Why upon the inexplicable in nature we do not have to ask for a higher being (any longer)
The relatively simple structure of the fundamental equations of physics, as found in Newton’s equation of mechanics, Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and Schrödinger’s and Dirac’s equations in quantum mechanics,respectively quantum field theory, suggests that the processes in nature can generally be well calculated and predicted. Physicists have therefore long believed that simplicity is the rule and nature is basically quite straight forward to describe and forecast. This created the basis for the natural scientists’long upheld reductionist and mechanistic thinking about nature, which often raised -not too seldom justified – criticism inspiritual circles.
But this belief is rather a result of wishful thinking then of extensive scientific studies of the phenomena involved. For already the mathematicians of the 18th century recognized, that if one extends the two-body problem of gravity to merely three bodies, the resulting mathematical equations become very intricate. Meanwhile, we can generalize these findings: Many phenomena in nature do not meet the simple text book cases of theoretical physics. With its many degrees of freedom (independent, freely select able possibilities of movement in a system) they are generally so complex that they are anything but easily solvable and predictable. Contrary to the belief of the 18th century nature – and,of course, humans – can hardly be describe within the paradigm of a manageable or even controllable machine.
Already the above system of three massive bodies can display a rather strange behavior in which even minimal changes to its initial conditions lead to large differences in its movements. Physicists today refer to this property as ‘deterministic chaos’, and in the 1970s and 1980s they discovered numerous physical systems and models that possess such chaotic signatures. Supported by computer generated vivid representations of the underlying irregular motions which found a great deal of attention in the media and public this led to a discipline referred to in the popular mind as ’chaos theory’.
A growing portion of this discipline now includes the study of so-called ‘self-organizing systems‘. These are multi-component systems (generally systems with many degrees of freedom) in which the individual parts are linked together such that by their mutual and constantly changing relationships complex shapes and structures can arise spontaneously from the overall system itself. The forming, shaping and constraining influences arise from the interactions between the elements of the self-organizing system itself and can no longer be attributed to the properties of the individual parts of the system. Consequently, in such systems a higher structural organization can be achieved without any apparent external influence of whatever kind of ‘organizer’. The researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘emergence‘.
The discovery and description of emergent properties in nature questions a fundamental pillar of physics since the early 17th century(the motivation of which goes even back to pre-Socratic philosophy). Instead of being able to reduce large scale phenomena to ‘simpler units of phenomenology‘ physicists recognize increasingly that the opposite applies: the simple phenomena are usually abstractions and idealizations of a much more complex reality. Would it be possible that some or even many phenomena cannot be reduced to basic phenomenological elements at all?
Correspondingly, resistance against reductionist principles arise from within the ranks of physicists themselves. The advocates for a paradigm shift to a new ‘non-reductionist physics’ have an entire list of well-known examples of physical phenomena that cannot be explained by the fundamental properties and laws of their parts. And it does not stop here: the properties of these systems are furthermore completely independent of the laws that exist on the level of their components. In other words, the fundamental laws on the microscopic level are irrelevant for the characteristics of the system as a whole. The characteristics of a gas for example are defined by its properties such as temperature, pressure, or entropy. However, these terms make no sense for any of its molecules. Also many of well-known properties of solids such as strength or elasticity can only beestablished through the alliance of many atoms. For the individual particles, these terms are as meaningless. Other emergent physical phenomena include paramagnetism (spontaneous magnetization of a substance in an external magnetic field), superconductivity (the current in a conductor free of resistance), super fluidity (the state of a liquid in which it loses any internal friction), phase transitions (such as freezing or melting of water), as well as numerous macroscopic phenomena in quantum physics. They all originate in macroscopic systems in which the behavior of many particles can be described by a few so called ‘order parameters’ which can change in size very suddenly leading to astonishing and difficult to describe phenomena.
From the theoretical insights into the physics of self-organizing systems and chaos theory, a new physical discipline has emerged which makes the complexity in nature and phenomena such as emergence to its core subject: the ‘theory of complex systems‘. If it were up to its protagonists science should give up its ‘downward’focus and one-sided search for reductionist basic laws and look ‘upwards’, on those connecting (emergent) laws. In their conceptual framework we can detect a concept of nature that bears some similarities to the one of the 19th century period of romanticism. The properties of self-organizing systems correspond to a ‘wholeness principle’ which was also central to the romantic view on nature and its irreducible organism concept which are at last reflected in the statement that the „whole is greater than its parts“. Such a ‘holistic’ view on nature comes with the conviction that the world cannot be described by examining its single parts, not by the analysis of the many of its individual aspects, as the paradigm of reductionist science undertakes.
The definition of emergence as a guiding principle in nature opens and at the same time limits the scope for transcendent principles. The ability of a system to create new forms of organization on its own and out of itself opens up the space for an almost limitless creativity in nature, which thereby rids itself of the shackles of strict determinism. Newly arising forms can therein not be predicted anymore. Thus, science allows only for an a posteriori reconstruction of emergent phenomena, but hardly for an a priorireduction. Emergent systems carry the possibility for ‘self-transcendence’, an ability from within themselves to bring their own properties to a higher level (originally the term stems from theology where it describes the ability of humans to transcend themselves). Despite the loss of the idea of determinism which has prevailed modernity by the notion of rationality since the Age of Enlightenment, the ‘creative processes’ in natural systems capable of self-transcendence can nevertheless be captured by the means of science. Disciplines such as the physics of complex systems and chaos theory are able to demonstrate that emergence-based phenomena such as self-organization and their formation conditions are accessible to systematic and objectively ascertainableexplanations, even if the specific characteristics of such systems fully depends on the contexts they are embedded in.
We there recognize in the principles of emergence first modest steps for a possible synergetic connection between a scientific and at the same timetranscendence foundedlook upon nature. However, a description of self-organizing emergent systems in nature clearly excludes the action of an external‘world-organizing entity’, as imagined to be the role of God by Newton and his contemporaries. The nature and its phenomena are in no need for such a transcendent figure any longer.