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The End of Certainty:

Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature


Written by Ilya Prigogine
(New York: The Free Press, 1997, 228 pages)

Reviewed by Sally Morem


In his latest book, Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine examines time’s
constructive role in the evolution of matter, of life, and of human
culture.

Prigogine’s study of chaos and self-organizing systems is a sustained


effort to overthrow the stranglehold that the concept of determinism has
had over Western science, philosophy, and theology since the era of the
pre-Socratic Greeks. He asks, “Is the future given or is it under
perpetual construction?” As a lapsed Presbyterian, I can sympathize
with his struggle with this scientific version of Calvinistic
predestination.

The problem, simply stated, is as follows: If nothing is determined, how


can lawful chains of cause and effect occur, but if everything is
determined, what then of free will and creativity?

To get at this conundrum, Prigogine enlists the aid of an unlikely ally—


entropy. Entropy plays a very different role in Prigogine’s universe
than in the well-noted Second Law of Thermodynamics. To Prigogine,
entropy is the arrow of time that brings order and life to the universe,
not a sentence of heat death. Our evolutionary universe changes every
moment, each state built upon what preceded it. Cause and effect are
left intact in this indeterministic universe; chance leaves the system
open at every fork in the path of change to truly novel systems and
structures.
Probabilities shape the Prigoginian universe. Unlike the oversimplified
model of interacting particles over a short period of time posited by
traditional physics, Prigogine understands that in the real universe
large numbers of particles interact with each other over a long period of
time. They create a history of interrelationships—a kind of primitive
“memory.” In short, persistent interactions lead to self-organizing
systems of great creative power.

“Knowledge presupposes that the world affects us and our instruments,


that there is an interaction between the knower and the known, that this
interaction creates a difference between past and future. Becoming is
the sine qua non of science, and indeed of knowledge itself.”

Prigogine is saying that there is something extremely odd about the


determinism of traditional physics, a paradigm that—in effect—
predicts the non-existence of science and scientists!

But Prigogine goes even further than this. He suggests that the arrow of
time is so fundamental to existence that it actually precedes the birth of
the universe itself. How could this possibly be? If the Big Bang resulted
from fluctuations in a primeval quantum vacuum, as several noted
cosmologists have suggested, time could exist in this vacuum, this meta-
universe in which universes are born. Time would have always been
and would always be.

We do not live in a predestined world then; neither do we live in a world


of pure chance. We live in a world in which chance creates novelty and
in which lawful chains of cause and effect conserve the resulting
pattern. Creative chance piles novelty on top of novelty. Lawfulness
orders these into a many-leveled self-organized whole.

Prigogine’s scientific dialogue with nature reveals to us an edifice of


ever-changing, every-growing turrets and parapets; a natural result of
the unplanned, unguided, creative power embedded in the universe
itself.