pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Apr 9 13:53:55 EDT 2001
Subject: Explaining Upward
(from NewsScan Daily, 9 April 2001)
WORTH THINKING ABOUT: ANALYSIS IS EASIER THAN EXPLANATION
Biographer George Johnson in his life of Murray Gell-Mann
highlights this thought that caused the scientist known as "Mr.
Quark" to shift focus in the later years of his scientific life.
"This idea of breaking the world into pieces and then
explaining the pieces in terms of smaller pieces is called
reductionism. It would be perfectly justified to consider Murray
Gell-Mann, the father of the quark, to be the century's
arch-reductionist. But very early on, long before mushy notions of
holism became trendy, Gell-Mann appreciated an important truth:
While you can reduce downward, that doesn't automatically mean you
can explain upward. People can be divided into cells, cells into
molecules, molecules into atoms, atoms into electrons and nuclei,
nuclei into subatomic particles, and those into still tinier
things called quarks. But, true as that may be, there is nothing
written in the laws of subatomic physics that can be used to
explain higher-level phenomena like human behavior. There is no
way that one can start with quarks and predict that cellular life
would emerge and evolve over the eons to produce physicists.
Reducing downward is vastly easier than explaining upward -- a
truth that bears repeating."
for George Johnson's "Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the
Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics." (We donate all revenue
from our book recommendations to adult literacy action programs.)
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