Interes_The scientific search for order: miracles without an author?

The scientific search for order: miracles without an author?

The scientific search for order: miracles without an author?

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: article unpublished
Publication date: 1991

One of the most interesting questions in science today is the self-organisation of the subject. We are facing a real revolution in our conception of nature, which has important philosophical and theological implications.

The importance of topic is reflected in a collective work published in 1989 by Paul Davies *(1), which provides a synthesis of the leading topics in physics today. Its 18 chapters can be divided into three blocks. The first deals with astrophysics and cosmology, i.e. the universe as a whole; it is about the frontier of the very large. The third deals with fundamental physics, i.e. the basic particles and forces that make up the subject; this is the very small frontier. The second deals with different aspects of self-organisation; this is a new frontier, which is the complexity frontier.

The experience of self-organisation in nature is not new. Self-organisation prevails in the living world. If the topic of self-organisation is of particular interest today, it is not because its existence has been discovered. It is because, for the first time in history, we are reaching a certain understanding of the physical mechanisms involved in the phenomena of self-organisation.

Superfluidity and superconductivity

The physical phenomena where the spontaneous appearance of ordered behaviour is most dramatically manifested are superfluidity and superconductivity. They are of great technological and economic interest; for example, advanced industries are following with interest developments in the manufacture of superconductors, which allow the transport of energy without dissipation.

Superfluidity occurs at very low temperatures, near absolute zero, which is the limit at which all activity ceases. One drawback is that almost all elements freeze at these temperatures. But there is one exception: helium. There are two stable isotopes of helium: helium 4, which is the common one, and helium 3, which is rare and is produced by the beta decay of tritium in nuclear reactors. The two isotopes behave very differently, which is useful for examining the effects of the two quantum statistics: the Fermi-Dirac statistics, which is followed by particles with half-integer spin, and the Bose-Einstein statistics, followed by particles with integer spin.

Superfluidity occurs at extremely low temperatures: from 2.17 Degrees Kelvin for helium-4, and 2.6 x 10-3 degrees Kelvin for helium-3. Under these conditions, a huge issue of atoms behave collectively in such a way that there is a frictionless flow. Liquid helium rises up the walls of a container, and there are other equally striking phenomena.

Low temperature physics

That decreasing temperature leads to order phenomena is well known. There are many phenomena in which there is a transition from disorder to order as the temperature decreases. A familiar one is the freezing of water. Other well-known phenomena concern magnetism: at sufficiently low temperatures, the atoms of a piece of iron, which behave like small magnets, line up in parallel, and the piece behaves like a magnet.

However, if all of nature were at these temperatures, it would have a high order Degree , but it would be a frozen hell in which there would be no place for life. Why, then, is so much importance attached to these advances in physics?

In short, what is happening is that, for the first time, we have theories that allow us to understand the microphysical details of phenomena that have macrophysical manifestations. Low-temperature physics allows us to relate quantum mechanics, which deals with the tiny components of the subject, to the world of the observable; it therefore allows us to explain how macrophysical configurations arise from microphysical components. Therein lies its importance.

We also know about transitions from disorder to order that occur in other types of phenomena. The physical conditions under which these phenomena occur constitute the topic of important programs of study led by scientists such as Ilya Prigogine and Hermann Haken. Prigogine's thermodynamics of irreversible processes and Haken's synergetics are two perspectives focusing on the topic of self-organisation.

What does self-organisation mean?

In a nutshell, the status is as follows. Firstly, new physical-mathematical theories have been formulated that explain phenomena in which new types of order are formed. Secondly, new phenomena have become known that respond to the characteristics of self-organisation; some of them only take place under the conditions of laboratory. Thirdly, the explanations achieved relate the level of microphysical components (particles, atoms) to the observable level. Fourthly, this makes it possible to build bridges connecting the basic levels of physics and Chemistry with the biological level.

At the level of biology, concepts from cybernetics and information theory are used. These concepts, together with theories of self-organisation, provide a basis for the study of the physical mechanisms involved in biological phenomena.

The knowledge of the processes in which order originates highlights the importance, in the scientific field, of configurations and tendencies. And it is easy to see that these two notions are closely related to the classical concepts of forms and ends, which seemed to have been wiped off the map by scientific progress. Today's science sample that at the basic physical level there are real tendencies towards well-determined configurations.

The dynamism of the subject

It seems necessary to re-assessment the concept of subject. Perhaps it would not be entirely inappropriate to speak, in this context, of a return to a dynamic notion of the subject already found in the pre-Socratics.

With the exception of Leucippus and Democritus, the ideas of the pre-Socratics are far removed from the idea of subject that prevailed when, two thousand years later, nascent physics seemed to be intertwined with a mechanistic conception. subject and force formed an indivisible unity. As Jaeger underlined, Plato quotation Thales' phrase everything is full of gods as if it were the very quintessence of all Philosophy. It seems to mean that everything is full of mysterious living forces. Anaximenes seems to share this idea with Thales, and Heraclitus echoed it when, it is said, standing by the hearth of his house warming himself, he noticed some visitors hesitating to enter, and said to them: Come in. There are gods here too.

These ideas of the pre-Socratics about the subject have sometimes been dismissed as corresponding to a primitive mentality indebted to a mythical past. However, the dynamism of the subject is an aspect clearly affirmed by contemporary scientific ideas.

Science, Philosophy and theology

Davies frames this topic with these words: "Complex systems cease to be merely complicated when they display coherent behaviour involving the collective organisation of a vast issue of Degrees of freedom. It is one of the universal miracles of nature that huge gatherings of particles, which are subject only to the blind forces of nature, are nevertheless able to organise themselves into patterns of co-operative activity".

The reference letter to "universal miracles", "blind forces" and "self-organisation" clearly show that topic is fascinating because it connects with perennial problems of natural Philosophy and even of theology. And sample that, when one adopts a naturalistic position, one has to admit that nature performs "universal miracles". It is a continuous miracle, only without an author.

Reflection on the foundation of order points to problems which are as much alive now as ever, and which, taken to their ultimate consequences, constitute part of the object of natural theology.

Just as being needs a foundation, order, which can be conceived of as an unfolding of being, also requires one. Being and acting are linked and even fused in one and the same reality. Reflection on a nature that manifests a dynamism of its own, which tends towards new Structures of order, easily leads to the admission that there must be a cause superior to nature.

The self-organisation of nature, far from excluding the demand for further substantiation, can help to rethink it from instructions which, compared to the mechanistic image of nature, is much more authentic and suggestive. Unless one is willing to stop thinking, or to affirm that there are continuous miracles that have no author.


P. Davies (publisher). The New Physics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.