Dr. Manhattan 2: Reductionism, life, and miracles

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?


Dr. Manhattan 2

In a previous post, I discussed the metaphysical questions about time, causality and free will raised by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. In this article, I will examine his relationship to matter and life. There are some spoilers again.

After becoming a superbeing capable of manipulating matter at will, Dr. Manhattan has largely lost touch with what the rest of humanity considers important. He feels more at home with inanimate matter, and indeed he shows genuine interest in its impersonal beauty in spite of his disinterest otherwise. He can directly observe at least atomic structures, if not even smaller particles. Meanwhile, he shows indifference even to matters of life and death at a human scale. Life and death are just unquantifiable abstracts.

In other words, Dr. Manhattan’s view of the world is thoroughly reductionist by nature.


Reductionism means (roughly) understanding a system by going down to its elementary physical constituents. Explaining chemical reactions by referring to the electrons in the atoms making up the chemical compound is reductionist. Explaining the properties of a living being from it genes, or explaining natural selection by referring to genes, is reductionist. Explaining an emotion by talking about what the brain and the body are doing to create it is reductionist.

Reductionism is a good strategy of scientific explanation, but it has been pointed out (eg. by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen) that it cannot be the only method of explanation. Think of the expression “Not seeing the forest for the trees.” You cannot always see what is relevant if you only look at the small parts; the whole can be different than its parts, or even “the sum of its parts” if by that sum you mean what you can see by only looking at the parts and then working up from there.

Why reductionism can miss the essential is seen very well in Dr. Manhattan’s case. At one point, he says that because “a live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” why should he be concerned by the death of a person he knew? Most people will automatically see this as perverse even if they can’t explicitly analyse why. But Dr. Manhattan has largely retreated into this view of reality where only physics is “real”. This can be a real danger of misapplied reductionism. It’s easy to dismiss something that you don’t care about but that may be important for other people by saying that it’s not real by some particular kind of analysis.

As for why Dr. Manhattan is like this, it’s actually far from clear. Just being able to see atoms doesn’t lead to it by any kind of necessity. Nevertheless, it is what he is. One could speculate about the effects of his idea that there is no free will, or the state of the world (he’s one of the several people in the comic to think the ultra-cynical anti-hero Comedian sees things clearly), his previous doormat personality, or his lack of most human needs, but who knows.

Reductionism is not a bad thing. It is one useful, near-universal way of explaining things. Another one that Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen urge for science is “contextualism”: explaining things from the outside in, as it were. Mind you, it should be said for clarity that if you go down from the highest-level phenomena towards the lower-level ones seeking for an explanation, this is still reductionism. So, more or less in Stewart and Cohen’s example, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is contextualist because it’s all about interaction with the environment, but going from there to genes is reductionist again. Anyway, the subtleties of what contextualism means don’t matter much here… The point is that some phenomena need to be understood on their own level. Whether a person is alive is in practice much more relevant to us than whether they are made up of atoms or whether there even are such things as atoms. This is in everyday life, but the point very much holds in science. If we only looked at physics, life even as a physical phenomenon would seem like a miracle of sorts.

The miracle of life

Chapter IX of Watchmen concludes with a scene that for me teeters somewhere between impressive and infuriating because it comes so close to getting the science behind the philosophy right, but in missing the mark only slightly ends up rather silly. I suspect I accept the scene because I imagine how it could have been instead of how it does go.

In this chapter, Dr. Manhattan’s former girlfriend Laurie is trying to convince him to come back to Earth to save it, but he feels that with her having started a relationship with someone else, his only link to humanity is gone. (Ironically, the indifferent god of physics is still motivated by his relationships with women much like Joe Average.) By the end of it, he changes his mind, because he begins to think human life is precious after all.

Dr. Manhattan explains that he longs to observe a “thermodynamic miracle”, which he explains are “events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.” And he says that this applies to human life, though he had forgotten because it’s so commonplace.

Here’s where there would be a good way to continue, but the comic doesn’t. Instead, Dr. Manhattan explains it like this:

And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter … To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.

(Emphasis removed because it’s on every other freaking word.)

Alas, this is nonsense. You might see why already. It’s like shuffling a pack of cards, then dealing them out in that order, no matter what one, and then declaring it a miracle because odds for it are about one in 8-with-67-zeroes-after-it. (That number seems to be right, but I just went to the first link that came up and spent little time checking it.) If that’s a miracle, that happens with everything.

Consider a volume of gas with its huge amount of particles. We know — and this is related to actual thermodynamics — that, put in a space like for example a closed room, the gas is going to divide itself evenly all around it. Described on the level of the particles, this is because there are so many more ways for the particles to randomly move around so that they end up everywhere than any other way. They could in principle all happen to, say, vacate one half of the room and go to the other one together, but that would be astronomically unlikely — a “thermodynamic miracle”. (I haven’t heard that term elsewhere than Watchmen.)

But if it’s also a thermodynamic miracle that exactly that sperm gets to that egg and gives birth to that person, multiplied by generations, then every normal state of the gas particles in the room is a miracle as well. Because every individual state is in itself extremely unlikely. We don’t call it a miracle when the particles are evenly divided because it’s just one of the many, many states that could realise the large-scale evenly distributed state, and, as with the shuffled cards, we know it has to be one of them. Same thing here: if we know one sperm is going to fertilise the egg, and in general that some people are going to have some children, we can’t point to the exact configuration that happens as anything special, because it’s just one way the expected can be realised.

(There was also another thing Dr. Manhattan said, which I omitted from the quote because it was not necessary to spoil it. It had to do with the unlikely circumstances of a particular character’s conception — but all of that was human unlikeliness, something that only shows Dr. Manhattan still looks at things from such a point of view sometimes, and out of place when you’re throwing around words like “thermodynamic”. So let’s forget that.)

Now, as for what he could have said? From a limited reductionist point of view, the existence of life can appear as enormously unlikely. It’s not that this particular sperm etc., it’s the whole system perpetuating itself and growing more complex rather than just decaying slowly towards greater entropy — greater disorder as with gas molecules rushing to fill the whole room in an even mess instead of staying in any more ordered pattern like only in a small part of the room. If you just mix up a bunch of atoms and only know of reductionist ways of describing what they’ll do, you’ll never expect anything like this. Most random arrangements of atoms will act completely differently. Only a very small subset of all the arrangements, akin to air rushing to one end of the room, can be a system that uses ambient energy to perpetuate itself. Without an input of energy, it would be entirely impossible, but even as it is, it can seem astronomically unlikely. This is in the same lines as the quote from Fred Hoyle:

A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe.

(The Intelligent Universe, quoted here)

Of course, life is not really impossible, and there are two reasons. We used to think there was just one, but surprisingly it turns out that there is probably another as well.

The better known reason is gradual evolution by natural selection. It’s ironic that the Hoyle quote above has been taken up by “creationists”, in the sense of evolution-deniers, to oppose evolution (which Hoyle never did). The mechanism of evolution envisioned and pretty seamlessly proven by scientists explains how the evolution of complex life is possible, and does so precisely because it’s nothing like the tornado in the junkyard. (For a closer explanation, see here.) Gradual selection can build complexity bit by bit, so it doesn’t need to explode into being out of nowhere. But this also means it’s not really visible in a reductive view, because the system keeps changing and opening up new possibilities of development for itself. It doesn’t violate any laws of physics, but you’d need to simulate the whole process of evolution to see how the system gets there. And you’d in practice want to do that on a higher level than elementary physics so that you wouldn’t need infinite computing power to simulate small details that don’t even matter.

The second reason is self-organisation. This is a phenomenon that has been observed even in simple mathematical models in which simple rules sometimes create complex behaviour spontaneously, even without selection. It may well have played a huge part in the emergence and evolution of life, although it’s a newer and less well known concept than natural selection. While self-organisation is something you can see even with simple models, the point is that you still won’t expect it from a reductionist point of view that only focuses on the components instead of seeing what they will do together as a whole — contextually.

So this could be the apparent thermodynamic miracle — something that could have convinced Dr. Manhattan to care about life. The existence of life is not really an impossible coincidence, but from the point of view of someone who’s losing touch with everything but physics, it could seem miraculous, or at least remarkable in the way it “breaks the rules”. It’s the kind of thing that can be called emergent. The fact that it actually makes sense makes it all the more fascinating to someone wanting to understand things as compared to an inexplicable miracle. And it’s certainly better than the card-shuffling miracle of what sperms met what eggs.

“Professor Santa Fe”?

Dr. Manhattan’s reductionist nature likely limits his powers. He’s able to manipulate matter, even with great precision, but he cannot manipulate complex, living systems in all ways. He can teleport a person but he can’t prevent them from getting teleportation sickness. He can help produce enough lithium to power all the electric cars for the nation but he can’t cure cancer. He might also be able to see everything or at least a lot of what goes on in a person’s brain, but he never reads minds.

I can’t prove these things definitely. After all, Dr. Manhattan is known for his indifference, so you can’t reason about him quite like a normal person. You can’t say “Of course he would prevent teleportation sickness if he could” or “Of course he would cure cancer if he could.” Yet, I think you can say something like this in these cases. He tends to do what his current girlfriend asks and try to make her happy, but at least when it’s Laurie, she always needs to vomit after teleporting and she hates it. And the only time he really freaks out is after being told he’s given people cancer. Even then it’s presumably because he’s still a little vulnerable to social pressure, not because he cares so much that people are dying. Nevertheless, he casually removes obstacles when told to do so or when he has some reason to care. If you told him you can’t keep driving because there’s an oil tanker on the road, he’d make it go away. Here, he certainly doesn’t go “Cancer? I’ll remove it.”

I don’t know he’s unable to do these things. But even if he’s not, I think he should be. What the authors thought he should be able to do doesn’t have to be the same thing I think he should be able to do, and I think such limits (would) make sense for him.

Living systems are complex. Complex systems are the kind of ones where you won’t see the forest if you look at the trees, because the system is so complicated it starts acting by its own rules. Now, unless modern physics turns out to be radically more incomplete than scientists generally think, it doesn’t mean you couldn’t in principle in some sense derive the behaviour of the whole from the parts — but it does mean that to do this you might have to run a simulation as detailed as the system itself. As I said above, if you just think with a human mind in terms of physics, you wouldn’t expect life to exist at all. It’s a system that has evolved based on simple rules to become complex and made its own rules.

Take reading minds, for example. Suppose Dr. Manhattan can see everything that happens in your brain. Understanding all the physics of it would take him only a little way towards being able to see what you’re thinking or feeling. What is a thought in the brain, physically? I don’t know, and I’m sure that modern neuroscience a) knows more about it than I do and b) still doesn’t know. Modern ways of imaging what goes on in the brain always have a poor resolution in some way or another, and what’s more, they face a difficulty in telling what activity in the brain corresponds to what mental activity. The conscious brain is always doing more than one thing at a time. If you want to see what the brain does when the person is seeing red, you can show them something red and look at what goes on in there. What you can’t do is just look and see the specific “red” brain part activate and that’s it, because it won’t be the only one. The object will be a certain shape which is also registered, and the person might be feeling hot or thinking about something else or hearing something or shifting position or… Further, a what we think of as a single mental thing, like a single thought, might be realised in the brain as a combination of events. And different people’s brains are wired differently. So Dr. Manhattan with his possibly perfect resolution couldn’t just see thoughts either. He’d just see a bunch of stuff that would make no sense at a first glance, nor probably ever.

I’ve been wondering if there could be a counterpart to Dr. Manhattan who would have control over the world not in his reductionist way but on a system level. Someone who understood how complex systems work as wholes and was able to manipulate them through this understanding. Perhaps this could be Dr. Manhattan himself if he gained understanding of complexity theory, so that he’d know how to use his existing physical powers to give the system just the right push to make it behave differently on the macro level as well. He’d like to talk about not atoms and inanimate matter but about networks of interactions and emergent phenomena.

Dr. Manhattan is named after the Manhattan Project, to invoke the fear of atomic weapons. We may also note that said project was about fiddling with atoms, so it suits him very well. If there was a character who was similarly married to complex systems as he is to microphysics, they might be aptly named after the Santa Fe Institute, the original centre for complexity studies. (As an interesting aside, some of that research started with people from the Manhattan Project.) Perhaps “Professor Santa Fe” for a little variety.

WM Ozymandias

As it is, Adrian Veidt aka. Ozymandias from Watchmen already embodies this idea somewhat. He’s a genius who’s made himself a huge fortune by his understanding of the market. He has a habit of sitting in front of a wall of television screens, showing bits of different channels and enabling him to see trends almost directly. He also sees the larger pattern of history and plans to steer its course by affecting crucial points. For all this, he shows no direct signs of understanding some of the finer points and surprising consequences of systems theory. If you read, for example, Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows, which I have reviewed on this blog, you’ll see that systems can behave in surprising and counterintuitive ways that arise from their own structure. The reasonings Ozymandias presents are all understandable in normal human terms, though, even if they are sometimes subtle:

First impressions: Oiled muscleman with machine gun… cut to pastel bears, Valentine hearts. Juxtaposition of wish fulfillment violence and infantile imagery, desire to regress[,] be free of responsibility… This all says “war”.

(From his observations on the TV screens.)

(One thing that mildly marks Ozymandias as a systems thinker is his being liberal rather than conservative. (Or at least less “right-wing” than some of the other “heroes”, according to the interview before the last chapter. I’m just going to try to use these words in the American way without claiming it necessarily makes sense.) This is because conservatives tend to blame individuals and liberals tend to blame the system. Just being “liberal” doesn’t make you a deep systems thinker, of course, but this conservative tendency is prone to obscure the role of circumstances in affecting people — something that it seems we are naturally disinclined to notice anyway, liberal or not. When speaking of Ozymandias, this is a minor point. It’s still systems thinking only on a humanly intuitive level.)

“Professor Santa Fe” as a more direct analogue to Dr. Manhattan would be inhuman like he, though not as much so. (This is not to say that Ozymandias isn’t inhuman in his own way. I see him as hyper-sane, abnormally logical though without Dr. Manhattan’s reductionism.) This character would talk about things we don’t normally think in terms of, but they would be system concepts like, say, “feedback loops” or “homeostasis” that could actually be used to understand our emergent world better. They would never say a living body is indistinguishable from a dead one. That could only be true for a short time anyway, but more importantly, it’s a hopelessly static view of things. More than anything else, life is a process. Even a living individual is on closer analysis a process rather than a lump of matter. Apparently all the atoms in your body get changed regularly, so there isn’t really any particular quantity of matter that you’re identical with, but you don’t even notice that as long as the process goes on. Further, it’s not even that the atoms get changed but their configuration remains. It changes to various degrees. You become different than you were. So it’s not even your (static) emergent qualities that remain the same when you remain the same person. Again, it’s the ongoing process. But when you die, the process stops, and it has already stopped before your body starts to decay and become chemically different. That is the difference in a scientific sense, and though it’s not the same as the human sense in which life is different from death, it’s more relevant to it than the reductionist view.

At the end of the story, Dr. Manhattan slips into the language of free choice and uncertainty and says he may choose to create life. I wonder what he may have learnt if he did it…


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