Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #16: Leonid Korogodski

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Leonid KorogodskiLeonid Korogodski graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in Mathematics and a C in English as a Second Language. That didn’t stop him from writing, first in C++ and Java, then in English. He lives with his daughter Anna in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Visit his website at and read his thoughts on Optimism and Darkness in Science Fiction!

Can Science Solve All Our Problems?

Not long ago, on my blog, I took a look at the subject of Optimism and Darkness in Science Fiction, arguing the benefits of progress from the perspective of the science of complex systems. That prompted the author Lynda Williams to pose this question to me: Can science solve all our problems?

Yes. And no.

It bears repeating the gist of my earlier argument first. You may be aware of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy of any closed system grows in time. The state of entropy maximum is that of undifferentiated chaos, where everything is the same: the same density, the same temperature, the same everything. When applied to the entire universe, this portends the Ludwig Boltzmann’s so-called “heat death” scenario. The second law of thermodynamics seems to lead to pessimism.

But Boltzmann was studying systems close to equilibrium (in essence, those that are “almost-closed”). Fortunately, Ilya Prigogine discovered that in open systems that are sufficiently far from equilibrium, entropy statistically goes down through the phenomenon of spontaneous self-organization. An open system can do that by exchanging entropy with its environment, thus satisfying the second law of thermodynamics within a greater whole.

This tendency to spontaneously self-organize is universal, constituting a generalized evolutionary principle that applies beyond biology—essentially, to everything. This is the origin of all structure in the universe, from clusters of galaxies to stars to planets to life to consciousness to social structures to technology—and to who knows what comes next. At every step of this spiral of self-organization, the systems become smaller and the energy flows in them faster, so that the smaller system could sustain itself within its environment. A galaxy has vastly more energy than a single star does, but it develops more slowly. The geological processes are faster still, but they appear to stand still next to all living things. And so on. The energy flows within a computer chip are the fastest that we know of—yet.

Although it is often stressed that evolution does not have intentions (it is, philosophically speaking, not teleological), the fact is that, through a variety of entirely unintentional processes, the ever-rising levels of complexity end up being achieved. One can’t deny that the variety of life now found far exceeds the original multi-cellular life in complexity. And this is a manifestation of the universal principle discovered by Prigogine. The only truly closed system is the universe itself; and if its entropy is infinite, then the spiral of evolution can keep rising ad infinitum, non-stop.

And that is grounds for some optimism.

The same principle, of course, applies to our society, for it too is a spontaneously self-organizing system. Although we often appear to titter on the brink of yet another catastrophe, we also seem to keep going forward in many ways. The more complex a system is, the higher is the potential for a catastrophe to take place. But if Prigogine is right, then the potential for improvement is statistically greater.

It’s like a child, growing from being an infant to adulthood, graduating from the smaller dangers to the ever greater ones: from having to cross a street to riding a bike to driving a car to going to college, and so on. But no sensible parents would lock their son or daughter in a prison just to keep them safe from life—because potential for the good is better still.

I often hear cries for us to go back to the earlier, more primitive ways. But must we keep our entire society in prison?

Life is an inherently complex process. Being in balance doesn’t mean a state of static equilibrium—which is the maximum of entropy and, basically, death. And so, every time that we step back or try to stop the progress, we necessarily bring death, in one way or another. Often, literally.

My first example is the problem of our dwindling energy sources. We keep consuming more and more—consistent with the picture I have just described, for the advances in complexity require ever greater flows of energy and entropy exchange. But what would happen when we run out of our current prime energy source—hydrocarbons (oil and gas)?

Some wax nostalgic for a more primitive life. But, in reality, going back—or even stopping to advance—would ultimately mean less food, less medicine, less services for everyone—translating into death for billions. If we are looking for a right solution, then we must be looking forward and not backward. The best minds of our planet are already looking for new, more efficient, longer-lasting sources of energy, by using science. And they’ll find them—and the next new sources, too, when these eventually run out. And so on, as long as we keep moving forward.

In another example, the modern agricultural approach seems to be reaching its limits. The drive for efficiency required automation, which ushered in the monocultures of today. But these unnatural environments required intensive application of fertilizers and pesticides, which in turn bred more resistant strains of pests, not to mention contaminating our environment (even killing the pollinator insects, such as honey bees) and deteriorating it in other ways.

Many now understand that the natural biomes have evolved the way they are for a good reason. The interlinked web of relationships within a biome works toward increasing the environment’s complexity, its health. Even parasites help the host species to evolve higher resilience by killing off the weak; too virulent parasites would kill off all their hosts and die off themselves. Contrast this with pesticides helping to develop more virulent forms of parasites.

But does it mean that we should stop the scientific progress and fall back on the old ways? It’s tempting to think that if it’s science that’s responsible for our scientific agriculture, then we should stop doing it.

The “go back to nature” calls sound appealing, but there is a rub: we wouldn’t be able to feed the current population if we just revert to a more primitive society. To stop would, once again, bring death to billions. Instead, we actually should invest more into science—although, perhaps, a somewhat different one. Until recently, our science limited itself to studying simple systems, isolated properties—which was, in fact, the science in its infancy. But lately, a new kind of science, the science of complex systems, has begun developing—or, shall we say, our science is maturing. We now know, for example, how those natural biomes actually work—or, at least, some of that.

So, once again, the key lies in increasing the complexity—in this case, in finding a way to grow our food in natural, complex biomes but on an industrial scale. Take the self-evolving natural biomes—and then help them evolve faster and be more efficient but without sacrificing their “naturalness” (which never means a static equilibrium but is a highly complex, dynamic process churning in the system).

It is not for nothing that I called the spiral of the generalized evolutionary process a “spiral,” because in many cases it revisits earlier states to improve on them. Indeed, in my second example of agricultural progress, the suggested way lies, on one hand, in using natural biomes; on the other hand, in doing this on a grand scale beyond anything seen in the past. It means more science, not less science. It feels right.

But does it mean that science can solve all of our problems? Probably not. After all, only the knowledge that can be tested experimentally is subject to science. Yet there are other kinds of knowledge, the kinds that one has to take on faith. A case in point: no experiment can prove or disprove the existence of God, in principle. Some basic assumptions about the universe must always be made. Even an atheist has to believe that God does not exist.

Ideally, one could argue that the domains of science, on one hand, and those of religion and philosophy don’t intersect: the former being those that are subject to experiment, the latter being those that are not. When either side try to step onto the other’s territory, that is when the conflicts between them arise—and only then. Unfortunately, that will probably keep happening, for the ideal can be never reached in finite time—or else, we wouldn’t have the room to go forward, then.

So yes, we’ll keep encountering some problems that cannot be solved by science. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to use it. At the very least, we must keep trying to go forward, fighting entropy. We mustn’t fall into a static equilibrium, which is abhorred by life, but mustn’t stray from harmony of a complex, dynamic process, rising in a spiral. Because any society that stops progressing will decay.

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