Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The trouble with the death of determinism is that there is no clear way to get an intellectual handle on indeterminism. We are intellectually incapable of imagining that systems are only partially, if at all, determined by the ways we think of them. The computer that is ‘wholly’ mechanical and that has now become the machine-model par excellence, particularly in mechanical theories of the mind, is only determined in terms of the logic of its programmes and the physics of its hardware: it is only determined in our knowledge and by the limits of that knowledge. For the rest, it goes its own sweet way. We have been surprised by the ability of computer programmes to come up with apparently ‘new’ and ‘creative’ ideas as a result of the running of a particular programme. The chaos-theoreticians who first started playing with computers were particularly fond of quoting the example of the ‘Game of Life’ that seemed able, on the basis of a simple set of rules, to innovate structures on the display-screen that seemed to show some of the basic ‘mechanisms’ of the evolutionary process: competition, selection, reproduction, variation, and so on. For this reason the machine was considered as being as capable of creativity as nature. What we failed to understand is that the machine may be creative precisely because it is part of nature and not because, according to our abstract understanding of it, it is a machine. After all the piece of hardware is only a deterministic machine according to the ideal, abstract machine that constitutes its design. That bit we understand; but the entity itself remains a part of nature and as such is inscrutable to us.

We understand our own machines, because we make them; but – and it is an important ‘but’ – we only understand the abstract machine of our conception, not its concrete realisation. Even the simplest machines are only mechanical in the way we think they are because of the ideal mechanism that constitutes their design. That design is essentially timeless. They, by constrast, have a future development that is not written into that design, but that is not, by that token, necessarily completely random. They therefore are capable of activity, ‘behaviour’ if you like that is no part of the design that gave rise to them. It is therefore entirely possible that they should, after a level of sufficient complexity, give rise to surprising phenomena not anticipated by the ideal design according to which they are put together. This is understandable because the ideal machine that is their design is only one aspect of the actual device that is present in nature. We only control the machines we create to the extent that we define them abstractly and beyond that they function with all the unpredictability of nature.

This tension points to the need to make a radical distinction between epistemological mechanism and ontological mechanism. We are always confusing epistemology and ontology. So even in the most determined of devices, the determination is only in the models, in the design (that is to say in our minds), it is not in the actual entity. How much more, then for the universe as a whole that we conceive of as a machine: the determination is a property of the model we make of it and that model, we know is woefully limited. So if we concede that the universe as a whole, and perhaps all the sub-systems of the universe are ultimately indeterminate and undetermined, how can we understand this? What sort of handle can we get on it?

The recent developments in many scientific disciplines that have focused attention on the notion of ‘chaos’ in recent years, and that have led to the exciting growth area of chaos theory in the second half of the twentieth century, rest upon a simple shift in perception. The shift in perception allows us to see, as already mentioned, that simple mechanical systems, such as pendulums and water-mills, can give rise to very complex, structured but non-mechanical behaviour (strange attractors) and, conversely, that very complex systems, such as the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter, could give rise to very simple, stable regularities such as the ‘Great Red Spot’. This shift began to alter the old mechanical notions concerning natural systems. Interest was thus directed towards the manner in which similar types of regularity emerge spontaneously in the most disparate complex systems. The concept of ‘emergent properties’ was invented to get away from mechanistic language. Systems as different as the planetary weather and the market economy seemed to display the tendency to come up in non-mechanical ways, with large-scale innovatory regularities that had statistical predictability. These systems, however, were inherently unstable and could be disrupted by tiny fluctuations in the famous ‘butterfly effect’. Nevertheless, the systems also showed the ability to regain order after a period of chaotic fluctuation, sometimes a more complex kind of order. The essential conclusion from these discoveries seemed to be the insight that ‘order is for free’ in the universe, it just kind of pops into being. Of course the chaos-theoreticians could not help trying to sniff out the ‘mechanism’ that they thought ‘obviously had to’ be at the heart of the process. Old habits die hard. But it remains the case that systems varying in complexity from the pendulum to the planetary weather, from the knocking of water in a pipe to the human brain, exhibit a tendency to come up with surprising non-mechanical disturbances and astonishing non-mechanical regularities, in ways that defy the mechanising tendency and that mock the mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic mindset.

And then there is, of course, the indeterminism in quantum physics and the famous ‘Uncertainty Principle’ that together seem to suggest that nature at her very basic levels is non-mechanical, even chaotic or perhaps intelligent. The mechanising, atomistic spirit drove science, post-Newton, to search, by ever more detailed analyses of matter, for the simplest components of the world. The motive for this search was the belief that if we come up with the building-blocks of the universe, we will automatically understand how the universe is put together. The result of this mechanising effort was as surprising as every other. We discovered that there are no ultimate building-blocks of nature. The sub-atomic particles are virtual particles. They have no separate existence of their own, as the moon, say, might be thought of as having, on account of its greater relative stability. They emerge from and are absorbed back into the universal energy-field of the cosmos, which in turn they reflect, holographically.

At the basic level of matter, there are no longer separate objects, separate entities. The effort to consider the universe as a whole is forced upon us, even when studying sub-atomic particles, because the ultimate particles seem to be entangled in each other in ways that force upon us the view that there is no ultimate distinction between each of them. So the mechanising atomistic spirit and the method of reductionism eventually forced upon us the need for a holistic conception of the world. In addition, this holistic conception went along with a conception of the sub-atomic processes that would no longer be regarded as completely determined. At the quantum level, matter appears to us chaotic. It appears to us to exhibit only statistical regularity. It is completely beyond our ability to grasp in terms of a mechanism. So it is, in a word, indeterminate, or undetermined. Thus the ‘simplest’ systems of nature – the sub-atomic particles – and the most complex systems of nature – e.g. the brain – exhibit the same non-mechanical, non-deterministic and probably non-atomic structure. From top to bottom, nature is unpredictable and given to the generation of new structure. There is no point in trying to reduce this production of novelty,  ontologically speaking, to the tedious repetitions of one of our machines. It cannot be done, even though epistemological mechanism is useful. The alternative, therefore, seems to be to be simply to enjoy the emergence of novelty without striving to control it by mechanical models, in a word, to enjoy the ride.  Of course, this means giving up the god-like, absolute and complete conception of knowledge that we have been wedded to for so many generations. It means moving away from the dream of control to the attitude of trust.

But if mechanism is dropped, we have a clear problem. As we have seen, mechanism can be understood epistemologically, as the expression of the working of our cognitive apparatus; or alternatively it can be understood ontologically, as corresponding to the nature of the world, independently of the way we may see it. Since epistemological mechanism is valuable, it is the ontological mechanism that we have to drop. Thus if we drop ontological mechanism, we drop ontological determinism, this means we must be left with ontological indeterminism, though we may retain methodological or epistemological mechanism and epistemological determinism. The upshot of this is that we can consider the universe and everything in it – ourselves included – to be intrinsically indeterministic, while using mechanical models to deepen our understanding of it. We seem to be incapable of working out rigorous means of understanding of an indeterministic kind. But this should not blind us to the inadequacy of our mechanical methods and to the fundamental indeterminacy of the universe.

Since we can not get a handle on indeterminism, we are obliged – again by the ego’s desire for intellectual control – to talk of ‘chaos’, ‘randomness’, ‘accident’, ‘chance’, ‘contingency’ and all those other terms that indicate every process that is not strictly mechanical or necessary. The trouble with this is that it reduces every process that is not mechanical to mere thrashing about, a mere jumble. When we apply these ideas to our own minds, we are prepared to attribute ‘intelligence’ to the processes, but we are not so prepared – again, because of the ego – to attribute intelligence to nature as a whole. But if nature is indeterminate, then it is either just a jumble or it is intelligent. It is not just a jumble, it exhibits staggering emergent order, so, it may well be intelligent.

Traditionally the processes of the universe have been seen as governed by necessity and by chance, chance and necessity, the two mighty arbiters of our destiny. Since necessity has clearly gone out of the window, since it has turned out to be an epistemological and not an ontological problem, then chance is left in a precarious position, because chance is only comprehensible as what is not necessary. But why should we be limited to these two principles anyway? Why should we not have more, Ockham notwithstanding? In the human sphere we admit chance, necessity and intelligence as principles according to which things happen. Since necessity is an epistemological concept, and since thus processes in nature are only necessary relative to our concepts, why should we not have in nature relative chance, relative necessity and absolute intelligence, intelligence being perhaps the ontological concept? Naturally, there is no possibility of definitive understanding with these notions, but who wants definitive understanding? Definitive understanding would be the death of culture; and who wants what is fatal to us as well as being illusory?

So what can we put in the place of mechanism? Well, it is clearly possible to put in place of the universal machine the notion of infinite, intelligent creativity. If each sub-atomic particle is somehow entangled with every other particle in the universe. If, according to the theories Bohm, each particle is accompanied by a wave of potential, an information-wave, that allows it to enfold the entire universe (as each point of the hologram enfolds the entire picture), then from the simplest filaments of matter to the entire universe itself, we have to attribute to every natural system, from the simplest to the most complex known to us, the ability to come up with surprising new configurations, surprising new patterns of behaviour. We have to attribute creative behaviour to everything in the universe. Moreover, this creativity has to be understood by us as infinite. The quantity of possible ordered structures that can be generated at every level has to be seen by us as infinite, since we are unable in principle to predict the emergence of structures by mechanical methods. Matter, therefore must be regarded as infinitely creative, even in its smallest quantities. Mind, even conceived of as ‘nothing but’ brain, is a fortiori infinitely creative.

Language, as the addition of two infinities, that of the syntactic rules governing it and that of the semantic symbols giving it meaning, are added together to make it capable of generating an infinity of different sentences. Mathematics allows infinite creativity. Thus the world, as a whole, even in our descriptions, is completely undetermined and infinitely creative. Knowledge in such a world, then is clearly not a matter of absolutely certain, definitive knowledge of a single, universal determinate system. So what is it?


Indeterminism and the relativity of narrative


It is becoming clear, as models of reality become more intricate and as scientific paradigms shift and become more complex, that human knowledge has always been a process of modelling what we think is the basis of our experience, our acquaintaince with ‘the world’. But this experience is in turn widened and deepened by the growth of our knowledge. We become different beings with every bit of new knowledge, either by acquaintance or by description. As our knowledge widens and deepens, we are re-created as new creatures. This widening and deepening then in turn opens up new vistas of possibility. Why should we think in terms of an end-station to this process? There seems to be no reason to do so, unless it is our clinging to the old atomism and the old mechanism.

So if the process of our knowledge is always open-ended, what hope do we have of ever knowing anything? Well, our knowledge clearly allows us to make contact with reality. If this were not so, we would not be able to manipulate the objects of our experience in the way we do. We would not be able to come up with the surprising technologies that we do come up with. So in our machines we do really understand something: we understand the ideal design of our machines and we understand, within the limits of that design, the machines themselves. What more do we want? If we want the absolute, godlike knowledge of the entire universe in atomistic-mechanistic terms that we used to seek, then we patently cannot have this. The Comte de Laplace was simply mistaken. His misguided project was doomed to frustration.  So why can we not simply enjoy what we do understand and then enjoy, equally, the excitement of trusting what we don’t – trusting it to continue to generate surprising order. The answer to this inability is, as we have repeatedly maintained, found in the dynamics of the ego: the ego cannot enjoy what it does not control. The ego is a control-structure and if the ego is in control of knowledge, it will demand the absolute, godlike knowledge that is impossible.

So what is the alternative? The alternative may be in the ego’s recognition of its own temporality, provisionality and mortality: it is a temporary structure and all its possessions are temporary. The ego needs to recognise itself as just one more narrative along with all the others it has so carefully documented. Once the ego recognises the inevitability of its own demise and that of its most treasured possessions, the development of a trust in the entire process, a faith in it, if you like, and a preparedness to attribute intelligence, sense and co-ordination to the entire creativity of the cosmos may not be all that difficult. We have to develop the ability to see the cosmos as a co-ordinated, creative whole that we may not understand in terms of our own intelligence, but that we may nevertheless trust. In short, we have to attribute an intelligence to the universe as a whole that surpasses our human intelligence, but that, since it brought our intelligence forth, is not inimical to it. We have to trust the creativity of the universe as fundamentally benign, because co-ordinated. We have to drop the effort to understand the universe in terms of human designs (machines), human desires, human intentions, human wishes, human purposes. We have to give up the fantasy of complete control. We have, in a word, to give up the ego.

Mechanism is the last bastion of the sort of anthropomorphism that dominated the monotheistic religions and we do well to get rid of it once and for all. The trust of the universe as an intelligent whole implies the willingness to relax with what we don’t understand. We understand a very great deal and we are on course for understanding a whole lot more. But our understanding itself comes about non-mechanically and is not under our control. On the contrary, it seems to demand for its creativity, the death of successive generations that are each given to rigid beliefs. We have to have faith in our understanding without understanding how it works. The ego is not in control; it has to die in order to give way to new thoughts and new thinkers. We cannot control our creativity; that is the desire to control the goose that lays the golden egg. What we understand makes contact with what we don’t. If we trust the universe, we can consider ourselves able to understand its creativity – both in the world at large and in our minds – post facto i.e. after the creation-event. We cannot understand how it comes about, nor where it is all tending, but we can nevertheless assent to the apparent purposefulness of individual systems, the marvellous co-ordination of all the systems together and the marvellous co-ordination of our intellect with the world it grasps.

The atomistic-mechanistic-deterministic mode of ‘understanding’ that led to ontological mechanism is the origin of most of the malaise in the modern world precisely because it gives free rein to the ambitions of the ego. Fragmented societies, fragmented activities, fragmented individuals, fragmented families all striving to run their affairs according to misguided mechanical principles, all convinced that ‘things’ are the only matters of importance, all seeing themselves as things (privileged things) and other people as things (non-privileged things). If we replace the deterministic-mechanistic-atomistic model of reality with an indeterminate, holistic and creative conception, we are more likely to regard ourselves as parts of a greater whole in which we have a real stake. The human individual yearns to feel itself integrated into a whole. Hence the attraction of the football stadium, the dance-floor, the mass rave, the political or religious rally and so on. We must find the ability to view ourselves as integrated into a variety of systems such that the distinction between parts and whole is only apparent, not real. We must find the trust and the imagination to see ourselves as parts of a creative nature, in a host of ways: parts of the natural world, parts of the human groups, parts of the cosmos, indeed, in a way that resolves our sense of cut-offness, alienation, absurdity, etc that has been foisted upon us by an utterly wrong-headed conception of the nature of our own knowledge of the world. The spirit of determinism has all but destroyed us. Only the indeterminate spirit of creative trust in the intelligent creativity of the cosmos can change this. We may need a crisis to bring on the change. This is a pity, since we are able, now, to bring it about ourselves by careful thought.

Monday, May 18, 2009



Mechanism is the understanding of nature according to a principle of order of low degree. Since machines are what we make – we always have made them – mechanism is the understanding of the universe in terms of what we make, or at least in terms of the conception of what we make. We still see this nowadays when people understand the brain in terms of the computer, whereas only fifty years ago they might have understood it as a telephone exchange and before that as some sort of hydraulic pump. We always assume that the world is a reflection of our technological inventiveness and that our latest gizmo sums up its essential principles. The reason for this has to do with our need for control. Insofar as we are born to develop egos, we are all born control-freaks. We want to believe that the ego is the sole authority in the universe and that its abstractions are the only key to understanding it. That is what determinism is all about: abstraction and control. We transfer our intellectual control of our abstractions to the possibility of actual control of what our abstractions model. If we drop determinism, we have to give up the control we crave: absolute and complete control. So we are reluctant to give it up. But since determinism has gone from physics, it looks as though we’re going to have to give it up. If we do give up determinism, we have to find out what alternatives present themselves given this state of affairs.

The mechanistic-deterministic universe of Newton was a theory of such staggering successfulness that for over two hundred years it was regarded not as a theory at all but as somehow interchangeable with – even superior to, in certain minds – the reality it was supposed to represent. Again, the map was mistaken for the territory.  This is the kind of bizarre idea to which our ego is given.  It took a few generations of scientific thinking before we realised that the processes of the world were a lot messier than the tidy machines, which Newtonian mechanics described.  Before, such messiness was simply dismissed as ‘turbulence’ – the irritating unpredictability on the edges of the neat predictability (i.e. determinism) of our theories.  The great discovery of the late twentieth century – though, of course we had always known it – was that life and the world are always more complicated than our theories about them – theories in which we always have a wholly premature and over-optimistic faith. It became obvious that there was a kind of order in nature which did not have the periodicity of deterministic mathematical models and which, therefore, could not be defined by a mathematical compression of the periodicity into a simple algorithm.  In mathematics, too, the spontaneous appearance in computers of weird self-generating geometrical structures (strange attractors and fractals, objects whose dimensionality was not definable by a whole number but rather by an improper fraction) was creating models for the description of the non-linear, non-mechanistic models which were needed.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century was probably already fed up with mechanistic neatness long before the real scientific evidence began to accumulate that suggested that there was something very wrong with it. The heuristic passion (i.e. curiosity) that drives us to know does not allow us to tolerate the kind of frozen rigidity that is implied by the iron repetitions of the machine. For most of us they are a sort of death; and for living creatures such as us, even though we make them, they fail to satisfy us. We know on an emotional level that the universe simply can not be like that, and that we ourselves are not like that.  The refutation of mechanism, when it came, arose from a number of fairly simple observations, so simple, indeed, that our ego-driven passion for universal mechanisms looked simply silly. All of these had to do with a similar perception of the inadequacy of mechanistic explanations: for example, the perception that simple systems (e.g. a pendulum) which appear deterministic and of which the fundamental principles appear to be known, can nevertheless surprise by their utter unpredictability; that complex systems (e.g. crowds of people) do not necessarily have complex behaviour; that apparent chaos (turbulence in a water-pipe) can spawn islands of order (knocking); and that apparently insignificant causes can have absolutely stupendous effects within a complex system (the so-called ‘butterfly effect’). 

Thus was born so-called ‘chaos theory’ or, to use its other, more optimistic name, ‘complexity theory’. Natural systems were perceived more and more in the late twentieth century as not ordered in the sense that our machines were ordered but rather as combining in a delicate balance what we would call ‘rationality’ with what we would call ‘irrationality’. Interest began to focus on this irrationality or ‘turbulence’ because it began to appear as of more decisive importance in the functioning of natural systems than formerly suspected.  Since our conceptions of order are closely connected with the mechanical models by which our intellect structures our experience, this non-rational quality of reality was called ‘chaos’; but it was rapidly realised that from the apparent disorder, emergent structures arose spontaneously and the word ‘complexity’ was employed to indicate this emergence of structure and order in what appeared to be a completely non-mechanistic, non-deterministic and unpredictable fashion. 

Natural systems are ‘critical’ – the word simply means neither mechanistic nor chaotic – in that they combine in a finely poised equilibrium the forces of stability and the forces of instability. The chaos-theoreticians got very excited in finding non-mechanistic regularities that exhibited a fundamental similarity in their self-organising generation of structure in all areas of the natural and human world. Systems as different as the weather and the stock-exchange, the human brain and other cell-systems, colonies of termites and even sand-piles, began to exhibit analogous emergent self-organising properties that could not be understood mechanistically at all and that could not be described in any sense in the linear mathematics of mechanistic science. The world began to appear not random, but intrinsically and essentially creative – i.e. spontaneously generative of new order ‘for free’ – both in its microscopic and in its macroscopic features. Just as the world seemed to emerge at the quantum level from an indeterminate fog of energy or foam of unpredictable events, so the world at the level of our own everyday observations began to appear impossible, in principle, to mechanise and to predict. The chaos-complexity theoreticians of the Santa Fe Institute waxed lyrical, almost with the enthusiasm of poets, about nature’s powers of unpredictable self-organisation. The language of science changed in a very short period of time. The confident, reductive talk of the mechanists apparently gave way to a new humility, a new modesty, a kind of wonder brought on by the consideration of wholes. Until, that is, the mechanising ego began to move in on these areas of study as well.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty in these disciplines nonetheless, and there is still a great deal of conservatism in the minds of scientists. The temptation to slip into the old language of mechanism is always present and indeed, the chaos theoreticians oscillate between a kind of laissez faire attitude to natural systems, a simple surprised observation of its self-organising abilities, on the one hand, and the desire to uncover the ‘mechanism’ at the heart of these processes, on the other. The talk of ‘in essence’ unpredictable and non-deterministic processes is not always sustained and sometimes those using the language slip into using phrases such as ‘indeterminate as far as our methods can detect’ or ‘unpredictable by us’, thus suggesting the possibility of the chaotic processes being fundamentally mechanical after all. We seem to be very reluctant to believe that the world is not fundamentally mechanical, despite the mass of evidence to the contrary.  But this is more a failure of nerve and an unwillingness or inability to cede control to nature itself. The need to claim control for ourselves is one of our strongest intellectual reflexes; and we appear simply unable to give up trying to obtain it.

The complexity or chaos theorists claim to be fascinated by the recurrence of pattern in nature, the appearance and reappearance of fundamentally similar patterns of emergent structure in the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, DNA molecules living cells, neurons, animal populations, human beings, and all the other sub-units which are observed to collaborate in large numbers on a single enterprise.  They rhapsodise about these self-organising systems and their adaptive change within the changing conditions of environment.  They talk about the absence of overall control in these large-scale phenomena and yet it is precisely this ‘emergent’ quality of the large-scale structural coordination of natural systems which enthuses them.  The emergence of order in a universe whose trend – dictated by the second law of thermodynamics – is towards increasing disorder, enthuses them for the same reasons as those for which the thought of God enthuses the religious: there is redeeming structure and therefore, ‘meaning’ in what appear to be meaningless processes. 

It might be objected here, that the complexity theorists are scientists and that they after all talk in terms of mechanisms; but we should not be misled: they only apparently talk in terms of mechanisms.  The mechanical talk covers descriptions of the individual units which are seen to interact in large numbers in whatever system is under scrutiny – they have inherited this mechanical talk from the old reductive, mechanical science – but their interest is often not reductive but holistic; it is interest in the large-scale, ‘emergent’ properties of the system; and these are precisely in chaos or complexity theory not derivable reductively from the properties of the units.  The complexity theorists, we are told, are convinced that the properties of the whole are more than the sum of the properties of the parts – this is what complexity is all about.  Each level of the complex universe of our experience – from hydrogen atoms through heavy elements and living cells to complex animals and cultures – is emergent in its own right and not mechanistically derivable from lower levels.

Yet the complexity theorists do not go far enough, one feels. One feels also that they are confused. They seem to be at a loss to know how to characterise a universe that is not mechanistic, that shows fantastic creativity but that clearly is indeterministic. They become enthused by the emergent properties of gas-clouds, cell-populations, brains, termite-hills, human societies, global economic trends and so on, but they never take the ultimate step of wondering if there could be emergent properties to the universe as a whole, whether the universe as a whole does not exhibit a trend towards increasingly complex order.  They do not take this step, because of the bugbear of teleology and because the religious, on the basis of a similar but less cautious pattern-recognising faculty, have already taken the step and pronounced in favour of an intelligent co-ordinating agency to the whole cosmos called ‘God’.  The chaos-theoreticians are loud in their denials of mysticism or belief in God, but if the emergence of order in the universe is not derivable from the energic properties of the fundamental particles of matter, indeed, if these emergent properties seem to run counter to the energic properties of the basic ‘stuff’ of the universe as presently understood, and if all sub-systems of nature are characterised by this tendency towards greater order, then why not see the tendency towards order as intrinsic to the universe as such and call it ‘intelligence’ at least? Stuart Kaufmann has taken this latter step, though his cautious rehabilitation of the word ‘God’ designates the creativity of the universe as a whole; and Kaufmann cannot give up the hope that the mechanism of this creativity might one day stand unveiled.


God and chaos


The idea of equating God with universal chaos – in the sense used by chaos-theoreticians – is not at all bad. Chaos is supposed to be the origin of all order and therefore in terms of the modern science of chaos-theory what we see as order is an emergent property of chaos and not a universal mechanical property of the world. According to the theory, the essence of reality is chaotic, that is to say not devoid of order, but not ordered in any way that we can comprehend, obsessed as we are by mechanisms. Order arises within the universal flux of chaos, but the chaos is prior, in every sense, to the order. If the world has this incomprehensibly chaotic character, and if order emerges out of this chaos unpredictably and non-mechanistically, then there is no obvious reason not to equate chaos with the divine.

Chaos has the same universal, all-powerful, omni-creative non-mechanical features as the divine. We can not, it is true, attribute human characteristics to it, but God was only viewed in anthropomorphic terms by the na├»ve. On the other hand, to dehumanise chaos is to make it less than human whereas no believer would ever consider God to be anything other than more than human. Similarly, even a dyed-in-the-wool determinist who claims that the order inherent in the intelligent human being was already present in the Big Bang would have to concede that the Big Bang was in this sense ‘more intelligent’ than humans. So the problem of anthropomorphism is a psychological problem that we as humans have with the understanding of intelligence, not a problem with the existence of God as a being superior in every way to us. If this equation of God with chaos means that we have to drop theism and with it the providential aspect of the divinity, then that would be a retrograde step. The fact is, equating the divine with chaos would not necessitate dropping the providential aspects of the divine, because a force which gives rise to human life in a non-mechanical manner can not automatically be assumed to be inferior to humanity; and since human intelligence has emerged from it, it may be supposed to contain within it characteristics not less than equal to those of human intelligence.

The faith in the self-organisation of complex systems of the chaos-theoreticians sounds more like mystification (‘it just happens!’) than the acceptance of a theory which suggests that some non-energic agency is injecting information into them. This latter step is intrinsically no more mysterious than that of pronouncing the informative intelligence of the personality to be the ‘emergent property’ of the complex interactions of billions of nerve-cells.  Of course the religious would baulk at regarding God as an emergent property of the material universe. They see things the other way around.  But there’s no reason why we should not feel the same about intelligence.  This emergent property of intelligence, human or otherwise, can not be grasped reductively; so it is as basically mysterious as the religious notion of God. There is no reason why an emergent intelligence tied to our universe should not emerge from a more capacious intelligence operating in a wider context; just as there is no reason why the intelligence of a human individual should not be considered as inherent in the development of the physical organism from its particular start yet dependent ultimately on the intelligence of nature.  We always felt that Aristotle’s formal and final causes were lurking in biology and due to make an official come-back.  In the complexity theories they seem to be doing just that.


Indeterminism and intelligence


Intelligence is a concept which seems to require indeterminacy since it is inseparable from others concepts such as agency, intention, meaning, value and the freedom. For Bohm, the question of the freedom of the will is really a double question concerning 1) the extent to which the thought and action of an individual are a) determined by the baggage of past perceptions, attitudes, in short of past ‘knowledge’ b) repeat themselves mechanically and outside of the awareness of the person in question such that all action is skewed in a particular direction and 2) the openness of the person to the creative indeterminacy of the present in which the person is in harmony or not with the infinite totality of the world. Thus the question of the freedom of the will concerns the extent to which our consciousness is controlled by repetitions of the past or by a consciousness of the infinite and unknown whole.

“If we are to be creative rather than mechanical,” says Bohm, “our consciousness has to be primarily in the movement beyond time. Implicitly, this is well known to us. No one will be creative who does not have an intense interest in what s/he is doing. With such an interest, one can see that one will be at most only dimly conscious of the passage of time. That is to say, though physical time still goes on, consciousness is not organized mainly in the order of psychological times; rather it acts from the holomovement – which is Bohm’s word for the totality of events and orders, both explicate and implicate. On the other hand, if the mind is constantly seeking the goal of finishing its task and reaching its aim, completing the narrative, as it were (so that it is organized in terms of psychological time and its pressures), it will lack the real interest needed for true creativity.”

Freedom, which is indeterminacy in the individual, is thus a matter not of the absence of constraint, but of the presence or lack of creativity. The question then arises whether the human being is merely an instrument or projection of the creative action of the totality. For Bohm, this is the wrong question. The question is rather “can we be free to participate in the creativity of the totality at a level appropriate to our own potential?”This question is necessary, because ultimately everything is participating creatively in the action of the totality. For matter at its grosser levels, this participation is more or less mechanical repetition (with modifications). “But such creation of a sustained but ever-changing existence of matter at the grosser (mechanical) levels opens the way for the action of higher levels of creativity, such as life and mind.”

These higher levels of creativity in the levels referred to as ‘mind’ are not always realised on account of ignorance. Such ignorance leads the mind to continue its past mechanically, through identification, “rather as if it were a form of matter at a grosser level” remarks Bohm.” The mind is trying in a confused way to realize the kind of creativity appropriate to such grosser levels of matter. In doing so, it is clearly unable to realize the kind of creativity appropriate to its own level.” Ending this state of ignorance clearly opens up the possibility of the mind’s finding a creativity appropriate to its own level. The essence of freedom is thus to realize one’s own true potential, whatever the source of this potential may be. It is unimportant whether this potential is grounded in the whole or in some part. The important thing is that the mind should not simply repeat the past. The past is important, but it does not determine what we are, for we are constant present, which is indistinguishable from timelessness; and that is the unknown.

Sunday, May 17, 2009



Indeterminism requires us to understand that order is a process not a state. Order means having structure; but it does not mean some frozen symmetry that persists for time and eternity. A frozen symmetry if it persists for all time, has the power to persist for eternity since it is immune to change. But belief in the existence of such is almost certainly derived from our taste for abstraction; i.e., it exists only in our intellect. If structure is subject to unpredictable change, then, however well we think we understand it, its order is not yet detected, for the principle according to which the frozen symmetry mutates into something else has to be factored into the definition of the nature of the frozen state. It seems that nothing in the universe and indeed the universe itself can ever be a matter of frozen symmetry, for this reason. Since this is the case, we do well to look for ordering principles that are not mechanical. The only obvious candidate for such a principle is intelligence, or disguised intelligence in such notions as ‘emergence’, ‘complexity’ and suchlike.

Bohm has an interesting approach to chaos theory and to the relations between order and randomness. In his view, random order can be defined as a special case of chaotic order. He gives three characteristics of random order:

It is of infinite degree. It has no significant correlations or stretches of suborder of low degree. It has fairly constant average behaviour and tends to vary within limited domains. The domain within which it varies remains more or less constant, or else it changes slowly.

The notion of randomness is context dependent. To illustrate this, he gives the example of a fixed gun shooting bullets and the distribution-pattern of hits on the target in two cases, 1) where no details about the gun or the wind or the variations of ammunition etc are known and 2) where these details are known. In 1) the shots are random, in 2) they become more nearly determined. Thus the randomness is dependent upon the amount of information known about the system. It is therefore not objective nor subjective, but rather a combination of both. Randomness is a special case of a more general notion of order, i.e. orders of infinite degree. Chance and randomness are not equal to total disorder. Total lack of order is a concept without meaning.

The random number generator in a computer consists of a deterministic sequence of instructions but it is frequently linked to the computer’s clock, so that the same sequence is not generated each time it is used. The sequence starts from a different point each time. In the context of the computer, these sequences are non random and completely determined. Outside of this context, no determination of their order can be given. This shows how the concept of randomness is context-dependent. Despite the remark above, randomness, moreover, is not the same as an order of infinite degree. There are orders of infinite degree that are clearly not random. Language is such an order. The meanings, the dimensions of meaning of a language are infinite but these meanings are not random. The meanings arise within the context of human life and if this context is lacking, if the ‘forms of life’ (to borrow from Wittgenstein) reflected in the language concerned are missing – as in a person who understands nothing of the culture in question and does not speak the language, then the meaning is lacking; all such a person hears or reads is a rhythm of sounds or a collection of symbolic marks. This context-dependent fund of meaning is the whole order of the language and the order belongs both – i.e. at one and the same time – to the language itself and to the person who uses it.

“By treating randomness as a limiting case of order,” says Bohm, “it is possible to bring together the notions of strict determinism and chance (i.e. randomness) as processes that are opposite ends of the general spectrum of order.”

There is a continuum of order from complete determinism to complete chaos with an infinity of gradations in between. Deterministic systems possess order of low degree, reducible to a maximally compressible algorithm, while chaotic systems possess order of a degree approaching infinity; but the difference between the two is far from absolute. It consists of our understanding of the action of the variables as related to the context in which we view them. The concept of a completely disordered system is, as already mentioned, nonsensical: there will always be order of some sort. The chaotic system possesses order of very high degree and the so-called ‘totally random’ system possess order of infinite degree, but the latter is only random on account of our ignorance. Pollen grains in water will move chaotically under the influence of the Brownian motion of the water molecules. If all the details of all the molecular collisions were taken into account, the system would be strictly deterministic and the degree of order low. If this is not the case, then the degree of order is infinite and the movement of the pollen grains random. The randomness of the system is therefore a feature of knowledge of the system, not the result of something intervening from outside. Depending upon our measurements, randomness could turn into necessity. So randomness is necessity in a different guise: the degree of order depends upon the context in which the measure is made.

But since no system can be regarded as strictly isolated or self-contained, it may be affected by even weak external interactions. And anyway, no particular statement of the laws of nature will be completely and universally valid, because, as already remarked, whatever we SAY a thing is, it isn’t: it is something more and something different. If chance is a particular form of necessity, we can reverse the image and say that necessity is a particular form of chance. To illustrate this one only has to think of the statistical properties of temperature and pressure of a gas which can be treated mechanistically, but which are functions of the ‘random’ motions of the molecules. No notions of temperature and pressure are possible if all the motions of the molecules are known. It is precisely ignorance of those motions that permits quantification of temperature and pressure, quantities that can then be used in strictly deterministic calculations even though they depend upon ‘chance’ events.

What is randomness in one context may reveal itself as simple orders of necessity in another broader context; and vice versa, what is a simple order of necessity in one context may reveal itself as chance in another broader context. But in a still broader context, both are to be seen as extremes in the rich spectrum of orders of varying degrees that lie between them. We don’t have to fall into the assumption that either chance or necessity rules absolutely or that both rule absolutely: both could be correct abstractions and approximations in their contexts. No matter which system of law may be appropriate in the context under investigation, there will always be room for something more and something different – something more subtle, something that has the potential to be a manifestation of indeterminate creativity. It would be no exaggeration to declare that the universe has been a process of perpetual innovation from the Big Bang onwards, innovation, moreover, that at all points we cannot predict from our knowledge of the laws of nature despite the fact that, with hindsight, we can see that in all of these innovations (including life, self-conscious life and history) no known physical law is violated.