Thursday, August 2, 2012

In Memory of Erich Jantsch and The Evolutionary Vision

"Erich Jantsch (1929-1980) completed his Ph.D at the University of Vienna in 1951. He was at various times an astronomer, physicist, engineer, management consultant, forecaster, conservationist, general systems theorist, evolutionary theorist, humanist, and philosopher. He helped to found the Club of Rome, and he lectured at universities all over the world. His books range from works on technological forecasting to evolution, to his most recent publication, The Self-Organizing Universe (Pergamon, 1980). For the past ten years his center of operations was at the University of California, Berkeley. His early death has deprived the world of one of its most far-ranging and creative minds. In his own words his aims were toward "providing a perspective of hope for young people, understanding how open systems, including human systems, live and evolve, and bringing together science and the humanities in a unified view." It is an epitaph worth of him." 

"The Imminent Noetic Regime"

    Few writers have described so vividly the tragic temporal experience of man as did Jean Jacques Rousseau: time was for him the main obstacle to happiness. It seemed for a long time that Western science had exorcised time. Indeed, the basic laws of physics, be it in a classical or quantum mechanics, make no distinction between future or past. The question, "What is time?" was pushed out from the frame of basic sciences to the realm of subjective experience. However, in recent decades a deep change has been taking place. We have lost confidence in external laws. Only about fifty years ago the famous French sociologist Levi-Bruhl could write, "We have a feeling of intellectual security which is so strong that we can even no more conceive how it could be shaken." But the unlikely has happened. Our intellectual security is gone. The discovery of the evolving patterns of the universe in the large, of the instability of elementary particles in the small, of a multitude of processes of self-organization on the atomic or molecular level, has indeed shattered our intellectual security. The basic laws of the world in which we are living can no longer be taken for granted.

    None more than Erich Jantsch felt so intensely this bewilderment, this astonishment at the spectacle of these deep changes. However, while for Rousseau and so many others time appeared as the obstacle, the negation of reason, for Jantsch time, change, evolution, became the very reason for hope, of fulfillment. At the end of the introduction to this volume, referring to the paper by Herbert Guenther, Jantsch writes:

Instead, evolution is viewed as the expression of an "inherent playfulness of an always intelligent universe, and ... the progressive realization of this fact constitutes the greatest challenge, adventure and satisfaction of being human."

This is more than a simple verbal statement. This conviction lay at the very root of his creative life.

    Shortly after the tragic death of Aharon Katzir-Katchalsky in 1972, I gave a seminar at the University of California at Berkeley.  My topic was "dissipative structures" or, equivalently, self-organization through irreversible processes. Few people were interested in this subject at that time. Erich was directing a seminar for a group of students, and he sent one of them to "scout" my lecture. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to address Erich's group. It was an astonishing group. Some members were interested in shamanism, others in psychology economics, or Buddhism. But all shared a feeling of excitement and wonder. Rightly or wrongly, Erich saw in these new developments in irreversible thermodynamics the "missing link" which would permit him to organize his immense knowledge into a single coherent whole. "The Self-organization of the universe," that was to be the ambitious theme of his last book. It was much more than a mere description of facts or of more or less well-established theories. It was the expression of a deep drive towards the fulfillment, the expression of a hope that our own life, part of the cosmic process, could in turn contribute to the "paradigm of self-realization through self-transcendence," to use Erich's own words. I believe that Erich's life, short as it was, has fulfilled this goal. His work has been a source of inspiration to many, young and old, who cannot avoid reflecting on the global patterns of this strange universe which we are to live and to die.

    "Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition," was the beautiful title of a volume he edited with the late Conrad H. Waddington. There Erich wrote:

The evolution of self-held images of man through superconscious learning provides a kind of objective, dynamic guidance for the mankind process which reached far into the future--thousands of years, or aeons...
Superconscious images span aeons. This means that the image which will guide us through the imminent noetic regime is already with us. 

    We can only hope that such thoughts have helped him to affront the last bifurcation--which for him was only one step more towards this "imminent noetic regime" which he has described so eloquently.


—  Ilya Prigogine (from an opening note about the author in The Evolutionary Vision: Toward a Unifying Paradigm of Physical, Biological, and Socio-cultural Evolution AAAS Selected Symposium, 1981)