End of Reductionism?

Peter Woit, 2006, Not Even Wrong, The failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law

See also Woit’s blog http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

After I have read The Elegant Universe by Brian Green, I thought that there must be people not that enthusiastic about the superstring theory. I should confess that the Brian Green’s book as well as the PBC movie based on the book are really nice, yet everything there looks just as a fairy tale. Hence I have decided to look at the opposite view and in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory) I have found a link to the Peter Woit’s book in this respect.

The Peter Woit’s book is good, I highly recommend it. Yet, it is good first to read the The Elegant Universe or at least watch the movie, then the impression will be nicer.

Both books, The Elegant Universe and Not Even Wrong raise a general question. Why physicists believe that they can find the truly law of Nature? And why actually must be the unified law, Theory of Everything? It would be good to understand what causes these beliefs, where they come from.

I have worked for quite awhile with statisticians. For them all what scientists create are models. If we look at the physical law from this viewpoint, then everything becomes actually much simpler. Let me cite from Not Even Wrong (On Beauty und Difficulty, p. 195)

During periods in which experiments are providing unexpected new results, the primary task of theorists is to come up with some sort of explanatory model of what the experiments are revealing, one that agrees with those already performed and that predicts what result new once will produce. Considerations of beauty and elegance are then secondary, functioning through the principle of Occam’s razor: given the many possible models that might agree with experiment, one should focus on the simplest one.

Well, this is exactly what statisticians do, the difference being that physicists claim to have found the Law, not the model. This is what I do not understand, how in such a situation one could assign a status of the law to a model. I personally like more the viewpoint of statisticians.

I guess that one reason to believe that one will be able to find Theory of Everything comes from reductionism, as physics is actually based on reductionism ideas. Could it be that now we are close to the end of reductionism in physics?

31.07.10. A small discussion on models and laws:


I like the citation from John von Neumann by Jim Rathman:

“The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.”

Also I have found two texts in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Models in Science

Laws of Nature


One response to “End of Reductionism?”

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  1. John Mikes says:

    Evgenyiy, smart reflections. Sorry I could not understand your Ru texts. Otchin rad. – from your excerpts: to come up with ‘explanatory’ upon new is reductionist model-view. All
    in the ‘already known’. Occam even narrows the view which is based on the interactive totality of everything (Robert Rosen’s Complexity) the counterpoint of reductionism. Our capabilities are insufficent to encompass ‘everything’. —
    Neuman ‘describes phenomena’ within the model(=reductionsm) and statistics dependes on the width of the model in which one counts the items. Choose a wider one, results change.
    I will reply to your H2O-related remark on-list – John