Ilya Prigogine is a Belgian physical chemist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977. He is best known for his work on dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility in nature. Though his ideas were born out of the hard sciences, it has been used in almost every field of science — from understanding how the universe works, to discovering how social systems operate and function.
Prigogine’s work shows us that the second law of thermodynamics (which states that matter and energy degrades, rendering it useless or unusable after a certain point in time) is not absolute after all.
According to his theory on dissipative structures, thermodynamic systems which are far from equilibrium will reach a maximum level of chaos and from there, create new order which the system did not previously exhibit. Some of the dissipative structures we are familiar of includes convection, cyclones, and life, among others. Indeed, if one were to truly study how nature works, one would see that thermodynamic equilibrium is actually an exception, rather than the norm.
Irreversibility In Nature
The concept of irreversibility in nature is related to how time flows in living organisms. It may also be the key to understanding how different living organisms are different from inanimate objects such as stones and crystals.
Classical physics, which has been the basis of the study of nature and reality for hundreds of years now shows that time is reversible, but our own experience of life shows that time moves only in one direction. Why is this?
Prigogine’s work shows us that life, and the number of processes that support it, work on different thermodynamic laws. For one, nothing in life is a closed system. Nucleic acids in living organisms exchange matter with their surroundings, living organisms interact in order to create greater order. Second, the energy within and among these systems become chaotic, yes, but they do not at all entropy. It follows then than time exists for living organisms because they exist in a different space-time dimension [for another take on the arrow of time, read Does Time Really Move In Just One Direction?].
A system in equilibrium cannot generate events by which time can be measured. The destruction (as in the case of digestion), and creation of new chemicals (as in the synthesis of amino acids) exists in a state that is far from equilibrium. Life and the processes are in constant movement, with the same amount and quality of energy moving from one component to another. It is through this process that time flows forward for living organisms.
Even when plants, animals, and humans die, the movement does not stop, nor their energy become unusable. After all, our modern world is built on the energy left over from the death of carbon-based plants from billions of years ago. The very soil we live in is not a substandard version of decomposed remains of plants, animals and humans. It is an entirely new product, born out of a chaotic process, but is nonetheless the key to vitality of all life on earth.
Implications for AI
The implications of Prigogine’s work to our current society is vast, in that it shows how different biological processes are from the inanimate. Though we are made of the same material as the rocks, stars, and planets that make up the universe [see article on Human Life And Its Connection To All Of The Universe’s Creation to understand the context of this statement], there is something about life that makes it very special. It follows then, that life cannot be studied in the way we have studied the inanimate.
We cannot disassemble a living being, figure out the parts within it and the functions each part serves, put it back together, and hope that it will continue living. In the same way, we cannot hope that by re-creating all the parts of the human body in silicon, mimicking the functions of the brain and its neurons, and uploading our memories to this new creation would lead to new form of life for humanity.
Just like quantum physics, Ilya Progogine’s work has ushered in a new view of reality. The applications of his work is numerous, not only in the natural sciences, but also in the social sciences. We shall, in future articles, explore these applications. For now, suffice it to say that life is precious, and human life, with its capacity to change worlds and integrate knowledge, is even more so.