Saturday, June 30, 2012
The Emergence of Elephants
So, I was curious about how one might get from the laws of physics (and probably some kind of starting conditions) to, say, an elephant.
The reason for this was a couple-fold.
First, I didn’t know if it was possible. Given what I know about the state of knowledge, it didn’t seem likely, but given that I’m always surprised at what I don’t know, I thought I’d take a look.
Second, if you COULD get from physics to an elephant (not contemplating, for the moment, getting to a specific elephant), then it might have something to say about the concept of determinism; a topic that my friend Justin and I are continually exploring by way of good-natured arguments where I try to determine (heh, pun) what the consequences of a fully determined universe might be on an individual person, and he steadfastly believes in magic.
Third, it would tighten another discussion that Justin and I are always revisiting, which is whether, in an infinite universe (whatever specific kind of infinite that you happen to prefer), there is a version of you that has made better choices. Justin thinks there is, and that makes him feel great by association with his more successful self. I think that any universe that had so specific a lead up to get exactly you to be born may be required to be the same from there on out. Much of this discussion is on the nature of randomness and whether there are really new universes splitting off around every decision that you COULD make (I believe that there may be splitting universes on a quantum level, but once you get to the macroscopic level of people, all bets are off).
Finally, there is something intriguing about thinking of science longitudinally across all sciences at once. It seems like there are some interesting opportunities to speculate that the laws of physics basically make the universe a giant information processing machine (an example I’ve heard in the now distant past), which would have effects across all sciences at once, rather than in each domain specifically.
What DO physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology have as common organizing principles. What ways of looking at these can we come up with that shed new light on everything all at once?
It would seem like the concept of emergence would be at play here in more than a “emergence happens” sort of way. And I’m sure complexity theory has something to say here, though I find the Wikipedia article on this fairly impenetrable.
(As an aside, am I the only one who finds Wikipedia is fairly impenetrable as soon as you get outside of topics that most people know something about? There seems to be a cliff in any topic where it goes from being accessible to the lay person like me, to where you need to be a specialist in that particular field in order to know anything about it. For a while I saw “Simple English” alternatives on a sparse few of these kinds of articles, but not in quite some time.)
Of course, I believe that this area is being actively pursued by probably thousands of people all over the world, so I thought I’d Google the unlikely phrase “can physics predict an elephant”.
The top result that I got was entitled “Can physics predict a giraffe” on a blog called Cosmic Hoizons. Close enough.
That post is, itself, a comment on a post “Why biology and chemistry is not physics” at The Curious Wavefunction.
It is there that I’m working my way through the interesting (and, so far, civil) discussion in the comments.
I realize this isn’t a very satisfying place to end a blog post, but I assume that the result of finishing the comments will be more questions than answers, and so this post is a reflection of that. Learning is a journey, not a destination, so consider this a vacation update. Which, not coincidentally, it is, in fact.