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Paul Davies: emergentist vs. reductionist

By Mark Perakh

Posted September 25, 2004


This essay is a commentary to the introductory chapter by renowned British physicist and philosopher Paul Davies in the collection From Complexity to Life edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen. [1] It is a part of a planned series of essays which will review the entire collection in question. Since this commentary is about the introductory chapter, it should have preceded reviews of other chapters in the collection. However, for reasons explained in my review of Charles Bennet's chapter [2] that review was posted earlier.  From now on reviews of various chapters in the collection will appear in the order they appear in Gregersen's collection.

Davies's introductory chapter is titled Toward an Emergentist Worldview. This title seems to be slightly misleading as it can create the impression that Davies's intention was to show how the trends in philosophical foundation of modern science lead to the dominance of the emergentist interpretation of natural phenomena. Recall that the term "emergentist" relates to the opinion that is contrary to "reductionist" view, the latter succinctly expressed as the notion that the whole is just the sum of its constituents.  The emergentist view maintains that there is a qualitative difference between the whole and the sum of its components. In the reductionist view, having explained the behavior of components entails also the explanation of the behavior of the whole: "everything that happens in the physical world is ultimately just the rearrangement of atoms" (page 4 in Davies's chapter). On the other hand, the emergentist view holds that at every level of increasing complexity a new quality emerges which is not reducible to simply the sum of the behaviors of the entities at the lower rung of complexity.

It is interesting to note that the "emergentist" view was in fact adopted by the reigning "Marxist philosophy" in the former USSR, despite that philosophy being materialistic and atheistic. This may come as a surprise to the proponents of the emergentist side in the today's dispute who often tend to associate the reductionist view with atheism. The concept of Dialectical Materialism in its Soviet interpretation, as it was hammered into the brains of the Soviet citizens who were constantly forced to study Marxism-Leninism, entailed the notion that there exist several types of "motion" hierarchically structured, so a higher level is not reducible to the lower level. For example, chemical "motion" is not reducible to mechanical "motion," biological "motion" is not reducible to chemical, social "motion" is not reducible to biological, etc.  This view was based in Hegel's concept (borrowed by Marx and Engels) of the "transformation of quantity into quality."  Whenever this concept seemed to contradict the materialistic basis of Marx-Engels's philosophical system, the "experts" in Marxism-Leninism were adept at explaining away any seeming contradictions in the officially approved views, mainly using notions stemming from Hegel's dialectics.

The fact is, though, that the title of Davies's introduction does not really reflect the contents of the book.  In fact, none of the contributors seems to defend  a strictly reductionist view, so from the standpoint of the authors it is not about the road "toward" the emergentist view as this road seems to have been already traveled and all the contributors adhere, to this or that extent, to the emergentist view.

Davies proceeds to discuss the "chaos vs complexity" dichotomy, definitions of complexity, and links between evolution and information. He discusses briefly the chapters in the same collection by other contributors, such as Gregory Chaitin and Charles Bennett, or Stuart Kauffman and William Dembski.

To my mind, Davies's consideration of works by Chaitin and Bennett in one breath is not fully justified. There seems to be a substantial difference between the levels of Chaitin's classical, elegant and rigorous mathematical theory of complexity and Bennett's less rigorous effort to classify various types of complexity. (Bennett's chapter is discussed in detail at this site [2].) Much more disappointing is Davies's juxtaposition of chapters by Kauffman and Dembski (page 8). To my mind, there is an unbridgeable gap between Dembski's and Kaufmann's chapters. Kauffman's chapter, although some of its points may seem controversial, nevertheless offers interesting, original, and intriguing notions. (I plan to discuss this chapter in detail in a separate post.) On the other hand, Dembski's chapter, as could be expected by anybody familiar with the literary output of this prolific propagandist of Intelligent Design, is just a repetition of mantras about Specified Complexity, the No Free Lunch theorems allegedly prohibiting Darwinian evolution, and other equally unfounded asseverations familiar from Dembski's earlier publications. It is sad that not only was the editor of this collection, philosopher Niels Henrik Gregersen, evidently impressed by Dembski's seeming sophistication to include his opus in the collection, but also that such a well qualified physicist-philosopher as Paul Davies is willing to seriously discuss Dembski's chapter along with that of Kauffman.

In my opinion, Dembski literary production does not deserve a detailed response except that his name crops up here and there so frequently that it attracts attention much exceeding the significance of his discourse and therefore compels some scientists and philosophers to rebut his assertions. I have criticized Dembski's production at length elsewhere [3] and will not repeat it here.

One more section of Davies's article is titled "Linking Evolution and Information." To my mind, some aspects of this section are disappointing.  For example, on page 7 we read, "Information also crops up in thermodynamics as the negative entropy."  This is a nebulous statement by no means commonly accepted either in thermodynamics or in information theory. (In particular, this notion is disputed in the article by Ian Stewart in the same collection, which I will discuss separately).  The notion that entropy is the negative of information has indeed been proposed more than once, but it has also invoked counter-arguments. Let us imagine that we have two entities, A and B. Assume that A is sending a text to B (this text may be either a meaningful message or gibberish, the difference inconsequential within the framework of classical information theory which does not distinguish between meaningful messages and gibberish). As a result of the text's transmission from A to B, the receiver B acquires a certain amount of information. However, nothing happens to the sender A – it still holds the same amount of information as before. Unlike energy, information is not conserved, it can be sent without decreasing its amount in the source. 

And what about entropy?  In the sense of classical information theory, entropy is just the average information. [4] Entropy can be used to measure the amount of information in the message, being in fact the measure of the text's disorder. It has no intrinsic sense – assigning to it minus or plus is arbitrary as it can equally measure the growth and the decrease of information. Therefore, while the increase of entropy can in certain cases be interpreted as measuring decrease of information, it is by no means the general definition of entropy vs. information relationship, because in some other cases it can equally be interpreted in the opposite way – an increase of information measured by the increase of entropy.

To my mind, disappointing also is the section titled "Fine-tuning and Complexity."  While Davies reasonably states that simply saying "'God made it this way' is unlikely to satisfy a skeptical scientist," (page 11), he proceeds to assert that such a skepticism "introduces a contradiction into the very foundation of science. The essence of the scientist's belief system is that nature is neither arbitrary nor absurd – there are valid reasons for the ways things are."

This assertion seems to me to be doubtful on several accounts. First, the skeptical attitude to the assertion that "God made it that way" by no means translates into the denial of the valid reasons for the things being what they are. A universe without God is not necessarily a universe that is absurd and that has no valid reasons to be what it is. These valid reasons may well reside within nature and require no hypothesis about a supernatural source of their validity.

Second, the principle that the universe is not absurd is not known in science. While science is based on the assumption that the clock of the universe ticks following a certain system of laws, it does not necessarily entail the notion that all those laws are not arbitrary on some sufficiently deep level. The answer to that question is not known and the question itself belongs in philosophy; different scientists may adhere to different philosophies, including one assuming arbitrariness of the most fundamental "first level" laws, while many scientists have no interest in this question and hence no philosophical preferences at all.

Continuing, Davies discusses two competing views – one suggesting that the "fine-tuning" of physical constants in a way favoring the existence of life points to the hand of designing intelligence, and the other based on a hypothesis about multiple universes among which ours is just the lucky one with the proper set of laws and values of constants. In Davies's view, from the standpoint of Occam's razor, both views are equivalent. To my mind, such a position does not seem to be substantiated. Multiple universes are products of speculation, but they are just different versions of our universe which definitely exists and whose many properties we know for fact. On the other hand, the supernatural agent responsible for the laws of physics and the values of the constants is a product of sheer imagination as there is not a single observed fact pointing to the existence of such an agent besides ancient legends which, moreover, exist in numerous mutually contradicting versions. Therefore, from the standpoint of Occam's razor (to which Davies refers in his assertion), the assumption of multiple universes, although hypothetical, is more parsimonious than the hypothesis of a supernatural entity.

Davies's introductory chapter concludes with a section titled "Complexity Studies and the Quest for Meaning."  To my mind this section is solidly substantiated as largely uncontroversial. One interesting point in this section is Davies's assertion that "the wide majority of modern theologians find the intelligent design proposal unattractive" (page 15) because "it seems to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. God becomes too closely tied up with (assumed) gaps in scientific explanations."  Until now, the explicit critique of intelligent design was coming largely from scientists with the expertise in information theory, probability theory, mathematical statistics, etc. Although some of them pointed out that arguments of ID advocates often boil down to "god-of-the-gaps" concept, the main thrust of that critique was aimed at specific faults of intelligent design ideas from the standpoint of the listed fields of science. While rejecting intelligent design, in particular for being unscientific, these expert critics seemed to be willing to leave open a possibility that the ID concepts might be legitimately discussed within a theological framework.  If, though, as Davies writes, most theologians are unhappy with intelligent design, then its prospects look even gloomier portending its inglorious collapse as an attempt to pose a serious challenge to genuine science.

I plan to offer a commentary to Davies's other article in this collection separately.


[1] Niels Henrik Gregersen, editor. From Complexity to Life: On the Emergence of Life and Meaning. NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[2] Mark Perakh. "Defining Complexity." On TalkReason, www.talkreason.org/articles/complexity.pdf, posted August 12, 2004.

[3] Mark Perakh, Unintelligent Design. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.

[S]See also Perakh's posts in the Critique of Intelligent Design section on this site.

[4] Claude E. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication". Parts 1 and 2, Bell System Technology Journal, July 1948, 379-390; October 1948, 623-637.