Composing Elements

Suppose we have two elements, as for example water and earth (not that these are really elements.) How do we make something out of the elements? We can consider two different possible ways that this could happen.

Suppose that when we combine one part water and one part earth, we get mud, and when we combine one part water and two parts earth, we get clay. Thus clay and mud are two different composite bodies that can be made from our elements.

How do we expect clay and mud to behave? We saw earlier that the nature of the physical world more or less requires the existence of mathematical laws of nature. Now we could say, “Clay and mud are made of earth and water, and we know the laws governing earth and water. So we can figure out the behavior of clay and mud using the laws governing earth and water.”

But we could also say, “Although clay and mud are made of earth and water, they are also something new. Consequently we can work out the laws governing them by experience, but we cannot expect to work them out just from the laws governing earth and water.”

These two claims are basically opposed to one another, and we should not expect that both would be true, at least in any particular instance. It might be that one is true in some cases and the other is true in some cases, or it might be that one side is always true. But in any case one will be true and not the other, in each particular situation.

Someone might argue that the first claim must be always true in principle. If water behaves one way by itself, and another way when it is combined with earth, then you haven’t sufficiently specified the behavior of water without including how it behaves when it is beside earth, or mixed with earth, or combined in whatever way. So once you have completely specified the behavior of water, you have specified how it behaves when combined with other things.

But this way of thinking is artificial. If water follows an inverse square law of gravity by itself, but an entirely different mathematical law when it is combined with earth, rather than saying that the entirely different law is a special case governing water, we should just admit that the different law is a law governing clay and mud, but not water. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to include various potential interactions in your laws governing water, rather than only considering how water behaves in perfect isolation. Thus for example one would want to say that water suffers gravitational effects from all other bodies, rather than simply saying that water attracts itself. Nonetheless, even if the distinction is somewhat rough, there is a meaningful distinction between situations where the laws governing the elements also govern the composites, and situations where we need new laws for the composites.

In one way, the second claim is always true. It is always the case that something is true of the composite which is not true of the elements in themselves, since the composite is a whole composed of elements, while the elements in themselves are not. This is true even in artificial compositions; the parts of a bicycle are not a bicycle, but the whole is. And I can ride a bicycle, but  I cannot ride the individual pieces of metal that form it. Likewise, it is evidently true of living things, which are alive, and in some cases have conscious experience, even though the individual elements do not.

In a second way, the second claim is almost always true. If we consider our laws as practical methods for predicting the behavior of a physical system, in practice we will almost always need special laws to predict the behavior of a complex composite, if only because it would be too complex and time consuming to predict the behavior of the composite using laws governing only the parts. Thus people who wish to predict the weather use generalizations based on the experience of weather, rather than trying to predict the weather simply by considering more general laws of physics, despite believing that the weather is in fact a consequence of such general laws.

In a third way, the first claim is true at least frequently, and possibly always. If we consider the behavior of a bicycle or a computer, not with respect to general questions such as “can I ride it?” or “can it calculate the square root of two?”, but with respect to the physical movement of the parts, there are good reasons to think that the behavior of the whole can be determined from the behavior of the parts of which it is composed. For these are human inventions, and although experience is involved in such inventions, people make guesses about new behavior largely from their understanding of how the parts behave which they plan to put together. So if the whole behaved in ways which are significantly unpredictable from the behavior of the parts, we would not expect such inventions to work. Likewise, as said above, there is little reason to doubt that the weather results from general principles of physics that apply to earth, air, water, and so on.

I say “possibly always” above, because there is no case where the second claim is known to be true in this sense, and many instances, as noted, where the first is known or reasonably believed to be the case. Additionally, one can give reasons in principle for expecting the first claim to be true in this way, although this is a matter for later consideration.

An important objection to this possibility is that the fact that the second claim is always true in the first way mentioned above, seems to imply that the first claim cannot be true even in the third way, at least in some cases. In particular, the conscious behavior of living things, and especially human free will, might seem inconsistent with the idea that the physical behavior of living things is in principle predictable from laws governing their elements.


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