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Jayakar Joseph: on 12/1/12 at 5:46am UTC, wrote Dear Ian Durham, On comparing the scenario of the universe that is...

Eckard Blumschein: on 10/13/12 at 7:44am UTC, wrote "What's the alternative" [to reductionism]? See Fig, 1 of my essay . I...

Matthew Jackson: on 10/5/12 at 20:33pm UTC, wrote Ian A very good defence or a very sensible proposition, and undervalued so...

Sergey Fedosin: on 10/4/12 at 4:50am UTC, wrote If you do not understand why your rating dropped down. As I found ratings...

Hoang Hai: on 10/1/12 at 4:01am UTC, wrote Dear Ian Durham Very interesting to see your essay. Perhaps all of us are...

Edwin Klingman: on 9/30/12 at 21:05pm UTC, wrote Dear Ian Durham, I very much enjoyed your essay. You did an excellent job...

Georgina Parry: on 9/30/12 at 12:36pm UTC, wrote Dear Ian Durham, I want to let you know that I read your essay some time...

James Putnam: on 9/28/12 at 19:42pm UTC, wrote Ian Durham, I find your writings to be fruitfully insightful. By this I...


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Objective reality, and the laws of physics themselves, emerge from our observations, according to a new framework that turns what we think of as fundamental on its head.

December 13, 2019

CATEGORY: Questioning the Foundations Essay Contest (2012) [back]
TOPIC: Rethinking the Scientific Enterprise: In Defense of Reductionism by Ian Durham [refresh]
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Author Ian Durham wrote on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 11:16 GMT
Essay Abstract

In this essay, I argue that modern science is not the dichotomous pairing of theory and experiment that it is typically presented as, and I offer an alternative paradigm defined by its functions as a human endeavor. I also demonstrate how certain sci- entific debates, such as the debate over the nature of the quantum state, can be partially resolved by this new paradigm.

Author Bio

Ian Durham is an Associate Professor of Physics at Saint Anselm College where he has served as Chair of both the Physics and Mathematics Departments and as Director of the Computational Physical Science Program. He is a member of FQXi.

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 19:11 GMT
Sorry Ian,

You leave me unconvinced that you have successfully defended reductionism. I like your statements about what it is not, and how it is a term often misapplied to methodologies that are not, at their heart, reductionist. But you have perhaps created another form that is not - strictly speaking - reductionism either, and is rather an argument that to employ reductionist methods we...

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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:00 GMT

I think you have partially missed my point. My suggestion that quantum mechanics might need multiple interpretations was precisely that: a suggestion. It was a far cry from the primary point of my essay which was that the old theory/experiment duality is not an accurate paradigm for describing science.

As for your continuing doubts about reductionism, I would be shocked if one eight-page essay by one person could definitively eliminate all doubts. My point about reductionism is that the anti-reductionist argument appears to be based entirely on an a priori assumption that the world is simply too complex to be explained by reductionist methods. In other words, anti-reductionism's argument against reductionism begins by assuming the latter is wrong to begin with. That's an argumentum ad ignorantiam: it assumes something is false simply because it has not been or cannot be proven to be true.

By better understanding the role of mathematics in science (and in the nature of the universe itself), I think it is too early to sound the death knell on reductionism. In fact I find it down-right dangerous since it opens the door to things like intelligent design which have no place in science.

Incidentally, reductionism does not mean that we are not interested in fully comprehending the whole of something (that's another inaccurate accusation lobbed at reductionists). Yes, sometimes the whole has properties whose meaning may be more than the sum of the meaning of its parts, but meaning is not the same thing as function. Meaning is not the realm of science, it is the realm of philosophy (which is not a bad thing, by the way).


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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:04 GMT
Oops! The first sentence in the third paragraph should have said:

"By better understanding the role of mathematics in science (and in the nature of the universe itself), I think we may find that it is too early to sound the death knell on reductionism."

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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:17 GMT
Let me add one more thing that was perhaps not made quite clear. There seems to be this assumption that reductionism automatically precludes more holistic approaches. But that's absurd. I can fully understand a car via reductionist methods, but understanding its purpose is still holistic. The holism comes from putting the pieces together. Perhaps a better example is a finger: a can dissect a finger and learn all sorts of wonderful things, but I still won't understand what causes it to move until I understand how the muscles and nerves are connected with the rest of the body. And yet I'm still using a reductionist method here.

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:26 GMT
Thanks again,

It appears that your comment above takes my reply into account, but appears just before I sent it. We must have been on the same wavelength after all.



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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:33 GMT
Can reductionism tell us anything about telepathy? LOL, just kidding.

Anyway, I appreciated your original comments. It's always good to poke holes in arguments. It's the only way we can know if we have made a mistake or not (and, it could be argued, is a reductionist method!). I don't mind feistiness as long as it is polite and free from vitriol (which your comments were).

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Jonathan J. Dickau replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:34 GMT
By the way,

You may find my essay more enjoyable than my comments were.

Cherished Assumptions and the Progress of Physics

Have a great day!


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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 4, 2012 @ 20:37 GMT
I will add it to my "to-read" list. (At some point, in a more private setting, I should ask you where in Upstate NY you are from...).

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Vladimir F. Tamari wrote on Sep. 5, 2012 @ 01:18 GMT
Dear Ian

I enjoyed reading your lucid and well-reasoned essay and Jonathan's retorts. As an Arab (my Russian name notwithstanding!) I laud your placing Ibn Al-Haytham where he belongs - at the beginning of any historical discussion of the scientific method. Sadly most such discussions start with Galileo ignoring Al-Haytham's pivotal contribution. Having said that, and having read his Kitab...

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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 5, 2012 @ 01:45 GMT

Thanks for the nice comments! I must admit that I am not as familiar with Al-Haytham's work as I probably should be. That being said, I think that it's really the people who came after him and re-interpreted his work that distilled it into theory and experiment. As with everything, when we do something our intentions and motives are always more complex than they are later remembered. In other words, history has a bad habit of over-simplifying. So I think you are correct in saying that his work is considerably more nuanced than history has made it out to be.

I will add your essay to my reading list!



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Vladimir F. Tamari wrote on Sep. 5, 2012 @ 06:43 GMT
Thanks Ian,

here is a poster I designed about Ibn-Al-Haytham to showcase my Arabic font design for a typography contest.

Best wishes,


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Anonymous wrote on Sep. 6, 2012 @ 19:12 GMT
In a serious sense anti-reductionism is a straw man. Practically, realistically, there's no other way to do experimental science except analytically. Scientists (and there'll always be those people because folks need to do something with their lives) will continue to employ reductionist methodologies because what's the alternative? Or at least they'll continue until they discover they no longer can, at which time the paradigm will shift big time anyway.

It's sort of like inveighing against postmodernism. Corrupting the minds of an entire generation, of the whole intellectual class! Not so much. Besides, a lot of the funding's dried up.

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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 8, 2012 @ 02:50 GMT

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Eckard Blumschein replied on Oct. 13, 2012 @ 07:44 GMT
"What's the alternative" [to reductionism]? See Fig, 1 of my essay .

I hesitate to accept:

(1) "We are inherently assuming, here, that mathematics can fully describe physical systems. This may or may not be true, but for now we assume that it is.

(2) But mathematics is built on logic and is thus internally completely self-consistent. In other words, mathematics is and always has been assumed to be purely reductionist."

Euclidean mathematics was abandoned by Dedekind and others and has been considered internally completely self-consistent since then. If "measurement, description, and predictive explanation ... are the essence of reductionism" then [2] might be questionable.

May I infer that Euclidean mathematics still included a sound and necessary restriction to pure reductionism?

I consider IR+ and IR equally based on logic and therefore completely self-consistent in principle.

I even suspect that some obvious to me imperfections of mathematics (for examples cf. topic 833) resulted from a brutal pseudo-reductionist pseudo-holism (infinitum creatum sive transfinitum) in mathematics.

Nonetheless, I see Durham's essay not just excellently written but even more importantly a relevant revelation of a wrong fundamental assumption.


Eckard Blumschein

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John Merryman wrote on Sep. 7, 2012 @ 16:51 GMT

I would certainly defend the intellectual necessity of reductionism, even to the point of describing it as a reflection of natural processes, as evidenced by some of the colloquial terms applied to it, such as distill, condense, focus, etc. As one might distill out the salient points of interest, or condense an argument to its irreducible points.

I would argue that statistics...

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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 8, 2012 @ 02:49 GMT
Hi John,

Thanks for those comments. I fundamentally agree with your first few paragraphs. I'll have to think about the rest. Certainly some of the ideas in my essay were born from last year's FQXi conference on time and many of these ideas (including those relating to complexity) were discussed at length.

And I would agree that statistics can be a part of reductionism (in fact I argued that to some extent in my essay in that I include it in the mathematical piece). I'll have to think about the rest. ;)


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John Merryman replied on Sep. 8, 2012 @ 16:46 GMT

Thank you for the response. I have to say I frequently get negative reaction to this point about time, without much reasoned response. I think a significant part of that is it requires examining the serial foundation on which knowledge rests. As a cardiologist neighbor of mine once responded, when I made this point, "Stop it. You're hurting my head."

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Sreenath B N. wrote on Sep. 8, 2012 @ 08:14 GMT
Dear Ian,

Thanks for your deeply original article. According to me,as you feel,reductionism has its own limitations when applied to science as a whole. For example,you can apply reductionism to physics to any limits i.e.,as long as you can reduce all the four fundamental physical forces to one unifying force. But the same thing doesn't work with biology and its related sciences.This is simply because you got to take in to account 'Evolutionary Traits' like the emergence of intelligence,consiousness and the like.So as a result of which you cannot explain the behaviours of more complx organisms like humans on the basis of simpler organisms like amoeba and the like.

Now coming to the various interpretations of Quantum-Mechanics, I too have my own interpretation of Quantum-Mechanics and it can give some different insights in to the quantum world not given by other versions of QM. For this,please,go through my essay ( B N.) and later I give you an equation following from my version of QM and which cannot be derived from other versions of QM.

Thanking you and wishing you good luck in the essay competition.


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Viraj Fernando wrote on Sep. 9, 2012 @ 18:28 GMT
Dear Ian,

I read your insightful essay with great interest. Contrary to what has been stated by another commentator, my position is that you cannot apply reductionism to any limit in physics. Limits to reductionism starts in physics itself. Then when it goes to the next higher levels, the relation between the parts and the whole becomes even more complex.

Nevertheless, reductionism...

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Peter Jackson wrote on Sep. 19, 2012 @ 17:45 GMT

As I advocate modelling, testing and pattern matching, I agreed with your thesis, but it was also well described and argued. I also agree with the 3 part view; measurement (quantification), description, and predictive explanation, and;

"it aims for logical self-consistency with the crucial additional assumption that science, as a whole, is ultimately universal. This last point implies that all of science is intimately connected."

Using that approach my own essay seems to represents a proof of your views, showing how a 'reductionist algorithm' in terms of a combination of real quantum mechanisms can use a logical (TPL) structure to build a complex ontological construction able to derive the macro classical universe directly from the quanta. i.e. the SR postulates, (inc. CSL) and space-time from dynamic evolution of wave-particle interaction.

I proposed to Julian that any correct model must describe the universe at all scales, so holism is not sacrificed, and even a pre 'big bang' condition emerges from a better 'all scales' interpretation. I've failed to falsify it, so hope you can study, comment, and either do so or use it's predictive powers.

Last year you replied to me "I don't think anything will truly change until there is a major breakthrough in experiment." Look at Fig 2 of Rich Kingsley-Nixey's essay, showing the results of the massive Cluster probe 'experiment'; the real boundary condition I invoke for mutually exclusive states, simply requiring the better more logically consistent interpretation he also finds.

You did not appear to (one of the few it seems) read my essay last year ('2020 vision' 7 behind yours). I hope you might now for background as only the tip of the iceberg fits in 9 pages.

I think you deserve to better your last years finish. I look forward to your views on mine (beneath the layer of Theatre).

Thank you in hopeful anticipation, and very best wishes.


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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 21, 2012 @ 02:01 GMT
Hi Peter,

Thanks so much for your encouraging words!

I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly regarding holism. I will add your essay to my list and hope to get to it soon. I got through a couple and then got crazy busy with some stuff. But I hope to get back to reading them next week sometime.


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Member Ken Wharton wrote on Sep. 20, 2012 @ 21:18 GMT
Hi Ian,

Nice essay! I particularly liked the point that "description" and "explanation" are both important aspects of science, and are distinct activities. (There's probably some mileage to be had in exploring how one generation's explanation is the next generation's description, which in turn needs a deeper explanation, but I agree with you that these are nonetheless generally distinct functions of science, and should be viewed in that light -- as you argue.)

My one quibble has to do with the sudden appearance and use of the word "predictive" (no surprise there, I'm sure!). You didn't spend much time justifying it, as prediction is evidently important, but I wonder how you would feel about moving the adjective "predictive" over to the "description" camp. In other words, instead of distinguishing "description" vs. "predictive explanation", what about distinguishing "predictive description" from "explanation".

After all, the word "description" implies that one is conveying some fact about reality to us humans, and to us, the most useful descriptions will be predictive. Meanwhile, ultimate explanations are (I hope) completely blind to whether humans even exist or not, so limiting scientific explanations to only predictively-useful ones seems overly restrictive. And of course I'd hate to think you're ruling out my preferred explanation of quantum phenomena by mere fiat -- or, at least, not without a good stiff argument! :-)



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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 21, 2012 @ 02:25 GMT
Hi Ken,

As I mentioned during our Scrabble game, I swear yours is next on my to-read list. ;)

Anyway, I actually disagree with you about where the word 'predictive' belongs. I don't see descriptions as being in any way predictive. A description is precisely that: a description. What allows us to make inferences from descriptions is the associated explanation. For example, suppose I have just landed on a deserted island and found an animal (maybe one I've never seen before). Suppose it has two tails. Can I properly infer that all such animals have two tails? How do I know what is an anomaly and what is not? I can't make any solid inferences without additional data (more examples of the animal). In fact, the mere act of making an assumption or inference immediately implies that you are inherently providing an explanation of sorts because there has to be something behind your assumption. So if I assume all such animals have two tails, my explanation is that all such animals look the same (or even more simply, that they all must have two tails!). Do you see what I mean? Description just describes. As soon as we make any kind of assumption, we are "predicting," whether or not we realize it.

Now, as for your preferred explanation of quantum phenomena, I don't necessarily think I'm ruling it out. How do you know your explanation (I assume you're referring to your final boundary condition one, right?) won't turn out to be predictive as well as descriptive?


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Author Ian Durham replied on Sep. 21, 2012 @ 02:26 GMT
Oh, and thanks for the compliment (that was rude of me to forget to say that - my mother taught me better - but it's late and I'm falling asleep...). ;) Seriously, thanks, I appreciate that you liked it.

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Richard William Kingsley-Nixey wrote on Sep. 22, 2012 @ 12:42 GMT

High quality essay. Perhaps a hard battle to win, but Peters essay, 'Much ado about nothing' (but really everything) is consistent with mine and both seem to show that reductionaism does produce the goods, producing classical observation, or the SR posultates, from applying logic to quantum mechanisms. In a way both also use the 'top down' or at least 'holistic' approach to reductionism. Do please give your views.



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Member Benjamin F. Dribus wrote on Sep. 23, 2012 @ 11:00 GMT
Dear Ian,

Very well written! In addition to the interesting nature of the topic (particularly to someone like me), I appreciate the general viewpoint and broad historical and philosophical context. I have a few questions and remarks:

1. On page 2, you note the close relationship between causality and the “reduction” of a system to its “constituent parts,” and on page 4,...

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 01:19 GMT
Hello Ian,

I have a very tough question for you. Does a reductionist mindset adversely affect funding for scientific research, or is it mainly the false application of reductionist methods that leads governments and foundations to limit research funds to a few promising possibilities - on the basis that there is only one correct answer? People with a background in Economics seize on this...

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 01:35 GMT
By the way,

I wanted to mention that I enjoyed your essay greatly, Ian, and that I also fully understand what a useful and essential tool reductionism is. But it's part of a duality; formant synthesis and additive synthesis can yield the same result, and our brains are wired to give us both a fragmented and a holistic view simultaneously.

So people who have conveniently tuned the creative portion of their brain out, in order to function in a world of Finance which demands absolute reductionism, have a hard time understanding why research is better handled in a way that is more open-ended for the researcher. We should consider, however, what actually works.

I cite Doug Osheroff, in my essay, as an example of the playful approach that encourages one to look where nobody has looked before (and he won the Nobel). But people of a cautious mindset borne of years of exclusive dedication to reductionism find the whole idea of a playful approach distasteful, as it equates with 'just fooling around' instead of 'serious Science.'

Your feedback on this would be valued.



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Yuri Danoyan wrote on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 01:53 GMT
Dear Johnatan

Freeman Dyson described reductionism in physics as the effort "to reduce the world of physical phenomena to a finite set of fundamental equations".

Please read my 2 essays


It is a real triumph of reductionism.

No doubt about reductionism...

All the best

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James Putnam wrote on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 19:42 GMT
Ian Durham,

I find your writings to be fruitfully insightful. By this I mean that you communicate your insights in a not so individual-matter-of-fact manner that I feel is all too common. But, rather state them so that their potential extends beyond your own statements and are adaptable to the thoughts of others.

My opinion about emergent properties is an individual-matter-of-fact opinion. I see it as the theorists' rationalization of their failure to achieve theory that predicts such properties. The temptation to believe, and act as if, we are near the end while still only scratching at the surface is an assumption that I feel needs to constantly be refuted with revision, including deletion, of theory while also adding the many missing parts at all levels. I am expressing only my own opinion.

I apply your statements to my own ideas while still reading yours. My thoughts undergo reorganization and alteration perhaps becoming potentially more accurate and more thoughtful in presentation. I revise theory at the introductory level. I already want to re-write my essay.

Aside from what I think about theory, for professionals I feel that your method of presentation contributes to stimulating scientific progress. Your essay deserves higher rating than its present position. Good luck in the contest.


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Georgina Parry wrote on Sep. 30, 2012 @ 12:36 GMT
Dear Ian Durham,

I want to let you know that I read your essay some time ago and have just taken another look at it. It is very good. Though I must agree with Tom's comment that it does not have to be acceptance or rejection of reductionism. There are situations where consideration of complexity is more useful than reductionism, (such as when thinking about an organism or an organisation,...

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Sep. 30, 2012 @ 21:05 GMT
Dear Ian Durham,

I very much enjoyed your essay. You did an excellent job describing 'probability and statistics' -- two words that often go together and may be naively interpreted to mean pretty much the 'same thing'. I appreciate your emphasizing the difference in meaning of these terms.

I also liked your summary of interpretations of quantum mechanics as 1.) statistical, derived from measurements, and 2.) epistemological, a state of knowledge that can be updated, ie, probabilistic, or 3.) ontolological, ie, descriptive of the real state.

I have a slight variation on these, linking the ontology of a real wave to the probability associated with FGourier analysis in Hilbert space, ie, the wave function. I hope you will read my essay, The Nature of the Wave Function, and comment on it.

Best regards,

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Hoang cao Hai wrote on Oct. 1, 2012 @ 04:01 GMT
Dear Ian Durham

Very interesting to see your essay.

Perhaps all of us are convinced that: the choice of yourself is right!That of course is reasonable.

So may be we should work together to let's the consider clearly defined for the basis foundations theoretical as the most challenging with intellectual of all of us.

Why we do not try to start with a real challenge is very close and are the focus of interest of the human science: it is a matter of mass and grain Higg boson of the standard model.

Knowledge and belief reasoning of you will to express an opinion on this matter:

You have think that: the Mass is the expression of the impact force to material (definition from the ABSOLUTE theory of me) - so no impact force, we do not feel the Higg boson - similar to the case of no weight outside the Earth's atmosphere.

Does there need to be a particle with mass for everything have volume? If so, then why the mass of everything change when moving from the Earth to the Moon? Higg boson is lighter by the Moon's gravity is weaker than of Earth?

The LHC particle accelerator used to "Smashed" until "Ejected" Higg boson, but why only when the "Smashed" can see it,and when off then not see it ?

Can be "locked" Higg particles? so when "released" if we do not force to it by any the Force, how to know that it is "out" or not?

You are should be boldly to give a definition of weight that you think is right for us to enjoy, or oppose my opinion.

Because in the process of research, the value of "failure" or "success" is the similar with science. The purpose of a correct theory be must is without any a wrong point ?

Glad to see from you comments soon,because still have too many of the same problems.

Kind Regards !


August 23, 2012 - 11:51 GMT on this essay contest.

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Sergey G Fedosin wrote on Oct. 4, 2012 @ 04:50 GMT
If you do not understand why your rating dropped down. As I found ratings in the contest are calculated in the next way. Suppose your rating is
was the quantity of people which gave you ratings. Then you have
of points. After it anyone give you
of points so you have
of points and
is the common quantity of the people which gave you ratings. At the same time you will have
of points. From here, if you want to be R2 > R1 there must be:
In other words if you want to increase rating of anyone you must give him more points
then the participant`s rating
was at the moment you rated him. From here it is seen that in the contest are special rules for ratings. And from here there are misunderstanding of some participants what is happened with their ratings. Moreover since community ratings are hided some participants do not sure how increase ratings of others and gives them maximum 10 points. But in the case the scale from 1 to 10 of points do not work, and some essays are overestimated and some essays are drop down. In my opinion it is a bad problem with this Contest rating process. I hope the FQXI community will change the rating process.

Sergey Fedosin

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Matthew Peter Jackson wrote on Oct. 5, 2012 @ 20:33 GMT

A very good defence or a very sensible proposition, and undervalued so low down. A good score is desereved.

We do hope you may also comment on our logical derivation of Copenhagen.



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Jayakar Johnson Joseph wrote on Dec. 1, 2012 @ 05:46 GMT
Dear Ian Durham,

On comparing the scenario of the universe that is expressional as holarchy of trichotomous matters described in the paradigm of Coherently-cyclic cluster matter universe, with the dichotomous scenario expressional in Lambda-CDM model of universe; we may resolve that the universe is eternal in that the causality on its origin from nothingness is evaded.

This implies that the current statistical methods and computations, needs new algorithms to experiment theoretical updates for validations. Thus the probabilistic nature of quantum computing may be reduced on considering the dynamics of string-matters expressional on this paradigm in that dimensionality emerges with string-dynamics and reductionism is much applicable to express complex things.

With best wishes


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