NECSI and MIT/ESD Seminar

Stuart Kauffman

The End Of A Physics Worldview: Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life

The seminar was held at MIT on October 19, 2011 and was jointly sponsored by the New England Complex Systems Institute and the MIT Engineering Systems Division. The talk was developed in collaboration with Giuseppe Longo.

The abstract is available here.

Text of the Presentation

  1. 2500 years ago Heraclitus said, “The world bubbles forth”. There is in this fragment of thought an image of the world becoming, beyond entailing law. Somewhat similarly, in Genesis, God creates all, beyond entailing law, setting Adam in dominion over all of creation. With Newton’s differential and integral calculus, three laws of motion, universal gravitation, and initial and boundary conditions, integration of the differential equation laws of motion for billiard balls on a table of known boundaries yielded, by deduction, hence entailment, the entire future and past trajectories of the balls. With Laplace, this became the trajectories of all the particles in the universe, hence by entailment, the entire future and past of the universe. This is the foundation of “reductionism” with us today. Early sociologist Max Weber said that with Newton we became disenchanted and entered Modernity. He was right: The Enlightenment’s Age of Reason, down with the Clerics, up with science for the ever betterment of humanity by mastery of nature - God’s promise to Adam, the industrial revolution, and the Modern world. With senior Italian French mathematician Giuseppe Longo of the Ecole Polytechnique Paris, I will argue for “The End of a Physics Worldview: Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life”. We will find ourselves beyond Newton, Einstein, Schrodinger, even Darwin, beyond entailing law in the becoming of life. We may become re-enchanted and find a way beyond Modernity.

  2. Evolution is neither sufficiently described by quantum mechanics nor by classical physics: i. Mutations can be quantum random, indeterminate and acausal on the Copenhagen interpretation of QM.. eg quantum tunneling can facilitate the conversion in the keto-enol tautomerism of the bases G and T (due to tunneling of one proton in the OH group of these bases). The ‘wrong’ tautomer leads to false base pairing - point mutations, as shown by experiments. ii. Evolution is NON-random, as seen in the convergent evolution of independently evolved octopus and vertebrate camera eyes. So evolution really is non determinate and not causal and also causal and not random, so not described sufficiently by QM alone or classical physics alone. We have to think about Life anew.

  3. Darwinian Adaptations: i. Kauffman’s heart pumps blood, function of heart, as subset of its causal consequences, eg heart sounds. ii. Darwin: the heart was selected to pump blood that is why the function of heart is to pump blood, not make heart sounds. iii. But that is also why hearts exist in universe.

  4. Vast non Ergodicity of universe above level of atoms: 10 to 260 proteins length 200. Universe cannot make them all in 10 to 39th times its history. So universe is on a unique trajectory, non-ergodic, and heart getting to exist is a big deal, most complex things won’t. History enters physically.

  5. Darwinian preadaptations: Causal consequences of part of organism of no selective significance selected in new environment. i Swim bladder evolved from lungs of lung fish. 3 questions: A. New function? Yes, neutral buoyancy in water column. B. Alter evolution? Yes, including swim bladder as a NEW ADJACENT POSSIBLE EMPTY NICHE, FOR WORM OR BACTERIUM might evolve to live only in swim bladders. C Can we prestate all possible preadaptations in next million years for humans? No? Why? version 1: how name all possible selective environments? Know we listed them all? List all possible preadaptations as one or many features of organisms that may “find a use” in a preadaptation?

  6. Adjacent Possible: i. Liter of a set of molecules, the Actual, and 1 Step Reaction Adjacent Possible NEW molecular species ii. Adjacent Possible of biosphere given lung fish. Swim bladders ARE in the adjacent possible of the evolution of the biosphere. iii Before multicelled organisms. swim bladders are NOT in the adjacent possible of the evolution of the biosphere. iv, Thus we do NOT KNOW all the possibilities of evolution of biosphere by preadaptations.

  7. Cannot make probability statements about evolution: contrast: flip coin 10,000 times, know sample space, binomial theorem and make probability statements. ii. biological evolution, we do NOT know sample space, so no probability measures by known procedures.

  8. Not only do not know what WILL happen (coin tosses), we do not even know what CAN happen. Same for econosphere’s evolution, history, and life. Then reason is an insufficient guide alone for living our lives! What of our Enlightenment? Need reason, emotion, intuition, sensation, metaphor, all we have.

  9. Side comment: Uselessness of Shannon information and Kolmogorov in evolution, we do not know sample space so cannot compute entropy of source, re shannon. We do not know sample space so cannot do Kolmogorov.

  10. Radical Emergence: Swim bladder as New Adjacent Possible Empty Niche was NOT SELECTED AS A NICHE. YET IT CHANGES THE POSSIBLE DIRECTIONS OF EVOLUTION AS A WORM OR BACTERIUM MAY EVOLVE TO LIVE IN IT. But this means that WITHOUT SELECTION, the biosphere CREATES ITS OWN FUTURE POSSIBILITIES OF BECOMING! (how far from Newton we are).

  11. Enablement, not CAUSE. The swim bladder does NOT CAUSE the worm to evolve to live in it. Rather indeterminate, acausal quantum random mutation events and natural selection achieve a worm able to live in the swim bladder. But the quantum indeterminate events are ACAUSAL, so the niche of the swim bladder does NOT CAUSE, BUT ENABLES a new direction of evolution.

  12. Evolution yields new adjacent possible niches which alter and ENABLE NEW DIRECTIONS OF FUTURE EVOLUTION: this is RADICAL EMERGENCE. (no conscious mind needed for this radical emergence).

  13. Same for econosphere and culture: Turing machine enabled Eniac, created a niche for hence enabled main frame whose wide sale into a new market niche created a further new market niche that enabled Steve Jobs to envision the personal computer in that new niche, an enabling opportunity he saw and seized, whose wide sale created a new market niche for word processing, an enabling opportunity that Bill Gates (and others) saw and seized, whose wide sale and use created a niche for sharing files whose niche enabled the creation of the World Wide Web, which enabled selling things on the web and eBay emerged, enabling more content on the web creating a niche enabling browsing the web and Google and Yahoo emerged, then Facebook enabled the Arabic Spring and new forms of social movements, which enable.....

  14. The above leads to a profound new issue: Is this becoming of life and our lives entailed by some law - the reductionist view? I will argue NO. No law entails the becoming of the biosphere or human life.

  15. Max Weber’s statement: “With Newton we became disenchanted and entered Modernity.”

  16. Newton laws of motion ode, pde, initial and boundary conditions, integration as deduction as entailment. Laplace, Reductionism, string theory TOE. All that happens in universe is to be entailed.

  17. Repeat of evolution not sufficiently described by QM or classical physics, quantum random, indeterminate mutations, convergent evolution camera eye.

  18. Kantian wholes: An organized being is one in which the parts exist for and by means of the whole and the whole exists for and by means of the parts.

  19. Collectively Autocatalytic sets, eg Gonen Ashkenazi’s 9 peptide set, simple Kantian wholes. Set achieves closure in catalytic task space. Function definable as role of peptide in sustaining the Kantian whole. No “functions” physics. Functions depend upon non-ergodicity of universe and the fact that a Kantian whole “gets to exist” in the universe at a level of complexity where most such things will never exist.

  20. Eukayrotic cells achieve functional closure in complex “task space”, not just catalysis.

  21. Uses of screw drive alone or with other objects or processes are indefinite and unorderable. Thus NO EFFECTIVE PROCEDURE TO LIST THEM ALL. No algorithmic way to list all the uses of a screw driver.

  22. Cellular screw drivers and other process and parts may ‘FIND A USE” IN AN UNPRESTATABLE DARWINIAN PREADAPTATION, which is heritable and enhances fitness so is selected by natural selection OPERATING AT THE LEVEL OF THE KANTIAN WHOLE, so is grafted into evolution.


  24. Thus, with Longo, we cannot prestate the EVER CHANGING PHASE SPACE of life as it evolves. We do not know the ever new relevant variables.

  25. Need settled semantically laden concepts for mathematization. Law of pendulum, Newton’s laws of motion.

  26. We do not have settled semantically laden concepts for evolving biosphere, so we cannot mathematize it, we cannot write down equations of motion of biosphere evolving. A fortiori so too for evolving econsphere, culture.

  27. Without a predefined phase space, we do not know the adjacent possible niche which is the boundary conditions on selection, eg for worm evolving to live in swim bladder, so even if we had, which we don’t, the laws of motion, we could not integrate them. It would be like trying to integrate for billiiard balls on a table whose shape is unknown and ever changing.


  29. Another view of the lack of prestatable boundary conditions in evolution: Consider the “niche” of an organism, cell or higher, as the closure of a set of its tasks needed for reproduction in an environment both abiotic and with other organisms. But that task closure requires features of the environment that cannot be prestated until the total task closure is revealed, then stated after the fact. Organism and niche are co-specified circularly. Thus “niche” cannot be prestated by itself ahead of time as a boundary condition. Again, no law entails the evolution of the biosphere.

  30. We are beyond Newton, Einstein, Schrodinger, even Darwin. We are beyond entailing law, and selection as the singular driving force, as seen in the radical emergence of the evolving biopshere enabling its own future directions of becoming. 2500 years ago Heraclitus said, “The world bubbles forth”, a becoming beyond entailing law. “The End of a Physics Worldview: Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life” bubbling forth radical emergence.

  31. Our lives are new, we are empowered by unfolding webs of niche creation, enablement and radical emergence, not merely entwined in a web of causal laws. We may become re-enchanted and move beyond Modernity.