Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Top down or bottom up?

No, it's not a question about the best way to get a tan at the beach. And I don't know whether this merits a long philosophical meditation (though it might). But I just couldn't resist this item from Jaron Lanier:
The most glaring inconsistency, however, comes about because of the weird alliance between bible literalists and free market enthusiasts. If you believe the invisible hand of the bottom-up marketplace will always be infinitely wiser than Government, why on Earth wouldn’t you believe that the bottom-up marketplace of material forms in the primordial ooze wouldn’t be wise enough to make what we see? Wiser than any Intelligent Designer could ever be?

It's a very good point about the weakness in the main argument for "intelligent design". But Lanier also applies, elsewhere in the essay, the dichotomy to another issue that everyone has been thinking about the last few days, namely the division of responsibility between local/state governments and the federal government in the job of disaster management (as well as similar issues of environmental protection policy, for example).

As Lanier points out, the same issues arise in science itself:
A few weeks ago I was at a small meeting at a physics institute in which a Harvard law professor quizzed some scientists about such conundrums. Some of the most interesting physicists these days are interested in bottom-up approaches. Physicists like Newton and Einstein provided us with top-down global laws and starting conditions that worked stunningly well at explaining local events. That doesn’t mean a bottom-up physics is unimaginable. Maybe “pre-geometric” components self-assemble to create the fabric of space and time, so that the background assumed by familiar physical theories is actually an emergent phenomenon. These ideas are new and not well understood.

There are quite a few other areas where "bottom up" approaches may be applicable. For instance, all of the things subsumed in the trendy buzzwords "chaos", "complexity", "emergent phenomena", "self-organizing systems". This would seem to be the right way to approach theories about things as diverse as weather (including hurricanes), living things (from single cells up to ecosystems), and computer networks.

Is there a conclusion to be drawn here? Maybe just this: "It all depends..."

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