Reduction and emergence
Even science says that who we are is more than what we do.
For his inauguration as full professor on November 15th, physics professor and Chair of the Mathematical Sciences department, Dr. Arnold Sikkema, delivered a lecture entitled “Emergence(,) of a Physicist.” Encouraging against reductionism, Sikkema revealed that just as certain particles cannot be defined by position and velocity, so we must look beyond occupation and achievements in defining ourselves and understanding the lives of others.
The first aspect of this is without the comma. Sikkema began his lecture with a brief autobiography of his beginnings in academics and a story of how he became faculty at Trinity Western University. His overwhelming attitude was that of gratitude for all those who had contributed to his growth as an academic and much more. It was remarkable to see how even many years later, Sikkema is still deeply thankful for the small and large roles his mentors and colleagues have played in his early career.
The second is with the comma.
Sikkema discussed the concept of emergence within scientific discovery using a series of examples from atmospheric sciences to his own field of expertise—theoretical condensed matter physics. Emergence in these cases is an astonishing observation in nature that could not have been predicted, but required explanation after the fact.
These examples show that there are more things in the world than a theoretical physicist could possibly predict by sitting in armchair or even by using past techniques of understanding. For instance, the electron is tricky. Its velocity and position have not been measured simultaneously. Does it have a velocity and position like a macroscopic entity? The answer is unobtainable, due to the limitation of human invention. Just because a baseball’s path can be modeled using such a reductive technique, it does not indicate all particles can be predicted to have position and velocity. The uncertainty principle simply doesn’t allow for an electron to have both. Especially, in the world of science, such reductionism is in opposition to emergence.
The main reason why things cannot be explained in a reductive manner through physics is that it is a field that cannot answer certain questions. Sikkema comments, “Many things I know, I know not because I’m a physicist but because I’m a person. Being a physicist is only part of being a person.” You could replace physicist with any field identity like psychologist, philosopher, or chemist. The point is, just as we cannot understand the external world reductively, neither can we understand ourselves in such a reductive manner. Sikkema’s attitude of thankfulness and his discussion of emergence reveal that just like the electron, we are more than how we label ourselves professionally, or by what we do, because our stories are vast and the people we have met