Definition of Separable & Rules for Physical Systems: 65 Characters

In summary: M1, then M1 must follow causally from M2. In other words, if one has a physical basis for a phenomenon, then there is no need to appeal to higher level mental or physical states to explain or understand that phenomenon.In summary, Alwyn Scott defines separable as a system which can be broken down into individual volumes of space and which can apply boundary conditions to duplicate what occurs within that volume. Nonseparable systems do not produce the same phenomena as a separable system when duplicate boundary conditions are applied.
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What is your definition of separable? For a physical system to be separable, what rules should be applied to define whether a given system is separable or not? Note that if a system is non-separable, we can claim it is ‘holistic’ and therefore capable of producing some unique (emergent) phenomenon which can not be produced by a system which is separable.

As a starter, I’d suggest that if a system can be broken up into individual volumes of space; and if one can then apply boundary conditions on each of the individual volumes of space, thereby duplicating everything which occurs within that volume, then those volumes are separable and any system composed of those volumes is separable. Using this definition, classical physics is generally considered separable while quantum mechanical systems are often considered non separable.

Note that in the above definition of separable, there are 2 key issues.
1. Boundary conditions on a given volume of space can in principal be determined and duplicated. Note this isn’t generally possible for molecules, although there are often ‘classical’ ways of modeling molecules (ex: bond energy) which allows some knowledge to be appied to specific bits of the molecule which is independent of the molecule in general, and in that sense, bond energy is ‘separable’. Other molecular properties are not separable however, so generally, molecules can not be broken up and put into boxes which have boundary conditions at the surface.
2. If 1 above is met (ie: if boundary conditions can be identified on individual volumes of space), then for a nonseparable system - those duplicate boundary conditions must produce phenomena within said volume which are different than the phenomena produced inside the volumes of a separable system.

Over the past few decades, there’s been considerable debate over whether or not chaotic systems are separable, especially nonlinear systems. Take for example, the three body problem which can be described by the Hamiltonian energy function which is a summation of kinetic and potential energy. It seems clear (to me) that what occurs within any given volume of space in any system of 3 or more gravitationally attracting bodies, can be duplicated by duplicating boundary conditions. By that, I mean that the gravitational field within any given volume of space is simply the summation of numerous individual bodies, and those individual bodies can in principal, be replaced by a different set of gravitationally attracting bodies that produce a gravitational field inside the volume of space in question which exactly duplicates the original, thereby producing the same motions within that volume of space. If this were true, then such a system by my definition above would be non separable.*

Alwyn Scott was one of the most vocal supporters that “nonlinear dynamics at each level of description generate emergent structures, and nonlinear interactions among these structures provide a basis for the dynamics at the next higher level. (Scott, 2003)” Here, his mention of levels reflects the levels as given by Phil Anderson (Anderson, 1972); for example, from lower level down to higher level:
solid state or many-body physics (referring to elementary particle physics)
molecular biology
cell biology
social sciences
We’ll get back to these levels in a minute…

Scott points out that nonlinear systems are “those for which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” He states (Scott, 2004):
Suppose that a series of experiments on a certain system have shown that cause C1 gives rise to effect E1; thus:
C1 -> E1
and similarly
C2 -> E2
Expresses the relationship between cause C2 and effect E2. This relation is linear if
C1 + C2 -> E12 = E1 + E2 (1)
If, on the other hand, E12 is not equal to E1 + E2, the effect is said to be a nonlinear response to the cause.

One might ask, what kind of systems are nonlinear as Scott suggests? He gives numerous examples, of which I’ll choose a few key ones to emphasize the “levels” he wants to apply this philosophy to: chemical molecules, nerve impulses, lynch mobs, [fluid] turbulence, tornadoes, the Gulf Stream, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, black holes. The list of nonlinear phenomena is enormous.

Next, one might wonder how he defines these emergent phenomena and how nonlinear dynamics plays a part. To understand this, one has to understand how Kim (Kim, 2000), breaks down nature. Kim is a reductionist who provides an argument in favor of bottom up causation. In short, if there is a physical basis for a phenomena P1, and that physical basis gives rise to a higher level physical (or mental) state M1, and if there is a physical basis for a phenomena P2, and that physical basis gives rise to a higher level physical (or mental) state M2, then if P2 follows causally from P1, and if physical (or mental) state M2 follows causally from M1, then it is in error to suggest that M1 caused M2 since there is a lower level physical cause, P1, which is the cause of P2. We can not claim two physical causes for P2. I apologize for the ten second snapshot of the work by Kim. Hopefully people here are already familiar with his work.

Understanding causation in this way, Scott quotes Emmeche (Emmeche et al., 2000) and breaks up “emergence” into three categories depending on the type of downward causation which the emergent structure should entail.
- Strong downward causation (SDC) in which upper level phenomena can act as efficient causal agents in the dynamics of lower levels. In other words, a higher level configuration (such as M1 or M2) causes the physical change at a lower level (such as from P1 to P2). Here, Scott agrees with Kim (as should everyone) pointing out that, “Presently, there is no empirical evidence for the downward action of efficient causation, so SDC is almost universally rejected by biologists.” (Scott is a biologist.)
- Weak downward causation (WDC) in which there are ‘attractors’ (physical states that are in some way more stable and more likely to be trespassed through). Certainly, there is nothing too controversial here. But there is also nothing particularly interesting about WDC. This is essentially the same kind of “weak emergence” described by Bedau (Bedau, 1997) in which the Game of Life produces weakly emergent “gliders” for example. I’m in favor of WDC and weak emergence, and the example of volumes of space being dependant on boundary conditions certainly supports WDC.
- Medium downward causation (MDC) which goes further than WDC “in supposing that higher-level dynamics (e.g., the emergence of a higher-level structure) can modify the local features of an organisms lower-level phase space through the downward actions of formal causes.” Scott continues, “In modern biology, MDC is a key aspect of evolutionary theory, and in neuroscience, the phenomenon of learning is an example of MDC, in which higher level experiences (or training) of an organism alter the ways that neurons interact, changing its behavioral spectrum.” Here again, Scott resorts to ‘levels’ in nature which have attractors and thus the equations and/or physical laws that apply to such levels have some sort of causal influence over the lower level constituents.

I’m going to leave it there before getting too far off track. Bottom line is that Scott argues in favor of nonlinear phenomena being nonseperable. This is extremely important in deciding if a given physical system can produce any kind of downward causation. It is important because the concept I’ve provided of separable might be sidestepped if boundary conditions acting on a given volume of space are insufficient as an explanandum for what occurs within said volume.

I would argue Scott’s perspective of nature is problematic, as is any paradigm of classical mechanics which doesn’t follow the definition of separable I’ve provided above. Specifically, if I apply the concept of spatial volumes and what occurs within those volumes to be a function ONLY of boundary conditions on the volume, then nothing can occur within ANY volume that is a function of some higher level of nature. The paradigm I propose allows for only two levels in nature which IMHO is in keeping with the mathematical rules that differentiate between classical and quantum mechanics.

Such a view is also argued for by physicist Henry Stapp who states “Nothing in classical physics can create something that is essentially more than an aggregation of its parts (Stapp, 1993).” In other words, Stapp believes that classical mechanics / classical physics is separable, regardless of any nonlinearities. In fact, I’m fairly confident that Stapp would agree with the definition of separability I’ve provided above.

Ok, I know you’ve been reading for a long time now, but I have a few more papers to mention before you nod off! First is one by Kronz (Kronz, Tiehen, 2002). In this paper, Kronz forcefully supports the view that quantum mechanics is nonseparable. From the abstract:
In a recent article Humphreys has developed an intriguing proposal for making sense of emergence. The crucial notion for this purpose is what he calls “fusion” and his paradigm for it is quantum nonseparability. In what follows, we will develop this position in more detail, and then discuss its ramifications and limitations. … An alternative approach to emergence that involves quantum physics is then proposed.

The paper is rather heavy on the quantum mechanical side, so I can’t recommend it unless you’re a physicist (which I’m not). However, Kronz makes it clear that there is a formal, mathematical split between classical and quantum mechanics. Of course, Kronz isn’t the only one who’s made this split, but he combines that split with the notion of emergence and separability which is unique.

In that paper he also states, “Because the direct sum is used in classical mechanics to define the states of a composite system in terms of its components, rather than the tensor product operation as in quantum mechanics, there are no nonseparable states in classical mechanics.” Curiously, Kronz then states, “There are non separable Hamiltonians in classical mechanics – the Hamiltonian corresponds to the total energy of the system and is related to the time evolution of the system. This type of nonseparability is the result of nonlinear terms in the equations of motion. Perhaps a kind of emergence can be associated with it. Some measure of plausibility is given to this claim since a classical system can exhibit chaotic behavior only if its Hamiltonian is nonseparable.” (emphasis mine) When quizzed on this statement, his response is that a 3 body system is non separable since its Hamiltonian is non separable. (ie: three body problem)

Needless to say, I have problems with Kronz’s position on classical systems. Turning again to the definition of separable I've provided, I find all 3 body systems should, in principal, be reducible to gravitational forces (ie: boundary conditions) on any volume of space. Any volume of space must have a gravitational field within it which is only a function of the contribution from each body in the given system. Regardless of how chaotic a given body’s motion may be, and regardless of how impossible it may be to write a single equation of motion, and regardless of the fact that a constructionist will never be capable of exactly determining the body’s motion (for all the reasons mentioned by Anderson for example), the motion is still a function of the gravitational field to which it is subjected, and the gravitational field is a simple summation of the individual contributions from all other bodies. There are never any nonlocal, downward causes which the system as a whole imposes on any portion of that system. And if this is true, then anybody in a 3 body system is separable because its motion within that volume is strictly a function of the local gravitational field, and it will react accordingly to that field regardless of the locations of other bodies.

If three body systems are too abstract, we might also discuss Bishop’s (Bishop 2008) paper in which he supposes that Rayleigh-Benard convection provides a real life example of downward causation. He states,
… the lower-level constituents provide necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence and behavior of some of the higher-level structures. … Furthermore, the lower-level constituents may not even provide necessary and sufficient conditions for their own behavior if the higher-level constituents can influence the behavior of lower-level constituents.
For his part, Bishop also points to nonlinear equations but also provides considerable mathematical treatment of heat transport equations, Navier-Stokes equations and the continuity equation. Basically, he claims that it is this combination of affects which produce the non separable, emergent behavior.

This comes full circle now. Just as Scott wants nonlinear systems to be non separable and emergent, so does Kronz and Bishop. What this states in simple terms is this. In the case of [fluid] turbulence, tornadoes, the Gulf Stream, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot … Rayleigh-Benard convection, such phenomena are ‘levels’ of nature which some philosophers and scientists are suggesting, are nonseparable and in some way ontologically emergent.

For there to be levels in physics, I would contend that we must be able to locate identical volumes of space on which there are identical boundary conditions, but these volumes must act differently depending on what system they are associated with! If they don’t act differently, they are separable. And if they are separable, we are left with ‘weak emergence’. If they are nonseparable, and these two volumes DON’T act the same, then emergence and downward causation requires non-local causal actions! Think about it… for there to be levels in nature, an arbitrarily selected volume of space with a given set of boundary conditions on it, must act DIFFERENTLY than an identical volume with an identical set of boundary conditions on it in order for there to be ANY kind of downward causation – medium or not. This is exactly the kind of thing Kim is trying to dissuade us from. Supporting the Anderson POV in which levels of nature create new and unique physical laws on the constituent levels that make up a given system is a horrific injustice to science. Even these philosophers and scientists whom would like to accept levels in nature will agree that such levels are entirely arbitrary. Frontal systems and thunderstorms may be a great way for a meteorologist to examine the weather, but no one should be suggesting that the atmosphere doesn’t obey the same heat transport equations, Navier-Stokes equations and continuity equations that every other fluid system obeys.


*On the flip side, people have made the argument that energy is more fundamental to such a classical system than are forces, and since the Hamiltonian is nonseparable, the physical system is nonseparable.References:
Anderson, P. W., 1972, “More is different: Broken symmetry and the nature of hierarchical structure of science”
Bedau, M. A., 1997, “Weak Emergence”
Bishop, R. C., 2008, “Downward Causation in Fluid Mechanics”
Emmeche, C. et al, 2000, “Levels, emergence, and three versions of downward causation”
Kim, J, 2000, “Mind in a Physical World”
Kronz, F. M. et al, 2002, “Emergence and Quantum Mechanics”
Scott, A. C., 2003, “Nonlinear Science: Emergence and Dynamics of Coherent Structures”
Scott, A. C., 2004, “Reductionism Revisited”
Scott, A. C., 1996, “On Quantum Theories of the Mind”
Stapp, H. P., 1993, “Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics”
Stapp, H. P., 1997, “On Quantum Theories of the Mind”
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  • #2
Good thread, most of the way to becoming an insight. Would you consider a putting it into an insight?
  • #3
You have a confusing usage of terminology.

It appears that you are trying to present an idea on emergent phenomenon, something that I've written and posted about many times on here. Yet, you used the word "separable", which in mathematics and as used in physics, has a very clear definition (for example, what is separable in the solution to the Schrodinger equation for a spherical potential?).

And btw, many-body physics is not the exclusively domain of "elementary particle physics", not when many of many-body physics's clearest manifestations come out of solid state/condensed matter physics.

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I’ve not been active on PF for quite a long time but appreciate the thoughts on the Insight article. Yes, the term “separability” has different meanings depending on the topic. The OP was intended as a philosophy of science topic in which the term means some phenomenon exhibits locality. Healey (1994) summarizes separability as follows, “Intuitively, a separable process is one which is wholly determined by what happens locally – by what is happening at each spacetime point where that process is going on.”

So I’m using the term “separability” as it’s being used in philosophy of science. I've found a lot of people prefer the term "locality" but the intention and meaning is essentially the same. I’m pretty sure this thread was in the philosophy forum 10 years ago so perhaps it would have been more obvious at the time.

The OP attempted to provide some background on the 2 camps regarding emergence of phenomena which are classical in nature such as Rayleigh-Benard convection, tornadoes, nerve impulses or lynch mobs for example. Bishop, Scott and Anderson and others are on one side of the fence, but they represent the minority. Any phenomena describable using classical mechanics is weakly emergent (as defined by Bedau). Unfortunately, Bedau does not make the distinction between classical physics (separable phenomena) and quantum mechanics (non-separable phenomena). I haven’t seen any papers in public that try to relate levels of emergence with levels of physics with the possible exception of Kronz who also quotes Humphries.

The point I’m trying to make is that weak emergence is just a description of a system which is separable. I’m also trying to show what it means to be separable. Strong emergence by comparison describes a system which is nonseparable. Why is that important to science?

The primary reason is because we so often identify a system level causal influence which is only a higher order description of some correlation. This is especially true in biology for example. As Wikipedia puts it, “failure to recognize that different kinds of "cause" are being considered can lead to futile debate.” That’s actually a pretty good observation!

To understand separability, we first need to understand what it means that a phenomenon exhibits only classical mechanical phenomena. While classical mechanical phenomena are understood to obey quantum mechanics, these phenomena make no use of any of the special features of quantum mechanics. (Credit to Christoff Koch, 2006) Rayleigh-Benard convection is a good example. What is difficult to understand is how something like economics might also obey quantum mechanics while not making use of any of those special features. Anderson would suggest that social sciences (ex: economics) are causally efficacious. Jerry Fodor actually wrote a landmark paper on this (cited 1800+ times) where he claims Gresham’s Law is causally efficacious.

I have to ask, do the higher level sciences ever disobey quantum mechanics? I wouldn’t think so. And if not, if these higher level sciences don’t describe any phenomena which requires an explanation using any of the special features of quantum mechanics - then as long as these higher level interactions in this world (such as transfer of value / Gresham’s Law) similarly do not violate classical mechanics, then we need to accept that the higher level sciences rely on descriptions of phenomena which are classical and therefore separable. Classical descriptions describe the material interactions without resort to the lower level quantum ones. Rayleigh-Benard convection is a great example. We use Navier-Stokes equations to predict this – the phenomena does not use any of the special features of quantum mechanics. Similarly, neuron interactions, money transfers in banking, etc, do not make use of any of the special features of quantum mechanics.

Would this make a worthy Insight article? I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if it isn’t.

Regarding this section:
Here, his mention of levels reflects the levels as given by Phil Anderson (Anderson, 1972); for example, from lower level down to higher level:
solid state or many-body physics (referring to elementary particle physics)
Looks like something got cut off after “higher level:” The concept of gravitational attraction between many bodies was mentioned in the OP so hopefully it’s clear that my intent was not to suggest that many-body physics is only a phenomenon within elementary particle physics.

Healey, R. (1994). Nonseparable processes and causal explanation. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 25(3), 337-374.
Koch, C., & Hepp, K. (2006). Quantum mechanics in the brain. Nature, 440(7084), 611-611.
Fodor, J. A. (1974). Special sciences (or: the disunity of science as a working hypothesis). Synthese, 28(2), 97-115.
  • #5
If I go Rome, I’ll behave like romans do.

This is a physics forum. Yet, you are discarding the physics and mathematical definitions of these words, and instead upholding the definitions from philosophy.

Does this sound rational to you? What are the odds that you misunderstood many of the physics applications of such words, or confusing them to mean something else? I’m already confused at some the ways you are using these well-defined physics and math words.

Btw, I find it odd that in all of this, you ignored papers written by Laughlin, considering that he even wrote a whole book on it. And you really ought to give the complete reference to Anderson’s original Science paper.

4. R.B. Laughlin, Rev. Mod. Phys., v.71, p.863 (1999).

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  • #6
Zz, Why ask rhetorical questions? Why ask about philosophy and then say mathematics?
Laughlin talks about the middle way as Anderson talks about emergence in solid state physics. Their concepts of emergence are consistent with the above with the exception of "More is Different". Higher level sciences are not strongly emergent. Bottom line, the answer appears to be no.
  • #7
Q_Goest said:
Zz, Why ask rhetorical questions? Why ask about philosophy and then say mathematics?
Laughlin talks about the middle way as Anderson talks about emergence in solid state physics. Their concepts of emergence are consistent with the above with the exception of "More is Different". Higher level sciences are not strongly emergent. Bottom line, the answer appears to be no.

I have no idea what you wrote here. Maybe it’s philosophical.

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Related to Definition of Separable & Rules for Physical Systems: 65 Characters

1. What is the definition of separable in terms of physical systems?

The term "separable" refers to a physical system that can be broken down into individual components or parts that can be studied and analyzed separately.

2. How is separability determined in a physical system?

Separability in a physical system is determined by the ability to isolate and manipulate individual components without affecting the overall behavior of the system.

3. What are the rules for analyzing separable physical systems?

The rules for analyzing separable physical systems include identifying and isolating individual components, studying the interactions between these components, and understanding how changes in one component affect the behavior of the entire system.

4. Can all physical systems be considered separable?

No, not all physical systems can be considered separable. Some systems may have components that are too closely interconnected or interdependent, making it difficult to isolate and study them individually.

5. Why is the concept of separability important in scientific research?

The concept of separability is important in scientific research as it allows scientists to break down complex systems into smaller, more manageable parts for analysis. This can help in understanding the overall behavior of the system and making predictions about its future behavior.

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