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
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
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.