Thoughts on constructionism

Collected Items 07.05.12

The problem is that deductive reasoning, based on what is known about the constituent elements, would require a length of time and intellectual effort beyond the capacity of a human being in order to reconstruct from among a range of possible worlds the one which actually exists. The physicist Phil Anderson, in a stimulating article entitled ‘More is different’ (which appeared in the journalĀ Science in 1972), criticised ‘constructionism’, or the presumption that one can construct the behaviour of a complex object conceptually on the basis of one’s knowledge of its component parts:

the constructionist hypothesis fails when it is faced with the double problem of scale and complexity. The behaviour of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles cannot be encompassed in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few small particles. At every level of complexity there appear new properties, and to understand the new behaviour one requires research which in my opinion is just as basic in its nature as that of elementary particles.

Thus, in addition to the dynamic complexity of deterministic chaos, we can see the emergence of a structural complexity which consists of the impossibility of satisfactorily describing a complex object by reducing it to an interplay of its component parts with their elementary laws.

Tito Arecchi, ‘Chaos and Complexity’ inĀ The Postmodern Reader, ed. Charles Jencks (Wiley: Chichester, 2011) pp. 281-2.

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