Throughout history Western society has viewed the cosmos in different ways, each epoch affected by its own understandings of the machinations of the heavens. The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has identified three distinct stages evident in history in which there has been an interesting correlation between how the universe has been understood and the political, cultural and societal structure of the day. Smolin’s ideas echo a work by the pragmatist philosophers Dewey and Bentley in dealing with modes of action and agency.
The first cosmological model is that of the Aristotelian universe. This is a hierarchical understanding of the universe: the earth in the centre with the moon, planets, the sun and the stars nested in crystal spheres circling the earth. Each of these heavenly bodies are situated in a specific place and are ordered according to Aristotle’s laws of motion, this hierarchy mirroring the society of his day as well as the medieval society that embraced his works.Each member of society had a clear position, defined by an intrinsic logic: “some men are by nature free and others are by nature slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right.”1
Not only was it believed that everything belongs in its appropriate position, with respect to both the societal structure and the heavenly bodies, but also that each of these bodies were deemed to possess being, propelled by its own power.2 This belief applied not just to heavenly bodies but to all substances, each containing their own essence. Dewey and Benley describe this understanding of the world as Self-Action: “where things are viewed as acting under their own powers.”3 The Christian notion of the soul exemplifies this mode of thinking culminating in the works of Thomas of Aquinas.
There exist no occult forces in stones or plants, no amazing and marvellous sympathies and antipathies, in fact there exist nothing in the whole of nature which cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes, totally devoid of meaning and thought.4
Self-action gives life to inanimate objects in the belief that they acted “under their own powers”; the second model denies these mystical assumptions, instead the action takes place between the entities.5 Beginning with Galileo’s experiments in motion and continues with Descartes prime law of nature and Newtons Laws of motion. Objects are not propelled by their own essence but through Inter-Action: “where thing is balanced against thing in causal interconnection.”6 Space and time are not included in this description but are merely the fixed framework for action to take place in. This Rationalist approach results in a closed and eternal system, with particles positioned not in relation to other objects but to an absolute concept of space. The discourse of liberal political theory mirrors the scientific understanding of the time: the individual is acted upon by the absolute and universal laws, rights, and systems of justice. While these ideas formed the basis for the political and social rules of the Enlightenment, the scientific understandings which preceeded them have come to an end.
21st century science is going to be driven by the integration of these two ideas: the triumph of relational ways of thinking about the world, on the one hand, and self-organisation or Darwinian ways of thinking about the world, on the other hand. 7
The third model in our understanding of the world are products of both Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I will first explore the epistemological importance of relativity before the discussing the role of evolution in our changing understanding of the world. In comparison to the second belief system time and space are no longer mere backgrounds for action to take place in, “a static empty grid waiting to be filled,” but rather factor into the description as a changing and growing aspect of our universe.8 Through this logic it is meaningless to say where something is based on universal co-ordinates; the only meaningful way to describe the position of something is its relative position in a network of relations.
Thus the only meaningful way to view the universe is as an embedded observer within it. This echoes ideas of our contemporary democracy and globalisation, where we view ourselves embedded inside a network of relations, unable to create meaning and understanding as an external observer, but only from within the system:
It is commonplace of historical thinking about globalisation to say there are no vantage points from which to observe any particular culture because the very process of globalisation have effectively abolished the temporal and spatial distances that previously separated cultures. 9
Our globalised world, with the multiplicity of voices disallows the possibility of an external observer. This expanding model of the universe differs from the closed and static Newtonian understanding: all places of observation will influence and limit what can be understood. As there is no space external to the universe, nothing can exist outside of it, thus every occurrence must be governed by properties inside the system. One of these properties - gravity - causes planets, stars and galaxies to form. At an even larger scale it has been shown to cause the clustering of galaxies to form into even larger networks. Through this understanding of a network of relations we can now return to the work of Bentley and Dewey with their third categorisation, Trans-Action:
Where systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action, without final attributes to ‘elements’ or other presumptively detachable or independent ‘entities,’ ‘essences,’ or ‘realities,’ and without presumptively detachable ‘relations’ from such detachable ‘elements.’ 10
This inability to detach an ‘element’ from its ‘relation’ leads to a dynamic system: the relational process becomes more important than the constituent units and the qualities of these units stemming from their relations. The difference then, between Inter-Actional and Trans-Actional ways of thinking is whether or not to view the world “in substances or in processes, in static ‘things’ or in dynamic unfolding relations.”11 Only through viewing the transaction between time and space, rather than viewing them as separate entities, are we able to move on from previous Newtonian and Cartesian epistemology.
This Relational ontology posits that the relations between entities are fundamentally more important than the entities themselves; one must look at the dynamic relationship as a whole. One cannot look at entities first and then the interaction; the transaction must be held at the same time. Western Language is unable to articulate this transaction through the use of everyday speech. Verb and noun cannot be held at the same time, as one must take priority over the other. The process of viewing things under prior rigid naming systems, and through unchangeable essences, requires one to form a “conceptual blankness” around each subject “without a defining reference to its surrounding context”.12
This ability to remove oneself from context has been one of the most important defining ideas of Western thought. The mind/body split allowed the conceptual framework of the mind to think of abstract ideas, separated from the body and the external objective world. This ‘punctual self’ does not need others to confirm its identity, seeing oneself as an isolated point of consciousness, surrounded by a “conceptual blankness.”13 By contrast, the relational self relies on its connections with others to define itself. This still allows for a distinct identity, but “through a distinct nexus of relationships rather than a distinct set of beliefs”.14
Smolin sees the ultimate problem with reductionist thinking as its own undoing. As technology and ideas advanced, the sciences were able to peer deeper and deeper into the fundamental elements and building blocks of nature. Yet the quest for even greater reductionism leads to a problem for “if the particles are truly fundamental then their properties cannot be explained by a further appeal to reductionism."15 Thus the search for eternal and absolute truths about the universe can only go so far: the rationalist mode of thinking views entities and objects in static terms, ignoring the true dynamic nature of the universe. The search for eternal laws of physics is made redundant by the actuality that our universe is, and has been, constantly changing (albeit at varying speeds) through its existence. This makes the idea of a sealed, knowable and platonic universe impossible.
Having followed the path of reductionism, as far as it can reveal the workings of the fundamental particles of the universe, we now need to look for other methods in which to search for truth and meaning. Disregarding the nostalgic desire to ignore this ontological crisis, there are two methods in which to seek out any notion of truth. What Smolin calls the “Postmodernist move” is to reject notions of truth altogether and view it as a social construction. Seeing fault in teleological notions of progress, deconstruction sought to dismantle Western hegemony through the use of cultural relativism: “a levelling of chronological systems by criticizing the Western one.”16 But this attempted solution leaves us in an even worse position than before, leaving us “suspended in an impotent haze from within which we cannot remember how useful rational thought has been for improving our world.” It is at this point where the search for knowledge must move beyond the old reductionist manner and accept that, while elements of Postmodern thought are useful, it is an interesting experiment whose cultural function has run its course.
The processes and systems of evolution provide useful frameworks with which to answer the problem of moving beyond the reductionist approach. The evolutionary tactic accepts the positive attributes of reductionism yet seeks to understand how the parts work together as a whole in relation to each other, at varying scales.
Science generally proceeds in a reductive manner, the thinking being that by breaking down complicated phenomena into their figurative (or literal) atomic parts one gains predictive and explanatory power. The problem with reductionism, however, is that it doesn’t fully address the problem of putting the pieces back together again. 17
Causation in systems of evolution and emergence allow self organisation to arise from the interactions rising up through the spatiotemporal scale from genes to cells, individual animals, species and whole ecologies, each affecting the outcome of the next self contained entity. This occurs because of the process in which self organisation works, through patterns of process and activity. In this sense, it can be said that evolution works because it sees ‘process’ not ‘substance’ as the main constituent of the world. Forms of behaviour emerge from the process of the relationship and feedback between the organism and environment. As Darwin writes, in the closing lines of the Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”18 The main tenet of Darwinian evolution is through natural selection, through generation after generation in order to enact physiological change. Yet the principle of evolution – process - can be understood and visualised in a myriad of ways.
The examples of cellular automata and the computational universe illustrate the possibility of emergence as the results of complexity. The study of these systems has become defined as the field of Complexity Science. Through the interaction of many simple independent agents governed by simple rules operating in a non linear manner this space of enquiry has been able to model a vast array of environments, opening up new methods of looking at fields as varied as Urban Design, Economics, Neuroscience and Physics. The pioneers of Complexity Science - based at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico - saw that this space of generative emergence exists at the edge of chaos: “the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy.”19 It is at this domain, in the phase transition between order and disorder that complexity operates.
1. Aristotle and Botton, Alain de. Status Anxiety. (Camberwell, Penguin, 2004 ) p.48
2. Bentley, Arthur & Dewey, John. Knowing and the Known. (Boston, Beacon Press, 1949)
3. Bentley & Dewey op. cit., 134
4. Slife, Brent D. Taking Practice Seriously: Toward a Relational Sociology. (Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 24 2) p65
5. Bentley & Dewey, ibid,
6. Bentley & Dewey, ibid,
7. Smolin, Lee. ‘Why Science is Like Democracy’ TED Talks
8. Brown, Colleen. ‘The Relational Meme’ Fillip Vol 1 (Summer 1996)
9. Enwezor, Okwui. ‘The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Anti- monies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, contemporaneity (Durham: Duke University, 2008), pp 218
10. Bentley & Dewey, op. cit., p133
11. Emirbayer, Mustafa. ‘Manifesto for a Relational Sociology’ The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 2. (Sep., 1997), p 281
12. Brown, ibid
13. Slife, op. cit., 69
14. Smolin, Lee. ed. Brockman, John. ‘The New Humanists’, Edge
17. Galanter, Philip. ‘Complexism and the Role of Evolutionary Art’
18. Darwin, Charles. On Natural Selection (Camberwell, Penguin Books, 2004) p117
19. Waldrop, M Mitchell. Complexity. (Penguin Books. St Ives. 1992)