Life is open

So the biosphere appears to be doing something that we cannot describe beforehand – not because of quantum indeterminacy of chaotic dynamic behavior but because we don’t have the concepts ahead of time.

That, in turn, means that the space of relevant possibilities of the biosphere – its phase space – cannot be prestated. Thus the biosphere is creative in a way we cannot prestate. And that stands in marked contrast to what Newton brilliantly showed us how to do: In physics, in general, one can prestate the set of all possibilities – that is, the phase space – the consult the laws and the initial boundary conditions and calculate the forward trajectory of the particle in its phase space.

I suspect we cannot state the phase space, the space of possibilities, in the biosphere. You might, if you are a physicist, say, “Well, if you treat the system classically, there is always the classical n-dimensional phase space of all the positions and velocities of the particles in the [somehow isolated] system.” That may be true, but then you do not yet know how to pick out the relevant collective variables (the wings of Gertrude) as the variables that will matter to the unfolding of the biosphere. So we seem to confront a limitation on knowledge that we had not recognized before. The evolving biosphere is doing something cannot be foretold; we do not have the categories. The same, I think, applies to technological evolution: No one foresaw the Internet a century ago.

Interestingly, the fact that we cannot prestate technological possibilities, if true, cuts the core out of the contemporary reigning theory in economics: “competitive general equilibrium,” which begins with the assumption that one can prestate all possible goods and services, then proves that markets clear – that is, all goods are sold to buyers at the contracted price. But we cannot state ahead of time all the possible good and services, so the reigning theory is wrong at the outset.

Stuart Kauffman (2002). What is life? In J. Brockman (Ed.), The next fifty years, pp. 126-141. New York: Vintage

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