The hegemony of determinism

A uniform world view was emerging, expressed in mechanistic terms. It is possible to comprehend the universe, at least fundamentally. This clockwork universe, having been wound up by the Creator, works according to the internal structure and the causal laws of nature. The purpose and meaning, the very existence is put outside of the universe itself. The distinction of a clockwork is just that its meaning is external to the machine and only exists in the mind of its creator. As a clockmaker is to a clock, so is God to Nature.

Clockwork was also presented as a central characteristic of the general principle of causality: that every effect is preceded, not followed, by a cause. Just as one cogwheel drives and influences the other in a rational way, a measurable cause always produces a measurable effect in any rational system. Also, identical causes imposed upon identical rational systems, always produce identical effects. Thus one cause/effect relation explains all existence, where the first cause was God.

Under these circumstances, the problem of free-will came to the fore: free will was claimed to be an illusion. Meaning and freedom of choice lost their purpose in a deterministic universe; they are not necessary to explain natural phenomena and human behaviour. The cause explains the effects completely.

On the basis of this mental world view, reductionism became the pre- dominant doctrine. Reductionism argues that from scientific theories which explain phenomena on one level, explanations for a higher level can be deduced. Reality and our experience can be reduced to a number of indivisible basic elements. Also qualitative properties are possible to reduce to quantitative ones. Colour can be reduced to a question of wavelength, hatred and love to  a question of the composition of internal secretion, etc. Thus reductionism was inherent to all main fields of science, as is illustrated below.

  • in physics : the atom with two qualities, mass and energy
  • in biology : the cell, the living building block
  • in psychology : the archetype instincts
  • in linguistics : the basic elements of sound, the phonemes

Reductionism in turn provides a foundation for the analytical method with its three stages.

  • Dissect conceptually/physically.
  • Learn the properties/behaviour of the separate parts.
  • From the properties of the parts, deduce the properties/behaviour of the whole.

Observations and experiments are the cornerstones of reductionist analytical methodology. Another prerequisite of this method is freedom from environment, that is, environment is considered to be irrelevant. The scientific laboratory concept standardizes, and thereby excludes, the environment. In this milieu, the effect of different variables — those being observed by the scientist

  • can be studied in proper order without influence from the environment. Here various hypotheses about nature are tested in order to arrive at approximate In this activity the scientist is presupposed to be outside of the experiment. The observer is not involved, at least ideally. The lodestar of the scientist becomes non-intervetion, neutrality and objectivity.

Through analytical science the The Scientific Method is established with its ultimate activity to

  • understand
  • describe
  • control
  • predict
  • explain
  • prescribe (in certain cases)

the various phenomena. Its own approach become the

  • reduction of complexity through analysis
  • development of hypotheses
  • design and replication of experiments
  • deduction of results and rejection of hypotheses

The basic metaphysical ideas behind the Scientific Method are certain presumptions regarding reality. These are constantly subject to criticism but as a starting point for scientific activity they cannot be dispensed with. They are presented below.

  1. Nature is neither unpredictable nor secretive. Its qualities are possible to discover, albeit that this will sometimes take an extremely long time. There is no knowledge which is higher or more absolute than the human mind can assimilate.
  2. Nature is regular and thus predictable (governed by certain laws) and the same laws are valid in all parts of the Universe during all existing time. A theory regarding a chaotic Universe therefore is unthinkable.
  3. The laws of nature are hierarchical. Uppermost, laws regarding all parts of the known Universe prevail, while others only are relevant for the earth and include components of chance and historical necessity.
  4. Nature is computationally reversible. Laws of Nature do not change with time and it is possible to calculate what has happened and what will happen.
  5. Experiments always give the same results independent of time and place in the Universe if the conditions are the same (repeatability, intersubjectivity, intrasubjectivity).
  6. The laws of Nature are transfactual, that is, they are valid under all circumstances and not only under experimentally controlled situations. The laws of Nature have no exceptions and are absolute.
  7. The same process which has created the Universe has brought forth the human mind. The same rules which are to be found in the physical reality exist in human thinking (the principle of congruence). The function of Western logic reflects the structure of the world.
  8. The development of the Universe has no Nature is blind and the evolution handles good and bad solution in the long run, equally.
  9. The laws of Nature do not direct individual events. They only direct the probabilities with which these events appear.

The basic metaphysical presumption behind the concept of the laboratory is that nature is neither unpredictable nor secretive and that it is computationally reversible. Predictability implies that the same laws of nature are valid in all parts of the universe. It also implies that the physical states are influenced by laws, but not vice versa. Furthermore, the laws of nature are transfactual, that is, they are valid under all circumstances and not only under experimentally controlled situations. The laws of nature have no exceptions. By non-secrecy it is meant that all aspects of nature are in principle possible to reveal, albeit that this will sometimes take an extremely long time. The same experiment performed by different observers in different parts of the universe and at different times should always give the same results (iintersubjectivity and repetitionality). Dissimilar results are attributed to human deficiency or deception and will be corrected through better precision of the experimental design. Computational reversibility implies that, given all necessary knowledge, it is possible to calculate what happened in a previous instance, that is, that nothing changes with time.

Through analytical science The Scientific Method is established with its own approach in the following order:

  • reduction of complexity through analysis
  • development of hypotheses
  • design and replication of experiments
  • deduction of results and rejection of hypotheses

This methodology, albeit still with its basic metaphysical assumptions, became the cornerstone of empirical science. It entails a rational, empirical process of inquiry from observation to the formulation of hypotheses and further via experiments to theory. Its strength (and also weakness in our time) is its exclusive consideration of relevant fact for what is in focus. An examination of weight thus entirely excludes the colour of the investigated object. Newton, for example, found out that gravitational attraction depends only on mass, not on colour or temperature.

Thus the aim of the method was to bring about a fixed path reasoning appropriate for all kinds of problems. The person who uses it can be assured that he has not been outwitted by certain circumstances to believe something that he actually does not know. Note, however, that a scientific accomplishment obtains a value only when it is unrestrictedly and officially communicated to others. Thanks to this implied fifth and imperative step of the methodology, comments and corrections of the result can be fed back to the researcher. This will initiate new ideas and experiments which in turn ensure that the accumulation of knowledge never halts.

Classic empirical science is able to produce not only theories explaining existing phenomena but also theories revealing phenomena not yet discovered.

It can even use methods which create unexplained theories in search of phenomena. Abstract elegant theories waiting for a practical application are part of the history of science. It is no overstatement to assert that the scientific method constitutes the foundation of the whole, modern development of society.

This scientific method laid the ground for a certain kind of mentality and a marked homogenous world view based on the concepts of empiricism, determinism and monism. While empiricism is the doctrine that the universe is best understood through the evidence confronting our senses, determinism is the belief in the orderly flow of cause and effect. Monism implies the inherent inseparability of body and mind, a prerequisite in all European thinking. The above concepts taken together are often referred to as the Scientific Paradigm. In the study of electricity, magnetism, light and heat the Scientific Paradigm had great success. Within a short time general mathematical laws were formulated which show the interrelationship between the different areas.

Human optimism grew rapidly: science was expected to give the ultimate answers to questions within all areas. Scientific positivism with its demand for ‘hard facts’ acquired through experience was brought into fashion by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Concepts like cause, meaning and goal were weeded out of the natural sciences. Only a reality possible to observe with our senses and possible to treat logically can be accepted as a basis for reliable knowledge. The role of the scientist should be that of the objective observer, explaining and predicting. The collection of absolute facts and the quantification of these were the main occupations of the scientist. These facts should be used to find general connections which in turn can be utilized in predictions of phenomena before they have occured. When the observation confirms the prediction the connection is verified.

This positivist mentality can be summed up using the following concepts.

  • Philosophical monism: Body and mind are inseparable.
  • Objective reality: A reality possible to experience with our senses.
  • Nominalism: All knowledge is related to concrete objects. Abstractions lack a real existence.
  • Empiricism: All knowledge is founded on experience.
  • Anti-normativism: Normative statements do not belong to science as they are neither true nor false.
  • Methodological monism: Only one method of scientific research exists, that given us by the scientific method.
  • Causal explanations: Goals, intentions and purpose are irrelevant.

In a way Comte laid the foundation of a social physics, the ultimate aim of which became the development of a technology for social engineering. Hereby human order and advancement could be secured for the future.

The last remainder of metaphysics was now cleaned up when Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his theory of evolution by natural selection in The Origin of Species. By this pioneering work, life itself got the conformity to scientific law which had been revealed in physics by Newton 150 years earlier. Left over was pure science — logical, empirical and with laws permitting predictions.

At the end of this era of classical determinism, the mechanistic interpretation of thermodynamics led to new insights. The two main laws of thermodynamics were formulated through works of Rudolph Clausius (1822-1888), William Kelvin (1824-1907), Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) and James Maxwell (1831-1879), the originator of Maxwell’s demon. This is a metaphysical thermodynamic being who apparently neglects the second law by decreasing the entropy into an isolated system. The concept of entropy was introduced as a mathematical formulated abstract condition, the physical reality of which retained a shroud of mystery.

The first law of thermodynamics says: the total energy in the universe is constant and can thus be neither annihilated nor created. Energy can only be transformed into other forms. (The principle of conservation of energy with regard to quantity.) Nothing is destroyed! In a sense, this law had already been formulated 500 years B.C. by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras who said ‘everything changes, nothing is lost’.

The second law of thermodynamics states that all energy in the universe degrades irreversibly. Thus, differences between energy forms must decrease over time. Everything is spread! (The principle of degradation of energy with regard to quality.) Translated to the area of systems the law tells us that the entropy of an isolated system always increases. Another consequence is that when two systems are joined together, the entropy of the united system is greater than the sum of the entropies of the individual systems.

The third law of thermodynamics, or the asymptotic law, states that all processes slow down as they operate closer to the themodynamic steady-state (making it difficult to reach that state in practice!). Of the three laws, the third is the one which is intuitively most easy to embrace. All people know how difficult it is to get something done in a messy environment.

Potential energy is organized energy, heat is disorganized energy and entropy therefore results in dissolution and disorder. The sum of all the quantities of heat lost in the course of all the activities that have taken place in the universe equals the total accumulation of entropy. A popular analogy of entropy is that it is not possible to warm oneself on something which is colder than oneself. The process of human ageing and death can serve as a pedagogic example of entropy. Another common experience is that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves (the bachelor’s housekeeping!). Note also that maximun entropy is maximum randomization. An interpretation of the three laws also tells us, that entrophy is proportional to the size of a system. Therefore the entropy of two liters of water is twice that of one liter of water under the same condition.

Inasmuch as there is a mathematical relation between probability and disorder (disorder is a more probable state than order because there exists so many more messy states than ordered), it is possible to speak of an evolution toward entropy. Below some well-known expressions illustrates this process.

The above process derives from the second law of thermodynamics and has had a tremendous impact on our view of the universe. One consequence is to experience the world as indeterministic or as chaotic. The ultimate reality is the blind movements of atoms whereby life is created as a product of chance, and evolution is the result of random mutations. Another is that the Newtonian world machine has a persistent tendency to run down; the Creator must wind up the celestial clockwork from time to time. Any event that is not prohibited by the laws of physics should therefore happen over and over again.

Today we can see how these perspectives, together with the image of the inevitable death of the universe, have significantly influenced philosophy, art, ethics, and our total world view. This image has inflicted upon the Western culture some form of paralysis. For the generations of researchers nurtured via this period’s mentality, a physical eternity without purpose seemed to be the basis for all reality. For these people the Universe could be described as ‘big and old — dark and cold’, quoting the contemporary geologist George Barrow. The French physician Leon Brilloutn (1889-1969) sums everything up in his question ‘How is it possible to understand life when the entire world is organized according to the second law of thermodynamics which points to decay and annihilation?’

The era of determinism coincides with both the era of machines in the industrial revolution and the conservative Victorian culture. Human skills are increasingly taken over by machines; the remaining manual tasks are broken down into a series of simple and monotonous manipulations. This dehumanization of productive effort and the subsequent alienation of the worker gives rise to mental phenomena such as Marxism-Leninism.

The deterministic era can also be named the age of scientism, with reference to the belief that only concepts which can be expressed in the language of the exact natural sciences and proven by quantification have a reality. It assumes the existence of an objective reality, including dichotomies contrasting man and nature, mind and matter, facts and values. Its primary concern is to discover truth, regarding questions of values and needs as outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Scientism is also synonymous with the ‘objective’ mode of presentation of results, used by many researchers of this era. That courage, despair and joy are important prerequisites for a successful result is neglected — for entirely subjective reasons.

In the deterministic interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics it is possible to find the roots of the pessimism prevailing at the turn of the century. It is not possible to maintain existing states and patterns and decline and decay is the fate of all things in time. A fully deterministic cosmos leaves no room for values such as truth, beauty, goodness, perseverance or love. There the sun is exhausting its life-giving resources, the earth is approaching a new glacial period and the society is declining. Inferior army discipline, general decadence, falling birth rate, spread of tuberculosis are all visible effects of increased entropy. Emotionally, cosmic and physical values are never separated from a human system of evaluation. The resulting gloominess, the jin de siècle mode, is excellently presented in European literature and art of this period.

While a 300-year-old attitude towards reality draws to its end, the dissolution of determinism gave room for new impulses and new perspectives.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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