There is more to the evolution of living matter than natural selection of random mutations, which is a passive mechanical process. Similarly, there may be more to the evolution of “inert” matter than the passive processes of efficient causality that have dominated science since Galileo. In particular, processes of active self-organization have until recently remained largely ignored and beyond the reach of that science. Yet, self-organization in the universe at large may be a necessary backdrop to the arising of life. Cosmological self-organization may be the key to the resolution of conundrums such as the apparent highly improbable fine-tuning of the universe to life. A cosmos that appears unlikely from a mechanist perspective could be probable in the light of processes of self-organization.
The founding fathers of science had assumed that nature is necessarily comprehensible. For related reasons, they assumed that matter lacks inherent powers of self-organization. Matter was simple, and could be moved or organized by outside forces, but was incapable of moving or organizing itself. Mechanist thought concerns simple linear causes and effects. One system is presumed to act on another from without, in a potentially endless chain of cause and effect. It is little wonder such thought does not readily accommodate the complex feedback loops, non-linear processes, multiple causation, and holism involved in what are now recognized as self-organizing processes. Mechanism, especially as an engineering stance implying an imposition from the top down, is the very thing that cannot explain processes that self-organize from the bottom up. Some processes of cosmic self-organization are currently recognized—in galaxy formation, for example. Broader questions include what role self-organization plays at the level of the universe as a whole, what role it plays in leading to the kind of universe we live in, and whether it leads inevitably to life and intelligence.