Science of the Whole

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a wonderful essay about the new frontiers of science. Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin states it well here (click here to read the entire essay):

"What physical science thus has to tell us is that the whole being more than the sum of its parts is not merely a concept but a physical phenomenon. Nature is regulated not only by a microscopic rule base but by powerful and general principles of organization. Some of these principles are known, but the vast majority are not. New ones are being discovered all the time. At higher levels of sophistication the cause-and-effect relationships are harder to document, but there is no evidence that the hierarchical descent of law found in the primitive world is superseded by anything else. Thus if a simple physical phenomenon can become effectively independent of the more fundamental laws from which it descends, so can we. I am carbon, but I need not have been. I have a meaning transcending the atoms from which I am made.

I am increasingly persuaded that all physical law we know about has collective origins, not just some of it. In other words, the distinction between fundamental laws and the laws descending from them is a myth — as is therefore the idea of mastery of the universe through mathematics solely. Physical law cannot generally be anticipated by pure thought, but must be discovered experimentally, because control of nature is achieved only when nature allows this through a principle of organization."

This is the path to the future and we see it all the time in the physical and social sciences. Whether it be the study of social networks, consciousness or phase transitions, researchers are discovering that the 19th century view that all science strictly emerge from fundamental law – whether it be atomic physics or decision theory – leads us away from the great discoveries of the future.


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