16. Western Thought on Fast Forward, cont.
Finally I look up and realize that I went off on a very long detour through Rosen, and never finished the speeded-up history of science. Where was I? Oh yes.
Scene Three: thermodynamics. A French engineer named Sadi Carnot, in the first half of the 19th century, is the first to poke a hole in the universality of Newton’s explanation. It turns out, in the real world, that in every mechanical process some energy is always dissipated in the form of heat. This doesn’t violate the law of the conservation of energy; the same amount of energy is still there, but it’s there in a different, less useful form. Think of a car: combustion in the engine releases energy from gasoline that drives it forward. Now the car has kinetic energy, because it has mass and it’s moving. You come to a stop sign, you put the brakes on, and when the car stops, where does that kinetic energy go? The friction of brake shoe on brake drum converts it into heat. The heat energy dissipates in the air and is no longer useful, even though it still exists; you have to put in more energy from gasoline to get the car moving again. Braking, of course, is intentional, but the point of Carnot’s discovery is that all forms of energy eventually degrade into heat whether we like it or not, and the amount of usable energy always decreases. Conversely, entropy always increases, because entropy is a measure of how much energy is not available to do useful work. Concentrations of energy must dissipate; disorder must increase. In the very long run, the universe will run down and end at a uniform minimal temperature everywhere (“heat death”), with no local concentration of energy available to support life, or indeed to cause anything to happen. The last atom will stop jiggling, and that will be that. Thus (depressingly) spake thermodynamics. Contrary to Newton, the arrow of time therefore is not reversible, and the universal clockwork can’t be perfect.
Scientists get pretty exercised about this intrusion from the world of engineering creating a major problem for the Newtonian explanation of things, but by the end of the 19th century, they manage to resolve it by the creation of statistical mechanics, which as Ulanowicz puts it, made it “conceivable that a collection of particles could act in Newtonian fashion at the microscopic scale but nevertheless exhibit irreversibility in the large.” (EAP 25) I don’t know much more about it than this, but I get the point: consensus on the Newtonian paradigm was preserved by some brilliant mathematics and a wish to keep it intact.
Scene Four is taking place now: ecology, complexity, systems thinking. Those who study living systems can’t help seeing that the thermodynamic scenario of inexorable dissipation is not all there is to it. Ulanowicz’s book focuses on the way ecosystems become more structured on their own, and the dialectical relationship between order and disorder in the natural world.
Many ecosystems go through a life cycle that can be seen as starting from a point where they suddenly revert to Square One, like the aftermath of a major forest fire. At first there’s no organization and a lot of nutrients available everywhere. Everything starts growing at once. The level of activity increases by leaps and bounds. Gradually, as all kinds of life forms re-establish themselves, the level of organization in the system starts increasing. Some support each other’s expansion by “indirect mutualism,” or “autocatalysis.” The relationship among the organisms in an ecosystem – a formal cause, not material or mechanical – plays a crucial role. “Indirect mutualism” is a circular causal loop, a symbiotic positive-sum game in which all the organisms involved thrive better than they could on their own. An observer no longer just sees everything growing madly at once; now certain animals, plants, and micro-organisms are becoming more important players in the ecosystem, because of describable relationships among them.
Ulanowicz proposes that we can best understand the development of ecosystems through a concept he calls “ascendency,” which is simultaneously a measure of both the level of activity within an ecosystem, and the orderliness of it. His core hypothesis is that “In the absence of overwhelming external disturbances, living systems exhibit a natural propensity to increase in ascendency.” (75) Which means they not only grow more active – essentially, more nutrients flow through the ecosystem – they also grow more organized. This is what has a “natural propensity” to happen. The world we’re living in is not in a perfectly steady decline whose downward slope never changes; the real picture is much more localized, much bumpier or more “granular.” Order spontaneously arises, and structure constantly creates itself, in the world around us.
But ascendency has its limits. Besides the ascendency of the ecosystem (the spontaneously organizing part), there is what Ulanowicz calls the “overhead,” which is the “disordered residual”; it is an index of the extent to which the system remains indeterminate. And this is what sticks with me most strongly and resonates beyond ecology: the overhead – the redundant, disorganized, “unsuccessful” part – is required as part of a healthy ecosystem. “A sustainable system requires a balance between ascendency and redundancy.” (86) Why? Because if the system becomes too organized, if it consists of only the few most efficient, most tightly linked organisms supporting each other, then it is vulnerable to collapse if any one of those organisms should be done in by a change in the environment. The overhead is a safety margin.
. . . the endpoint of senescence [in the life cycle of an ecosystem], owing as it does to insufficient overhead, engenders in us a new appreciation for the necessary role that inefficient, incoherent, redundant . . . events and processes play in maintaining and even creating order throughout the lifetime of a system.
. . . Ascendencies tend to increase through the pruning of their less efficient, less cooperative elements. But when a system is confronted by a novel or extremely infrequent challenge, something that under normal circumstances had been a liability suddenly takes on a potential for strength-in-reserve. It is from the reservoir of sundry and unfit processes that comprise its overhead that the system draws to create an adaptive response to the new threat. (92, bold added; italics original)
Here we are in a book by a professional ecologist with scores of publications to his name, writing in an attempt to influence the thinking of his peers, and what does he say the ecosystem does? It creates. I’ve spent my whole work life, in and out of the classroom, on the kind of writing called creative, on cultivating the imagination. My profession revolves around the fact that people, by not fully explainable means, can bring forth something that was not there before – which seems now to converge with the insights of contemporary science: that order spontaneously arises, that a living system creates. The notion of overhead fits beautifully with the making of art: an artist’s work is inefficient, may well appear incoherent to some, is redundant in the sense of not being obviously useful. Yet that which is disorderly is needed to keep a gorgeously harmonious complex system going. Art is a “sundry and unfit process,” and yet it may be a major part of a society’s strength in reserve.
In short, we live in a world where more than material and mechanical (efficient) causes are at work. If the entropy of the entire universe is steadily increasing, on the local scale of our experience order can create itself. The Newtonian vision of particles pushed around by forces is not, after all, the universal explanation it once seemed. It has taken a very long time for this to become a statement one could make seriously, because the physical sciences have long added up to a compelling and coherent world-view, and there certainly is not yet a consensus on altering that picture. When you’re sure you know how everything fundamentally works, exceptions are easily dismissed as fuzzy thinking, negligible artifacts created by flawed methods of observation, even sentimentality and anthropomorphism. It’s too much trouble to start questioning the fundamental assumptions at this stage. And having a career is all about doing science the way we’re doing it. And what’s the point, anyway? Who wants to give up all the beneficial discoveries of the last three hundred years?
And, and, and . . . but. Another version of reality has started to become respectable. In this vision, not only do we not live in a deterministic world, we don’t live in one that is totally explainable. Ilya Prigogine (Nobel Prize in chemistry, no less) has written books titled Order out of Chaos (1984) and The End of Certainty (1997). In 1982 Karl Popper, an enormously respected philosopher of science, published The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism. Ulanowicz sums up Popper’s key point this way:
. . . among the enormous welter of events that make up our world, the strictly mechanical comprise but a minor fraction. Of course, mechanisms are useful as ideal limits to which other phenomena conform to greater or lesser degrees. The universe in general, however, is open. In accounting for the reasons why some particular event happens, it is often not possible to identify all the causes, even if we include all levels of explanation: there will always remain a small (sometimes infinitesimal) open window that no cause covers. This openness is what drives evolution. It is only by acknowledging such lacunae that we embark upon the pathway to a solid “evolutionary theory of knowledge.” (37)
What Ulanowicz calls the overhead in an ecosystem is the “open” part of it in Popper’s sense of the word, the part that cannot be fully explained and certainly cannot be predicted; and this unpredictable, less understandable piece is crucial to the organized ascendency’s ongoing success. “In the end . . . one single observation makes it impossible not to question the sufficiency of the Newtonian description: Life itself cannot exist in a wholly deterministic world. Some degree of causal openness is essential if living systems are to respond to new and novel material and the energetic signals that continually threaten them.” (145)
For three-plus centuries, physics has been thought of as the ultimate science, the most basic, the most general; everything else, including biology, has been seen as a special case of physics. The emerging understanding is that that’s backwards – that Newtonian mechanics is a special case, or what Rosen calls “an artificial human limitation on reality.” The problem lies in using the Newtonian system as a metaphor and then forgetting that it is one, or at least that’s the way I put it to myself, because the default way for my brain to work is literary. A metaphor says that something “is” what it is not: “my daughter is a garden in May.” Not “my daughter is like a garden,” which would be a simile; in a metaphor she flat-out “is” one. Of course we know better than to imagine she’s made up of dirt and flowering plants. But there is that moment when the mind makes the short but powerful leap: ah, it’s figurative. It’s asking me to create the bridge between daughter and garden. So what is there about that plot of land in May that she, in her own way, “is”? It’s blooming, it’s growing, it hasn’t reached its full growth yet, new developments appear in it every day if you look closely . . . What, then, 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 just the mechanical parts of the world, but all of it, including the living beings? Put the “is” in quotation marks and it’s still a metaphor, we can still ask ourselves both how that’s true and how that’s not true. But if we lose the quotation marks and forget that it’s a metaphor – which is what Western culture seems to have done – if we start taking this sentence to be a statement of fact, now we’re doing what Maturana and Varela talked about: bringing forth a world. We use language to create the world we find ourselves facing. Then the consequences are drastic.
The particle piece of the metaphor is influential in itself: the consequence of it is that the true causes of events here on earth are assumed to occur at the microscopic level of atoms or molecules. Thus we now assume that the key to all causation in living things must be DNA. More sweepingly, whatever we experience with our unaided senses is determined elsewhere; when we look around us we find no causes, only effects. Thinking this way undermines the value of our human-scale perceptions, to say nothing of our intuitions. It privileges observation by intermediary instruments which are thought of as the only truthful, reliable sources of observation. But “there is no reason . . . to regard knowledge that arises from immediate experience as necessarily inferior to
that obtained via mechanical aids.” The science of the past three centuries has been able “to draw coherent pictures of the world at remote scales. . . . By and large, however, it has not sufficed to paint a coherent picture of events at hand.” (148-149)
Once the Newtonian world-view becomes a universal explanation, there’s no way out. A world of “state at time T entails state at time T+1, and so on in unbroken succession” is, in the end, a world that is determined, and that determinism includes us. As Ulanowicz puts it, “A world of events so linked up is causally ‘closed.’ Nothing truly novel can occur in one’s immediate surroundings.” (145) “In a Newtonian world of only material and mechanical causes, creation simply has no place.” (93)
It gradually dawns on me that the Newtonian world-view has created a bizarre, self-contradictory situation. A mechanistic view of events at this level where we live confers tremendous power on humans to control nature; and less obviously, but just as powerfully, it undermines the agency of the humans themselves. On its face, possession of this kind of knowledge creates domination and arrogance; but on the flip side its implication is powerlessness. From the beginning, the knowers thought they could exclude themselves from being determined, yet the content of what they knew was determinism. This fundamental contradiction was ignored, or could be dealt with by religious conviction. Or maybe, simply enough, by compartmentalization: create a sort of bulkhead between one’s personal humanness and one’s explanation of everything else, and hope for the best. Result, what C.P. Snow called the “two cultures.” But it looks as though in the twenty-first century, finally, an alternative world-view is emerging from within science which might mean that that bulkhead, which is a tenuous protection in any case, will no longer be necessary.