October 23, 2017

Superscience: its mythology and legitimisation

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A new breed of scientist sees no contradiction between ‘solving’ our present ecological crisis and calling for the development of such superstar technologies as fusion and genetic engineering. But, whilst intellectually elegant, the theory underpinning their Brave New World is sadly lacking.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 11 No. 5, September–October 1981.


Erich Jantsch was a philosopher and visionary. Sadly, he died last year in his early fifties. The Self-Organizing Universe [Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1980] was his last book. In it he refined the ideas already eloquently expressed in a large number of articles and in particular in his previous book Design for Evolution [George Brazillier, New York, 1975] and indeed brought them to their logical conclusion.

This book is dedicated to Ilya Prigogine, the “catalyst of the self-organization paradigm”; rightly so, since Jantsch’s philosophy is above all an extension of Prigogine’s ideas and it is only in the context of these ideas that it can really be understood.

For this reason I shall consider Prigogine’s philosophy first and foremost and indicate when necessary how Jantsch interprets it and seeks further to elaborate it.

Ilya Prigogine is probably the most influential intellectual figure in the French speaking world today. Such eminent intellectual figures as Edgar Morin, Henri Atlan, Jacques Robin and even the brilliant economist René Passet have accepted his theories almost in their entirety. There are a few dissenting voices – that of Danchon, for instance, who has bitterly attacked Prigogine’s ideas in a letter to La Recherche [1] and also René Thom who has done so in a letter to Le Débat. [2] What is certain is that Prigogine’s ideas, though not essentially new, are formulated in an original way. They fit in together extremely well, and what is more, they provide a coherent and all-embracing paradigm or world view.

One of the things we know about such structures of beliefs is that, above all, they provide a means of rationalising – and hence of legitimising – a particular policy or way of life. In this respect they fulfil the same function as the mythology developed by a tribal society to rationalise – and hence to legitimise – its particular social behaviour pattern.

I think this is clear to the more thoughtful philosophers of science. It is certainly clear to Michael Polanyi who explicitly compared a scientific paradigm to the mythology of a tribal society (The Azande). [3] It is also clear to Monod who prefers the term ‘metaphysical epistemology’ to ‘paradigm’ or ‘world view':

“De Platen à Whitehead, de d’Heraclite à Hégel et Marx, il est évident que ces épistemologies métaphysiques ont toujours été intimement associées aux idées morales et politiques de leurs auteurs. Ces édifices idéologiques, présentés comme a priori étaient en réalité des constructions a posteriori destinées à justifier un thème éthico-politique préconcu.” [4]

“From Plato to Whitehead, Heraclitus to Hegel and Marx, it is clear that these metaphysical epistemologies have always been intimately associated with the moral and political ideas of their authors. These ideological structures presented as a priori were in fact a posteriori structures intended to justify a preconceived moral-political theme.”

It is easy to see that this is true of the various paradigms that most shape our thoughts today. Keynsian economics, for instance, is above all a means of rationalising a specific strategy for dealing with unemployment, that which consists in financing new jobs by increasing government expenditure, a strategy that was applied by Roosevelt in his New Deal – long before the appearance of Keynes’ General Theory.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations by showing that it is by behaving in the most egoistic way possible that man can not only best serve his own material interests but also those of society at large, provided a means of rationalising the individualism and egoism that inevitably prevailed with the breakdown of society that accompanied the industrial revolution.

This same fatal trend was further legitimised – somewhat differently – by Freud. His paradigm for explaining pathological human behaviour took the already almost defunct family and community to be the source of all our repressions and frustrations, which he assured us could only be eliminated by still further atomising our society.

This being so, it seems perfectly legitimate to ask what is the social behaviour pattern that Prigogine’s paradigm is designed to rationalise and hence legitimise.

Our priorities

Particularly revealing on this score is Prigogine’s interview with Michel Salomon which appeared in Prospective et Santé. [5] From it we learn, among other things, that he is not the least concerned about what must be one of the most frightening features of the world we live in; the population explosion:

“I don’t see why a population increase per se should be a negative phenomenon. On the contrary, I regard it as a positive phenomenon. The interaction between men has always generated ideas and development.”

It is difficult to believe that the “ideas and development” that this interaction is likely to generate in the next decades, will provide much solace to the 1,000 million or so people (a quarter of the world’s population) who are expected, by serious students of these problems, to die of starvation during this period. [6]

If Prigogine does not regard feeding the world in the next decades as a problem, it is, he tells Salomon, because he has just returned from China, “and in that immense country only 20 percent of the land is used for agriculture”. He does not realise of course that by world standards, this is a lot. The total terrestrial surface of this globe is approximately 13 billion hectares and only 1.3 billion hectares (i.e. 10 percent) are used for agricultural purposes, while little more useful land, as FAO has itself admitted, remains to be put under the plough. The outlook is in fact grimmer in China, where every inch of cultivable land is already meticulously and painstakingly cultivated.

Prigogine also assures us that in the USSR, there remain vast areas of desert which could be restored to agricultural use. This too is a vain hope, as the rate at which deserts are being brought back to agricultural use is considerably lower than that at which they are being created – an estimated 50,000 square kilometres per year.

Still more revealing are the goals that, according to him, we must achieve if we are to solve the problems that confront us today. The first is thermo-nuclear fusion. This implies that he sees increased energy use, and hence the new technologies that it can power, as the principal means of solving the problems that confront us today. These problems, as readers of The Ecologist well know, are due to the breakdown of natural systems under the impact of technology and industry – and new technologies, rather than restore the proper functioning of these systems, can do no more than assure their further disintegration.

What is more, even Abelson, that technomaniac editor of the journal Science, admits that the cost of commercial fusion reactors (assuming them to be technically feasible) will be four or five times higher than that of normal fission reactors, which are already so much beyond our means that since 1973, in the USA, the richest country in the world, more than 200 orders have had to be cancelled.

Our next priority according to Prigogine is to understand climate, presumably so as to modify it to suit our short-term needs. This is also unrealistic. It has taken thousands of millions of years to develop a relatively stable and predictable climate so that, among other things, farmers know when to sow and when to reap. World climate is undoubtedly already changing under the impact of our industrial enterprises and, to set about changing it purposefully, can only further destabilise it.

Next, he tells us, we must understand how deserts are created – a very laudable aim but one that has already, to all practical purposes, been achieved since we know quite enough about the creation of deserts to avoid creating them and enough, too, to realise that it is logistically and financially impossible to restore them, on any scale, once they have been created.

Our next priority, according to Prigogine, is the development of genetic engineering – that ultimate anti-evolutionary enterprise which all thinking people know can only lead to the annihilation of whole populations of human and non-human animals but which the cynical might well hail as the only really effective strategy devised so far by our industrial society, for controlling its exploding population.

Our final goal, according to Prigogine, is the creation of colonies in space which, he tells us, should not be all that difficult as there must be many planets in other solar systems that are habitable by man. Of course the idea of supporting whole populations on artificial planets in other solar systems (to which the very basic necessities of life, such as oxygen to breathe, water to drink and food to eat, must be transported from our planet) is quite preposterous. Today we cannot afford to keep more than a small minority of people in a style that they consider is their due on our own planet where the conditions required to sustain them are readily available.

It should be clear then, at least to readers of The Ecologist that Prigogine is but another victim of the Great Misinterpretation. [7] Rather than see the terrible problems that confront our society today as the symptoms of the breakdown of natural systems – biological organisms, societies and ecosystems – under the impact of ‘development’ (and its latest phase industrialisation), he sees them as the symptoms of under-development and under-industrialisation – and proposes, as the only means of solving them, the acceleration and elaboration, particularly in the field of genetic engineering, of the very processes that have brought these problems into being.

It is the impending Biotechnic Revolution, as we shall see, that he regards today as having the most to contribute to our prosperity and welfare, and he is not alone in believing this. Many scientists regard this field as offering limitless possibilities. After all, micro-organisms are not in finite supply as are the resources entering into the industrial processes of today. Nor is there any limit to the range of goods and services which, by tinkering with their genes, they can be programmed to provide. Nor does this novel production process give rise to the sort of chemical pollution that our biosphere is ever less capable of absorbing.

It is largely to rationalise, and hence legitimise, these beliefs that Prigogine has built up his paradigm, his ‘metaphysical epistemology’ or ‘mythology’ depending on how one prefers to regard it.

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Prigogine’s paradigm

What then are the main features of this paradigm? First of all, and very much to his credit, Prigogine accepts, contrary to Georgescu Roegen and Rifkin, that classical thermodynamics do not apply to the world of living things. The biosphere is simply too sophisticated to be the product of the process of global decline which the entropy law tells us we have been experiencing since the beginning of time:

“Even in the simplest cells the metabolic function includes several thousand coupled chemical reactions and, as a consequence, requires a delicate mechanism for their coordination and regulation. In other words, we need an extremely sophisticated functional organisation. Furthermore, the metabolic reactions require specific catalysts, the enzymes, which are large molecules possessing a spatial organization, and the organism must be capable of synthesising these substances . . . Each enzyme, or catalyst, performs a complex sequence of operations, we find that it is organised along exactly the same lines as a modern assembly line . . . Such an organization is quite clearly not the result of an evolution toward molecular disorder.” [8]

Since he has accepted this, one would have expected him to forget about thermodynamics and set about explaining the behaviour of the world of living things in terms of a different set of laws – those, for instance, that govern the behaviour of biological, social and ecological systems. But Prigogine is very much an Aristo-scientist. For him Science is essentially Physics and it is in terms of this master discipline that the world should be explained. More important, were he to look at the world in terms of basic biological, social and ecological concepts, it would no longer be possible to maintain the credibility of his thesis.

Having found that classical thermodynamics was irrelevant, Prigogine developed his ‘non-linear thermodynamics’ that was designed to apply precisely to those conditions to which classical thermodynamics (and, in particular, the entropy law) did not apply. It is for this achievement that Prigogine earned his Nobel Prize.

Classical thermodynamics tells us that the dissipation of the sun’s energy on our planet can only give rise to entropy which is wrongly identified with biospheric disorder. [7] Non-linear thermodynamics tells us that this need not be so. In certain conditions, the dissipation of the sun’s energy on our planet can give rise to two different types of organisation. The first, Prigogine refers to as a ‘non-equilibrium stationary state.’ The systems that fall into this category are referred to by Jantsch as “static or dynamic steady-state equilibrium systems.” Such systems are “structure preserving”, in other words they do not change.

Jantsch [9] regards the solar system and its rotating planets as providing examples of such a structure. Prigogine [8] cites a crystal. These structures display ‘order’ of a type that can apparently be explained on the basis of Boltzmann’s Ordering Principle. This is a means of determining statistically “the structure of the equilibrium states” or rather the distribution of molecules in the various energy states of a system (he is not referring to living systems but to gases and such-like). The formula is

Pi (Ei ) ∝ e–Ei / kT

Where Pi is the probability, Ei the energy at the chosen level, k Boltzman’s famous constant, and T the temperature.

If one knows the value of Boltzman’s constant k, the temperature T and the energy Ei of the chosen level (assuming the system to have three energy levels) then Boltzman’s formula tells us that, at a low temperature, nearly all the molecules will be in the lowest energy state. At a high temperature, however, the three probabilities become roughly equal, which means that there are about the same number of molecules in each of the energy states.

In certain conditions, however, the dissipation of the sun’s energy gives rise to structures of quite a different type, which Prigogine refers to as ‘dissipative structures’ and whose occurrence is apparently unpredictable on the basis of Boltzman’s Ordering Principle. These, as Prigogine shows, are governed instead by a totally different ordering principle which Prigogine refers to as “order through fluctuations”.

This works in the following way. One starts off with an initial state of randomness or ‘homogeneity’. This homogeneity is affected by fluctuations. Rather than being controlled or ‘damped’, as fluctuations tend to be in stable systems, they are on the contrary ‘amplified’ and it is this amplification that gives rise to the dissipative structures.

Let us look at some examples of dissipative structures. Jantsch [9] describes the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction discovered in 1958. Apparently, if bromate is introduced into a sulphuric acid solution in which malonic acid as well as cerium, iron or manganese ions are present, then the malonic acid will oxidise. If other conditions are satisfied (though Jantsch does not specify what these are)

“concentric or rotating spiral waves may be observed which lead to interference patterns. In this and similar reaction systems, pulsations of great regularity may be observed which may last for many hours.”

A second example is that of the Benard convection, a sort of whirlpool which is constantly quoted by Prigogine and his disciples. This is how Prigogine describes it:

“Consider a horizontal layer of fluid between two infinite parallel planes in a constant gravitational field and let us maintain the lower boundary at temperature Ti and the higher boundary at temperature T2 with Ti = T2. For a sufficiently large value of the ‘adverse’ gradient (Ti-T2) (T1+T2), the state of rest becomes unstable and convection starts. Entropy production is then increased because the convection is a new mechanism for heat transport. Moreover, the motions of the currents that appear after convection has been established are more highly organised than are the microscopic motions in the state of rest. In fact, large numbers of molecules must move in a coherent fashion over observable distances for a sufficiently long time for there to be a recognisable pattern or flow. On the basis of Boltzman’s Ordering Principle, there is zero probability for the occurrence of Benard’s convection. Small convections occur as fluctuations from the average state, but below a certain critical value of the temperature gradient, these fluctuations are damped and disappear.

However, above this critical value, certain fluctuations are amplified and give rise to a macroscopic current. A new molecular order appears that basically corresponds to a giant fluctuation stabilised by the exchange of energy with the outside world. This is the order characterized by the occurrence of what are referred to as dissipative structures.”

A third example that is constantly cited was first described by Von Neuman. It concerns the behaviour of small magnetized cubes which may occasionally be induced to organise themselves spontaneously and to form recognisable patterns.

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