Monday, October 25, 2004

Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers: Order Out of Chaos (Matt)

Mathew Gacy
Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature
Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers
Bantam, 1984
349 pgs

1. Synopsis:
A significant portion of the text is devoted to an overview of Western scientific development proceeding from Newtonian mechanics to contemporary developments in dynamics, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. For the most part, this overview assumes a simple form of a basic chronology, though the authors do, at times, frame this timeline in more theoretically complex terms, as when they briefly discuss Joseph Needham's conclusions about the importance of social structures in supporting or undermining the development of specific scientific vectors. The authors posit that the development of classical dynamics lead to the alienation of man from nature as well as the development of the two conflicting cultures of the sciences and humanities.
Classical dynamics is concerned only with reversible processes where time is a relatively insignificant factor. Its understanding of time is problematic in its inability to account for processes of evolution. It is only with the development of thermodynamics and the introduction of the concept of entropy that "the arrow of time" becomes significant and a scientific account of evolution and complexity possible. The authors posit that this scientific recognition of time and randomness permits an account of life and evolution as well as the reintegration of man into scientific discourse as "we can see ourselves as part of the universe we describe" (300). Further, this development permits to to approach "the central problem of Western ontology: the relation between Being and Becoming" (310). Prigogine and Stengers deny any opposition of the two, claiming that they "express two related aspects of reality" (310).

2. Thesis
We are in the midst of reconceptualization of physics leading to a recognition of stochastic, reversible processes that permits a description of life, evolution, and man.

3. Key words
--Far From Equilibrium Thermodynamics
--Linear/Nonlinear Processes
--Reversible/ Irreversible Processes

4. School/ Discourse
The text is primarily situated within scientific discourses (physics, chemistry, and biology), though Prigogine and Stengers do discuss properly philosophical objections to the premises and implications of classical dynamics in the writings of Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and Whitehead.

5. Thoughts Triggered
Though Prigogine and Stengers claim that their "role is not to lament the past," Prigogine and Stengers clearly bemoan the division that resulted in the development and subsequent conflict of the "two cultures" represented by the sciences and humanities (22). They identify their project as an attempt "to discover in the midst of the extraordinary diversity of the sciences some unifying thread" (22) and problematically herald our entrance into "new era in the history of time, an era in which both being and becoming can be incorporated into a single noncontradictory vision" (255). They conclude that a "new unity is emerging: irreversibility is a source of order at all levels. Irreversibility is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos" (292).

6. Context
The text discusses the evolution and implications of dynamics, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics.

7. Applications
While the theories that Prigogine and Stengers develop and explain are most obviously applicable to traditional scientific fields, they acknowledge the broader significance of the reconceptualization of time implied by irreversible processes and the potential applicability of thermodynamic modelizations of the evolution and increasing complexity of open systems to social and economic problems.


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