Clocks and Clouds…

The Limits of Reductionism — Reductionism & Entanglement

“The method of science depends on our attempts to describe the world with simple theories: theories that are complex may become untestable, even if they happen to be true. Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification-the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit”…

— Karl Popper[1]

“ The quest for precision is analogous to the quest for certainty, and both should be abandoned”…

— Karl Popper[2]

“ For one of the things which almost everybody thought had been established by the Newtonian revolution was the following staggering proposition:

“All clouds are clocks-even the most cloudy of clouds” …

- Karl Popper[3]

In 1966 20th Century Austrian British Philosopher Karl Popper[2] wrote an essay titled — “Of Clouds and Clocks: An approach to the problem of rationality and the freedom of man[3]”.

Popper was attempting in this Arthur Holy Compton Lecture[4] to look at some eternal philosophical questions outlined in US Nobel Prize Physicist Arthur Holy Compton[5]’s Lectures The Freedom of Man and The Human Meaning of Science[7].

Questions at the core of making sense of our complex Material World.

The analogy to the Clouds in the title of the Lecture being representative of the physical systems in our Material World which are highly irregular, disorderly and less predictable.

In contrast, the analogy to the Clock was representative of the physical systems in our Material World that are reliable, predictable and orderly.

Our experience in a complex Material World sitting along the spectrum of the Random and the Regular or Clouds and Clocks.

Popper extends this into challenging +250 years of Scientific and Social Orthodoxy since the Newtonian Revolution[8]Industrial Revolution[9].

Despite the Quantum[10] nature of Reality — Clocks and Clouds — a single Classical[11] binary discrete narrative had emerged.

A simplification of Complexity[12]

A stunning proposition.

“All clouds are clocks-even the most cloudy of clouds[3]” …

A physical deterministic view of Reality which aligned with the 3 core Axioms[13] of the Scientific Revolution Reductionism [14]Cause & Effect — and — Determinism.

Even though there had been an almost universal embracement of this Reductionist narrative — an Orthodoxy Popper highlights in the Lecture the emergence of a few dissenters such as late 19th & early 20th Century US Pragmatist Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce[15].

In 1892 Peirce showed how Newton’s Theory[16], even if true, does not give us any valid reasoning to believe why Clouds are perfect Clocks to the smallest detail.

Peirce conjectured that the World was not only ruled by Newtonian Laws[17], but also by laws of randomness, chance and disorder.

The Material World was an interlocking system of Clouds and Clocks.

His perspectives highlighted the difference between the high dimensional nature of our emergent Complex Material World — Complexity — and — Mental World — abstraction and reductionism.

A perspective that in some ways captured the emerging zeitgeist of the time where profound shifts in how we perceive Reality were unfolding.

A Copernicus 2.0[18] evolution.

A transition from:

viewing our complex Material World as a mechanical Newtonian Machine with discrete parts that had become the scientific and social orthodoxy since the dawn of the Age of Reason


an increasing realisation of the entangled nature of Reality that had begun to become increasingly apparent from the new ideas of Quantum Mechanics[19] and various events that have unfolded over subsequent decades.

Examples of this profound shift extended way beyond Quantum Mechanics[19]. They included the emergence of a globalised interconnected financial & economic system, increasing awareness of human’s interdependency with nature, the dawn of the internet & the digital revolution, new forms of high dimensional computation — deep learning — and an increasing realisation of the potential destructive power of algorithmic technologies such as nuclear[20] & computational biology[21] when embedded into a non-ergodic complex Material World.

Cracks were beginning to appear in our reductionist Temples of Reason.

The twilight of a Modern Utopia[22] and Technocratic Orthodoxy[23].

We were literally transitioning from a Classical World of discrete atoms, materials and particles to a Quantum World of entanglement and relationships.

More is Different

“The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe”…

- PW Anderson

In a 30 March 2020 Santa Fe Institute article titled — In memoriam: Philip Anderson[25]Santa Fe Institute President & Scientist David Krakauer pays tribute to the life’s work of US Physicist Philip Anderson.

A Nobel Prize winning Physicist, Anderson is known for his work across a diverse range of areas of physics including electron localisation , superconductivity, antiferromagnetism and the ideas of emergence in complex systems.

A quote from the article :

“It is hard to overstate the importance of the ideas of Phil Anderson to the science of SFI and complexity in general,”…

….“His ‘More is Different[25]’ article from Science in 1972 was the most important and rigorous refutation of the foolishness of reductionism for complex systems yet published. Not only did Phil articulate why confusing parts for the whole was a problem, but in the process, he explained why different fields of inquiry — from genetics to economics — needed to exist. This was a supreme act of intellectual modesty and generosity.” …

He saw Reductionism and Emergence as an ongoing symbiotic relationship — a Synthesis — in our attempts to make sense of Reality.

It was through Living with Paradoxes[26] and crossing boundaries[26] that new Knowledge emerged.

“It is not true, as a recent article would have it, that we each should ‘cultivate our own valley and not attempt to build roads over the mountain ranges … between the sciences.’ Rather, we should recognise that such roads, while often the quickest shortcut to another part of our own science, are not visible from the viewpoint of one science alone”…

-PW Anderson , More is Different[25]

In his article More is different[25] he provides his perspective on the nature of Emergence and Symmetry.

“The outstanding example of this is the crystal. Built from a substrate of atoms and space according to laws which express the perfect homogeneity of spaces the crystal suddenly and un- predictabIy displays an entirely new and very beautiful symmetry”…

The language of Semantic Abstraction of our Material World known as Physics was anchored in the study of Symmetry[25].

In the article[25] he then goes on to explain the phenomena of Broken Symmetry or Emergence.

“The phenomenon of superconductivity is the most spectacular example of the broken symmetries which ordinary macroscopic bodies undergo”…

…”The essential idea is that in the so called N< Infinity limit of large systems (on our own, macroscopic scale) it is not only convenient but essential to realise that matter will undergo mathematically sharp, singular “phase transitions” to states in which the microscopic symmetries and even the microscopic equations of motion, are in a sense violated”…

Both Popper and Andersons perspectives represent a Copernicus 2.0[18] evolution in how we make sense of our emergent complex Material World.

It was no longer “Turtles all the way down”.

High dimensional complexity and emergence were now being introduced into the prisms of making sense of reality.

A shift from a Classical to Quantum World.

A shift from Reductionism to Emergence.

A shift to Symmetries and Broken Symmetries.

A world of Clocks and Clouds.

Welcome to an Age of Entanglement.


[1] — pop-sci

[2] — Karl Popper —

[3] — An approach to the problem of Rationality and the freedom of Man — Clouds-and-Clocks.html

[4] — Arthur Holy Compton Lecture —

[5] — Arthur Holy Compton — Arthur_Compton — and — Arthur H. Compton — Nobel Lecture—

[6] — The Freedom of Man — 138006a0 — and —

[7] — The Human meaning of Science — 482589

[8] — The Newtonian Revolution and its Intellectual Significance —

[9] — The Industrial Revolution —

[10] — Helgoland — Carlo Rovelli —

[11] — Classical Physics —

[12] — The Complexity Void —

[13 ]— Axioms & the Philosophy of Science —

[14] — The illusion of certainty: P values are a significant problem — — and —

[15] — The American Aristotle — Charles Sanders Peirce was a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and scientist. His polymathic work should be better known — charles-sanders-peirce-was-americas-greatest-thinker

[16] — Newtons Theory —

[17] — Newtonian Laws —

[18] — Copernicus 2.0 —

[19] — Quantum Merchanics — what-does-quantum-theory-actually-tell-us-about-reality

[20] — Chernobyl —

[21] — BioTerror or Bioerror Event —

[22] — Modern Utopia —

[23] —The day that Dominic Cummings finally came clean — the-day-that-dominic-cummings-finally-came-clean — and — — and —

[24] — In memoriam: Philip Anderson — memoriam-philip-anderson

[25] —More is Different —

[26] — Living with Paradoxes —



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