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234) About levels of complexity

Ludwik Kowalski (7/7/05)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043


I would like to describe a paper, “Physics and the real world,” published by George Ellis in the most recent issue (July 2005, pages 49 to 54) of Physics Today. The blue text below consists of quotes from his article.

“Physicists reduce matter first to molecules, then to atoms, then to nuclei and electrons, and so on, the goal being always to reduce complexity to simplicity. . . . The extraordinary success of that approach is based on the concept of an isolated system. . . . The problem is that no real physical or biological system is truly isolated. . . Consequently, reductionism tends to ignore the kinds of interactions that can trigger the emergence of order, patterns, or properties that do not preexist in the undergoing physical substratum. . . . Physics might provide the necessary conditions for such phenomena to exist, but not sufficient conditions for specifying the behaviors that emerge at those higher levels of complexity.”

That is why biologists, for example, can do their job without knowing as much physics as physicists. Likewise, economists can do their job without knowing as much about human bodies as biologists or medical practitioners. And people can write programs in high-level languages without knowing what happens at the level bits and bytes. In principle, everything in the world depends on atoms but each discipline has its own laws (such as “supply and demand”) and its own rules. One does not have to know chemistry to be a good cook. “Unique properties of organized matter arise from how the parts are arranged and interact, properties that cannot be fully explained by breaking that order down into its component parts. You can’t even describe the higher levels in terms of of lower level language.”

That is interesting. But let me emphasize that general rules of scientific methodology apply to all levels of complexity. The most basic rule: “theories guide but experiments decide” is valid not only in physics but also in chemistry, biology and economics. Experimental data gathered by qualified researchers should never be rejected on the basis of discrepancies with existing theories. Another basic rule is equally important. It states that experiments should be reproducible. Only reproducible experiments should guide us. That is why situation in cold fusion is so tragic. After sixteen years we still do not have a single everywhere-and-every-time reproducible nuclear signature associated with a chemical process. And we know what effect will it have on mainstream science when those of us who take some irreproducible results seriously are no longer alive. Discovering essential “hidden realities” behind such results should be the first priority of researchers. Promoting a practical application makes no sense unless the underlying phenomena are reproducible.

“Many lower-level states could correspond to the same higher level state. Higher level states are thus relatively insensitive to details of the lover-level states of a system. . . . When I move my arm, for instance, it moves because millions of electrons attract millions of protons in my muscles. . . . Laws of physics beget laws of chemistry, which beget laws of biochemistry, and so forth. But conversely, higher-level variables can control what happens at the lover levels. When I move my arm, for instance, it movers because I have decided to move it. My intentions thus instruct many millions of electrons and protons to behave in certain way.” . . . Similarly, social constructions drive what happens in our everyday lives. Rules and regulations govern health care systems, housing policy, and how games such as football and chess are played. Money, another convention . . . is vital for constructing bridges, jumbo jets, and most other manufactured objects in our world.”

After these introductory comments Ellis focuses on the role of the feedback control systems and on the limits of physics. In the section about limits of physics he criticizes those who believe that “predicting human intentionality is difficult only because we don’t know enough about brains to make the calculations. Physics is all there is. Despite its appeal to some, that kind of claim is an unprovable philosophical supposition about the nature of causality; the claim is without predictive power -- that is, no observable consequences follow from it -- and without experimental support. . . . Predicting probable outcomes of the working of the brain would be possible only if we were to take into account the higher-level entities that shape its outcomes -- including abstractions such as the value of money, the rules of chess, local social customs, and socially accepted ethical values. These kinds of concepts influence what happens in the world but are not physical variables -- they all lie outside the conceptual domain of physics . . . Furthermore, you cannot understand or predict a mind’s behavior without taking into account its interaction with other minds.”

How can one disagree with such observations? Life is much more than just physics. “We should also recognize that the enterprise of science itself does not make sense if our minds cannot rationally choose between theories on the basis of available [experimental] data. A reasoning mind able to make rational choices is a prerequisite for the discipline of physics itself.” Ellis’ observations can be applied to cold fusion. Unlike hot fusion, cold fusion is not a simple collision between two isolated positive ions. It takes place in metallic crystals. The level of complexity of cold fusion might be responsible for some of its reported peculiarities. This is often emphasized by theoretically inclined cold fusion researchers. They say that what is nearly impossible in low pressure plasma become possible in crystals. I view this as the effect of complexity similar to those discussed by Ellis. Cold fusion, practically impossible in an isolated system of two particles, becomes observable in condensed matter.

The irreproducibility of experimental results, however, cannot be blamed on collective effects involving millions of interconnected ions and electrons. It can only be blamed on our ignorance. “The higher, many-body levels are more complex and less predictable than the lower levels; we have reliable phenomenological laws of physics and chemistry, for instance, but not at the level of psychology and sociology. [Social aspects of cold fusion, due to unfortunate 1989 events, constitute another level of complexity. One has to deal with it to make progress] “Higher-level variables are often aggregates of lower-level variables, and determined by them. But [they also] reveal important properties of the hierarchy that are otherwise hidden.” Yes, something essential, as often emphasized by Edmund Storms, is still not under control of experimentalists. I hope he is right in predicting that the discovery of hidden factors, probably by material scientists, will eventually lead to desirable applications of cold fusion. Trying to promote practical applications, without understanding what is going on, is likely to become counterproductive.

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