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.

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