A World Beyond Physics: The emergence of evolution and Life; Stuart A. Kauffman, Oxford University Press, 2019 ISBN 978-0-19-087133-8
Reviewed by Roger F. Malina, Professor of Physics and Art and Technology, UT Dallas
A book that made Roger happy.
It is not often a book just makes me happy. As I read this book on a transatlantic flight, I leafed back and forth trying to make sense of this mixture of fact and speculation and just plain lack of closure. Kauffman has been on my radar for decades, and was one of the people who alerted me to the end of physics as the queen of the sciences. Its primacy for the last 70 years was an accident of history, particularly of WWI, rather than of logic, or the methods, we call scientific at the moment.
The sciences of complexity have been one way that sciences are being redesigned, at least in its methods , if not its social embedding. However, the Santa Fe Institute, where Kauffman worked for a while, is indeed a new kind of research institute embedded in open society that treats the arts and sciences as combined ways of knowing. New ideas about causality are emerging and being applied, he argues. In Kauffman’s phrase we must face the fact that some phenomena, including life forms, are ‘unprestatable”. One of the stimuli for his current line of thinking is the work of Mael Motevil and Matteo Mossio on “constraint closure”
Read it again so it makes sense: un pre-state-able. Not unpredictable. Unprestatable. Not the same idea.
This book is almost an exemplar of Edward Said’s ideas on the ‘late style’ of older `creatives´ (Kauffman announces he is 79). There is no closure here on the nature of life and the scientific explanations of its development on earth and elsewhere in the universe. He states, very accurately, that there are xx billion places in the universe where what we call life, or self-organizing systems, must have originated. The discovery, using astro-physics, that there are more planets than stars in the universe shifts our gaze and that the search for life, like our own, is profoundly mistaken. There are billions of life forms, but none will be like our own and of a kind we can converse with and most will not be on planets (my conclusion).
In the closing sections, Kauffman extends the discussion to the evolution of the economy. As with life, the economy, he argues, is another example of the emergence of the ‘adjacent possibles’ enabled by the phenomenon of auto-poesis through constraint closure. He concludes: “To think that this (life or the economy) is a Newtonian-Laplacian machine, derivable in some way from set of axioms, seems deeply wrong. Life, and we among it, is so rich in its inheritance and prospects that we can. I think, be captured by no entailing laws”. In his words the future of life, and the economy, are ‘Unprestatable”.
But read this book and you might get wise, and wisely mad , realizing that the real world isn’t satisfied by physics. Or as we are doing in the UTDallas ArtSciLab try and develop the artscience methods that successfully combine various ways of knowing needed to understand the world at different scales of time, size, and complexity. Like Kauffman I am convinced that physics works enough of the time that it is worth funding; too bad it took astronomere 100,000 years to figure out most of the universe didnt emit light of any kind. For the key problems of climate change and the redesign of our human cultures and economic methods we must go way beyond physics, and in other ways one of which Kauffman elaborates. But this is needed also to understand all three undeniable biggies that Kaufmann enumerates: the origin of the universe, of life forms and of consciousness.
A book that made Roger sad.
The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How modern math reveals nature’s deepest secrets.
Graham Farmelo. Basic Books.Hachette. USA. ISBN 9781541673922.
By coincidence, serendipity, or some higher mathematical logic (or constraint closure ?), I started this passionate book by Graham Farmelo. He goes into the deep end of the age-old disputes on the roles and natures of mathematics in helping us understand the world around and in us. It would be great to have Farmelo and Kauffman arm-wrestle on the three undeniable biggies cited above. Why mathematics can or should inform our understanding of phenomena, simple and complex, is presumably un-prestatable in Kauffman neologism. Farmelo in exquisite detail takes us through the debates on whether mathematics is the queen of the sciences or whether one stupid fact can derail the most beautiful mathematics. The book culminates in the work of the large hadron collider, the unresolved debates about string theory. He ends on a pacifist note: “As we have seen in the relatively recent past it has become clearer than ever that physicists have not one but two ways of improving their fundamental of how nature works: by collecting data from experiments and by discovering the mathematics that best describes the underlying order of the cosmos. The Universe is whispering its secrets to us in stereo.”
This made me deeply unhappy. Here we go again with false dichotomies that the artscience researchers are struggling to dispel. First he takes sides on the age old argument on whether mathematics is a human invention or a discovery of absolute truth. I don’t think this argument has been resolved; what is clear from Sarukkai’s ethics of curiosity argument is that the way mathematics develops is totally, lets say –largely, conditioned by human curiosity. The inevitable conclusion is that mathematics in extraterrestrial species will overlap but not be identical to human invented or discovered mathematics. In addition there are other ways than mathematics and experiment that humans try to make sense of the worlds around them. Kauffman would argue that the processes of evolution result in “successful” beings that reason in certain ways and not others, and I would argue that current mathematics knowledge is an ‘accident’ of the evolutionary path that our reasoning species have taken. Mike Punt and I argued endlessly about these issues in the special issue of Leonardo Reviews Quarterly (http://www.trans-techresearch.net/publications/lrq/ ) where http://malina.diatrope.com/2012/05/28/is-there-role-for-the-sublime-in-artscience-today/ I argued about the un-knowables ( eg what happens inside a black hole), the un-observables, un-translateables and I would now also use Kaufman’s concept of ‘un-prestatables’) and how the way our bodies and minds are constructed, shapes, and constrains our thinking processes so fundamentally that I just don’t see how the mathematics vs experiment can be resolved through this false thinking dichotomy. We need to combine multiple ways of ‘knowing’ or ‘making sense’ of ourselves and the worlds we are part of, not just two. I have never seen a mathematical proof that there can only be two ways of knowing Mr Farmelo !
In our ArtSciLab, https://atec.utdallas.edu/content/artscilab/?portfolioCats=125%2C126%2C127%2C128%2C129%2C130, we are struggling with what we mean by ‘transdisciplinary’ approaches to making sense. Fundamental to our thinking is that there are multiple ways of making sense that range from the cognitive sciences reading of signals emitted by our brain structures, to the phenomenological, to the purely mathematical to the messy, contextually experimental to many others.
So I am now confronted by the ‘fact’ that I have here compared and contrasted TWO books, why “two” (and why both by men of the human species). As I have argued elsewhere false dichotomies of the kind that Farmelo farms are one unprestatable consequence of our being a species that is bilaterally symmetric (thanks Stelarc, obviously if we were three handed we would be obsessed with tri-symmetrical structures).
As Einstein said, I paraphrase: our ideas are as independent of the nature and shape of our bodies, as our clothes are.
Fortunately, Helga Nowotny has laid the groundwork for complexifying these discussions with her seminal thinking on transdisciplinarity ( http://helga-nowotny.eu/ ) and more recently on the ‘cunning of uncertainty” https://www.wiley.com/en-us/The+Cunning+of+Uncertainty-p-9780745687612 ).
Yes, the sciences are in desperate need of redesigning. The scientific method is evolving, for example with the emergence of AI beings that reason, and the social embedding of science is becoming more ‘robust’ as Nowotny argues with the open science , co working and artscience movements. I forget what its called when you are both happy and unhappy at the same time, ambivalent ( why not tri-valent). But we all function on the spectrum of wisdom and madness and in between, and beyond to make sense, so we can survive due to our own individual constraint closures.