Is the World Simple or Complex?
John D. Barrow
The view of the Universe created by discoveries in fundamental science has become increasingly influential beyond the halls of science. It provides the basis for many attempts to interpret the significance of the cosmos and the place of humans within it. Whether we like it or not, our scientific picture of the Universe provokes us to make an evaluation of that picture. Until quite recently, that picture was biased by a particular perspective on the workings of Nature, a perspective that was imposed upon us largely by practicalities. In what follows, I take a look at two contrasting views of Nature that have both been much in the news over recent years, as scientists from very different disciplines have trumpeted dramatic developments through the media and in works of popular science. For the outsider, these different messages can be confusing and disjointed. On the one hand, there are the physicists talking of "Theories of Everything" and the rapid convergence of investigations of Nature towards a single, all-encompassing mathematical theory, whereas, on the other hand, we are told of chaos, unpredictability, and bottomless complexity all around us.
These differing messages have each inspired extrapolations into the philosophy of science and other subjects as well, as commentators seek to evaluate what they have to tell us about who we are, why we are, and where we might be going. My aim, here, is one of explanation: to ask whether the Universe is simple or complicated and to show that the question is a subtle one. Its answer takes us on a tour of many important developments in science. Perhaps it will also help us evaluate the significance of these developments--to understand more accurately both their value for science and the forms of value of which science can legitimately speak.