Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reductionism and Natures

The Institute for the Study of Nature has now posted the text of Mike Augros's January 28 talk at MIT. The talk is a splendid source of material for understanding the intersection of the natural sciences and natural philosophy and the need of science to be complemented by philosophy. The talk is well worth reading in its entirety, including the appendices.

I thought I might quote a little of it that dovetails with the remarks of Thomas Nagel I quoted last post:

Now, consider the ultimate elementary particles (or forces or fields or what have you)—whatever they may be, presumably they are blind, mindless things, obeying their own natural laws quite unconsciously and automatically. The elementary things, when we observe them existing and acting on their own, do what they do regardless of rational concerns, and they must do so, in accord with a preset program of action. They obey laws such as Newton’s first law of motion, and do so without any rational object in view. Any net result which they fully explain will therefore be fully intelligible apart from introducing (for example) any concern for truth. So, where we find actions which are not fully understandable apart from rational motives, such actions are not purely and simply the result of irrational natures interacting irrationally.

This means that in the case of a human being, which is composed entirely out of parts with irrational natures, and yet behaves rationally and puts its parts to rational purposes, we must admit the presence of a new nature, a rational nature. This nature is not something alongside the particles themselves, like another particle, or a vitalistic force floating about in between the particles and telling them what to do—it is simply the new nature of the particles themselves, while they exist in that human form. This general view explains both why human beings have motives for action which their components in isolation do not, and also why we do nothing without using our atoms.

We understand non-human animals similarly. He then makes an analogy to the word "blackbird," which is composed of two words (namely "black" and "bird") that have meaning in isolation, but when combined take on a whole new meaning, a new nature.

As I noted with regard to Nagel's paper, particles and forces are unable to articulate higher-level concepts, for example organismic species. Nevertheless, organisms never operate apart from their particles and forces. It's a subtle point that we moderns almost invariably overlook.

Michael Augros, "A ‘ Bigger’ Physics," Insurgent Science Series (January 28, 2009).

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