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A Third Window, beyond Materialistic and Mechanistic Philosophies of Nature
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-04-30 08:22:08
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A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin
Robert E. Ulanowicz
2009, Templeton Foundation Press

An intriguing book is just out challenging the taken for granted dominant paradigm through which modern science sees nature, a paradigm this structured mainly around Newtonian and Darwinian approaches. The title of the book is A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin.

Its author is Robert E. Ulanowicz, an eminent theoretical ecologist endowed with a deep philosophical understanding lucidly expressed in his book; a rather rare phenomenon if truth be told. He asserts that neither Newtonian nor Darwinian models are any longer adequate to explain how real change (in the form of creative advance or emergence) actually takes place within nature. This is undoubtedly a compelling and original alternative to outdated approaches to the life sciences.

Ulanowicz contends that the metaphysical foundations laid by these great thinkers centuries ago are ill suited to sustain today's search for a comprehensive description of complex living systems. Ecosystem dynamics, for example, violate each and every one of the Newtonian presuppositions. Hence, Ulanowicz offers his titular "third window"—a new way of understanding evolution and other natural processes beyond the common mechanistic or materialistic philosophies of nature.

Drawing on the writings of Walter Elsasser, Karl Popper, Gregory Bateson, Robert Rosen, and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as his own experience as a theoretical ecologist, Ulanowicz offers a new set of axioms for how nature behaves. Chance and disarray in natural processes are shown to be necessary conditions for real change. Randomness is shown to contribute richness and autonomy to the natural world.

The metaphysical implications of these new axioms will undoubtedly lend A Third Window a wide appeal not only among scientists, but also among philosophers, theologians, and general readers who follow the science and religion dialogue beyond cartoons and shallow caricatures. Ulanowicz's fresh perspective adds a new voice to the discussion for it presents a metaphysical basis for living systems that significantly mitigates several purported conflicts between science and religion, those conflicts so dear to those who would eliminate a providential Creator from the great drama that is cosmology.

For one thing the book and others of a similar nature, addresses the ultimate philosophical questions without which one is sure to fall into nihilism and become part of the problem rather than the solution to the pressing contemporary crisis: why is there something rather than nothing, and what is the point of it all? Those are metaphysical questions that many positivistic scientists have long considered superseded but are now again considered worth of science’s investigation. Indeed, those questions are coming back with a vengeance proving that indeed, as Aquinas taught us long ago, truth is one, not to be divided into scientific and philosophical.  

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Jack2009-05-03 22:30:30

Cause and effect demands some Causer prior to nothingness. If what I see in the mirror is simply molecules that happen-chanced, then even the mirror image of me has no purpose. Only matter, entrophing over time.

But if what I see in the mirror is not chance, which to Emanuel Kant was just an excuse for ignorance, then there is purpose. Chance, a bedfellow of nihilism itself, is certainly nothingness. It has no power, it is no verb. It has no intelligence, it is simply infinte luck.

If only by chance, then this is all there is; but if by intent and design, a purpose must also come. I believe in the latter.

Chris Konkol2009-09-11 04:41:12
Excellent review. I have also read the Third View, and it seems to be a brilliant sythesis that is persuasively strengthened by corroboration of the third view across different fields and among diverse "great minds," such as those mentioned in the review.

One of the strength of this book is that it is written lucidly and even plainly. I would like to see, however, a follow-up book in which some of the issues are analyzed in more detail. For example, I would like to see futher elaboration concerning Ulanowicz's analysis of the aleotoric, or raw/absolute chance, and his conclusion that it is ontological in nature, at least within our universe. Perhaps feedback on the ideas in this book from scientistists, philosophers, and mathematicians can succeed in drawing out further insights.

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