Beyond the “Mechanism” Metaphor in Physics

In previous posts, I discussed the use of the “mechanism” metaphor in science. I argued that this metaphor was useful historically in helping us to make progress in understanding cause-and-effect patterns in nature, but was limited or even deceptive in a number of important respects. In particular, the field of biology is characterized by evidence of spontaneity, adaptability, progress, and cooperative behavior among life forms that make the mechanism metaphor inadequate in characterizing and explaining life.

Physics is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the “hard sciences” and, as such, the field most suited to the mechanism metaphor. In fact, many physicists are so wedded to the idea of the universe as a mechanism, that they are inclined to speak as if the universe literally was a mechanism, that we humans are actually living inside a computer simulation. Why alien races would go through the trouble of creating simulated humans such as ourselves, with such dull, slow-moving lives, is never explained. But physicists are able to get away with these wild speculations because of their stupendous success in explaining and predicting the motion and actions of objects, from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies.

Fundamental to the success of physics is the idea that all objects are subject to laws that determine their behavior. Laws are what determine how the various parts of the universal mechanism move and interact. But when one starts asking questions about what precisely physical laws are and where they come from, one runs into questions and controversies that have never been successfully resolved.

Prior to the Big Bang theory, developed in the early twentieth century, the prevailing theory among physicists was that the universe existed eternally and had no beginning. When an accumulation of astronomical observations about the expansion of the universe led to the conclusion that the universe probably began from a single point that rapidly expanded outward, physicists gradually came to accept that the idea that the universe had a beginning, in a so-called “Big Bang.” However, this raised a problem: if laws ran the universe, and the universe had a beginning, then the laws must have preexisted the universe. In fact, the laws must have been eternal.

But what evidence is there for the notion that the laws of the universe are eternal? Does it really make sense to think of the law of gravity as existing before the universe existed, before gravity itself existed, before planets, stars, space, and time existed? Does it make sense to think of the law of conservation of mass existing before mass existed, or Mendel’s laws of genetics existing before genes existed? Where and how did they exist? If you take the logic of physics far enough, one is apt to conclude that the laws of physics are some kind of God(s), or that God is a mechanism.

Furthermore, what is the evidence for the notion that laws completely determine the motion of every particle in the universe, that the universe is deterministic? Observations and experiments under controlled conditions confirmed that the laws of Newtonian physics could indeed predict the motions of various objects. But did these observations and experiments prove that all objects everywhere behaved in completely predictable patterns?

Despite some fairly large holes in the ideas of eternal laws and determinism, both ideas have been popular among physicists and among many intellectuals. There have been dissenters, however.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) argued that the universe was in fact a highly dynamic system with a large degree of freedom within it. According to Bergson, our ideas about eternal laws originated in human attempts to understand the reality of change by using fixed, static concepts. These concepts were useful tools — in fact, the tools had to be fixed and static in order to be useful. But the reality that these concepts pointed to was in fact flowing, all “things” were in flux, and we made a major mistake by equating our static concepts with reality and positing a world of eternal forms, whether that of Plato or the physicists. Actual reality, according to Bergson, was “unceasing creation, the uninterrupted up-surge of novelty.” (Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, p. 7) Moreover, the flow of time was inherently continuous; we could try to measure time by chopping it into equal segments based on the ticking of a clock or by drawing a graph with units of time along one axis, but real time did not consist of segments any more than a flowing river consisted of segments. Time is a “vehicle of creation and choice” that refutes the idea of determinism. (p. 75)

Bergson did not dispute the experimental findings of physics, but argued that the laws of physics were insufficient to describe what the universe was really like. Physicists denied the reality of time and “unceasing creation,” according to Bergson, because scientists were searching for repeatable patterns, paying little or no attention to what was genuinely new:

[A]gainst this idea of the absolute originality and unforeseeability of forms our whole intellect rises in revolt. The essential function of our intellect, as the evolution of life has fashioned it, is to be a light for our conduct, to make ready for our action on things, to foresee, for a given situation, the events, favorable or unfavorable, which may follow thereupon. Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known. . .  Science carries this faculty to the highest possible degree of exactitude and precision, but does not alter its essential character. Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition. (Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 29)

Bergson acknowledged the existence of repetitive patterns in nature, but rather than seeing these patterns as reflecting eternal and wholly deterministic laws, Bergson proposed a different metaphor. Drawing upon the work of the French philosopher Felix Ravaisson, Bergson argued that nature develops “habits” of behavior in the same manner that human beings develop habits, from initial choices of behavior that over time become regular and subconscious: “Should we not then imagine nature, in this form, as an obscured consciousness and a dormant will? Habit thus gives us the living demonstration of this truth, that mechanism is not sufficient to itself: it is, so to speak, only the fossilized residue of a spiritual activity.” In Bergson’s view, spiritual activity was the ultimate foundation of reality, not the habits/mechanisms that resulted from it (The Creative Mind, pp. 197-98, 208).

Bergson’s views did not go over well with most scientists. In 1922, in Paris, Henri Bergson publicly debated Albert Einstein about the nature of time. (See Jimena Canales, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time). Einstein’s theory of relativity posited that there was no absolute time that ticked at the same rate for every body in the universe. Time was linked to space in a single space-time continuum, the movement of bodies was entirely deterministic, and this movement could be predicted by calculating the space-time coordinates of these bodies. In Einstein’s view, there was no sharp distinction between past, present, and future — all events existed in a single block of space-time. This idea of a “block universe” is still predominant in physics today, though it is not without dissenters.

Most people have a “presentist” view of reality.

But physicists prefer the “block universe” view, in which all events are equally real.

Source: Time in Cosmology

 

In fact, when Einstein’s friend Michele Besso passed away in 1955, Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to Besso’s family in which he expressed his sympathies to the family but also declared that the separation between past, past, and future was an illusion anyway, so death did not mean anything. (The Physicist and the Philosopher, pp. 338-9)

It is widely believed that Bergson lost his 1922 debate with Einstein, in large part because Bergson did not fully understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nevertheless, while physicists everywhere eventually came to accept relativity, many rejected Einstein’s notion of a completely determinist universe which moved as predictably as a mechanism. The French physicist Louis de Broglie and the Japanese physicist Satosi Watanabe were proponents of Bergson and argued that the indeterminacy of subatomic particles supported Bergson’s view of the reality of freedom, the flow of time, and change. Einstein, on the other hand, never did accept the indeterminacy of quantum physics and insisted to his dying day that there must be “hidden” variables that would explain everything.  (The Physicist and the Philosopher, pp. 234-38)

 

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Moving forward to the present day, the debate over the reality of time has been rekindled by Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. In Time Reborn, Smolin proposes that time is indeed real and that the neglect of this fact has hindered progress in physics and cosmology. Contrary to what you may have been taught in your science classes, Smolin argues that the laws of nature are not eternal and precise but emergent and approximate. Borrowing the theory of evolution from biology, Smolin argues that the laws of the universe evolve over time, that genuine novelty is real, and that the laws are not precise iron laws but approximate, granting a degree of freedom to what was formerly considered a rigidly deterministic universe.

One major problem with physics, Smolin argues, is that scientists tend to generalize or extrapolate based on conclusions drawn from laboratory experiments conducted under highly controlled conditions, with extraneous variables carefully excluded — Smolin calls this “physics in a box.” Now there is nothing inherently wrong with “physics in a box” — carefully controlled experiments that exclude extraneous variables are absolutely essential to progress in scientific knowledge. The problem is that one cannot take a law derived from such a controlled experiment and simply scale it up to apply to the entire universe; Smolin calls this the “cosmological fallacy.” As Smolin argues, it makes no sense to simply scale up the findings from these controlled experiments, because the universe contains everything, including the extraneous variables! Controlled experiments are too restricted and artificial to serve as an adequate basis for a theory that includes everything. Instead of generalizing from the bottom up based on isolated subsystems of the universe, physicists must construct theories of the whole universe, from the top down. (Time Reborn, pp. 38-39, 97)

Smolin is not the first scientist to argue that the laws of nature may have evolved over time. Smolin points to the eminent physicists Paul Dirac, John Archibald Wheeler, and Richard Feynman as previous proponents of the idea that the laws may have evolved. (Time Reborn, pp. xxv-xxvi) But all of these theorists were preceded by the American philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who argued that “the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution.” (Time Reborn, p. xxv) Dr. Smolin gives credit to Charles Sanders Peirce for originating this idea, and proposes two ways in which the laws of nature have evolved.

The first way is through a series of “Big Bangs,” in which each new universe selects different laws each time. Smolin argues that there must have been an endless succession of Big Bangs in the past which have led to our current universe with its particular set of laws. (p. 120) Furthermore, Smolin proposes that black holes create new, baby universes, each with its own laws — so the black holes in our universe are the parents of other universes, and our own universe is the child of a black hole in some other universe! (pp. 123-25) Unfortunately, it seems impossible to adequately prove this theory, unless there is some possible way of observing these other universes with their different laws.

Smolin also proposes that laws can arise at the quantum level based on what he calls the “principle of precedence.” Smolin makes an analogy to Anglo-Saxon law, in which the decisions of judges in the past serve as precedents for decisions made today and in the future, in an ever-growing body of “common law.” The idea is that everything in the universe has a tendency to develop habits; when a truly novel event occurs, and then occurs again, and again, it settles into a pattern of repetition; that settled pattern of repetition indicates the development of a new law of nature. The law did not previously exist eternally — it emerged out of habit. (Time Reborn, pp. 146-53) Furthermore, rather than being bound by deterministic laws, the universe remains genuinely open and free, able to build new forms on top of existing forms. Smolin argues, “In the time-bound picture I propose, the universe is a process for breeding novel phenomena and states of organization, which will forever renew itself as it evolves to states of ever higher complexity and organization. The observational record tells us unambiguously that the universe is getting more interesting as time goes on.” (p. 194)

And yet, despite his openness to the idea of genuine novelty in the evolution of the universe, even Smolin is unable to get away from the idea of mechanisms being ultimately responsible for everything. Smolin writes that the universe began with a particular set of initial conditions and then asks “What mechanism selected the actual initial conditions out of the infinite set of possibilities?” (pp. 97-98) He does not consider the possibility that in the beginning, perhaps there was no mechanism. Indeed, this is the problem with any cosmology that aims to provide a total explanation for existence; as one goes back in time searching for origins, one eventually reaches a first cause that has no prior cause, and thus no causal explanation. One either has to posit a creator-God, an eternal self-sufficient mechanism, or throw up one’s hands and accept that we are faced with an unsolvable mystery.

In fact, Smolin is not as radical as his inspiration, Charles Sanders Peirce. According to Peirce, the universe did not start out with a mechanism but rather began from a condition of maximum freedom and spontaneity, only gradually adopting certain “habits” which evolved into laws. Furthermore, even after the development of laws, the universe retained a great deal of chance and spontaneity. Laws specified certain regularities, but even within these regularities, a great deal of freedom still existed. For example, life forms may have been bound to the surface of the earth and subject to the regular rotation of the earth, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and the limitations of biology, but nonetheless life forms still retained considerable freedom.

Peirce, who believed in God, held that the universe was pervaded not by mechanism but mind, which was by definition characterized by freedom and spontaneity. As the mind/universe developed certain habits, these habits congealed into laws and solid matter. In Peirce’s view, “matter . . . [is] mere specialised and partially deadened mind.” (“The Law of Mind,” The Monist, vol. 11, no. 4, July 1892) This view is somewhat similar to the view of the physicist Werner Heisenberg, who noted that “Energy is in fact the substance from which all elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things are made. . . .”

One contemporary philosopher, Philip Goff of Durham University, following Peirce and other thinkers, has argued that consciousness is not restricted to humans but in fact pervades the universe, from the smallest subatomic particles to the most intelligent human beings. This theory is known as panpsychism. (see Goff’s book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness) Goff does not argue that atoms, rocks, water, stars, etc. are like humans in their thought process, but that they have experiences, albeit very primitive and simple experiences compared to humans. The difference between the experiences of a human and the experiences of an electron is vast, but the difference still exists on a spectrum; there is no sharp dividing line that dictates that experience ends when one gets down to the level of insects, cells, viruses, molecules, atoms, or subatomic particles. In Dr. Goff’s words:

Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so; mice less so again. As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. Perhaps, at some point, the light switches off, and consciousness disappears. But it’s at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness fading while never quite turning off carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature. That’s what panpsychists believe. . . .

The starting point of the panpsychist is that physical science doesn’t actually tell us what matter is. . . . Physics tells us absolutely nothing about what philosophers like to call the intrinsic nature of matter: what matter is, in and of itself. So it turns out that there is a huge hole in our scientific story. The proposal of the panpsychist is to put consciousness in that hole. Consciousness, for the panpsychist, is the intrinsic nature of matter. There’s just matter, on this view, nothing supernatural or spiritual. But matter can be described from two perspectives. Physical science describes matter “from the outside,” in terms of its behavior. But matter “from the inside”—i.e., in terms of its intrinsic nature—is constituted of forms of consciousness.

Unfortunately, there is, at present, no proof that the universe is pervaded by mind, nor is there solid evidence that the laws of physics have evolved. We do know that the science of physics is no longer as deterministic as it used to be. The behavior of subatomic particles is not fully predictable, despite the best efforts of physicists for nearly a century, and many physicists now acknowledge this. We also know that the concepts of laws and determinism often fail in the field of biology — there are very few actual laws in biology, and the idea that these laws preexisted life itself seems incoherent. No biologist will tell you that human beings in their present state are the inevitable product of determinist evolution and that if we started the planet Earth all over again, we would end up in 4.5 billion years with exactly the same types of life forms, including humans, that we have now. Nor can biologists predict the movement of life forms the same way that physicists can predict the movement of planets. Life forms do their own thing. Human beings retain their free will and moral responsibility. Still, the notion that the laws of physics are pre-existent and eternal appears to have no solid ground either; it is merely one of those assumptions that has become widely accepted because few have sought to challenge it or even ask for evidence.

Beyond the “Mechanism” Metaphor in Biology

In a previous post, I discussed the frequent use of the “mechanism” metaphor in the sciences. I argued that while this metaphor was useful in spurring research into cause-and-effect patterns in physical and biological entities, it was inadequate as a descriptive model for what the universe and life is like. In particular, the “mechanism” metaphor is unable to capture the reality of change, the evidence of self-driven progress, and the autonomy and freedom of life forms.

I don’t think it’s possible to abandon metaphors altogether in science, including the mechanism metaphor. But I do think that if we are to more fully understand the nature of life, in all its forms, we must supplement the mechanism metaphor with other, additional conceptualizations and metaphors that illustrate dynamic processes.

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David Bohm (1917-1992), one of the most prominent physicists of the 20th century, once remarked upon a puzzling development in the sciences: While 19th century classical physics operated according to the view that the universe was a mechanism, research into quantum physics in the 20th century demonstrated that the behavior of particles at the subatomic level was not nearly as deterministic as the behavior of larger objects, but rather was probabilistic. Nevertheless, while physicists adjusted to this new reality, the science of biology was increasingly adopting the metaphor of mechanism to study life. Remarked Bohm:

 It does seem odd . . . that just when physics is thus moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If this trend continues, it may well be that scientists will be regarding  living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is too complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism. But of course, in the long run, such a point of view cannot stand up to critical analysis. For since DNA and other molecules studied by the biologist are constituted of electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., it follows that they too are capable of behaving in a far more complex and subtle way than can be described in terms of mechanical concepts. (Source: David Bohm, “Some Remarks on the Notion of Order,” in Towards a Theoretical Biology, Vol. 2: Sketches, ed. C.H. Waddington, Chicago: Aldine Publishing, p. 34.)

According to Bohm, biology had to overcome, or at least supplement, the mechanism metaphor if it was to advance. It was not enough to state that anything outside mechanical processes was “random,” for the concept of randomness was too ill-defined to constitute an adequate description of phenomena that did not fit into the mechanism metaphor. For one thing, noted Bohm, the word “random” was often used to denote “disorder,” when in fact it was impossible for a phenomenon to have no order whatsoever. Nor did unpredictability imply randomness — Bohm pointed out that the notes of a musical composition are not predictable, but nonetheless have a precise order when considered in totality. (Ibid., p. 20)

Bohm’s alternative conceptualization was that of an open order, that is, an order that consisted of multiple potential sub-orders or outcomes. For example, if you roll a single die once, there are six possible outcomes and each outcome is equally likely. But the die is not disordered; in fact, it is a precisely ordered system, with equal length dimensions on all sides of the cube and a weight equally distributed throughout the cube. (This issue is discussed in How Random is Evolution?) However, unlike the roll of a die, life is both open to new possibilities and capable of retaining previous outcomes, resulting in increasingly complex orders, orders that are nonetheless still open to change.

Although we are inclined to think of reality as composed of “things,” Bohm argued that the fundamental reality of the universe was not “things” but change: “All is process. That is to say, there is no thing in the universe. Things, objects, entities, are abstractions of what is relatively constant from a process of movement and transformation. They are like the shapes that children like to see in the clouds . . . .” (“Further Remarks on Order,” Ibid., p. 42) The British biologist C.H. Waddington, commenting on Bohm, proposed another metaphor, borrowed from the ancient Judeo-Christian sectarian movement known as Gnosticism:

‘Things’ are essentially eggs — pregnant with God-knows-what. You look at them and they appear simple enough, with a bland definite shape, rather impenetrable. You glance away for a bit and when you look back what you find is that they have turned into a fluffy yellow chick, actively running about and all set to get imprinted on you if you will give it half a chance. Unsettling, even perhaps a bit sinister. But one strand of Gnostic thought asserted that _everything_ is like that. (C.H. Waddington, “The Practical Consequences of Metaphysical Beliefs on a Biologist’s Work,” Ibid., p. 73)

Bohm adds that although the mechanism metaphor is apt to make one think of nature as an engineer or the work of an engineer (i.e., the universe as a “clock”), it could be more useful to think of nature as an artist. Bohm compares nature to a young child beginning to draw. Such a child attempting to draw a rectangle for the first time is apt to end up with a drawing that resembles random or nearly-random lines. Over time however, the child gathers visual impressions and instructions from parents, teachers, books, and toys of what shapes are and what a rectangle is; over time, with growth and practice, the child learns to draw a reasonably good rectangle. (Bohm, “Further Remarks on Order, Ibid., pp. 48-50) It is an order that appears to be the outcome of randomness, but in fact emerges from an open order of multiple possibilities.

 

The American microbiologist Carl. W. Woese (1928-2012), who achieved honors and awards for his discovery of a third domain of life, the “archaea,” also rejected the use of mechanist perspectives in biology. In an article calling for a “new biology,” Woese argued that biology borrowed too much from physics, focusing on the smallest parts of nature while lacking a holistic perspective:

Let’s stop looking at the organism purely as a molecular machine. The machine metaphor certainly provides insights, but these come at the price of overlooking much of what biology is. Machines are not made of parts that continually turn over, renew. The organism is. Machines are stable and accurate because they are designed and built to be so. The stability of an organism lies in resilience, the homeostatic capacity to reestablish itself. While a machine is a mere collection of parts, some sort of “sense of the whole” inheres in the organism, a quality that becomes particularly apparent in phenomena such as regeneration in amphibians and certain invertebrates and in the homeorhesis exhibited by developing embryos.

If they are not machines, then what are organisms? A metaphor far more to my liking is this. Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow—patterns in an energy flow. A simple flow metaphor, of course, fails to capture much of what the organism is. None of our representations of organism capture it in its entirety. But the flow metaphor does begin to show us the organism’s (and biology’s) essence. And it is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as (stable) complex, dynamic organization. (“A New Biology for a New Century,” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 2004, pp. 175-6)

A swirling pattern of water is perhaps not entirely satisfactory as a metaphoric conceptualization of life, but it does point to an aspect of reality that the mechanism metaphor does not satisfactorily capture: the ability of life to adapt.

Woese proposes another metaphor to describe what life was like in the very early stages of evolution, when primitive single-celled organisms were all that existed: a community. In this stage, cellular organization was minimal, and many important functions evolved separately and imperfectly in different cellular organisms. However, these organisms could evolve by exchanging genes, in a process called Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). This was the primary factor in very early evolution, not random mutation. According to Woese:

The world of primitive cells feels like a vast sea, or field, of cosmopolitan genes flowing into and out of the evolving cellular (and other) entities. Because of the high level of HGT [horizontal gene transfer], evolution at this stage would in essence be communal, not individual. The community of primitive evolving biological entities as a whole as well as the surrounding field of cosmopolitan genes participates in a collective reticulate [i.e., networked] evolution. (Ibid., p. 182)

It was only later that this loose community of cells increased their interactions to the point at which a phase transition took place, in which evolution became less communal and the vertical inheritance of relatively well-developed organisms became the main form of evolutionary descent. But horizontal gene transfer still continued after this transition, and continues to this day. (Ibid., pp. 182-84) It’s hard to see how these interactions resemble any kind of mechanism.

Tree of life showing vertical and horizontal gene transfers.

Source:  Horizontal gene transfer – Wikipedia

 

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So let’s return to the question of “vitalism,” the old theory that there was something special responsible for life: a soul, spirit, force, or substance. The old theories of vitalism have been abandoned on the grounds that no one has been able to observe, identify, or measure a soul, spirit, etc. However, the dissatisfaction of many biologists with the “mechanist” outlook has led to a new conception of vitalism, one in which the essence of life is not in a mysterious substance or force but in the organization of matter and energy, and the processes that occur under this organization. (See Sebastian Normandin and Charles T. Wolfe, eds., Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800-2010, p. 2n4, 69, 277, 294 )

As Woese wrote, organisms are “resilient patterns . . . in an energy flow.” In a previous essay, I pointed to the work of the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, who noted that matter and energy are essentially interchangeable and that the universe itself began as a great burst of energy, much of which gradually evolved into different forms of matter over time. According to Heisenberg, “Energy is in fact the substance from which all elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things are made. . . .” (Physics and Philosophy, p. 63)

Now energy itself is not a personal being, and while energy can move things, it’s problematic to equate any moving matter as a kind of life. But is it not the case that once a particular configuration of energy/matter rises to a certain level, organized under a unified consciousness with a free will, then that configuration of energy/matter constitutes a spirit or soul? In this view, there is no vitalist “substance” that gives life to matter — it is simply a matter of energy/matter reaching a certain level of organization capable of (at least minimal) consciousness and free will.

In this view, when ancient peoples thought that breath was the spirit of life and blood was the sacred source of life, they were not that far off the mark. Oxygen is needed by (most) life forms to process the energy in food. Without the continual flow of oxygen from our environment into our body, we die. (Indeed, brain damage will occur after only three minutes without oxygen.) And blood delivers the oxygen and nutrients to the cells that compose our body. Both breath and blood maintain the flow of energy that is essential to life. It’s all a matter of organized energy/matter, with billions of smaller actors and activities working together to form a unified conscious being.