The Orthodoxy Softens on Determinism?

Good to see actual scientists being public about the limitations to reductionist determinism, and why emergent objects can and do have their own causality.

Noticed Philip Ball post a note to the effect that this really could be considered a given – “well established” and “not much left to debate” – now even though there were multiple explanatory theories as to why and how.

Today Kevin Mitchell posted the following as a Twitter Thread:

Re: reductionism

There is a big difference between saying that, for some system: “if we know what the little things do, we know what the big things do” (which is trivial) and claiming that the low-level forces between the smallest particles are the only things that do or can have any causal power in determining how a system evolves from moment to moment.

The latter is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. And it fails to answer the question of why the particles are organised the way they are which, in many cases (especially in living organisms) is because that organisation is functional at a macroscopic level and has been selected for.

Nothing about particle physics can account for, predict, or explain why living organisms are organised the way they are. Nor can the equations governing such particles predict how such systems will behave.

Especially because they only predict how particles themselves will behave in a statistical, probabilistic fashion, not deterministically. This leaves lots of room for higher-order, organisational causes to come into play, which they demonstrably do.

[PS: Kevin was moved to write this blog post as a result of these exchanges: Getting to the bottom of reductionism – is it all just physics in the end? – (Spoiler, no it isn’t.)]

The Tweet below had quite a few spin-off threads in response:

Of course the book in question is Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Existential Physics– which I’m resisting buying to read. This thread is one good response (and the Philip Ball tweet above is in fact another):

And for “small world” completeness this Philip Ball piece is an interview with Michael Levin (see other recent “systems thinking” posts). And it’s Templeton.

Funny, I’d previously had Philip down as one of the defenders of “the orthodoxy” (mechanistic, reductive, objective materialism) but clearly no longer the case. Sabine on the other hand I was encouraged that she was taking philosophical questions about the limitations to orthodox science seriously, but I fear she is still behind the curve philosophically.

Pity that Sabine is dismissive of objections to her words on the grounds that “we can’t even agree what causation is”. I’ll say. It’s where I started two decades ago.

And, more systems thinking connections – Sara Amari and Jessica Flack are amongst the addressees in the original Tweet above. Both using systems thinking, and Jessica in particular as a means of identifying appropriate granularity. Here another recent Philip Ball tweet:

It’s all connected 🙂


Post note, since we were talking about Philip Ball:

And his own commentary on that award:

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