Antireductionism and the Death of Physics Nobel Prize Winner Philip Anderson

The Physics Nobel Prize winner at Princeton died a few days ago (Obituary at Scientific American), and he was a scientist of great interest to philosophers (like me).

He was an antireductionist and was for complexity. He saw that reality, and any area within it, was far too complex and nuanced to be reduced to a simple theory or model, and said that “more is different.”

When I argue against people’s theories, the argument is often not so much against the theory itself but how it is being considered and used. All models are myopic and false. However, when used and considered as one of many different lenses to view things, a theory can be useful and offer insight. It is when the person or group uses the theory as the only way to view things– or worse, makes it “law” or dogma– that I strongly object and get vociferously argumentative.

Consistent with this, I’m a firm agnostic who often defends and appreciates people’s religious beliefs because of how the beliefs are being considered. Religious scriptures and symbols are metaphors, and often useful and important metaphors, and if they’re being understood and used as metaphors . . . Or, as I say: It is a mistake of both the religious and the anti-religious when they take religious scriptures and symbols as literal. A learned (with the emphasis on learned) Hindu monk of Jesuit theologian doesn’t take his deity or symbol as literal, and it is only the anti-theist who is arguing that he does.

An atheist scientist friend once dismissed the Hindus for having “thousands of gods.” I said that Hindus believe in just one god, but know that God is too big and complex to be translated into or tried to be understood through one deity.

Quantum Mechanics in Under 300 Words

Quantum mechanics is mathematical models used to describe and predict things at the atomic and subatomic level– protons, electrons, states, orbitals, etc.  As with all models, if is not an exact representation of the the area and, in fact, explicitly deals in probability. However it has proven good at predicting things at the subatomic level. The worthiness of a model or theory is based on how well it can predict things.

Physicists have discovered that things at the atomic and subatomic level don’t work the same way as at the larger levels– the human and cosmic levels. The traditional Newtonian laws of physics don’t apply and nuclear physicists will tell you that your intuition won’t work at trying to understand the subatomic world.

One of the most famous paradoxes of nuclear physics is that light and particles have both the qualities of waves and particles, which, in normal thought, is oxymoronic. Another quirk of quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles move to different states instantaneously– there is no in between (speeding up or slowing own) between states. It’s on the order of a car going from 0 to 100 miles per hour instantaneously.

A limitation in quantum mechanics is that exact measuring of light and particles is impossible (see the previous post  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Measurements are ‘fuzzy’ and quantum mechanics only predict the probability of where and how fast is a subatomic particle . However, these predictions have proven to be accurate enough to be very useful and applied to make products and inventions including lasers and nuclear bombs.