Beyond Being and Becoming
Awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on the thermodynamics of nonequilibrium systems, the late Ilya Prigogine, who died in 2003, was a theoretical physicist and intellectual progenitor of concepts that have become popularly known as “self-organization” and “order out of chaos.” He was the director of the Solvay Institute at Free University in Brussels, as well as director of the Center for Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems at the University of Texas.
BRUSSELS—Questions about time are at the very heart of science. But for too long there has been a conflict between what seemed to be eternal, to be out of time—classical ideas of laws of nature—and what was in time: human experience.
In social sciences like archeology or history, it is clear that tomorrow is not the same as today. Time cannot reverse directions. But theorists in the physical sciences always tried to say that the universe is “time reversible”; that the present determined the future just as it could serve to reconstruct the past. From this viewpoint, the basic processes of nature were seen to be static and deterministic, with time playing absolutely no role. In effect, for classical science being was the same as becoming.
This split is what I call “the time paradox,” and I believe it has been responsible for the fragmentation in Western culture between the physical sciences and the social sciences, between scientific time and “lived” time.
Classical science formulated basic laws of nature upon exceptionally simple systems, such as the motion of the Earth around the sun or a frictionless pendulum. It is true, that when we look at these simple physical phenomena once the present is known one can predict the future, and the direction of time doesn’t play any role. In these systems the past and the future become interchangeable.
Yet when we look around us—not only at human life or the history of civilization but also at plants, biology or even in physical objects—we see that time is definitely not reversible. A plant burgeons, flowers and dies; it does not come back to life, grow younger and regress to the original seed. There is no equivalence between what is done and what is undone. Time cannot fold back upon itself.
In spite of this obvious contradiction the time paradox was enthusiastically accepted. And as important as classical science may have been for the progress of knowledge, the triumph of this kind of thinking, personified by Newton and Einstein, entailed a rift between the world and man that cannot be over-estimated. The external world appeared to be an automaton, a clockwork mechanism that had been regulated once and for all.
In this way, classical science shared the project of certain Eastern mystics—Buddhists, Taoists, etc.—whose aim was to escape the torments of a changing, deceptive world and to live this world as though it were an illusion. Men like Einstein aimed to demonstrate that human subjectivity was merely an illusion and that reality consisted of a transparent, intelligible Universe, purged of everything that touches on the lives of man, of painful, nostalgic memory of the past, of fear or hope for the future.
Needless to say, these metaphysical and scientific viewpoints were in absolute opposition to our inner world in which, rightly or wrongly, we lived in a time rhythm which is unstable and uncertain, which creates novelty—new events—and in which we are conscious of having a freedom of choice, upon which the very notion of rationality is based.
I believed very strongly that this gap between man and nature needed to be bridged, and I proposed to do this by incorporating both laws and events into our theories about how man and nature operate in the universe.
The first part of my work, which is now 30 years old, was to prove the existence of an “irreversible time,” the direction of which played a very important, constructive role in our universe. I then concentrated on macroscopic phenomena, which involve a large number of particles. Examples are to be found in chemistry or hydrodynamics. I have shown that irreversibility can then lead to structure, to self-organization. This is when I introduced the idea of “dissipative structures,” which arise in open systems, exchanging energy and matter with the outside world when driven far from equilibrium. Since then, my work has been concerned more with time on the level of fundamental physics (classical or quantum mechanics).
NO PROGRESS | As a scientist I would say that one cannot speak at all about linear progress. I don’t even know if one can speak about progress at all. And we certainly cannot speak about destiny. What one can speak about, however, is novelty and “rules within randomness.”
Let’s take the example of chemistry. The equations of chemistry are non-linear. When we rapidly push a chemical system away from equilibrium toward “disorder,” or disequilibrium, the chemical reactions that occur present us with what I call “bifurcation points”—points at which choices and new solutions appear. Generally, more than one solution appears, so that at the point of bifurcation, probability and self-organization come into play.
Now if the question is whether novelty is progress, it depends on one’s point of view. Novelty cannot be good from every point of view. Is Mozart’s music progress in respect to Bach? That’s very difficult to say. You see, in some sense Mozart has made Bach’s music obsolete. However, in another sense, one can say that Bach’s work still remains a model of religious music, while Mozart has introduced a model of opera, more secular music.
By definition, novelty contains aspects of things that didn’t exist before. But one should not necessarily identify novelty with optimization. Novelty can be either good or bad.
For me it has been very important to show that time plays an essential role in the world around us. Without that “arrow of time” we could not begin to understand the ecosystem, or the history of glaciation, or weather patterns. We could not understand chemistry and hydrodynamics. These are all essentially unstable, dynamic, “chaotic” systems in which both laws and events play a role. This notion of “chaos,” then, turns out to be basic to the understanding of not only these dynamic systems but to the major laws of physics as well.
This said, there is still a gap. No longer does that gap exist between the physical and social sciences, but between our complex, chaotic macrosystems and elementary processes.
This is the point at which we must ask what the relation is between complexity and the basic laws of nature—between becoming and being. Are we led to an entirely new form of laws of nature or do we simply have the old laws of nature together with some complexity?
It is through an investigation of these questions that I have attempted to build a physics that incorporates time at the elementary level. In other words, I want to give a new formulation to the idea of laws of nature: Rather than speaking about these laws as deterministic I want to express them in a way that involves both probability and “irreversibility”—chance and time. Every movement creates a new moment. The same cause does not always yield the same effect, either on the macro or on the elementary level.
Let me explain. If we think about the laws of nature at the beginning of the universe, at the very moment of the Big Bang, how do we visualize these laws? We could imagine that at the moment the universe was created, the future was already determined. Michelangelo is already programmed, the bombing of Hiroshima is already programmed.
But we could also imagine another possibility, which to my mind is much more likely. At the moment of the Big Bang, the universe is created and many things become possible, including the emergence of Michelangelo and the Manhattan Project. But there is no certainty. In other words, the world at birth is a little like a baby. The child can become a doctor or an artist but he cannot become everything at the same time, nor is his future path set at conception. The child exists, and there are certain basic laws of nature to which that fact corresponds. But his future is not predetermined; probability still has a role to play in this child’s life.
After we have formulated laws of nature that include both being and becoming, we must then go beyond being and becoming. In order to do this, however, we must first understand the role of chaos in our world. Chaos theory shows us that dynamic systems, the systems on which the basic laws of nature were formulated by classical science, are too simple. For example, it is true that time doesn’t enter into the frictionless pendulum, or into the motion of the Earth around the sun. But are these systems appropriate symbols of the world in which we live? Classical science made the experience of these phenomena the rules.
RELATIONAL TIME | I have always believed that in order to “see time” we must consider relationships within more complex systems.
Let’s consider, for a moment, a cup of hot coffee. Is this coffee aging? Will it cool down until it reaches equilibrium at room temperature? In order to determine whether the coffee is aging I cannot consider the water molecules taken separately. If I do that I will not see the aging process. But if I consider the relationship between molecules I can then see quite clearly that the coffee is aging. We must view the encounters, the collisions and correlations between molecules, in order to see the flow of time.
The same can be said of relationships between people. Two people speak and then separate, but there is a remembering of the conversation. Part of the conversation is retold to others, which can be seen as an evolution of the initial conversation. This is the time of humanity, or the time of recollections, and not the time of human beings taken separately. The concept of time is dependent on a collective approach.
In a sense there is a hierarchy: The fundamental aspect is instability or chaos, which then forces us to incorporate the probabilistic aspect into our concepts; then the probabilistic aspect forces us to include the arrow of time in our formulations. Chaos, then, and not immutable, deterministic laws is really the basic law of the universe. Chaos is at the origin of the variety of physical experience. Today we have moved from determinism to determinations; from stability to instability and probability.
Of course, some people view this as a terrible defeat. They had hoped for scientific certitudes and now they are being told that science cannot give them this solace.
I, however, see these new laws as the only way of avoiding alienation. After all, our main goal is to come to a consistent view of the universe, one that does not separate our experience as human beings from the experience of science in nature. If we held to the basically deterministic description of the universe, which reduces the universe to an automaton, what then can our relation to this automaton universe be?
Einstein said that he believed in a deterministic universe, yet at the same time he also said he believed in the creative activity of the human mind. But creativity means appearance of novelty, which by definition exists outside the confines of a deterministic universe. He could only believe in both if he placed humanity outside the universe.
How can this be correct? The very aim of science is to show how we are related to the universe. We can no longer have a “unified” picture that shows nature as an automaton but which shows us as free and ethically responsible. The theory of instability does not encourage alienation. On the contrary it is an idea that makes us feel that we are living in a universe that is not so different from ourselves.
CREATIVE INSTABILITY | With every new intellectual program always come new fears and expectations. But consider the unity between knowledge and culture that has emerged within the paradigm of chaos: At this moment, when as a human civilization we are beginning to sense our connection with the environment—we are understanding the importance of preserving biological diversity, etc.—and with the universe as a whole, we are also coming over to a theoretical view of the universe that connects us in fundamental ways to nature. At the moment we see bifurcation points in human history—consider the coup attempt in the former Soviet Union, which had many possible outcomes—we discover new bifurcations in physics. In this way, we are building a kind of unified cultural identity for the 21st century. Finally, we can move beyond the classical conflict between being and becoming. Being is no longer the primordial element, just as becoming is no longer an illusion, the product of ignorance. Not at all. Today, we see that becoming, which is the expression of instability in the universe, is the primordial element. Yet, in order to express this, we also need elements that are permanent. We cannot have becoming without being, just as we cannot have light without darkness or music without silence.
Let me give you an example that will help illustrate the point, though it is speculative since it relates to the Big Bang. Consider that the beginning of our universe is the product of an instability from the universe that existed before, what people like to call the “quantum vacuum.” If we look at the Big Bang in this way we can show that this instability brings in both matter and the curvature of our expanded universe.
However, this becoming is only possible because of the existence of an element of being that permitted instability in a vacuum, an instability of being. With this formulation we are going beyond the classical view of being and becoming. The classical view was that we could reduce the history of the universe, and thereby science, to a geometry. Because of instability this is no longer possible.
In my view, this theory of the Big Bang leads to a more acceptable view of history. If one considers that there was a kind of primordial instability leading to matter, space and time, then one sees that our universe is not an isolated system; it arose from something else. Therefore, to say that the universe was born and will decay and end in thermal death is no longer so certain because of instability.
I very much like the fact that instability opens up a horizon of possibilities, since our actions at a given time depend on the way in which we view the future. If we looked on the horizon and saw only death, pollution and decay, I think it would erase any argument for reasoned, ethical action today.
AGAINST KANT | The view which we now have of the universe and our place in it seems to me to be absolutely anti-Kantian. In order to reconcile ethical behavior and the classical laws of physics, Kant had to introduce duality, which is a permanent fixture in the Western history of philosophy. Descartes introduced a division between intelligent thought, the brain, on one side and matter on the other. Kant introduced the difference between the noumenal world, which could be apprehended by intuition, and the phenomenological world, which could be apprehended through analysis. Physics would deal with phenomenology and ethics would be constructed in the noumenal world.
The main point of what I try to say in my work is that we no longer need this kind of dualism. Life is more deeply rooted in the laws of self-organization and coherent behavior than classical science led us to believe.
TEMPORALIZING MATTER | Sculpture is time put into matter. In some of the most beautiful manifestations of sculpture, be it in the dancing Shiva or in the miniature temples of Guerrero, there appears very clearly the search for a junction between stillness and motion, time arrested and time passing.
In a sense, culture is always trying to temporalize matter. Today the symbol of the work being done in both the physical and social sciences is a work of art because art embodies some elements that conform to given rules and other elements that arise unexpectedly through the process of creation. Bach, for instance, conformed to certain rules for counterpoint. However, inside the rules are many choices or bifurcation points. He could have chosen any number of different paths and the music would have been completely different as a result.
By including rules and choice, contemporary science is making our relations with nature more precise. As far as I am concerned, this is a very exciting moment. We are only in the prehistory of science. We are only beginning to understand the laws of nature.
AGAINST FRAGMENTS | The project for the new millennium is to go against fragmentation. I sense that this is true in all fields.
When one thinks about the main problems in our world today one sees that the answers to them must be interdisciplinary. The technical decision a company president makes today has economic, political, social and environmental repercussions that must be taken into consideration.
In the 19th century fragmentation played an important role in the establishment of separate disciplines for biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, psychology, sociology, etc. But when we consider the great challenges facing humanity today we see that we need an interdisciplinary approach. Therefore at this historical moment, I think it is really very important to emphasize the end of fragmentation, or at least the overcoming of fragmentation.
On the scientific side, our project is perhaps to build a kind of fundamental theoretical structure that serves to unify rather than alienate man from nature. As a theoretical physicist I want to see what the rules of unification are. But unification also requires a better understanding of diversity. Once we see chaos as playing an essential role in the basic laws, we see that the basic laws are probability laws, and from there a whole spectrum of possibilities emerges.
In my work I am trying to draw a more unified picture of our universe, and at the same time I am attempting to define our universe as temporal, pluralistic and complex. That is already a big project!
I want to see how a new idea of laws of nature emerges—not laws of nature in the classical, deterministic and time reversible sense, but laws that contain the possibility of novelty.
The future of mankind is most often seen in one of two ways. One view is that mankind is making progress with respect to self-determination and human dignity, etc. The other view is that mankind is running straight toward catastrophe. I believe that both attitudes are too extreme and have to be corrected. We do not live in a deterministic system. We cannot extrapolate from our present state what the future will bring.
I prefer to look at this question in a different way. I believe that what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today. We build our equations by our actions. These equations, and the future they represent, are not written in nature. In other words, time becomes construction. Of course, we have some conditions that determine limits of the future but within these limits are many, many possibilities.
Therefore, since no deterministic prediction is likely to be valid, visions of the future—utopian visions—play a very important role in present conduct.
I am more afraid of the lack of utopias.