The term “self-organization” is widely used with relation to many phenomena: crystals, laser, Bénard’s heat convection cells, Prigogine’s dissipative non-equilibrium open systems, oscillating chemical reactions, Eigen’s autocatalytic cycles, chaotic systems, origin of life, cellular replication, homeostasis, morphogenesis, embryological developments…
About this list there is an important conceptual distinguo to do and a possible misunderstanding to clear on the abuse of a bold term as “self-organization”.
In my previous post I explained why organization is essentially different from any order. First, among the above phenomena we should distinguish what involves simple order from what involves true organization, meant in my sense. Second, we should examine what they really mean with the “self-” prefix. I suspect the main reason of this “self-” is that it seems to dispense from an intelligent source of organization. In other words, “self-organization” is one of the magic words in the toolbox of evolutionism to deny intelligent design (ID).
Given my definition of “organization” implies hierarchies of functions/tasks, decision/control, communication/ signaling, in the above list only origin of life, cellular replication, homeostasis, morphogenesis and embryological developments are properly examples of organization, meant in “strong” sense. Not by chance this division in the list is between the mere physical/chemical and the biological. Biology is eminently the reign of organization and design.
Forms of order can arise from matter-energy (ME) and natural laws (NL), as science defines them nowadays. Let’s write this derivation in short:
(1) ME + NL => order
It represents the fact that the couple ME + NL potentially contains such kinds of ordered phenomena. In this situation it would be pleonastic to speak of “self-ordering” indeed thank to this internal potentiality. When a container filled with water (potentiality) begins to spill water (actuality) we don’t say “the container self-spills water” or “water is self-spillage of the container”. Obviously I have nothing to object about such equation and the use of the term “order”, or whatever, for such phenomena.
The problem arises when they speak of “self-organization”, because they do mean this wrong equation:
(2) ME + NL => self-organization
In fact, according to Fritjof Capra (I appreciate him for his clarity):
Self-organization is spontaneous arise of new structures and new behaviors in far-from-equilibrium open systems characterized by inner feedback loops and mathematically described by non-linear equations. (“The web of life”, 5)
Capra, with “open systems”, means that a matter/energy flux is involved (the “ME” item), while his “non-linear equations” pertain to “NL”. Unfortunately #2 cannot work because the left member lacks a potentiality of organization P(o) which don’t come from ME + NL and only an intelligent organizer can provide. The correct one should be:
(3) ME + NL + P(o) => organization
Here is the explanation. For what matters here, we can think of material nature as a giant processor running tasks where matter-energy is continually driven in real-time by the natural laws. By the way, this is an informatics vision that actually many scientists agree with (Gregory Chaitin, Edward Fredkin, Seth Lloyd…). Following their line of reasoning, and according to the isomorphism between true organization and software I wrote about in the linked post, if per absurdum the equation #2 were true, we would have a processor running software not installed in the system, and this is illogic. In fact, “NL” are only assignments of values to the physical variables (data) computed by equations, something that, at its best, is merely propaedeutic to software (code), which is something essentially higher because implies hierarchy of functions/tasks, decision/control, communication/signaling (like organization). According to this ID view we can identify what in #3 “P(o)” is: it is the “source code” (in general the “design”) for the software/organization in output. Here again there is no reason to pre-fix “self-” because we know that “P(o)” is provided by the organizer, it is not inherent to the ME + NL system stand alone, which per se is not capable to output organization.
Note 1: the above observations (about the #3 equation) are independent from the time when P(o) is injected in the system. P(o) could well be frontloaded just from the beginning. In any case what matters is that inert matter and simple laws, as actual science defines them, needs P(o). To think otherwise is to assume that more comes from less.
Note 2: when I distinguish between organization and order I do not mean that organization is designed while “ME + NL” is not, or that “ME + NL” has no cause. Obviously also “ME + NL” is designed, ME needs a creator and NL needs a “law-giver”, which necessarily are the same first Cause. Simply I claim that order is a direct by-product of “ME + NL” alone, while organization is not a direct and free by-product of “ME + NL” because these ones need an additional third factor “P(o)”, which the Great Organizer of the cosmos had necessarily to provide to get “ordo ab chao”.
Of course the above scientific observations perfectly agree with the question of principle, from a philosophical point of view. Organization is something qualitative and essential. Self-organization of a material system would mean that this system gives itself its own being. For doing that, it should be active and passive, the agent and the subject, in the same time. But a thing cannot be in act and in potency in the same relationship, because the relation necessarily supposes the existence of two terms. In fact, it is axiomatic in Platonic, Christian and Hindu doctrines that “a same thing cannot perform or abide opposite activities on the same relation or with relation to the same thing or same time” (Plato, Republic, 436B); “in truth, no one can properly self-impose a law to its own actions” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.93.5); “it is impossible that from the same viewpoint and in the same way a thing be the mover and the moved, that it move itself” (ibidem, I.2.3); “there is an implicit antinomy in the notion of acting on itself” (Shankaracharya, Brahma Sutra Bhasya, 6.2.17). In short this is the “nihil agit se ipsum” principle of Scholasticism. An eye doesn’t see itself. Since to organize is an higher kind of action, a fortiori a material system doesn’t self-organize.