CHAPTER 19: The Next Revolution in Physics?


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The self in self-organization…point of view, distinct from those of human beings.

Most scientists do not yet seem to embrace such a relationship to the natural world. However, a few philosophers do. In Andrew Pickering’s “cybernetic” vision, for example, the scientific relationship to the world is one of steering one’s way interactively through it, rather than dominating it conceptually in some ultimate cognitive model. He acknowledges that we are active players enmeshed in nature, not lords above it. Similarly, Bruno Latour views modernism in general as the attempt to rise above nature on the wings of reason: a relationship of domination that should give way to one of caring. (Latour’s early work was perceived as “debunking” science, which was not his intent.) Modernity was founded on the idea that agency is exclusive to the human sphere, in the image of a masculine god. While the scientist is an agent, “objectivity” has required that the natural world not be taken seriously an agent. It is a one-sided relationship, with which women are all too familiar.


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Yet the “realist” function tends often to dominate, and positivism or skepticism…

There may have been more balance as late as 1970: “Physicists the world over generally feel that today [c1970] one must steer more or less a middle course in the area between, on the one hand, the Machist attachment to empirical data or heuristic proposals as the sole source of theory and, on the other, the aesthetic-mathematical attachment to persuasive internal harmony as the warrant of truth.” [Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, p264] Cf. also Holton Einstein, History, and Other Passions: the rebellion against science at the end of the twentieth century Addison-Wesley 1996, p15-16: “The Vienna Circle of (positivists) associated themselves with the Epicurean tradition of materialism against Platonism and the Pythagoreans.” In the very title of his work, Holton considers the positivist movement as an example of “rebellion against science” rather than as a necessary component of science.


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It seemed to be an inevitable outcome of mechanist thought.

Thermodynamics originated as the study of energy extracted from non-living systems for human purposes. This was seen to occur at an irreversible cost of decreasing returns; order could be created locally, but ultimately only by increasing overall disorder. On the model of human contrivances, organisms were seen to “pump” energy from an environment for their use, returning it in a degraded form. Cf. F. Heylighen “The Science of Self-organization and Adaptivity” In The Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, L. D. Kiel, (Ed.). EOLSS Publishers, Oxford, 2003: “Such [self-organizing] structures are necessarily open systems: energy and/or matter are flowing through them. The system is continuously generating entropy, but this entropy is actively dissipated, or exported, out of the system. Thus, it manages to increase its own organization at the expense of the order in the environment… The most obvious examples of such dissipative systems are living organisms.”


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…increases of order that can ultimately take the form of organisms.

Hence, Stuart Kauffman points to autocatalysis as a causal factor in the origin of life. There is a kind of phase change when simple chemicals reach a threshold of complexity or interconnectedness, after which they begin combining to form even larger molecules. He suggests that much of the order in organisms may not be the result of selection at all, but of self-organization, bypassing the genome. [Stuart Kauffman At Home in the Universe Oxford UP, 1995, p72ff]


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A physics of self-organizing systems would by definition not be mechanistic.

An example of such a physics is the “process physics” proposed by Reginald Cahill, based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead: “In process physics the fundamental assumption is that reality is to be modelled as self-organising semantic information, that is, information that is ‘internally’ meaningful, using a self-referentially limited neural network model. Such a system has no a priori objects or laws, and is evolved using a bootstrap system, so that it is the system itself that ‘internally’ creates patterns of relationships and their dominant modes of behaviour, and all (sub)systems are fractal in character, that is, relationships within relationships, and so on ad infinitum… A key feature… is that this fracticality is associated with self-organising criticality.” [Reginald Cahill “Process Physics” Process Studies supplement 2003, p11] In Process Physics the difference between matter and space comes down to the difference between informational patterns that are “topologically preserved” and those information patterns that are not. [p99] Setting aside issues surrounding the presumed ontology of ‘information’, Process Physics provides an organismic view of fundamental reality (even the fabric of space itself) as something that self-renews through succeeding “generations.”


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…including the observer, experimentalist, or theoretician in its formulations.

It is a tribute to Einstein’s greatness that he embraced both realism and positivism. Bold creator of new ideas, he cautioned against the power of received ideas: “Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things can easily gain authority over us such that we forget their worldly origin and take them as immutably given… Such errors often make the path of scientific progress impassible for a long time. [From Einstein’s obituary for Mach, quoted in Norton, 2005, p19] See also Einstein’s essay “Physics and Reality” (originally published in 1936, reappearing in Ideas and Opinions Bonanza Books 1954, p299). Writing there of the pre-relativistic concept of time: “One may, however, easily be led into the error of believing that these notions, whose origin is forgotten, are logically necessary and therefore unalterable, and this error may constitute a serious danger to the progress of science.”


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It is this concern…imported from cybernetics, which involves feedback…

“First-order knowledge is knowledge about the world, whether theoretical or practical in orientation; it may be a knowledge of how things are, or a knowledge of how to do or make things. By second-order knowledge I mean knowledge that derives from reflection on first-order knowledge: for example, a method for generating new procedures. Second-order knowledge is also an ‘image of knowledge’ insofar as it sets out a conception or norm for what knowledge is in a particular domain. The idea of mathematical proof is a paradigmatic second-order concept, since it involves a specification of the conditions under which mathematical assertions can be accepted as true.” [Mark Schiefsky “The Creation of Second-Order Knowledge in Ancient Greek Science as a Process in the Globalization of Knowledge” in The Globalization of Knowledge in History, ed by Jurgen Renn, 2012, Open Access Edition, p2] Cf. also Heinz von Foerster “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” 1979: “I submit that the cybernetics of observed systems we may consider to be first-order cybernetics; while second-order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observing systems.”


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It might mean that it would be impossible to formulate laws of nature such as we have known them.

“John Wheeler has occasionally suggested that there is no fundamental law and that all the laws we study today are imposed on nature by the way that we make observations… [In contrast] I expect that all attempts to do without fundamental laws of nature… simply result in the introduction of meta-laws that describe how what we now call laws came about.” [Steven Weinberg Dreams of a Final Theory (Pantheon, New York, 1992), p233] The difference in their viewpoints may lie in whether the subject has been included. Wheeler proposes the role of the observer, while Weinberg rejects it. This exclusion dooms first-order science to logical regression, while second-order science is doomed to open-endedness, since the inclusion of the subject means no version can be final. Cf. also p235: “The discovery of the final laws of nature will mark a discontinuity in human intellectual history, the sharpest that has occurred since the beginning of modern science in the seventeenth century.” For Weinberg, laws are found, not made, and there is an objective “bottom” to nature. I believe rather that the significant discontinuity will be marked by the inclusion of the subject; whether nature has a bottom or not, human self-reference will render science always self-transcending.


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…would entrain circularity…as occur generally in problems of self-reference.

Heylighen 2001, p9: “In classical, Newtonian science, causes are followed by effects, in a simple, linear sequence. Cybernetics, on the other hand, is interested in processes where an effect feeds back into its very cause. Such circularity has always been difficult to handle in science, leading to deep conceptual problems such as the logical paradoxes of self-reference. Cybernetics discovered that circularity, if modelled adequately, can help us to understand fundamental phenomena, such as self-organization, goal-directedness, identity, and life, in a way that had escaped Newtonian science.”

Two distinct kinds of “circularity” can be distinguished. Paradoxes of self-reference have to do with confusion of logical levels; non-linear processes in self-organizing or self-regulating systems have to do with positive and negative feedback loops, which involve only one logical level of description. These latter belong to first-order science, since they can be accommodated as additional Newtonian processes. Logical paradox can arise when the describer’s own action and intention must be included, taking one outside a first-order description.

Some logical problems in science may be a byproduct of formalization. Gerald Holton distinguishes between the formalized finished products of scientific thought—as presented in published research papers, for example—and its earlier formative stage: public versus private science: “For quite good reasons—to arrive more dispassionately at consensus—modern scientists try to keep their personal struggles out of their published research results and out of their textbooks.” [Holton Einstein, History, and Other Passions, p78] Ironically, to erase personal struggle from the transcript, so to speak, renders scientific testimony more in the style of rhetorical or legal debate than of earnest quest. Science is mature enough by now to allow the whole of scientific process to be part of the record of research. However, another aspect of “privacy” is that scientists may wish to keep their individual magic or art to themselves, as a kind of trade secret. Their published results are to be independent of their individual creative inspiration.


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It means viewing nature in terms of mutual relationships…

As one author has put it, we should be “ethically attentive and open to the possibility that anything might take on a face.” [Mathew Calarco, quoted in Stephen Duguid Nature in Modernity: servant, citizen, queen or comrade Peter Lang, 2010, p270] However, it also means not restricting this relationship to human or personalistic terms—that is in terms of sentience, mind, and communication through language.