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 metauniverse 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.