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 naïve. 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.

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