June 10, 2008

Breaking the Galilean Spell

By Stuart A. Kauffman

Even deeper than emergence and its challenge to reductionism in this new scientific worldview is what I call 'breaking the Galilean spell'.

Galileo rolled balls down incline planes and showed that the distance traveled varied as the square of the time elapsed. From this he obtained a universal law of motion. Newton followed with his Principia, setting the stage for all of modern science. With these triumphs, the Western world came to the view that all that happens in the universe is governed by natural law. Indeed, this is the heart of reductionism.

Another Nobel laureate physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, has defined a natural law as a compressed description, available beforehand, of the regularities of a phenomenon. The Galilean spell that has driven so much science is the faith that all aspects of the natural world can be described by such laws.

Perhaps my most radical scientific claim is that we can and must break the Galilean spell. Evolution of the biosphere, human economic life, and human history are partially indescribable by natural law. This claim flies in the face of our settled convictions since Galileo, Newton, and the Enlightenment.

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