The Universe is Open

January 2009

Reductionism has reigned as our dominant world view for 350 years in Western society. Physicist Steven Weinberg states that when the science shall have been done, all the explanatory arrows will point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry and ultimately to physics and the final theory.

I think he is wrong: the evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open.

The World Question Center 2009

Reductionism is doing less and less for me as time goes by. An open, strange and mysterious universe is way more exciting than a nailed-down, well-defined one. (Incidentally, I'm coming to think that, in its way, religion is as reductionist as science.)

Fraser commented:

Your Mum is as reductionist as science.

Fraser commented:

also, "...when the science shall have been done..."? I'm not even sure the grammar books have a word for that tense. :P

Matt commented:

*hits Fraser with the OFF-TOPIC bat*

Nathan commented:

If physicists think reductionism is the way to go, they're wrong. Other scientists would probably disagree with Weinberg...

KT commented:

Fraser: future perfect

Matt: please don't hit me

Fraser commented:

Stupid modals. I wish my language had proper future tenses.

Matt commented:

Stupid commenters. I wish my language had STAY ON TOPIC.


Nato commented:

um, matt, to have correct HTML, don't you need to have an opening and closing tag?

To elaborate on my previous comment, a biologist might disagree with Weinberg, because while an organism has to follow chemical and physical rules, there is a lot of variety in how they can obey the rules. Nature is filled with designs that follow the laws of physics, but couldn't be predicted from the laws of physics. I can think of numerous other fields where the same applies: computer science, engineering (of all your different types), etc... People are pretty much the same - there are set psychological rules that people will follow, set physiological limits they have, but an individuals own life is ridiculously hard to predict. So yes, I agree with you.

I'd be interested to hear you elaborate on religion being reductionist...

Matt commented:

As I see it, there are two approaches to life. The reductionist one is to nail everything down, to solve it, and to eventually achieve a stable state.

The open one is to push at the edges, to continually bring about change, to poke holes in things to see what's beyond – searching, basically.

The science I like is the science that pokes holes in things to see what's beyond; every time you break a mental model, you're forced to come up with a better one. Reductionist science claims that we can eventually come up with a model that will perfectly explain everything. I'm not convinced.

Religion is kinda similar, in that it often believes it is in possession of the one, eternal, absolute truth. The only discussion is around the particular applications of that truth; the actual metaphysical structure of reality is 'solved' or fully defined. I think that's rubbish. Unfortunately, religion is not good at allowing holes to be poked in it, even though what lies beyond is often far better.

Matt commented:

P.S. thanks for your HTML advice. I'm new at computers.

KT commented:

Reminds me of this (though slightly different I realise): http://inthedesert23.blogspot.com/2008/09/oh-would-that-i-could-afford-to-support.html Just in terms of being outward-looking rather than seeking clear-cut grid-like explanations that shut down exploration.

It kinda seems to me that Weinberg is right about what science does, in terms of tracking backwards in a top>down direction (both conceptually and chronologically), but that that view is perfectly compatible with the understanding that nature/life works in the opposite direction. Feels to me as though the guy disagreeing with him is misunderstanding him slightly. Nature/life is 'open' at any given moment, in terms of what could happen, but as soon as it's happened, it's 'closed' and can be tracked, and speculation offered as to why it happened rather than something else.

But of course, what science and religion will do and be in the future remains open :)

Hm, I feel like I'm not really holding all the threads of this discussion in my mind. Feel like I'm missing something. Ah well. Please accept my humble offering.

Jim commented:

For explanation of what a closed universe is - then the annotations on today's IWC are quite good.

Matt commented:

Okay so I was going to try to express my ideas of open/closed a bit further but then I ended up reading about set theory and bumped into "open manifold" and "closed boundary" and other arcane mathematica and, well, got a bit out of my depth so I'm going to stop before I hurt myself.

Christina commented:

In calming tones Step away from the maths slowly, Matt... thaaat's it... now just try and see if you can avert your eyes without it noticing - no? OK, maybe a little too soon...