Purdue University

Reductionism, Emergence, and Freedom: Are we bound by the laws of Physics?
September 20, 2017 / Dr. Erica Carlson


For centuries, physicists have tried to understand the universe through a reductionist paradigm, by breaking things down into smaller and smaller pieces, in an attempt to reconstruct their large-scale behavior through deterministic laws. Given the immense success of this endeavor, it's not surprising that we even began to apply the idea to ourselves.  However, viewing humanity through the lens of reductionism and determinism has the unsatisfying implication that we're nothing more than a collection of atoms controlled by our DNA.   Is there a way out of this dilemma?  Quantum indeterminism began to challenge the deterministic view a few decades ago.   More recently, new discoveries in condensed matter physics have begun to challenge the paradigm of reductionism in favor of emergence.  I'll address the inadequacy of quantum indeterminism to relieve the dilemma, and also explain what emergence is, how we know it's real, and discuss some of the implications of the emergence paradigm both for scientific progress and also for the larger question of whether human behavior can ever be captured by the laws of nature.
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