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Descant 79/80 (1993): 135-154

Holism in the New Physics


John D. Collier
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Melbourne
Parkville, Victoria 3052
AUSTRALIA

Developments in science in the last few decades have led to doubts about the validity of the
mechanical paradigm that has dominated science since the Scientific Revolution. The new views, coming
from recently founded disciplines like non-equilibrium thermodynamics, chaos theory and the theory of
dynamical systems, are rooted in physics. Nonetheless, much of their motivation comes from fields as
diverse as weather prediction, ecology, economics, the study of traffic flow, and the growth of cities.
Although Quantum Mechanics also led to doubts about the validity of the mechanical paradigm, the new
views reveal problems within classical physics itself. The implications of these developments for our
understanding of space have been largely unexamined. But the close connection between the Newtonian
view of space and the mechanical paradigm means that the demise of the mechanical paradigm will
require a re-evaluation of our understanding of physical space.

In the mechanical universe of Newtonian Physics, physical space is the background in which all
events occur. Newton distinguished physical space from our naive relative space, which we infer directly
from the relative positions of objects. Relative space is subjective, since it changes from observer to
observer, and from time to time, depending on both the physical and psychological conditions of the
observer. The familiar illusion that ones train is moving, when it is really the adjacent train that is
moving, illustrates our tendency to take subjective, relative space as real. Intuitive ideas about motion
often lead to unexpected results. The US Army was forced to produce a comic book to explain the
fundamentals of physics to its truck drivers, especially on how to deal with curves and turns. Apparently
the drivers tended to think that merely by steering towards the relative position they wanted to arrive at,
the truck would respond independently of its momentum. The truck's ideas about space did not always
agree with those of the driver. Most of us are able to absorb the principles necessary for driving without
a special knowledge of physics, but unfamiliar circumstances, or inalertness, can lead to an accident.
When we move to less familiar realms, intuitive ideas are even less reliable. Most people do not
understand why interplanetary travel is more efficient when it doesn't follow a straight line. For that
matter, even a trained scientist is likely to have trouble negotiating a path from the center to a target on
the edge of a moving merry-go-round. (Try it some time!).

When we try to interact with the world, physical space takes precedence over our subjective
constructions, sometimes to our chagrin. This precedence shows us that physical space is real in a sense
that subjective space is not. Thus, we know that physical space is not just a construct from our subjective
perspectives, but has properties that are not immediately evident. The growing recognition of this fact
with the rise of the mechanical philosophy required a theory of physical space that could explain its
properties. Galileo, Descartes and Huyghens were among those who developed characterisations of
objective space, but it was Newton who capped these developments with an account that lasted for over
two hundred years.

Physical space, on the Newtonian view, must be absolute and independent of subjective
observations. Newton referred to it as the "sensorium of God". It is eternal and unchanging, made up of
distinct points that differ from one another only in their location. This transcendent, substantival space
makes itself known only through its effects on the dynamics of particles, as manifested in centrifugal and
Coriolis "forces". Physicists consider these forces fictitious, since they are only the results of inertia
viewed from a changing and relative frame of reference. Fictitious they may be, but they seem real
enough to the army truck driver taking a corner too fast, or to the physicist on the merry-go-round who
does not take Coriolis force into account!

Objections to the Newtonian view of physical space were proposed by idealists like Berkeley,
Leibniz and Mach, who preferred a purely relational view of space. They found the idea of a substantival
space epistemologically suspect, but their main objections were ontological. Berkeley objected to the idea
of inert material substances interacting through mechanical causes. Leibniz objected to the ontology of
a space that contained points distinguished only by location. Mach thought that the idea of a space that
had dynamical effects, but remained itself unaffected, was incoherent. Despite these objections,
physicists continued to use the mechanical view. The objections of the idealists were troublesome, but
they could not come up with a believable account to replace the dynamical role of Newtonian space. The
idea that free motion is an incremental movement at constant velocity, in a straight line, from one position
in absolute space to another, has great explanatory power.

A important characteristic of relational views of space is that spatial properties cannot be


localised. They are always the product of relations between spatially separated bodies. On the Newtonian
view, the properties of space are intrinsic, and depend only on its local structure, which is everywhere
uniform. If local conditions can be defined completely, Newtonian physics appears to allow us to deduce
future change (barring interference from other processes) with complete accuracy. This is the basis of
Laplace's boast that given the momentary position and momentum of every particle (later classical
scientists would add fields), he could in principle deduce the entire evolution of the universe. No non-
local influences need to be considered. Unlike the Newtonian mechanical view of space, relational views
are inherently holistic. Local conditions alone are not enough to determine dynamics. In order to explain
inertial forces, relationists must attribute them to relations between local phenomena and distant objects,
like the "fixed stars".

Developments in 20th Century physics have undermined the Newtonian view of space in several
ways that lead in the direction of the relational views. Special relativity showed that physical space is not
independent of the frame of reference of the observer. The mechanical view can be retained, however,
by unifying space and time into a common structure that allows observer independent descriptions of the
spatio-temporal relations among events. General relativity undermined the independence of even this
structure from the events it contains, but still allows the spatio-temporal structure to be composed of
locally distinct points. The structure of space-time might have interesting large-scale properties, but these
are merely the effects of local conditions. More recent developments in Quantum Mechanics and the
theory of dynamical systems (often identified with "chaos theory") suggest that we may have to give up
even this last vestige of the Newtonian view of space. I will concentrate on the implications of the
emerging dynamical systems paradigm, though I will end with a few words about Quantum Mechanics.

Much of the success of the mechanical paradigm stems from its ability to decompose complex
systems into simpler systems that can be analysed with linear equations. These are equations that can be
put into a form with the dependent variables (representing the unknown quantities) on one side, and
independent variables (representing the known physical parameters of the system) on the other. Once we
determine the independent variables of some system, we can solve the equations to determine the values
of the unknown dependent variables, and make precise predictions about how the system will evolve.
Although solving many of these equations is by no means easy, various methods have been developed
to transform complex equations into more tractable forms. As long as the equations are linear, they can
be solved to any accuracy desired.

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Inherently complex systems were generally assumed to be merely the additive consequences of
multiple independent processes. This meant that complex problems like the prediction of orbits, or of the
tides, or of the weather, could be solved a series of successive approximations that considered
increasingly subtle effects. This method was successful for an impressive variety of problems, and
seemed to confirm Laplace's boast. It is still the main method used by both engineers and scientists in
disciplines from physics to economics.

Despite the impressive successes of the mechanical view, Laplace's claim is becoming
increasingly dubious. Doubts were first raised in the late 1800's by James Clerk Maxwell, the greatest
physicist of his century. Maxwell pointed out that the method of successive approximations would be
successful only if similar initial conditions led to similar later states1. He had doubts that this could
always be done:
We may perhaps say that the observable regularities of nature belong to statistical
molecular phenomena which have settled down into permanent stable conditions. In so
far as the weather may be due to an unlimited assemblage of local instabilities, it may
not be amenable to a finite scheme of law at all.2
It is interesting that the example Maxwell chose, the weather, was central to the initial development of
the dynamical systems movement in the latter half of this century from the work of Edward Lorenz3.

Maxwell's doubts were echoed by French physicists like Pierre Duhem, Henri Poincar and
Liapunov. Poincar and Liapunov showed that unstable equlibria involving non-linear equations, in
which the dependent variables cannot be separated on one side of the equation, could have just those
properties that concerned Maxwell. Liapunov classified such systems, and gave precise criteria for
instability. Duhem reported a curious example due to the mathematician J. Hadamard4. Hadamard showed
that there were spaces with singularities in which the path of a particle would be deducible in principle,
but in which no arbitrarily precise specification of initial conditions would allow determination of the
path. Nonetheless, the difficulties in solving non-linear equations, the peculiar nature of Hadamard's
spaces, and the continued success of the mechanical program led most physicists to ignore the problem
of instabilities. It was not obvious that there was something fundamental involved, unlike the case of
Quantum Mechanics, which attracted many of the best minds as soon as it appeared on the scene.

It has gradually become apparent, however, that non-linear systems cannot be ignored. The great
successes of the mechanical view were largely a result of good fortune. The problems it initially treated
were relatively tractable to its methods. Many phenomena, however, resisted mechanical explanations.
These include common phenomena in ecology, economics and meteorology. These phenomena were
hardly of concern for "serious" physicists, however, so the difficulties were undervalued. When similar
problems turned up in noise in electrical circuits and with refinements of orbital mechanics, more
physicists began to take the problems seriously, and now there are research groups springing up all over
who are concerned with non-linear dynamical systems. To these physicists, and the biologists, economists
and psychologists with whom they work, systems that are pathological from the mechanical perspective
are the norm, and mechanically tractable systems are merely unusually simple.

1
J. Clerk Maxwell, Matter and Motion (New York: MacMillan, 1920), p. 13.
2
Maxwell, Matter in Motion, p. 14, footnote.
3
For a readable account of the development of dynamical systems, see James Gleick, Chaos
(London: Sphere Books, 1988). It also contains extensive notes on sources and further reading.
4
Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp.
138-141.

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What is it about complex dynamical systems that suggests that we must reconsider our
understanding of physical space? So far, as often happens in the middle of shifts of scientific paradigm,
there is nothing conclusive that requires giving up the old view of space, but there are some things that
are suggestive. These stem from
several aspects of dynamical systems:
their unpredictability, their tendency
to chaos, self-similarity at different
scales, and their suggestion of
emergent properties. I believe that
these characteristics will eventually
lead to a new view of space that will
replace the mechanical view, but at
present this must be regarded as
speculative.

The equations that govern


certain dynamical systems are very
sensitive to initial conditions or
empirical parameters. Although two
trajectories that a system could follow
might start from very similar Figure 1
conditions, the trajectories can end up A map of the logistic equation for various starting conditions that
in a very different states, even though differ little initially. Note that the trajectories are similar at the
the equations governing the evolution start, but diverge with time. Eventually, the trajectories enter a
of the trajectories are relatively "chaotic" zone, in which trajectories with similar initial
simple. This is demonstrated by the conditions can diverge by arbitrarily large amounts.
"logistic" equations used by Lorenz to
make a simple model of climate (Figure 1). Slight variations in starting conditions lead to similar paths
in the short run that diverge wildly as the system evolves, so that the relations between points on different
trajectories eventually become chaotic. This is one of the things that makes weather so unpredictable.
Lorenz vividly suggested that the air movements caused by a butterfly's wings in Brazil could lead to the
formation of a tornado in Texas, so the phenomenon has been dubbed the "Butterfly Effect". Economic,
weather and ecological systems are typical of those subject to the Butterfly Effect, but any system that
shows turbulence or feedback is a candidate. Even a simple iron pendulum suspended above an array of
magnets can display all of the interesting features of dynamical systems (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Two tracks of an iron ball pendulum suspended above two attractive magnetic "charges".

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Many non-linear dynamical systems diverge so broadly that they are essentially chaotic within
the limits placed on the global parameters of the system, like total energy. Others pass through chaotic
stages, and then converge later, only to diverge at later stages. Still others are constrained, after an initial
period, within relatively small regions of the total set of possible states, no matter where they are started,
but are chaotic within these regions. These regions are called strange attractors, in distinction from
attractors that are located at a precisely defined point. One of the best know of the strange attractors is
the Lorenz attractor, which is shown here as a slice through one plane of its phase space (Figure 3). It is
possible for a system to have several attractors, in which case minor fluctuations in initial conditions or
external effects (boundary conditions) can
cause the system to go to one or another of
the attractors. These branching systems are
especially interesting from the perspective
of holism, as I will explain below.

It is important to recognise that


dynamical systems with strange attractors
are entirely deterministic. Problems with
the predicability of such systems arise
because arbitrarily small deviations in
initial conditions can lead to large
deviations at later stages. This undermines Figure 3
the mechanical method of decomposition A planar cross section of the Lorenz attractor showing its
and successive approximations only restriction to a region of its total phase space.
because it is not possible to get enough data
about initial and boundary conditions. These cases do not show that the mechanical view is false in
principle. The only exception to this is if there are a number of attractors, and the initial conditions are
exactly balanced among two or more. In this situation, the evolution of the system would be in principle
unpredictable. Although this condition is possible, its probability is infinitesimal. Nonetheless, the
possibility drives a wedge between determinism and predicability in principle. However thin, this wedge
opens a crack in the mechanical paradigm.

In summary, the existence of non-linear systems suggests that local conditions alone are not
enough to specify how a system will evolve. Slightly different initial conditions can produce wide
divergences later in the evolution of a system, even though its current states are very similar. Although
this says nothing directly about the mechanical view of space, it suggests that the idea of space as a
collection of independent points has little relevance to real problems involving non-linear systems. On
the other hand, for the most part these limitations on predicability are practical. If we had enough data
about initial and boundary conditions, the method of approximations would be effective. The mechanical
method is unworkable for many interesting scientific problems, but the Newtonian view of space is still
sound in principle. Or is it? There is the nagging, though infinitely unlikely, possibility of absolute
unpredictability, a possibility that reveals a crack in the mechanical world view. I will now proceed to
open this crack further.

Ilya Prigogine and his school of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and statistical mechanics
developed some ideas that have similarities to the dynamical systems school5. Thermodynamics had, until
the 1950's, been developed only for situations in which equilibrium could be assumed. Prigogine's work
opened up a new set of possibilities, the most interesting being the possibility of the spontaneous
formation of large scale organised structures (called "dissipative structures") under certain conditions.

5
A good, readable introduction to Prigogine's work is I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order out
of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984).

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Furthermore, which particular structures are formed often depends on chance fluctuations in the
microscopic state of the system, which macroscopic manipulations cannot control completely, even in
principle. The analogy to the Butterfly Effect and strange attractors is strong, although there are some
differences.

Prigogine hypothesised that ordered dissipative structures can form through the self-organisation
of non-equilibrium systems if there is a constant supply of accessible (or "free") energy. These structures
form when the local entropy production (degradation of energy available to the system into energy
unavailable to the system, generally in the form of heat) is minimised by the formation of macroscopic
structure. Their maintenance depends on the availability of external energy that they dissipate into their
environment while sequestering a certain amount of the order in the energy that passes through them to
form and maintain their structure. Many such systems are now known, and some, like Bnard convection
cells, are fairly well understood. Dissipative systems tend to reorganise themselves to follow the path of
least resistance, since entropy production is strongly analogous to friction. Indeed, friction is just a
particular case of dissipation.

On Prigogine's view, the origin of the randomising forces that lead to dissipation is outside of
the system. No system is entirely isolated. The movement of one gram at a distance of four light years
has enough effect on the motions of molecules on Earth to effectively randomise their motions as viewed
from a purely local perspective. This effect is certainly reminiscent of the variations in dynamical systems
that depend on minor changes in initial conditions. In both cases, local measurements are inadequate for
the full specification of the evolution of the system unless all relevant parameters are precisely defined.
In practice, in dissipative systems it is impossible to account for all external influences, just as a complete
measurements of the parameters of dynamical systems are not possible. The statistical nature of the
microscopic dynamics of a dissipative system allow arbitrarily large deviations from the average. These
fluctuations allow the formation of dissipative structures when they induce macroscopic effects before
they can dissipate. This is the basis of Prigogine's slogan, "order out of chaos". The important thing to
note, for the purposes of this essay, is that dissipative structures have a well-defined macroscopic
structure, but this structure is extended over space and time. The microscopic structure is not completely
specifiable locally, but depends on non-local influences that cannot, as a matter of principle, be entirely
determined in practice.

If more than one structure can form within a given system, then the exact fluctuations that appear
will determine which structure forms. This is analogous to the existence of multiple strange attractors.
The causes of the fluctuations, like the trajectories of dynamical systems, are entirely deterministic, so
in principle it is determined which structures do form. This might make it seem that any problems of
specification are merely epistemological, and that the ontology of dissipative structures presents no
problems of principle for the mechanical view. As with strange attractors, however, there must be
borderline cases, of infinitesimal likelihood, that could result in either of two structures forming. Again,
this opens a nagging crack in the mechanical view.

An interesting characteristic of both dissipative structures and strange attractors is their


dependence on scale. At large or macroscopic scale, the systems behave in orderly and predictable ways
-- dissipative structures like Bnard cells form reliably, and their macroscopic dynamics would present
no serious problems for Newton. Similarly, strange attractors viewed from a large enough scale look very
much like point attractors, since at large scale their chaotic aspects are obscured. At smaller scales,
however, random or chaotic aspects become more evident in both types of systems, and at these scales
the systems are not predictable. At still smaller scales, especially if we go to the limit in which either all
external influences are accounted for, or the position and momentum of each particle of the system is
fully specified, both types of systems are completely deterministic, and are amenable to Laplacian
analysis (with the exception of indeterministic cases that are possible, but have a likelihood of measure

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zero, i.e., an infinitesimal, but non-zero probability). This suggests that both the indeterminacy at
intermediate scales and the regularity at large scales are epiphenomena of underlying mechanical
processes. If this is so, then the Newtonian view can at least claim to be adequate in principle, except for
some negligible cases. I will argue that scale is not purely an matter of perspective, and that both the
emergent indeterminacy at intermediate scales and the emergent order at large scales are very real, not
just epiphenomena. The reality of scale factors implies that space cannot be treated solely as a collection
of independent points. Many systems have levels that cannot be completely analysed, even in principle,
as the sum of spatially local effects.

An interesting set of cases in which scale plays an important role are fractals6. These are shapes
that are self similar at different scales (at least statistically) so that at no particular scale can we assign
what is within the shape and what is not. An example is the problem of the length of a coastline. If we
were to try to calculate the length of the coast of Lake Erie, say, the result we get would depend on the
scale we used. At large scale, we would ignore smaller bays and inlets, and get a relatively low estimate.
At smaller scale, our estimate would take these features into account, and our estimate of the length of
the shoreline would increase. At still smaller scales, rocks on the shore would lengthen the estimate, as
would sand grains and molecules and atoms at still smaller scales. Coastal length is not simply a well-
defined linear dimension, but depends on the way the coast meanders across the Earth's surface. On the
other hand, the coast does not fill a surface, so it is not a two-dimensional object either. Mandelbrot
called the dimension of curves like coasts "fractal", since they seem to sit somewhere between the integer
dimensions. It is possible to calculate the fractal dimension of any curve, which gives a measure of its
tendency towards higher dimensionality. Fractal dimensionality is not a property of the points themselves,
but of how they are arranged with respect to each other. It is therefore inherently non-local.

Fractal dimensions might seem like a mere curiosity, if not a mathematical trick, since the
underlying curve has the dimension of the modulus of the fractal dimension (e.g., for a curve of fractal
dimension 1.7, the curve itself has dimension 1). It isn't evident that they have any physical (causal)
reality, rather than being an artefact of a system of representation. For example, a fractal trajectory could
presumably be analysed as a continuous series of points, and specified completely if we could specify
the parameters completely at some point. It turns out that this is not quite correct, and that the problem
is related to the crack in the mechanical world view. As I described above, there are systems with
multiple attractors or multiple macroscopically stable structures. The boundaries in phase space between
such attractors is often a fractal. If so, then it is possible that two points that are arbitrarily close together
will evolve towards different attractors. Worse, there are fairly simple systems which have regions in
their phase spaces in which each point evolving towards one attractor has an arbitrarily close point that
evolves to another attractor. It is impossible to localise the boundary between the two attractors. This is
not a consequence of the existence of a boundary, and the resulting possibility of indeterminacy, but it
holds for many such systems. This sort of non-locality is not as easily neglected as the measure zero
indeterminacy whenever there are multiple attractors. Trajectories originating in the fractal regions are
not infinitely unlikely (unlike the indeterminate cases), and for some systems may be quite probable.
They are not negligible.

The diehard Newtonian can argue that fractal boundaries present no problems in principle, since
complete specification of the initial conditions still completely determines the trajectory, even in the
fractal regions. He is beginning to get onto shaky ground, however, since on classical views complete
specification would require determining the real numbered values of the momentum and position for a
real-valued time. Since there are more real numbers than can be specified by finite techniques, the

6
The classic source is Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (New York:
Freeman, 1977).

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difference between a point that leads to one attractor and a point that leads to another might not be
finitely specifiable. This would mean that the attractor the trajectory leads to is in principle unpredictable.
On the other hand, the Newtonian is correct in saying that the trajectory is determinate. This shows that
determinacy and predictability are not the same thing in classical mechanics, even with the fullest
knowledge we could have. The distinction is not merely a practical one. In dynamical systems with
multiple attractors and fractal regions, predictability is non-local. In order to know how the system will
evolve, we need to observe its characteristics at more than one point. This is a major blow to Laplacian
determinism.

It is tempting to identify mechanism with the possibility of Laplacian determinism. If so, the new
physics undermines mechanism. This, in turn, undermines the rational for the Newtonian view of space
as composed of independent points (or, to accommodate relativity theory, a spacetime composed of
spatio-temporal points, or "events"). The need for a real physical space to account for dynamical effects
is not eliminated, however, since these effects still need to be explained. Although the non-locality of
space implied by the new physics in conjunction with identifying mechanism with Laplacian determinism
is also characteristic of relational views of space, this conjunction does not imply relationism, which must
still deal with the dynamical function of Newtonian space.

On the other hand, mechanism can be identified with a different sort of determinism according
to which a system is deterministic if and only if the complete state of the universe at one time determines
its state at all other times. In other words, on this view of determinism, no two universes could share an
instantaneous state and be different at other times. This definition can be revised to accommodate
relativity theory. The theory of non-linear systems, since its equations are deterministic in this sense, does
not undermine this weaker version of mechanism. We must give up predictability, together with the
method of analysis of trajectories by taking into account increasingly more subtle perturbations, since
minute perturbations can lead to wildly different trajectories, but the notion of space as composed of
independent points can be retained. This weaker form of mechanism must be considered a metaphysical
position, since unpredictability implies that this view of space has no observable or methodological
advantages that can be exploited, other than subjective values like familiarity, reducibility, and other,
more obscure values involved in views about rationality.

There are some reasons, though, to think that this metaphysical retention of mechanism
misrepresents what goes on in the physical world. These reasons stem from reasons for believing in the
reality of scale factors. If higher level phenomena are not merely epiphenomena of their microscopic
components, but have some sort of independent physical existence, then the reducibility inherent in the
metaphysical version of mechanism is unjustified. What reasons are there to believe in the physical
independence of macroscopic phenomena?

The objects with which we are most familiar are the ones of about the same scale as ourselves.
We distinguish objects partly for practical convenience, but also because they tend to cluster in natural
ways. This clustering is a matter of degree, so arbitrary decisions are sometimes required in order to
divide up objects, but often boundaries are fairly distinct. If we examine the underlying reasons for the
natural tendency of things to cluster, we find that in some cases this is the accidental result of underlying
processes, but in many cases the clustering is due to causal connections among the parts of a thing. These
causal connections are called the cohesion of the object, and it is this cohesiveness that makes the object
distinct. Destroy the cohesiveness, and you destroy the object. Construct the cohesiveness, and you
construct the object. Cohesiveness is the physical basis of the identity of physical things.

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One characteristic of cohesiveness is that it does not depend on the details of the microstructure
of the cohesive object. Microscopic fluctuations are allowed so long as they are not large enough to
destroy cohesion, and thus destroy the object. Although the macroscopic properties of physical objects
are the effects of its microscopic processes, these processes are not all involved in the identity of the
object. Its cohesiveness filters out many of the
microscopic effects, making them irrelevant to
questions of identity. Take for example the lift
of a kite (Figure 4). A kite flying on the end of
line is hit by more air molecules on the bottom
side than on the top, and the net effect is an
upwards pressure called lift. It is what holds
the kite up in the air. The lift of the kite affects
the whole kite, not just the locations where the
individual molecules hit. The rigidity of the
kite has the effect of physically averaging the
impulses from the individual molecules to Figure 4
produce the lift. It acts like a filter that The cohesion of a kite creates the macroscopic property
eliminates the random motions of the of lift by averaging the microscopic impulses of the
molecules to spread their net effect over space collisions of air molecules to produce an average effect
(and time). Destroy the cohesion of the kite, over time and space.
and its lift is destroyed. The very existence of
the property of lift depends on the averaging effect. the average is not merely a sum of the effects of the
individual molecules; the spreading of their effect over a spatial region is necessary as well. For this
reason, I would say that the property of lift (and the cohesion of the kite that gives rise to it) cannot be
reduced to effects at local points. The scale of the kite has corresponding properties that are not
identifiable with any sum of microscopic properties. These properties are not merely epiphenomena, but
are physically real.

When we look closely at cohesion, the causal connections among the parts of a natural physical
object, we find that cohesion involves non-linear processes connecting the parts of the object. Although
we are inclined to think of many physical things, like a rock, as merely a collection of atoms, the reality
is that these atoms interact with each other in highly complex ways to hold the rock together. A rock is
not like a pile of bricks, but is more similar in this respect to more complex things like integrated, living
organisms. Extending the notion of cohesion to non-linear systems in general, we might conclude that
they are not localised collections of independently acting points, but are extended objects, distributed
through space by their causal connections. This is particularly evident when two macroscopic cohesive
objects interact. Their interaction is through their distributed macroscopic properties, not through the
individual contributions of their microscopic parts. Most of the details of their microscopic motions are
irrelevant to the interaction. The interaction would be the same interaction even if the microscopic
components were rearranged. For example, if two steel balls hit each other, what matters is their overall
shape, size, position and momentum. The vibration states of their atoms play no role in the collision.

Going back to strange attractors, I noted that at large scale they look very much like point
attractors. If a large enough cohesive object interacts with a strange attractor, then the interaction would
be no different than if the attractor were really a point. Thus for all physical purposes, the fact that the
trajectories involved in the attractor can be considered as a sequence of independent points is irrelevant
to this sort of interaction. It seems, then, that the mechanistic metaphysics required to ensure the locality
of space has no physical significance for this sort of interaction. Because of their non-linear character,
dynamical systems with strange attractors are inherently non-local, and this non-locality comes out in
interactions with other non-linear systems. The physical averaging over space and time that results from
causal cohesion makes the interactions insensitive to microscopic differences. Thus the strong

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dependence on initial conditions in some systems isn't just an epistemological problem for us, but it also
reflects the interactions of real physical objects. It has an ontological grounding. Chance isn't just a
product of our lack of knowledge of the world, but can also be a product of the insensitivity of cohesive
objects to the microstructure of other objects with which they interact. The amplification of minute
differences typical of the formation of dissipative structures and the evolution of non-linear systems with
multiple attractors can produce results that are not predictable or controllable with the resources of the
macroscopic objects involved. The significance of these effects will be especially strong when the
underlying structure is bordering on chaotic regions. The evolution of such systems cannot be adequately
understood as either a combination of microprocesses nor as an interaction between self-contained
macroscopic systems. It will have aspects of both, indicating a connection between the microscopic and
the macroscopic.

What does this have to do with our conception of space? As I mentioned, a determined
Newtonian can retain the local point location view of space, but at some risk of irrelevance. If we reject
this metaphysics, we can turn to a view of space in which scale becomes an important concept, with
larger scale phenomena exhibiting non-local properties. Furthermore, there are interconnections between
different scales that complicate the structure of space, giving it a hierarchical structure reminiscent of
fractal dimensions. This is a radically different view of space than the one we have inherited from the
Scientific Revolution.

There are some similarities between the points I have been making about dynamical systems and
Quantum Mechanical systems, but the exact relations are still very obscure. Like dynamical systems,
Quantum Mechanical systems show what appear to be non-local properties. On the other hand, in
Quantum Mechanics these non-local properties do not appear to be causally based, since there is no
known mechanism of causal propagation connecting certain well-known quantum correlations. One such
correlation is the one described in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment, in which measurements on
the spin of one particle allow determination of the value of the spin of a distant particle when the two
particles have been formed by a common process, even though the spins of each particle independently
are only statistically predictable. Some of the problems of mechanism, determinism, predictability and
non-locality in quantum mechanics have been explored by David Bohm7. These investigations have led
Bohm to suggest a fairly complex holism about the world that makes the manifest order that we observe
only reflection of a more complex implicate order that is not directly accessible to observation, but so
far nothing conclusive has come from this work. Nonetheless, there are some similarities between the
implicate order and the interconnectedness of scale suggested by the non-mechanistic interpretation of
dynamical systems. Whether or not there is anything deeper than a superficial similarity will have to wait
further work. But one thing that seems certain is that our concept of physical space is undergoing
profound changes as a result of the new physics.

7
David Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1957), and Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

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