From Laplace’s Demon to a New Consensus
[talk delivered at Simmons College, 2/17/09]
My sabbatical project started off being about water and evolved into an examination of how we imagine our relationship with nature. This talk is about how scientific paradigms can influence that act of imagination.
Laplace’s Demon is the name of an idea that dates from the early 19th century. It was conceived by a mathematician named Pierre Laplace. It’s the Newtonian vision to the max: if some superhuman intelligence – which would be the so-called “demon” – could know the position of every particle in the universe at a given moment, and all the forces acting upon them, then by applying Newton’s physics, this super-intellect could predict all their interactions, and therefore it could predict every event in the future. The vision of having that kind of knowledge was sufficiently compelling that it acquired a name and here I am talking about it almost two centuries later.
It seems to me that the notion of Laplace’s Demon reflects the idea that we can have total mastery –
total control. It invites us to identify with a godlike knower that stands apart from the universe and can see all the way to the end of time.
I believe we live in a mash-up of different eras of knowledge,
and in this particular sense we haven’t left the 19th century. It’s not that science hasn’t gone beyond Newton – it has, but it seems to me the wider culture has not.
I think many non-scientists believe in what I would call a secular religion of scientism, which says that Science with a capital S is like Laplace’s Demon: science possesses superhuman intelligence, everything in nature is knowable or should be, and therefore, in principle, everything in the world around us can be predicted and controlled.
Now, a different vision is in the process of emerging from biology and ecology, one that I think subsumes the Newtonian world-view and assigns it a niche in a larger reality. I want to try to sketch in this alternate vision very briefly and then point to what it says about the relationship between language and the environment.
In the Newtonian paradigm, causation is above all linear. A causes B, and by definition B cannot simultaneously cause A – that would be so-called “circular reasoning.” The doer is always separate from the thing done. A series of particle interactions unfolds in linear fashion, no matter how complicated it may become.
If you know all the parameters of a particle’s state now (velocity, momentum, and so on), Newton’s laws of motion will tell you what its state necessarily must be an instant from now. By keeping track of an unbroken succession of instants,
each one entailing the next one,
you can account for what happens to that particle in a world of mechanistic interactions.
The intellectual technique supporting our mastery of the physical world has been to break down complicated phenomena into small enough interactions that they can be analyzed in this mechanistic fashion, so therefore they can be predicted and controlled.
Now, we know this explanation works incredibly well for machines. The problem comes when you extend it to living things.
One of my main sources is the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen. Rosen’s most fundamental point, in his book Life Itself, is that we cannot possibly understand life in terms of mechanical interactions alone. There is not enough causation in the Newtonian world-view to account for what happens in an organism. The ultimate biological implication of this argument is that life itself would not be possible in a deterministic universe.
Why not? Why isn’t there enough causation in Newton? What’s the crucial difference between an organism and a machine? Living things, according to Rosen, possess attributes or capabilities which he calls “functional components,” that exist because of the organism’s structure, its organization. Not because of a linear, mechanistic, colliding-particle sort of causation. Functional components cannot be isolated in one location within the organism or separated out from the organism as a whole. These functional components, according to Rosen, are as real as, or more real than, the organism’s physical parts, and they are crucial to life.
One of the essential functional components of any organism is its capacity for self-repair. Cells replace their enzymes, the organism replaces its cells, it constantly rebuilds itself, and furthermore
– this is the key attribute –
it re-creates its capacity to rebuild itself.
The repair function, like other functional components, is self-replicating. The basic aliveness of the organism depends on closed causal loops, on circularity of causation.
Unlike the Newtonian particle, an organism is not only subject to cause from outside, it is also, crucially, the cause of itself.
Similarly, an ecosystem depends on causal loops for its continued existence. It consists of many organisms, both macro- and microscopic, but what makes it a system is not the roster of organisms in it. What makes it a system is the structure of their relationships. It is a symbiotic positive-sum game in which all the organisms involved thrive better than they could on their own. There is no prime mover, no starting point; the whole process is simply underway. The causation involved is anything but linear. On top of this, the ecosystem itself evolves; the environment is not changeless and neither are the ecosystems within it, even when we might like them to be.
An ecosystem self-organizes; it is a prime example of spontaneously arising order in the world around us, which is a notion absolutely foreign to Newtonian physics. This has an important consequence that we can’t ignore: if life, both on the scale of the organism and of the ecosystem, is that which causes itself, then we will never truly control it.
The idea that life is a form of organization, one that is self-causing and self-organizing, has a name in biology: “autopoiesis.” That word was invented in the 1970’s by two Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who have been very influential in the field known as systems thinking. And I’m going to have to skip over all sorts of interesting stuff and jump to some of their conclusions. Basically, they take the position that every organism is an autonomous and self-contained little world operating on its own terms that are dictated by its own structure. Yet at the same time, this autonomous organism is congruent with life on this planet because it has evolved in and with its environment. This should be as true of us as of any other organism alive.
But the question now is, are we still congruent with life on Earth? It appears we may be in the process of becoming something that is not sustainable within this environment. And how is that even possible?
The short answer to that question, I think, is that it’s possible because of language. Through the infinitely recombinant power of language, we’ve become creators of meanings that are no longer tethered to the particulars of our current circumstances. Language enables us to hypothesize, imagine, plan and remember far more powerfully than we could without it. Our particular humanness is that we use language together, to create consensus meanings, otherwise known as culture. Maturana and Varela would say it is a biological fact that the activity of language creates the world that people in any given culture conceive themselves to be surrounded by. Our reality rests on a consensus with others.
As a novelist and a teacher of creative writing, I’m accustomed to saying that a literary art work “creates a world.” What I’m driving at here is that a certain strand of biology also says that the human use of language always and inevitably creates the world that we perceive ourselves to be living in.
So all this is by way of saying that it matters a great deal if people keep articulating a world-view like that of Laplace’s Demon. If we say that the Newtonian vision of particles, propelled by forces, interacting in a linear, mechanistic way, “is” the way the world works – not only the mechanical parts of the world, but all of it, including the living beings –
then we’re using language to create the world we find ourselves facing. The consequences are drastic, because if Rosen and others are right, a mechanistic world denies the possibility of the very qualities that constitute aliveness. A mechanistic quote-unquote “reality” blocks the possibility of even perceiving the role of structure and relationship, including the truth of our relationship to the environment around us. It represents nature to us as something we can dominate and control.
MY truth, which I am trying to constitute through language right now, is that we are part of a self-organizing system, and if we’re going to succeed and survive, some of the time we have to be willing to let the system organize us. I strongly suspect that the only way we can comprehend a world of relational causes, like ecosystems, is by persistently and creatively using language to constitute a consensus reality: that we are folded in with our environment, that we cannot float free from it, that its aliveness and autonomy is not less than our own, and that our relationship with it is one of equality. If we imagine nature in such a way, then we have a shot at collaborating with it instead of trying to dominate it. And this I believe is our only good option.