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Stuart Kauffman : The Open Universe

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Laplace gave the simplest early statement of reductionism. His Demon, if supplied with the positions and momenta of all the particles in the universe, could, using Newton's laws, calculate the entire future and past of the universe. Add fields, quantum mechanics, and General Relativity and you have, roughly, modern physics. There are four features to Laplace's reductionism: (I) Everything that happens is deterministic, called into question a century later by quantum mechanics and the familiar Copenhagen interpretation and Born rule. (ii) All that is ontologically real are "nothing but" particles in motion. (iii) All that happens in the universe is describable by universal laws. (iv) There exists at least one language able to describe all of reality. Quantum mechanics is evidence against (i). I will argue that biological evolution, the coming into existence in the universe of hearts and humming birds co-evolving with the flowers that feed them and that they pollenate, cannot be deduced or simulated from the basic laws of physics. In Weinberg's phrase, they are not entailed by the laws of physics. I will then claim that at levels above the atom, the universe will never make all possible proteins length 200 amino acids, all possible organisms, or all possible social systems. The universe is indefinitely open upwards in complexity. More, proteins, organisms, and social systems are ontologically real, not just particles in motion. Most radically, I will contest (iii). I will try to show that we cannot pre-state Darwinian pre-adaptations, where a pre-adaptation is a feature of an organism of no use in the current selective environment, but of use in a different environment, hence selected for a novel function. Swim bladders are an example. Let me define the "adjacent possible" of the biosphere. Once there were the lung fish that gave rise to swim bladders, swim bladders were in the adjacent possible of the biosphere. Before there were multi-celled organisms, swim bladders were not in the adjacent possible of the biosphere. What I am claiming is that we cannot pre-state the adjacent possible of the biosphere. How could we pre-state the selective conditions? How could we pre-specify the features of one or several organisms that might become pre-adaptations? How could we know that we had completed the list? The implications are profound, if true. First, we can make no probability statement about pre-adaptations, for we do not know the sample space, so can formulate no probability measure. Most critically, if a natural law is a compact description before hand and afterward of the regularities of a process, then there can be no natural law sufficient to describe the emergence of swim bladders. Thus, the unfolding of the universe is partially lawless! This contradicts our settled convictions since Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Schrödinger. It says that (iii) is false. In place of law is a ceaseless creativity, a self consistent self construction of the biosphere, the economy, our cultures, partially beyond law. Were reductionism sufficient, the existence of swim bladders in the universe would be entailed by physical law, hence "explained". But it appears that physics, as stated, is not sufficient in its reductionist version. Then we must explain the existence in the universe of swim bladders and humming birds pollenating flowers that feed them, on some different ground. We need a post-reductionist science. Autocatalytic mutualisms of organisms, the biosphere, and much of the economy, may be part of the explanation we seek. In turn this raises profound questions about how causal systems can coordinate their behaviors, let alone the role of energy, work, power, power efficiency, in the self-consistent construction of a biosphere. There is a lot to think about.

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