Prigogine: The new alliance

I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, The new alliance, Scientia 112 (1977)

Part One – From Dynamics to Thermodynamics: Physics, the Gradual Opening towards the World of Natural Processes, 319-332.

Part Two – An Extended Dynamics: towards a Human Science of Nature, 643-653.

I like the beginning of the first part where the problem is formulated pretty good (some quotes are below). However, I am disappointed with the solution, it has reminded me “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In some sense the paper is good, as it shows clearly that it is a dead end to call in entropy in a search for an explanation of life .

About the conviction that nature, despite the blinding multiplicity of its forms, is governed by simple laws, Whitehead, like Needham, insisted on the essential role of the religious factor in the beginning of modern science. Only this strange product of mediaeval thought, a rational and immutable God, creating and providential, could create and organise a world based on rational principles constituting the intelligible and permanent foundations, justifying and explaining in all their smallest details each particular and event and the future development of each individual entity.”

But such a Christian God does not found the intelligibility of the world so innocently: the idealisation Galileo forces upon nature in order to describe it by means of mathematical laws is not without significance. As it is understood by 17th century man, nature is governed by a God that is external to it: blind nature, having neither intention nor purpose, intrinsically inert and governed by a rationality that is foreign to it; a nature lacking everything that had allowed man to identify with it through his essential belonging to the ancient harmony of natural events.”

Seventeenth century man is on the outer edge of the world, a material body, a Cartesian automaton, a soul created in God’s image: by eluding the natural order, he occupies an intermediate position from which he can question nature, reduce it to a blind interplay of forces and to an indifferent movement of atoms without throwing doubt on his human specificity.

In the 18th century, this is no longer true for those atheist philosophers who, like Diderot, question Newtonian science. They want and consider themselves to belong to nature; it is thus necessary for nature to be able to produce them, and to organise itself spontaneously into increasingly complex form, until the level of the thinking animal is reached.

There is also a strange contrast between Diderot’s optimism and Monod’s tragic mood, significantly so close to Pascal’s tragic Christian mood «… man needs must finally awaken from his age-old dream and discover at last his total solitude, his radical strangeness. He now knows that, like a Gypsy. he is on the outer edge of the world in which he must live, a world that is deaf to his music, indifferent to his hopes, as well as to his suffering or his crimes».”

The price to be paid for the intelligibility proposed by Kant is very high. Kant himself proclaimed that knowledge ought to be restricted in favour of faith: human knowledge can gain access only to the uninteresting and meaningless world of phenomena.”

These difficulties are increased by the development of the human sciences which make man the ‘object’ of empirical research and attempt to explain him as the product of biological evolution, adaptive development, history or society. Twentieth century man is torn between the natural sciences, which claim to be the only ones to give a rigorous description of the world and which, although acknowledging that man is still too complex a subject for them, nevertheless hotly deny the reality of what frames of man’s existence, the human sciences, which are in permanent conflict over their methodologies but agree that the truth of the natural sciences can be reduced to mere pragmatism, and a philosophic thought which is contemptuous of the sciences, lays claim to a more basic truth and yet is ever on tho defensive, 20th century man possesses a mass of knowledge that no one before him has ever possessed but he knows less than any other who he is and what he knows.”

The scandal of modern science is that, ever since the breaking of the ancient alliance which guaranteed the intelligibility between God and man it lives with an effectiveness that it cannot explain but whose effectiveness it feels only too keenly. which it feels too keenly as the production of new and rigorous truths, to be able to accept tho nihilist interpretations of those who judge its practice without knowing it, that is to say, without taking part in it.”