NPR logo The Worlds We Mutually Make


The Worlds We Mutually Make

Entailing law really can't explain something like this. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Entailing law really can't explain something like this.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Something very big is at stake. It's the question of how our living world works and how we become in it. On August 8, with mathematician Giuseppe Longo, I published a post entitled "The End Of A Physics Worldview: Heraclitus And The Watershed of Life." More recently, I spoke on this topic at MIT. I hope you may take an hour to watch the video, which is more detailed than the August 8 post.

The essence of the issue is this: Is all that happens in the universe logically entailed by means of Newton's mode of reason? Do differential equations of motion, initial conditions, boundary conditions, followed by integration — that is deduction, entailment — define our lives?

If Giuseppe and I are right, no law entails the becoming of the biosphere, or, a fortiori, human economic or cultural life.

If Giuseppe and I are right, then, without there being law-entailed trajectories like billiard balls rolling on a table or the Earth cycling the sun, how comes it that the magnificence of the evolving biosphere, the most complex system in the universe, seems to be doing so magnificently? Out your door is Darwin's "tangled bank," Dylan Thomas' "Froth Flute Fin and Quill."

Darwin had part of the answer in his theory of evolution by natural selection. The winners will win. But selection acts at the level of the "whole" organism. Recall Kant said, roughly, that "In an Organized being the parts exist for and by means of the whole and the whole for and by means of the parts." Organisms, cells and us, are Kantian wholes. Selection operates at the level of the Kantian wholes.

Then the question is this: How do we Kantian wholes make — co-create — our worlds together? Stunningly, the evolving biosphere, without any selection at all, makes new "adjacent possible empty niches" — such as the swim bladder, evolved by Darwinian pre-adaptation from the lungs of lung fish. The swim bladders can become a new niche, a new possible direction of evolution. Worms may evolve to live in them. But, no selection acted to create these new niches. Stunningly, the biosphere actually creates its own future possibilities of becoming! This "enablement and radical emergence" is our co-creation of our worlds.

We live far from pure entailment. Because we cannot know even what can happen in the evolution of the biosphere, economy and cultural evolution, we live beyond command and control of nature and ourselves. We are enabled, but do not know what we enable.

What will we wisely do with this empowerment that knows not its consequences?