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Einstein scholarship
 
 

© Dali Wu, Montreal

From electrons to elephants and electorates: a great unified narrative on content and context

Nowadays, the natural sciences take a largely reductionistic approach: They think from bottom to top. They explain processes by “breaking down” components to a lower level. Chemical processes are reduced to molecules, these in turn to atoms, and finally to electrons, protons, neutrons, and so on. Ecosystems are explained as populations of organisms, organisms as genetics, and genetics as DNA and proteins. Such reduction is easier to handle than its opposite: demonstrating that a lower-order system in fact explains the higher-order system from which it was reduced. We are not able to rigorously derive the characteristics of atoms, for example – not even of helium – by means of the Schrödinger equation. The dynamics of galaxies cannot be derived – not even purely computationally – from the interactions of the stars that comprise them.

The alternative to this method would be a holistic approach – a top-down perspective. Consider an ecosystem or an organism: Here one can search for patters without departing from their order of magnitude. Instead of modeling a galaxy as 400 billion point masses (stars), we can treat it as an independent object with specific characteristics (spiral, elliptical). Reductionism is concerned above all with content, while holistic models are about context. However, this does not mean that things on the lower level have no effect on the higher levels: Elephants could not exist without a sufficient number of electrons, nor could electorates without enough people. It all makes sense when we are (in)dependent on the lower-order processes. Reductionism (content) and holism (context) are not contrary methodological procedures; they must be considered together.

The aim of this scholarship project is to systematically examine the interplay of content and context and its role in the workings of the système du monde, and to publish the results in an interdisciplinary volume. This will encompass at least seven subjects in a dialog: from philosophy to various disciplines of the natural sciences.

Shyam Wuppuluri is a teacher in Mumbai, India. He studied computer science at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Anantapur. His publications include The Map and the Territory: Exploring the Foundations of Science, Thought and Reality (Springer Verlag, 2018) and Space, Time and the Limits of Human Understanding (Springer Verlag, 2017).