A New Perspective On Life

written by Klaus Schustereder

The key characteristic of living systems is that they operate “far from equilibrium” and yet are capable of producing stable, self organizing structures. Ilya Prigogine (nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1977) realized that systems far from equilibrium must be described in nonlinear equations.

The clear recognition of this link between “far from equilibrium” and nonlinearity culminated later in his theory of “dissipative structures”. According to Prigogine, “classical thermodynamics” are able to explain equilibrium structures such as crystals, whereas the concept of dissipative structures emphasizes the close association between structure and order on one side, and dissipation on the other. In classical thermodynamics, the dissipation of energy is always associated with waste. His concept of dissipative structure introduced a radical change in this view by showing that in open systems dissipation becomes a source of order.

According to Prigogine’s theory, dissipative structures not only maintain themselves in a stable state far from equilibrium, but may also even evolve. When the flow of energy and matter through them increases, they may go through new instabilities and transform themselves into new emergent structures of increased complexity. In the language of nonlinear dynamics, the system encounters bifurcation points where it may branch off into entirely new states, where new structures and new forms of order emerge. Thus, amplifying feedbacks can be a source of new order and complexity in the theory of dissipative structures. Feedback plays an important role in the self-organization of dynamic systems. One of Prigogine’s greatest achievements has been to solve the paradox that lays between the two contradictory views of evolutions in physics and biology.

In Prigogine’s theory, the second law of thermodynamics (the law of ever-increasing entropy/disorder) is still valid, but the relationship between entropy and disorder is seen in a new light. At bifurcation points, states of greater order may emerge spontaneously without contradicting the second law of thermodynamics. According to Prigogine, dissipative structures are islands of order in a sea of disorder, containing and even increasing their order at the expense of greater disorder in their environment.

Bifurcation points can trigger the emergence of new properties. Cognition, intellect or self-awareness can be the result. Disease would be a lack of integration of new properties or a lack of order in a high degree of complexity. Emergent properties are the novel properties that arise when a higher level of complexity is reached by putting together components of lower complexity. The properties are novel in a sense that they are not present in the parts: they emerge from specific relationships and interactions among the parts in the organized ensemble. In a larger sense emergence on a human level even include ethics.