Emergence and Entropy

Science has been immensely successful in revealing the workings of the physical world. Understanding has come from dissection of systems, that is to say by reductionism. If you isolate small pieces fragments – smashing atoms, deconstructing ecosystems – then  you can test, experiment and apply mathematics.

Well and good, as far as it goes; but what of the understanding of complexity, where emergent properties arise from interactions – to form new entity? Society, ecosystems, intelligence, consciousness. Reductionism simply doesn’t help. Indeed it is becomes a little dangerous, because of false conclusions that it reaches about systems.

Think of a colony of ants, each of which participates in a larger society – which has new (emergent) properties, indeed a separate life. The individual cells in our body have their own life – but this does not speak at all to the life of our whole being.

The Universe is by definition a single system – with no known external absolute values and where all is therefore self-defining and relative. Within this we pretty much accept the laws of thermodynamics and mechanics – two of which state that “entropy always increases” (the Universe becomes increasingly disordered) and “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” (we find time and again that forces balance).

I’ve always been struck by the apparent illogic of the first – since it certainly appears to me that the material world is increasingly ordered. I wonder if the clue is in emergent systems. Perhaps whilst the Universe at the simple level is becoming increasingly disordered – there is a balancing increase in order arising as complex emergent systems arise.

I don’t suppose that reductionism can answer this, or the key mathematical tools apply. I wonder if we need a new approach to our investigation of the physical world – to complement the traditional toolset?

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