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The Scientist's Debate

The "Scientist's Debate", a debate about the nature of our universe, sheds great light on the applicability and usefulness of VisiCube. The question is whether the various phenomena that occur in our universe derive directly, although in a very complicated manner, from foundational physical principles that govern the most elementary constituents of that universe or emerge from that universe as entirely new principles at work. In other words, "Is there a theory of everything?"

Note that I make no effort to be complete in the following descriptions of rather complex philosophies. Instead, in simple terms, I describe the basic perspective on each side of this debate.

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical. The general idea is that the nature of everything in the universe, including items of a biological, psychological, moral, or even social nature, conforms to the condition of being physical. There is an acknowledgement that things may not appear physical when first observed but that this is only appearance. In the end, given enough understanding of the laws of physics, these can be explained physically.

In this physical world, every aspect of the universe can (eventually) be understood based on the physical laws of the universe and can, therefore, be expressed in terms of mathematics. Physicalism, therefore, includes the ideas of determinism and extreme reductionism.

Emergentism is the thesis that genuinely novel properties of our universe emerge as we move away from the elementary particles of the universe (and the physical laws that control them) toward the complex phenomena we actually observe, especially those phenomena in the realms of social science, economics, biology, chemistry, and even areas of physics itself.

“At each new level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.”
- Philip W. Anderson, winner of 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics (More Is Different, 1971)

Ernst Mayr, a founder of the Evolutionary Synthesis, explains in his book The Growth of Biological Thought (Harvard University Press, 1982) that we cannot predict phenomena in our complex universe based solely on the properties of low-level physics:

“New and previously unpredictable characters emerge at higher levels of complexity … hence complex systems must be studied at every level, because each level has properties not shown at lower levels”

So, who's right? Well, I disagree with Immanuel Kant's famous dictum "that only so much genuine science can be found in any branch of the natural sciences as it contains mathematics." Though there may be a unifying theory of everything, it has yet to be discovered. We are, therefore, left to pursue the various sciences in a world which is, at the least, effectively emergent and perhaps even absolutely so.

By and large, most of the phenomena studied and worked with in the modern world are phenomena concerning emergent properties. They are the subject matter of biology, medicine, psychology, economics, agriculture, politics, sociology, and so on. Much real science is being done without the benefit of a mathematical model upon which all can be built.

I raise, as an example, Charles Darwin's remarkable book, The Origin of Species, surely one of the greatest contributions to science ever. It is entirely devoid of physicalism and consists solely of careful arguments based on a great number of detailed observations. I believe that much scientific study is, and must be, done in this manner. In such studies, data is everything. There are myriad observations, but very few applicable mathematical models or physical laws from which results can be derived. In fact, the further research is removed from the study of physics itself, the more inapplicable the physicalism paradigm.

I believe that most data analysis tools don't appeal to many researchers because those tools speak the wrong language, that of physicalism instead of emergentism. As a true exploratory tool, VisiCube is specifically designed for the study of emergent data and the discovery of emergent properties.

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