This chapter's title may mean little to many persons, yet the essence may be understood fairly easily on an intuitive basis. The adjective "ontic", which hardly appears in any dictionary, clearly relates to the term ontology, which is used in philosophy in its widest sense to designate "the way we view the world and how it is composed". Ontic bears the slight difference that it refers to intrinsic properties of the world as we construct it and its behavior, such that it addresses phenomenology as well. Therefore, this chapter complements the concepts of thermodynamic openness addressed in the previous chapter, by including the physical openness available to ecosystem development.
In fact, everybody knows something about openness. We know how it is to be open to another person's opinions, to be open minded, or open to new experiences. We enjoy that surprising things may happen on our (field) trips and journeys (in nature). In fact, any person who has tried to plan exact details for a tour into the wilderness will know how difficult this is. First, we may address the aspect of realizing such a trip and stress that this also implies the acceptance of the fact that unexpected things may or rather will occur. But, second, we have also to address the fact that once an event occurs, it is an outcome of many unexpected events. It is impossible to predict which one and how often such events actually occur. We may expect to bring extra dry socks to use after one incident, an unexpected event. How many persons will be able to foresee exactly how many pairs to bring? Or in other cases we may return with unused socks but found that we needed extra shirts instead. Any of us will know that it is eventually not possible to make such a detailed plan.
In fact, one could have chosen another title to the present chapter: "anything may— but does not—happen". Of which the first part deals with, as we shall see in the following sections, the enormous number of possibilities that exist in general and also in biological systems. The second part indicates that all possibilities have not been realized, partly because it is not physically possible, and partly due to constraints that are described in other chapters of this book.
This chapter is about the ontic openness of ecosystems. It relates directly to the theme of this book and the systemness of ecosystems because ontic openness results, in part, due to the complex web of life constantly combining, interacting, and rearranging, in the natural world to form novel patterns. Furthermore, ontic openness is at least a partial cause of indeterminacy and uncertainty in ecology and thus the reason that we are not able to make exact predictions or measurements with such a high accuracy as for instance in physical experiments. Therefore, when understanding ecosystems from a systems perspective, one cannot overlook the importance of physical openness.
3.2 WHY IS ONTIC OPENNESS SO OBSCURE?
While referring to Section 3.2 of the chapter we have already mentioned that it likely will pose a question to the vast majority of readers, not only the ecologically oriented ones, of: what is the meaning of the title of this chapter? We have tried to foresee this question already by giving a first vague and intuitive explanation. We guess it is likely that only a few readers have met this "phenomenon" before as far as the term ontic openness is concerned. We also expect that very few, if any, of the readers are familiar with texts that deal with the role of ontic openness in an ecological context.
To our knowledge, no such thorough treatment of this topic exists. Rather a number of treatments of more or less philosophical character exist—all of which may be taken into account—and which all together may add up to a composite understanding of what ontic openness may mean and what its importance and consequences to ecological science may be.
Should we attempt to further explain ontic openness very briefly (which is impossible) we would start with openness, and turn the attention to another related word like open-minded. We normally use this word to designate a person that is willing to try out new things, accept novel ideas, maybe a visionary person who is able to think that the world could be different, that matters may be interdependent in other ways than in which we normally think. Many scientists make their breakthrough thanks to such mental openness. Discoveries are often unexpected or unplanned—a phenomenon known in the philosophy of science as serendipities. Kuhn also addresses this issue of the scientific procedure when he stresses that paradigm shifts in the evolution of science involves the scientists to come and look at the same object from a different angle or in a different manner.
We now would like, if possible, to remove the psychology element. If we remove the role of subjectivity, i.e., that openness relies on one or more person's ability or willingness to see that the surrounding world may be different or could have other possibilities realized than hitherto, then we are really on the right track.
We are now left with an objective part of openness. If we can now accept the physical existence of this and that it is a property that penetrates everything, we are getting there. The openness is an objectively existing feature not only of the world surrounding us but also ourselves and our physical lives (e.g., biochemical individuality introduced by Williams, 1998). This is the ontic part of the openness.
Another reason for ontic openness to be not so commonly known among biologist and ecologist is the fact that the progenitors of this concept were dominantly physicists and in particular those in the hard-core areas of quantum mechanics, particle physics, and relativity theory. Furthermore, we typically do not view these areas as being directly relevant to biology or ecology. Also, these theories are not easy to communicate to "outsiders", so even if ecology is considered to be a highly trans-, inter-, and multi-disciplinary science it is perfectly understandable that no one has thought that these hard-core sub-disciplines of physics today could possibly have a message for ecology.
Luckily, one might say, some of the physicists from these areas turned their attention in other directions and started speculating about the consequences of their findings to other areas of natural science such as biology. On several occasions we have found physicists wondering about the distinction between the physical systems and living systems, such as Schrodinger's What is life. Living systems are composed of basically the same units, atoms and molecules, and yet they are so different. One physicist, Walter Elsasser, will receive an extra attention in this chapter. Studying his works, in particular from the later part of his productive career, may turn out to be a gold mine of revelations to any person interested in how biology differs from physics and about life itself.
Still not understood or got the idea of what ontic openness is about? Do not worry— you most probably have experienced it and its consequences already. Let us investigate some well-known examples.
Most ecologists have experienced ontic openness already!
Most ecologists will have met ontic openness already—somewhat in disguise—as often our background comes from the gathering of empirical knowledge, an experience we may have achieved through hard fieldwork.
To start, let us consider a hypothetical "test ecologist". Given the information about latitude and a rough characteristic ecosystem type—terrestrial or aquatic—she will be able to decide whether she is expert "enough" in the area to forecast the system state or if she prefers to enlist aid from a person considered to be more knowledgeable in the area. If deciding to be an "expert", then she will for sure be able to tell at least something about the basic properties of the ecosystem, such as a rough estimate of the number and type of species to be expected. Given more details, such as exact geographical position, we may now narrow in on ideas considering our background knowledge. There will be a huge difference in organisms, species composition, production, if we are in the arctic or in the tropics. Likewise, being for instance in the tropics there will be a huge difference between a coral reef in the Pacific Ocean or a mangrove swamp in the Rufiji River Delta. We will be able to begin to form images of the ecosystem in our minds, conceptual models of trophic interactions, community linkages, and functional behavior. Meanwhile, we know very well that to get closer in details with our description we will need additional knowledge, for instance about ecological drivers, such as hydrodynamics, depth, and other external influences, such as human impacts from fisheries, loadings of both organic or inorganic in type, etc.
Nevertheless, given as much information as we possibly can get, and for instance focusing in on a particular geographic position, such as the Mondego River Estuary in Portugal, we will not be able to answer accurately simple questions like: which plant species are present at a certain locality, how are they distributed, or what are their biomass and production? We will more likely be able to give an answer something like that under the given conditions we would consider it to be most likely that some rooted macrophyte will be present and that it would probably be of a type that do not break easily, probably with band-shaped leaves, probably some species of Zostera, etc. We will be able, based on experience and knowledge, to give only an estimate in terms of—what we shall later call the propensity—the system to be of a certain "kind". BUT we will never be completely sure. This is due to ontic openness.
Sometimes, when introducing new concepts, it is useful to make an entrance from an unexpected and totally different angle. In this case, we will consider the world of music— a world with which most people are familiar and have specific preferences. We only know very few people to whom music does not say anything and literally does not "ring a bell".
We consider—in a Gedanken Experiment—the situation of an artist set to begin a new composition. To illustrate the universality of the approach we may illustrate the situation by the possible choices in two situations—a small etude for piano or a whole symphony. We shall start by looking at both the situations from a statistical and probabilistic angle. The two situations may look quite different from a macroscopic point of view, but in fact they are not.
In the case of a short piece for piano, a normal house piano has a span of approximately 7 (or 7%) octaves of 12 notes each giving 84 (or 88) keys in all. If an average chord on the piano has 5 notes in it, then it is theoretically possible to construct 3,704,641,920 or approximately 3.7 billion chords on it (4.7 billion in the case of 88 keys). (Note, that we already here deal with a subset of the 84! = 3.3 X 10126 possibilities.) Meanwhile, if the assumption that a chord consists of five notes on average is valid, then it does not take long to reach almost the same level of complexity sensu lato. Putting a small piece of music together, assuming that we work in a simple 4/4 and change chords for each quarter, after 16 notes or 4 bars we have reached a level 126 X 10153 of possible ways to construct the music. Many of these possible combinations of notes and chords would not sound as music at all and luckily we are faced with constraints. A physical constraint, such as the human physiology, will serve to limit the number of notes than can be accessed in a single chord (a good piano player will be able to span maybe over one octave per hand, thereby lowering the number of possible variations considerably). Psychological constraints of various kinds do also exist depending on the decisions of the composer or our personal taste—we do want the music to sound "nice".
The situation does not change a lot considering a symphony orchestra although complexity really rises much faster. Considering a relatively small symphony orchestra of say 50 musicians—each having a span of approximately 3 octaves or (36 notes)—even before starting we have 3650 or 6.5 X 1077 possibilities of how the first chord may sound. By the second note we have already exceeded any of the above numbers.
Almost no physical constraints exist in this case. The task of the composer is very simple, picking a style of music like the choices between classic or 12-tone music, between piano concerto, opera, or string quartets. The point is now that for each note, for each chord, there are many possibilities of what the composer could write on the sheet, but in fact only one ends up being chosen, one "solution" out of an enormous number of possibilities. As we shall see later, the number of possibilities to choose from is so large (immense) that it makes no physical sense. Therefore, in the end the choice of the composer is unique. The fact that we will anyway be able to determine and talk about such a thing like style is that the composers have had a tendency (see propensities later) to choose certain combinations out of the possible.
Let us end this section with a situation most people will know. Considering yourself a skilled person, familiar with the many styles of music, you listen to an unknown piece of music in a radio broadcast. It is a very melodic piece of music in a kind of style you really like and with which you are familiar. You, even without knowing the music, start to hum along with some success, but eventually you will not succeed to be totally right throughout the whole piece. Do not worry it is not you that is wrong, neither is the music—you are just experiencing the ontic openness of someone else, in this case the composer.
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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.