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Science

Let us now turn to the biggest, most complex system of all: reality. Our efforts to understand reality have yielded an increasingly complex intellectual system: science. At first, science was a great mass of disconnected tidbits of information—essentially, random fragments of truth that people had noticed over the generations. The big step forward was the realization that different tidbits of information could be connected together to form a more coherent, albeit more abstract, whole.

For example, people had long been aware that some stars in the sky moved in relation to the other stars. Some moved faster and some moved slower, and they all seemed to move along the same path. Ptolemy assembled these disparate facts into a coherent whole and suggested that these objects (the planets) circled around the earth. This was an abstraction; nobody could actually see the evidence directly. But this more abstract view of the solar system tied together a great many observations and, therefore, provided a better explanation.

That trick—finding an abstraction that ties together simpler truths—has been the basic strategy of science ever since. Chemistry stumbled forward, building up a mass of knowledge about how various chemicals reacted with each other, until the idea of atoms forming molecules took hold and explained it all in a more powerful, more unifying, and more abstract fashion. With the development of the theory of quantum mechanics, scientists were able to explain the mechanics of chemical reactions, thereby obtaining a more broadly encompassing view of chemistry—at the expense of abstractions that are more difficult for mere humans to understand. With the development of biochemistry, chemistry and biology were merged at a fundamental level that gave us insights into the genetic processes that govern all living systems—but again, the price we paid was greater abstraction.

Meanwhile the physicists continued their search for the fundamental laws of the universe. Isaac Newton unified all motion under three simple laws. James Clerk Maxwell unified electric theory with magnetic theory and light to demonstrate that all light is an electromagnetic wave. Einstein unified electricity with magnetism by showing that magnetism is a relativistic effect of electricity. Chemistry was further unified when physicists showed that all atoms are combinations of electrons, protons, and neutrons. In probing the nature of these three particles, physicists discovered a whole zoo of new particles—and then reduced them further by showing them to be composed of yet more fundamental (and even weirder and more abstract) particles called quarks. Meanwhile, theoreticians struggled to reduce the universe to its most fundamental constants and equations, making slow and jerky progress. The end result of all these labors is a highly abstract system of ideas that explain the workings of the universe—but this system is so abstract that it lies beyond the reach of all but a few specialists.

Mathematics followed a similar course. Starting with simple counting combined with simple addition and subtraction, people developed the ideas of multiplication and division, and arithmetic was born. Algebra, a more abstract approach to mathematics, came next. Then, in the 17th century, mathematics exploded with analytic geometry, calculus, probability, and so forth. Nowadays, of course, mathematics has reached levels of abstraction utterly beyond everybody but the specialists.

In science, we see the same process that we saw in justice: As our knowledge expanded, we had to resort to ever more abstract ideas to stay on top of all that knowledge.

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