and bacteria.

Bacteria have always been around, are still around, and far outnumber anything bigger than themselves.

They are no mere long discarded skin in the evolution of a snake.

And in perhaps an even sharper blow to the preening of Progress and Reductionism, while the bacteria are indeed the oldest form of life, they are not the simplest possible form of life nor the most numerous.

The viruses are much simpler and much more numerous - every bacteria potentially harbours dozens or even hundreds of them.

Life and Evolution does not progress at all in any ordered march to greater and greater complexity, discarding everything simpler in turn.

It sprawls.

Truly successful life simply lives - it simply reproduces living viable offspring to carry on.

How it (collectively) meets that ever evolving challenge is totally up to it - it can grow smaller, go bigger, or remain the same size and evolve new genes and drop others.

Today's more accurate Pageant of Life would be a truly huge electronic pixel board, running in basic time from left to right, with each grouping of pixels presenting a different species by individual members' physical size and the total number of individuals in it.

Each second of real time would represent a hundred thousand years of time.

It would be a violently flickering screen, with all sizes and no sizes and complexities and non complexities of species going in and out of existence in every second we look upon it.

There would be no discernible hint of Progress ever upwards to civilized Man.

And no human smoke of six million Jews disposed of like discarded snake skins ....

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