Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, November 12, 1997 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Don Farmer

"The End Of Certainty"

Pre-Meeting Notice:

On the book, The End of Certainty, (1997) N.Y. Free Press by Ilya Prigogine

Scientists believe they understand the laws governing the behavior of atoms. The world and everybody in it is made up of atoms. So, one ought to be able to explain, predict, and retrodict everything in the world that is happening, will be happening, or has happened. But even the most arrogant of scientists is humbled by the prospect of undertaking to do it. Why? Well, nobody knows how to go about it; mainly because we have so little understanding of irreversible processes, such as self-organization, for example. For decades Professor Prigogine has almost singlehandedly wrestled with understanding non-equilibrium processes. In this book, his most recent, he claims to show a path toward recasting some of the fundamental laws of physics to account for the world as we actually know it.

I propose this be followed by a reading of the essay by David Burch on Spirituality.


Present were Jeff, Meredyth, Don, Glenn, Roberto, Roger, Jackie (first time) and Marvin.

Don began with his report on the book, "The End Of Certainty. Time, Chaos and The New Laws of Nature", 1997, Free Press, London. It is by Ilya Prigogine. (Referring to inheritance in figs the name, Prigogine, scans like fig-o-gene) He was an octogenarian when he wrote the book. A brilliant and energetic man all his life he won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on "Non-Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics and Dissipative Structures". He has devoted himself to understanding the behavior of systems far removed from equilibrium.

Don read several passages from introductory sections of the book so as to give us the flavor of the work in the author's words. Prigogine is apparently given to grandiose assertions. See the review by Per Bak at
What emerged from Don's discussion was this:

1. The natural trend of physical systems is towards disorder.

This principle is embedded in physics as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
On the occasion that something happens - anything at all, a sound emitted, a stone falls - there is a change in entropy. Entropy measures disorder.
The Law says that the entropy of the universe can never decrease when anything at all happens in nature. Generally it increases. Disorder increases.
A profound statement. And a sacred one because, if the Law were not true, a mighty structure of confirmation would not be standing. A myriad of experimentally verified deductions depend on this law - of ever increasing disorder. It is so firmly rooted that Tables of Entropy exist for various substances. This law makes entropy a measurable.

2. But in spite of this Law, just as natural, in ordinary experience, is that order arises spontaneously in the universe.

Cooperative phenomena exist. Like microbes, plants, animals, households.
These ordered phenomena arise amidst the trend toward disorder. They are all examples of self-organization.

The emergence of self-organization doesn't contradict the increasing entropy law. For self-organization to proceed two things are necessary: a source of energy must be available and waste must be produced.
The waste products from self-organization are cast off into the universe. It is the waste that accounts for the entropy increase of the universe. The self-organization itself represents a decrease in entropy - less disorder. But the waste generated in the process represents an increase in entropy - more disorder. And this increase always exceeds the decrease. The manufacture of disorder exceeds the self-organization order.

Disorder prevails
Organization brings order and manufactures disorder.

So self-organization is not forbidden. But that doesn't explain why it exists.

3. What physical mechanism governs the rise of self-organization? What drives it to happen?

Prigogine's offering is this: Self-organization is connected to extreme non-equilibrium conditions. Under such conditions cooperative and even long lived cyclical phenomena come into being. New phenomena emerge in a system under conditions of extreme disequilibrium. And among these new phenomena is self-organization.


The thesis seems credible. But, says Don, Prigogine doesn't tell us how it happens. The essential physical mechanism that determines self-organization is not given.
Ancient Greeks said that everything is made of atoms. The truth of the statement peaked in the nineteenth century just before the discovery that atoms, themselves, are made of things. After that the original physical assertion dissolved into poetry.
Don's report suggests that Prigogine is giving us the poetry in the guise of physics - as did the ancient Greeks.

We turned our attention to the very moving piece by Dave Burch on Spirituality. I read it aloud. It doesn't really confront the definition of the word. Rather it is about a personal friendship of great depth - a spiritual bond - dissolved by death. The work by Joseph Conrad called "The Secret Sharer" that is mentioned in the piece, can be found at

All listened appreciatively. Of the eight people present three spoke out about having such friendships themselves: Roger with his friend, Bob. Glenn with more than one person. And myself, with my wife. Others said either nothing or that they had not had such friendships. So the blessing doesn't fall on everyone.
Some saw in the piece a more metaphysical meaning. Roberto said, "There is a shadow side of personality." Jackie said, "There's a part of me that doesn't exist without mirrors. Take away a mirror and there's loss - but there's still life."
Meredyth offered her definition of spirituality: "Anything that brings one out of ego and connects to something outside of oneself."
This definition fits a devout tibetan monk - a gentle soul. It also fits the religious fanatic who massacred 80 families in Algeria because they were not sufficiently devout. He slew for Islam at the calling of Allah - "something outside" himself. They're both spiritual by Meredyth's definition.

Are the devout spiritual?
Are pagans spiritual?

Roger provided us with the definition of PAGAN according to Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 2nd College Edition (20 years old). It says:
n. 1. a person who is not a Christian, Moslem, or Jew; heathen: formerly, sometimes applied specif. to a non- Christian by Christians. 2. a person who has no religion.

adj. 1. of pagans or paganism; not Christian, Moslem, or Jewish 2. not religious; heathen.

From Glenn we got: "This is from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, known as 'W3' in the trade. When I did a little research on dictionaries a dozen years ago, this was reputed to be the absolute standard for the English language. But 'W4' was supposed (at that time) to be out soon so I almost waited for it -- glad I didn't because it is still not out. I've seen the one I have in libraries."

1pagan \ [ME, fr. LL paganus, fr. L, civilian, country dweller, fr. paganus, adj., of the country, fr. pagus, country, village, district; akin to L pangere to fix, fasten, [pascisi to agree, contract -- more at pact] 1: heathen 1; esp : a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome) 2: One that has little or no religion and that is marked by a frank delight in and and uninhibited seeking after sensual pleasures and material goods : an unrestrained irreligious hedonist and materialist (is a ~ of the decadence ... takes the world with an exquisite nonchalance and prefers a well-ordered dinner to a dissertation on the immortality of the soul -- T. L. Peacock)

2pagan \"\ adj : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of pagans : HEATHENISH (~ customs) (represents the earthy, ~ acceptance of life in all its sensual vulgarity -- R. M. Kain) (the ~ concept of death and oblivion as the natural end of life -- Cyril Connolly)

Glenn's W3 clarified our condition. All present - with exquisite nonchalance - discovered themselves to be pagans!
Spiritual pagans?

Jackie was asked about herself. She writes poetry. She recited one for us

The Moon

God put his money on the sun,
figured the moon was a step-daughter.

The moon turned mischievous,
threw her spare change to the universe.

A silver dollar. copper penny, nothing --
who is this God anyway?

Jackie Huss
July 97

Jeff spoke his perception of what he heard: "At night the moon is more important than the sun". The coins represent phases of the moon. Others saw in it a man-woman contrast. "God puts down women", was one response.
For me the words are pretty, the imagery appealing but the meaning, being ethereal, is of insufficient substance to hold me.

Poetry wants each group of words to invite a crowd of meanings.
But understanding wants them to invoke precisely the intended meaning.

Those who demand precision thought are deprived of a pleasure: the delight in delicious ambiguity. We function between the two: poetry and understanding. They're a symbiosis of incompatibles.

November 1997
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1997 Occidental CA