Time’s Arrow and the End of Certainty

Ilya Prigogine book The End of Certainty and a postage stamp in his honor.

I recently finished reading Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix Plus. This is a novel that starts out pretty good, gets better, coasts briefly, then gets better and better and then, unexpectedly,  oustandingly better still!  It peeks profoundly and ties up loose ends satisfyingly.

Here’s a example of smart writing:  Descendants of the human race have branched into many factions, or races, including the Shapers, the Mechanists, and the SuperBrights. The reader gradually acquires knowledge about each faction as Sterling describes their appearance, actions, and thought processes. As the book progressed, I felt like I understood the origin and nature of each faction, but what really made me smile was, near the end, one of the book’s characters gives a straightforward history of each of those three factions. This is much more effective than telling it all at the beginning. As the reader, I got a satisfying feeling of affirmation that things were, indeed, as I thought. That’s the smart part.

Then there are the different “Prigoginics levels” that are frequently mentioned in the story. I got a vague idea as to the meaning of this terminology from the context in which it was used. Then I came to the phrase “ancient Terran philosopher Ilya Prigogine” in which “Terran” means “from Earth” and I discovered that Ilya Prigogine was a real person, and a very interesting person, indeed! I found this essay  by David Porush on Science Fiction Studies:

“In this essay I briefly sketch the shape of the new paradigm of deterministic chaos and self-organizing systems as it has been developed by Ilya Prigogine. I will trace its emergence as a theme in SF, particularly in works by A.A. Attanasio, Lewis Shiner, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson. Along the way I show how Chaos Theory illuminates the potential for narrative, and particularly SF, as epistemologically potent.

“Evolution and entropy seem to contradict each other not only in the cosmological moods they invite us to hold, but in the irreconcilable versions they present of how the universal machine actually operates. If Rudolf Clausius and Clerk Maxwell were right, then any machine will grind to a halt inexorably when left to its own devices. The combination of ever-present forces—like friction—will degrade mechanical operation as part wears against part, leaking valuable energy and organization out into the universal soup where it joins the larger tide towards randomness and absolute cold. Furthermore, once molecules have vibrated themselves into an effete state of equilibrium—analogous to hot and cold water mixing into one lukewarm volume—no natural force can retrieve that leaked heat or lost differentiation. The process of degradation towards entropy is irreversible: nature will not reheat the water again.

“But if Darwin’s version of nature was correct, then somehow the biosphere drives itself to evolve ever more complex and organized structures, biological organisms, and systems (autopoeisis). One-celled critters gave rise to multicellular organisms, which diverged, differentiated, grew more complex, more organized, and more needy of energy and information to sustain them (phylogenesis). Even individual organisms rehearse this flagrant disobedience of the Second Law. Trees begin as unicellular seeds to sprout into cascades of complex interactions and branching growths, spreading their organized system for the transfer of matter and energy through the soil and sky (ontogenesis). The biosphere and each part of the biosphere individually are islands in the entropic stream, or better, a raft swimming autonomously, inexplicably upstream, gathering flotsam and organizing it into its flotilla, against the intractable laws of physics. Finally, the biosphere has evolved intelligence.”     Read entire article


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