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Prigogine’s theories and the institutions of the Athenian Democracy

By Demosthenes Kyriazis


Brief Prigogine’s biography
Ilya Prigogine was born in Moscow, a few months before the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1921, his family emigrated to Germany, because his father was critical of the new Bolshevik regime. Eight years later, in 1929, the family of twelve-year Ilya moved to Brussels.
In his new homeland, Ilya grew up, studied Physics and Chemistry and took the first steps of his scientific career. In 1949 he took the Belgian nationality.
The most important stations of his scientific development are:

• 1950 Professor at the University of Brussels
• 1959 Director of the International Research Institute in Brussels
• 1959 went to the University of Texas in the U.S., first as lecturer and later as     Professor of Physical Chemistry.
• 1967 Back to Brussels where he took over as manager at the Centre for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
• 1977 Award of the Nobel.

Ilya Prigogine died in Brussels in 2003 at the age of 86. Until the day of his death, he was the President of the International Academy of Sciences.


 Deterministic and chaotic systems

To understand Prigogine’s innovative work and significant contribution in the study of physical, biological and social systems, it is necessary to recall the basic features of deterministic and chaotic phenomena and systems.

Deterministic systems and phenomena are those whose behavior and evolution are determined with absolute certainty, because it is due to specific, known and unchanged cause or causes (logic of determinism).

Chaotic systems and phenomena are those, whose behavior and evolution is due to many and unspecified causes and for this reason are indefinable, are chaotic. (Logic of chaos theory)

Example of deterministic phenomenon is the fall of bodies, not through the atmosphere, but in a vacuum. The evolution of the drop in vacuum is determined with absolute certainty and precision from Newton's laws we learned in high school [1]. The reason for this fall is the force of gravity. It is said that the occasion for the discovery of Newton's laws was the drop of an apple on his head.

The fall of a stone in the atmosphere is determined by Newton's laws with a great approach. However this is not true for the fall of all bodies in the atmosphere.

Example of a chaotic phenomenon is the fall in the atmosphere of a tree leaf or a feather.

From our personal experience we know that the "fall" of a feather has nothing to do with the fall of a stone. The fall of a feather is not determined by the laws of Newton. It is determined more by the "law" of ... Verdi in Rigoleto, whether "a feather in the wind is to a woman alike."

Such phenomena as: The fall of a feather, the meteorological phenomena, the open thermodynamic systems, the biological systems (eg the human body), the social systems whose behavior and evolution is undefined or determined with great difficulty, called chaotic.

In strict scientific language of physics, chaotic phenomena are called those which are described by nonlinear differential equations; eg equations that can’t be solved or we do not know how to solve them now.

A second definition, better understood, of chaotic systems has as follows: chaotic are the phenomena and systems, which are extremely sensitive to their initial conditions. A small change of those conditions, bring subversion of their development and makes it practically indefinable.

The chaotic systems are not deterministically unspecified, but practically indefinable. Therefore the theory of chaos doesn’t abrogate the determinism but supplements it.

Brief description of Prigogine’s work

Prigogine from the early years of his scientific career, worked on the study and research of open thermodynamic systems eg systems whose behavior and evolution is very difficult if not impossible to determine.

It is useful to remember that open thermodynamic systems are those which exchange energy (give and take) with the environment, while closed do not exchange.

In classical physics extensively studied, have been the closed thermodynamic systems. This subtractive simplification led to the understanding and discovery of the laws of thermodynamics. Similar subtraction was the understanding and discovery of the Newton's laws on the fall of a body in the vacuum and not in the atmosphere.

This subtractive methodology in the research resulted to the following great successes:

(1) To the discovery of the fundamental laws of nature,

(2) To the use of mathematics in the study of natural phenomena and,

(3) To the greater and faster development of  Physics in comparison with that of other sciences, owing to the use of mathematics.

This subtractive method is one which, in our view, led to the triumph of determinism.

The unquestionable offer of determinism had, however, a negative result. Created an elitist mentality, that is every non-deterministic logic faced with little concern, if not with arrogance. 

In this elitist mentality, the solution of each problem should always be obtained from the deepening of the well of determinism.
Prigogine reversed this attitude; he believed that the solution to every problem must be obtained from both the widening and the deepening of this well.

A second obvious truth of Prigogine’s conclusion was that the majority of systems - physical, biological, social, economic - are open systems (interacting with the environment) and therefore they must have a common kinship or even a deterministic relation.

Prigogine from the early days of his scientific life, grappled with the open thermodynamic systems. Perhaps this pre-occupation was the reason to open up new ways of perceiving and problem-solving methods. Perhaps it was something similar to the apple fell on the head of Newton, the father of science.  

 In these new paths, Prigogine’s efforts took a holistic, interdisciplinary and philosophical character, other than the strict deterministic one of the classical physics.

Moving to these the new paths, Prigogine identified those key identical dynamic processes of nature that apply to many fields, from cosmology and elementary particle physics up to biology and sociology. This new path has the title: "Bridging and integrating concepts of classical physics, philosophy, biology, sociology and technological applications."

These efforts were summarized by the Swedish committee awarded him the Nobel Prize as follows:
"...he has created new relationships and new theories to bridge the gap between biological and social science research fields." [2]

Prigogine’s theories and the institutions of the Athenian Democracy

The most important Prigogine’s ideas and theories, associated with the principles and institutions of ancient Greek Democracy, to our mind, are: the lack of simplicity and of hierarchy, the randomness, the probability and self-organization.

But let us attempt a brief survey of these theories and a correlation with the institutions and principles of democracy of the ancient Greek mentality

The lack of simplicity and hierarchy.   
Philosophers and scientists believed that beneath the apparent complexity of the world lies a simple structure, that there is simplicity.

This view is very old and timeless. Formulated by the ancient Greek philosophers and in particularly by Democritus and Aristotle who defined the format of this simplicity.

Democritus (460-370 BC) suggested that the world is built from identical and simple components that can’t be further divided, the so-named "atoms".

Aristotle (384-322 BC) suggested that the world is structured by four components earth, water, air and fire with constant composition that can be divided constantly. But he did not only limit himself to identify the elementary bodies, with which the world is structured, but went on to identify the fundamental forces too, the "glue" that connects the elementary bodies in a single large and beautiful building that of the Cosmos ( Cosmos, Κόσμος= World ) . The word Cosmos in Greek comes out from the verb “cosmo” meaning to ornament.

The fundamental forces, according to Aristotle are two: “gravity” and “lightness”. Because of gravity, earth and water move downward, while due to lightness, the wind and the fire move upwards.

Our views on the types of elementary particles and the types of fundamental forces, that structured the world, have changed only recently, thousands of years later.

In the 1950's, for example, we thought that the elementary particles were the protons, the neutrons and the electrons, while little was known about the fundamental forces which unite them to form a nucleus, one atom, one molecule, one star, a galaxy, the whole world, the Κόσμος.

Today the subject of elementary particles has lost the simplicity that had at the time of Democritus and during the 50's. Today instead of the "atoms" of Democritus, a very large number of elementary particles has been discovered experimentally the list of which is growing. To-day key elements of the world are considered to be six (6) different types of quarks,(up, down, strange, charm, bottom, top) with different variations in each type (red, green, blue ....), electrons, leptons,  neutrinos, the .... "a zoo of elementary particles with which the world is structured."

The simplicity of the basic elements of matter, seems to be leading nowhere, like a utopia

Instead of the simplicity of the basic elements of matter, physicists today try to find the simplicity of the fundamental forces, the glue that unites these basic elements.

These fundamental forces we know today that are four: the gravitational, the electromagnetic, the weak nuclear and the strong nuclear. But researchers are trying also to discover the "superpower" that unifies them; the superpower that has the four daughters of the above-mentioned forces. Despite many efforts, however, this superpower has not been found or not found yet.

Prigogine believes that simplicity does not exist in nature but only in people's minds.  In nature is complexity which rules, it is not the simplicity.

The neat and elegant view of philosophers and physicists, that each level of scientific description builds on the previous level, and therefore priority has the description at the basic level of the elementary particles and of the fundamental forces, is not valid. The superpower the physicists of Quantum Mechanics are looking for will not be found because there is not.

Hierarchy does not exist in nature in the sense that exists in the system, especially the social, designed and developed by man. The building rules of Nature are democratic and not monarchists.

For these reasons, Prigogine suggests that the researches have to change direction. They have to be directed to the understanding of the laws of interaction of forces and phenomena.

At this point there is a serious contradiction of Prigogine’s   views with those of Quantum Mechanics. Time will tell us which of the two views is correct.

As can be seen easily from the simple consideration of institutions and practices of Athenian Democracy, in this type of government neither hierarchy, nor attempt to simplify and document the authorities, exist.

An example of practices and of institutions has as follows.

(1) In ancient Greece, Democracy was an obvious value without simplicity or complexity. So there was no philosophical documentation of the necessity and of the morality of this type of government. What has been written concerned the description, the weaknesses, the advantages and the disadvantages of Democracy

Typical is the view expressed by Plato, a stern judge of Democracy: "In order to rule properly a state either all people have to be philosophers (democracy) or only the philosophers to rule (aristocracy)."  This, we believe, is the actual position of Plato for democracy. Perhaps we should remember that, aristocrat (άριστος) in ancient Greece was the man with the biggest moral and spiritual power (αγαθός, αμείνων άριστος) and not the man with the big social and economic power, the aristocrat of today.
Contrary to the before-mentioned principle and practice of ancient Greece, the necessity and morality of the current indirect democracies had to be documented with many philosophical arguments as those mentioned in the theories of the "Social Contracts" [3]. In these theories, people are not considered to carry their own power - such as Nature has determined and as it was applied in the form of government of the ancient Greek democracy - but they are considered "partners" of the of the rulers.

In modern democracies, in our effort for simplicity and documentation, we lost both the simplicity and the spirit of ancient Greek Democracy.

(2) The lack of hierarchy is evident in the institution of Ecclesia of Demos (the Assembly of the Municipality) and in the institution of the Leaders (Άρχοντες) of the State.

The Ecclesia of Demos in Ancient Athens was the unique and superior body exercising any power; legislative, executive and judicial. Then all power was in the hands of all citizens.

The leaders in Athenian Democracy, neither legislated, nor judged, nor decided upon the strategic policy that today’s leaders do. The leaders then were the deacons of Ecclesia and the servants of “the governor and the governed citizen”.   
In the Ecclesia leaders and citizens had the same power, one vote.

Randomness and probability

Randomness. According to classical concepts, the randomness, the lukc,  refers to systems and  to phenomena that are developed and governed blindly, lacking goals and meaning.

By Prigogine however, luck is synonymous: to no determinism, to spontaneity, to innovation and creativity. It is a new and revolutionary view.

Probability. According to classical concepts, the development and evolution of systems and phenomena are deterministic; they have absolute and reasoned certainty.
The first break of this concept has been created by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy. The law of entropy does not apply to reasoned certainty but only with great probability that emerges from the statistics of the action. For example when we say "in August in Athens doesn’t snow" is true with high probability, derived from statistical data, but this doesn’t exclude once to snow in August. Something similar applies to the law of entropy.

The second and largest break in this concept has been created by the wording of the Uncertainty Principle from Heisenberg in Quantum Mechanics. According to this principle, which applies to the subatomic particles of the microcosm, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty the position and momentum of a subatomic particle. [4] This principle forced the physicists to describe the events with probability rather than with certainty, and the philosophers to extend coherently the uncertainty principle to other cases beyond the microcosm.

Prigogine extended the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg to open thermodynamic, to biological, social systems and generally to all systems that interact with the environment.

The new uncertainty principle of Prigogine tells us that when the complexity of these systems goes beyond a breaking point, then the systems are moving to unpredictable, to uncertain situations.

It is obvious that the new uncertainty principle of Prigogine is of great importance for the present, highly complex social, economic, and political systems.

The ancient Greeks though they did not know the above views of probability and randomness they applied them to the greatest sector that of the exercise of political power. Here are three examples:

(1)The election of the leaders of the Athenian Democracy was randomly assigned by lot, and only the election of the military rulers was done by voting. In several cases the vote aimed at the promotion of the best persons, not of the best one, and then the final selection was made by raffling among the toppers.

(2) The decisions from the Ecclesia of all citizens were taken on the principle of the majority. It is obvious that such decisions do not have certainty but probability to be rational.

(3) From the conclusions of the theory of “normal distributions”, we know to-day that the decisions by all citizens have a normal (average) rationalism but very high probability (almost certainty) of assurance of that rationality. On the contrary, decisions of a Messiah have great rationalism but very little chance of assurance. The higher the Messiah is, the lower the probability that this Messiah to be true. The imitation Messiahs are not defined by the determinism of the normal distributions.
The conclusion from the above is that in the ancient Greek democracy, citizens appreciated more the probability of achieving some expectation, instead of a high expectation. They believed what the popular wisdom says:  “Whoever look for too many loses everything” or  “better to be safe than sorry”

In ancient Greek democracy citizens with difficulty were impressed from verbose expectations.

From these examples, but also from other institutions or practices of ancient Greek Democracy, comes out that this type of government has great proximity with Prigogine’s theories, so rightly the ordinary citizen put the question:
The ideas of ancient Greek democracy have been shaped by Prigogine’s ideas, or his ideas from those of ancient Greek democracy?

Prigogine’s ideas on the systems self-organization are not only innovative but also are defining  or even approach, the process of self-organization.

The phenomenon of self-organization is closely linked to the phenomenon of life, for this reason appears more pronounced in living creatures than in no living systems, without this to be the privilege of living systems.

The self-organization process of Prigogine cannot be easily described. In a first approach, however, we can say that the self-organization is the result of "information storage" in molecules and of creating (due to this storage), the capacity to produce useful work as metabolism and reproduction. The self-organization process further evolves according to the law of natural selection.
The self-organization leads to more efficient and more stable systems than those of human organization.

The largest and most prominent example of the results of community’s self-organization is the culmination at the same time and same place, of the Athenian Democracy and of the unique culture of classical Athens.


Summary - Conclusion
The presentation of Prigogine’s ideas  and their association with socio-political system of democracy, is an effort that cannot be covered with the views of an ordinary citizen, who is not an expert in sociology, politics, and on the achievements of today's physics. Furthermore such an effort cannot be met on the sidelines of an article only.

For these reasons, we wish and hope such efforts to be made by other citizens who are experts in the field of sociology, politics, and modern physics.

May the principles and methodologies of physics in general and more specifically of Prigogine to be used for the development and improvement of the political systems; may they help to a better understanding  and to the facing of the problems of current democratic systems, as happened already  with the biological systems.

This article is included in the book of Demosthenes Kyriazis  “DIGITAL DEMOCRACY,  the influence of modern physics and Digital Technology in the Democracy”. Publisher: Hellenic  Physicists Association, 2009.


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[1] These laws, in mathematics are written: g = constant, u = gt and h = 1/2.g.t ²
[2] Vikipedia the free encyclopedia on the Internet
[3] of the Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1585 - 1671), of the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) and of others.

[4] This law is written in mathematics: Dx. Dp >½h  and means that the uncertainty of position Dx, by the uncertainty of momentum Dp is greater than or equal to a fixed number (where h the constant of Planck).



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