Thursday, August 02, 2012

Fundamental Questions in Science......

There is a post over at the Curious Wavefunction (click here) that explores some of the questions that make science fascinating. At the most basic level, so much of what I teach relates to the theory of reductionism (as discussed in his article). In introductory chemistry we are breaking things down to their fundamental building blocks only to discover that what we thought were the fundamental building blocks can be broken down further and further.....An example of this would be the discussion of the atom as a fundamental particle. Then, subatomic physics teaches us that atoms are really not the smallest particles available. But- as chemists we still use atoms of elements as the fundamental building blocks of chemical reactions even though they are not the smallest pieces of the reductionist pie.

This article takes this theory even further to explain its limitations. Many critical questions in science cannot be explained by reductionism. For example, can we break down the processes of consciousness and the brain to the level of the function of a single neuron to explain the processes of the brain? This is apparently not occurring in an obvious way since neuroscience has been unable to explain the function of the brain this way. The theory of emergence is somewhat the opposite of reductionism but explains processes through a synergistic effect of many smaller actions- for example the overall result of neurons in the brain creates a larger effect than the firing of any single neuron within. I really like the authors picture of a termite  hill as an illustration here- the overall effect of the termite hill cannot be reduced to the actions of any one single termite.

This article gets to the heart of what I think really matters in academics and in science in general. To further the progress of mankind these philosophical issues need to be studied by more scientists in more fields. We need the synergy of all fields of science to really tackle these overarching and unanswered questions.

The next era of science can only lead us further into what seems like a dark, endless abyss of understanding right now. I bet that is how the scientific world felt on the advent of quantum theory and the end of the global nature of classical physics.