On Stability

November 10, 2009

“True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”
==Tom Robbins (American Novelist. b.1936)

Today I want to write about Ilya Prigogine, a Russian-born naturalized Belgian chemist and Nobel Laureate. His Russian roots notwithstanding (Prigogine’s family left Russia when the future genius was only 4), Ilya lived, studied and worked all his life in the West. His most famous work that got him the coveted prize in chemistry in 1977 was on the Thermodynamic Equilibrium.

According to Prigogine, systems are ‘autonomically stable’ – in other words, they exist in a steady state and equilibrium. When a system is ‘perturbed’, it shifts little and quickly returns to its balanced status. Most of the time, structures enjoy stability. Even strong external forces fail to change the system from a steady state. The laws of equilibrium are universal. Or are they?

From time to time, for multiple and various reasons, the systems fall into a temporary state of instability when a mild external influence can cause irreversible changes. Then, the system achieves new equilibrium and never returns back to the way things used to be.

Although written for thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, Prigogine’s theory could be applied to societies. Russian history offers two examples in the last century alone. First, the solid and unshakable Russian Monarchy dropped like a house of cards by a small and not particularly popular Bolshevik coup. Then, in a few short decades, massive and menacing Soviet Union fell to pieces in front of our eyes.

Psychiatrists see daily ‘Prigoginism’ in action. Seemingly solid unions and marriages disintegrate in months, friendships that lasted decades break after one fateful quarrel, long-term partnerships dissolve over a weekend. The process is often irreversible and the new state is nothing like the old.

In our lives and our theories, including Prigogine’s, can appear rock solid only to one day undergo fundamental revisions and never again be accepted by the majority. Let’s find more than a quantum of wisdom in this notion.

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2 Responses to “On Stability”

  1. relativeculture Says:

    These are very interesting thoughts.

    Although I am not familiar with Prigogine, “The End of Certainty” seems to be a very interesting read.

    While it was perhaps not his intent, “Prigoginism” seems to hold a very cynical view of the scientific method and the sociological imagination.

    It is interesting to have read this tonight because I was just discussing determinism with a friend of mine. Sociologically speaking, it was the foundation for Protestantism and much of Max Weber’s ideological beliefs (The Protestant Work Ethic). It is always interesting to observe scientists who find their research acting as a catalyst for a broader social statement.

    What are your thoughts on determinism and how does it
    tie into “Prigoginism” in your opinion?

  2. doctormisha Says:

    Prigogine was a scientist primarily interested in systems, not a particular system (political, social, etc.) but any entity falling under the definition. I wouldn’t call his views cynical as they are detached from emotions and social consequences, at least in their original form.

    Autonomous systems are made of well identified component and governed by rules. “Prigoginism” is just one of them.


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