By Stuart Kauffman

I want to try to talk about something we all know, but have no science for: Opportunities and the becoming of the world. Our scientific minds are so ensnared by reductionism, and the "Dreams of a Final Theory" that we cannot see what is before us. We think that one day, the final theory will yield all that is and happens as entailed consequence.

I think not.

I do not see how a final theory entails a giraffe eating leaves on a tree in Africa. I don't see how, in the vast Hilbert space of the wave equation of the universe, the physicist could construct an "operator" on that Hilbert space algorithmically to project out the giraffe as an observable.

I leave doing so as a homework effort to the interested physicist.

We know a lot about the evolution of the biosphere. I have discussed in my previous blog, "Breaking the Galilean Spell", our apparent complete incapacity to prestate all the possible Darwinian preadaptions, even just for humans.

Recall that a Darwinian preadaptation is a feature of an organism of no use in the current selective enviornment that may become advantageous in a different environment. In a previous blog, Breaking the Galilaen Spell, I discussed the evolution of swim bladders from the lungs of lung fish by such preadaptations. Swim bladders are sacs with air and water, where the ratio of air to water adjusts neutral buoyancy in the water column. They evolved by Darwinian preadaptations from the lungs of lung fish. Water got into lungs, which were then poised to become swim bladders.

I asked, with the evolution of swim bladders, did a new function come to exist in the biophere? Of course, neutral buoyancy. Did the emergence of swim bladders alter the course of evolution? Of course, new species with swim bladders, new proteins. The becoming of the universe was altered.

Then I asked and ask again: Can you state ahead of time all the possible preadaptations that might arise, just for humans? Well, try it! No, we cannot. How would we state all possible selective conditions? How would we know we had completed the list? How would we prestate all the one or many features of one or many organisms that might become preadaptations. I feel my mind going blank. Do you?

Nor can we make probability statements about this evolution, because we do not know all the possibilities in the Adjacent Possible of the evolution of the biosphere. The evolution of the biosphere is profoundly unlike flipping a coin 10,000 times where we do not know what will happen, but do know the sample space of all the possible outcomes, thus do know all the possibilities that can happen, and can therefore make a probability statement. We know before hand the "sample space" for the coin flips. But we do not know the sample space of all the possible preadaptations for the evolution of the biosphere, so cannot make probability statements.

And if a law is a compact description of the regularities of a process, we cannot have a law for the emergence of some Darwinian preadaptation such as the swim bladder from the lungs of lung fish. How could we? We don't even know they are possible, let alone probable, let alone have a law for their emergence.

The becoming of the biosphere, economy and history are partially beyond sufficient natural law.

Another homework problem for the reductionist physicist.

But this we know: Given the species that exist at any time and the abiotic environment, they form what I will call "enabling conditions" for the emergence of new species for whom the existing species constitute the niche. To be trite, given the evolution of the swim bladder, unique bacteria and bugs could come to live specifically in the swim bladder, much as some mycobacteria live specifically in sheep lungs.

What comes to be, unspeakably beforehand, nevertheless is enabled by opportunities engendered by what is. The current biosphere is the plethora of niches for what comes next. Clams and starfish wage their evolutionary arms races, defensive shells versus five grasping limbs. The humming birds and insects co-evolve in a necessary mutualism with fields of flowers, one pollinating the other feeding the first.

Opportunities burgeon, are seized or not, pass into the night of evolutionary history while new opportunities bound forward.

Organisms make a living given the opportunities that form the selective environment to which they adapt by natural selection. We do not doubt this, but we have no clear way to talk about it, nor anything that constitutes a theory for this becoming.

Moreover, these opportunities, or adaptive possibilities, are not what Aristotle called "efficient causes." The opportunity for a new bug to evolve to make a living in the swim bladder of a fish is not, as an opportunity, a cause at all. It is an enabling condition. Next, the mutations that led to the evolution of our bug may have been acausal quantum events. Finally, the classical efficient causes that are the subsequent actual selective events that led to the selective success of the new bug cannot themselves be finitely prestated.

What do I mean? We just do not know the necessary and sufficient efficient classical causal conditions that must be present for the successful selection of the newly adapted swim bladder bug to emerge in evolution. Thus, the quantum occurrence of the mutation(s) are acausal, the opportunity, that is the adaptive possibility, the new selective niche, is not a cause at all, but an enabling condition, and we can have no law, no compact description, for how the bug came to be successfully selected.


Yet the biosphere becomes via these processes, including the emergence of ever new opportunities, new possibilities, afforded by existing species and the novel, often unstatable new niches they create.

This is what Darwin told us. Note that he used not a single equation in The Origin of the Species. We think, thanks to Newton, that everything is mathematizable. Is it?

Look out your window: This proliferation of opportunities, of adaptive possibilities, has been going on for 3.7 billion years on Earth.

We don't have the slightest theory of this becoming.

And, now, armed with a defense of ourselves, in previous blogs, as free willed agents, whether true or not, let's look at human economic technological evolution. Again, opportunities, new possibilities, bubble forth, as Heraclitus would wish.

Here's another example we know well: It is World War II, the United States urgently invents the ENIAC, the first computer at the University of Pennsylvania, to calculate the trajectories of shells from our big guns in the sea war with Japan. Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM judges that there will be a market for perhaps three computers in the world.

By the 1970s, maturation of computer technology in technological evolution within a technology, of which more below, leads Steven Jobs and friends to conclude that the personal computer has a huge potential market. So the maturation of the large frame computer has been an enabling condition for the new opportunity for personal computers. Soon hundreds of thousands of people have personal computers, IBM in a hot race with Apple. But then, the existence of wide spread use of the personal computer creates the conditions, is an enabling condition, is an opportunity, for the invention of word processing. Microsoft gathers the technology, and makes a killing.

But then what happens? Word processing creates the opportunity, not only to write a file, but to save it on your personal computer. Not possible in 1940, who would have thought it? But a saved file could possibly be shared, so a saved file is an enabling condition, an opportunity, to share files. Modems hop into reality. Then at CERN near Geneva, scientists wanted to share files beyond easy modem reach, and invented means to share files in a markup language.

But the capacity to share files easily was an enabling condition, created an opportunity, a possibility, to invent the World Wide Web. Once the web was widespread, it created a new possibility, a new opportunity. It was an enabling condition for selling things on the World Wide Web. eBay flourished.

Once eBay and other information populated the web, the opportunity arose to make money with web browsers. Google is doing very well, thank you. Given the web, Craigslist became possible and blossomed, Facebook appeared.

We all know this. Could we have said "Facebook" fifty years ago? No, no more than we could have said "swim bladder" before its evolutionary emergence.

In the technological evolution of the airplane, from the Wright brothers onward, what existed became the platform, the opportunity, for what came next. An initial biplane? How about monoplanes, planes with seven wings, vertical stabilizers in front, in back, horizontal stabilizers in front, in back, propellers in front, in back? Keeping the wheels underneath seems a good idea. Given the initial airplane engine, watch it mature as tinkering with its features led to the supercharged engines of the B-29.

Our technologies grow out of existing technologies by a loose analogue of evolutionary process. The first metal bridge was made in England using metal bricks. We knew how to make brick bridges, why not try metal brick bridges? Then we hollowed out the metal bricks, knew about rope suspension bridges and built the Golden Gate bridge.

Brian Arthur, in his new book, "The Nature of Technology", rightly claims that all technology grows out of existing technology. Each is an enabling condition, an opportunity, for what comes next, and what comes next arises as the economic opportunity for it literally comes into existence in the Adjacent Possible of the economy.

I ask you to reread my co-blogger's piece about My I-Self and the role of the proliferation of symbolic forms that have grown in the past thousands of years. Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher of mind, asks in her, "Dynamics In Action," "Could we have cashed a check 50,000 years ago?" It is a stunning question. Think of the social inventions, law, courts, contracts, banking, credit that had to be created in the Adjacent Possible of our culture to allow us to cash checks -- and now move toward a largely cashless society!

Whatever is happening in this burgeoning, creative becoming is beyond any Final Theory as far as I can tell. Yes, we have Newton's laws, Einstein's General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. But the universe is also bubbling forth as Hericlitus said.

In my last blog and and in my blog,"The Hard Problem Consciousness", I raised the issue of whether reality includes both the actual and the "possible", both as real. What then are these opportunities, these possibilities, we know so well? We cannot weigh them, measure them, yet know and live with and create them by our own agent activities. It would be a vast change to give up the view, since Empedocles and Newton that what is real in the universe is only the Actual. With Aristotle, Whitehead, I am strongly tempted to say the real includes both Actuals and Possibles.

I close by noting, as I did in my last post, that a consistent intepretation of quantum mechanics is that what is waving in the Schrodinger linear wave equation are ontologically real possibles.

Maybe we have to rethink reality,

12:52 - April 23, 2010