Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Emergent phenomena

A couple of weeks ago in New Scientist (4 October 2008), there was one of those lesser featured articles that you could skip over if you were not alert enough, which to my surprise, both captured and elaborated on an aspect of the natural world that has long fascinated me. It was titled, ‘Why nature is not the sum of its parts’.

It referenced an idea or property of nature, first proposed apparently by physicist, Philip Anderson, in 1972, called ‘emergence’. To quote: ‘the notion that important kinds of organisation might emerge in systems of many interacting parts, but not follow in any way from the properties of those parts.’ As the author of the article, Mark Buchanan, points out: this has implications for science, which is reductionist by methodology, in that it may be impossible to reduce all phenomena to a set of known laws, as many scientists, and even laypeople, seem to believe.

The article specifically discusses the work of Mile Gu at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who believes he may have proved Anderson correct by demonstrating that mathematical modeling of the magnetic forces in iron could not predict the pattern of atoms in a 3D lattice as one might expect. In other words, there should be a causal link between individual atoms and the overall effect, but it could not be determined mathematically. To quote Gu: “We were able to find a number of properties that were simply decoupled from the fundamental interactions.” To quote Buchanan quoting Gu: ‘This result, says Gu, shows that some of the models scientists use to simulate physical systems have properties that cannot be linked to the behaviour of their parts.’

Now, obviously, I’ve simplified the exposition from an already simplified exposition, and of course, others, like John Barrow from Cambridge University, challenge it as a definitive ‘proof’. But no one would challenge its implication if it was true: that the physics at one level of nature may be mathematically independent of the physics at another level, which is what we already find, and which I’ve commented on in previous posts (see The Universe’s Interpreters, Sep.07).

This is not dissimilar to arguments produced in some detail by Roger Penrose in Shadows of the Mind, concerning the limitations of formal mathematical reasoning. According to Penrose, there are mathematical ‘truths’ that may be ‘uncomputable’, which is a direct consequence of Godel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ (refer my post, Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? Jan.08). But Penrose’s book deals specifically with the enigma of consciousness, and this is where I believe Anderson and Gu’s ideas have particular relevance.

I would argue, as do many others (Paul Davies for one) that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ phenomenon. If science is purely reductionist in its methodology, as well as its philosophy, then arguably, consciousness will remain a mystery that can never be solved. Most scientists dispute this, including Penrose, but if Anderson and Gu are correct, then the ‘emergent’ aspect of consciousness, as opposed to its neurological underpinnings, may never be properly understood, or be reducible to fundamental laws of physics as most hope it to be.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The philosophy of Philippe Petit

I never intended to write movie reviews but this is certainly relevant to philosophy in more ways than one. Last night I saw the film, Man On Wire, which is the story of Philippe Petit, who walked between the New York Trade Centre twin towers in 1974, after he walked between the north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973 and between the Notre Dame towers in 1971.

After the film, we were then privileged by an interview with Philippe, now 59, who, also, at his own insistence, answered questions from the audience. The film won an award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and deservedly so. It’s an extraordinary film about a truly extraordinary man, and to see and hear him in the flesh is just as revelatory as watching him in the film.

When you meet someone like Philippe you realise that this is evolution in action. He is such an unusual person, who really doesn’t fit in normal society, yet he can do things that the rest of us can’t even contemplate doing. He made the comment in another interview (that I read) that curtailing his activities is like cutting a bird’s wings – it’s what they are meant to do. To quote: ‘Where is imagination? Where is the beauty of living? I am not advocating danger, but at the same time, to force birds to carry a leash is to kill the idea of what a bird is.’

In the interview, I was lucky to be audience to, he continually surprised us with his answers, at once candid and honest, and also deeply profound. He said he does not think about death – he won’t even use the ‘D’ word, it is the ‘L’ word, Life that he looks in the eye, while surrounded by terror. When he is aerial, he truly lives in the moment – I cannot think of anyone more Zen than he is, yet he is typically French: animated, talkative, elfish even, yet, in his own way, deeply philosophical and wise. 'I don't believe in God, but God believes in me,' he said in response to one question.

Go and see the film, and be contaminated by his madness and his energy that is, paradoxically, so, so sane.