The God Principle
“Of course I am not religious,” said Nobel Laureate Philip W. Anderson (Physics, 1977), “I don’t in fact see how any scientist who thinks at all deeply can be so.” It is the sort of pronouncement one is accustomed to hear—an oft-repeated theme from secular modernity’s dreary sonata. What is remarkable about Anderson is not his deafness to the Word, but that this deafness should coincide with a refreshing attentiveness to the being of things.
To the non-specialist, Anderson’s signal contribution is “More Is Different,” his 1972 article in Science that defended what he would later call the “God Principle” of emergence, the principle that, in his view, accounts for the world as we experience it, the world of things.
Anderson’s target in “More Is Different” was the dogmatic reductionism that characterized much speech about science in the mid-twentieth century. He may well have had Francis Crick in mind when pointing to “some molecular biologists, who seem determined to try to reduce everything about the human organism to ‘only’ chemistry.” To Anderson, the first problem with this kind of reduction is that it fails to make sense of science as it is practiced. As we ascend from elementary particles through inorganic and then organic molecules to natural bodies and especially to whole living organisms, we find that our scientific practices and explanations change not merely by degree but in kind. “At each level of complexity . . . entirely new laws, concepts, and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one.”
As an interpretation of the history and the practice of science, Anderson’s principle is beyond reproach. But does it stand up well to nature?
Yes. The relevant feature of natural bodies that he pointed to could be called complexity, the hierarchy of being, or, as he chose, “broken symmetry.” As Anderson explained it, when we consider things—better yet, the parts of things—at the quantum level, we find that they exhibit an almost unbroken symmetry. If, that is, we consider our molecules and parts of molecules not as we find them in time, but instead in an idealized steady state. When we do so, we find symmetry or sameness. Another Nobel Laureate, Steven Weinberg, said it well: “Aside from their momentum and spin, every electron in the universe is just like every other electron.”
But when we ascend from the individual inorganic molecule to the structure of the crystal composed of many such molecules, the symmetry begins to break. The crystal’s structure is not the same in every direction; there are polarities and charges that differ, so that the body may be said to have negative and positive poles, or, in simplistic terms, a top and bottom, left and right. Organic molecules are still less symmetrical, often having a spiral shape or a more complex pattern of folding. Once we emerge at the level of the things we experience, the emphasis is not on symmetry but on difference. The human head is not anything like human feet. The eyes are not hair. The heart rules without peer.
In a much later essay, Anderson asked “Is Measurement Itself an Emergent Property?” The question is a good one. Our current theories about the beginning of the universe tell a story about the first few tiny fractions of a second in which there were no atoms or even particles but only a very hot plasma of some sort. There were then existing, perforce, none of the things we know from our senses and to which we compare other things as standards when we measure them. Take as an example our account of the speed of light. It is framed in terms of the meter, which in spite of its Jacobin creators’ desire for mathematical purity has more than a passing resemblance to the length of a tall man’s stride. And that resemblance is no accident. To measure something is to make known its length in terms of the size of some other body that is better known to us—usually our own body or one of its parts.
Philip Anderson’s arguments, then, help us to appreciate the paradoxical character of dogmatic reductionism. The reductionist sets out to convince us that the world we experience is not the real one, but that the world of atoms or quarks or energy is. But as Anderson insisted, we have the best of reasons for rejecting that claim. In fact, reductionism is nothing more than a stance or a performance. The world of things continues to assert itself, both in our ordinary experience and in our scientific investigations. And through the intelligibility of those things, we can demonstrate the existence of the ens realissimum—the most real being—Almighty God.