Is the World Living or Dead?

tree_shadow_nature_252268_lBy Christy Rodgers, originally published at CounterPunch.

At every step, in every field since the late 20th century, the pre-existent nonhuman world has been telling the physical sciences how far ahead of them she is. Even the mind-bogglingly complex (and beautiful) recursions and bifurcations of chaos theory produce only drastically simplified approximations of common dynamic processes in nature, ones that you observe by watching a flowing stream or the passage of clouds.

Their own mathematics warns scientists that their solutions to complex or non-linear problems is so approximate as to be useless in most cases. A more profound insight that can be derived from them is how a finite natural system can contain and be bounded by almost infinite complexity, and thus, how sensitive it is to change. Emerging systems theories, like biologist Stuart Kauffman’s, are just beginning to sketch the minority report on irreducible complexity – while the reductionist consensus, with vast resources to back it up, gallops on towards the machine dreams of its venture capitalists and “visionaries.”

The scientific method constrains science to isolate things in space and remove them from the passage of time in order to make statements about them, to act upon them. But a warning bell is ringing: reality eludes all efforts to reduce it too much, or to use only formalisms to describe it. It seems to be trying to tell the scientists who will listen that things in connection with one another, evolving in time, are not just different in scale from things studied in isolation but fundamentally different in kind.

Time has lost any causative importance in mainstream theoretical physics, another of Einstein’s unintended gifts. And yet time’s flow not only rules our human lives and everything our senses can perceive, but may actually be essential in creating qualitative differences in reality. All known life is characterized not just by a set of molecules but its particularly creative relationship to the flow of time. Even the laws of physics may evolve, a radical idea Smolin has begun to explore.

I still appreciate the power of science to take on the ultimate questions, and the rigorous beauty of some of its hypothetical answers. I’m inspired by scientists in many fields who are challenging the reductionist and mechanistic paradigm. But I’m afraid they may always be the minority report. If science remains dominated by the lure of power over matter, or the belief that its own abstractions are the ultimate reality, it will never be able to weave us back into the story of a single, living world.

If we fail the evolutionary challenge, I’ll wager it won’t be because our theoretical physics, biochemistry, or neurology wasn’t good enough, or our engineering, technology, or medicine – or even our art, music, or literature. It will be because the stories we accepted as most profoundly true, the ones that determined our social behavior, dismissed the idea that treating our world as dead might ultimately be deadly to us too.

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This article was originally published at CounterPunch, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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