Ontic Openness And Relative Stability

After introducing Elsasser's immense numbers and applying Heisenberg's principle to ecology, we end up with a rather pessimistic message to ecologists. In order not to fall totally in despair let us turn to Popper. Although seemingly agreeing mostly with Elsasser, he does present a modified interpretation of the classical probability concept that at the same time offers us a somewhat more optimistic view of what can be done.

Popper, although also a physicist, is best known for his philosophy of science work and the problem of the logics connected to the epistemic of carrying out research like "Logik der Forschung", etc. He is considered to be the father of the research strategy known as falsification.

Popper (1990—reprinted from his lectures in 1930s), in a minor publication: "A world of Propensities", states that he established a common research agenda with Carnap based on "Logik der Forschung". In this agenda, they "agreed to distinguish sharply between, on one hand, probability as it is used in the probabilistic hypotheses of physics, especially of quantum theory, which satisfies the mathematical 'calculus of probabilities', and, on the other hand, the so-called probability of hypotheses, or their degree of confirmation" (Popper, 1990, p. 5, see also Ulanowicz, 1996).

In fact, Popper himself, by addressing our failure to prove anything with a 100 percent certainty, i.e., the total dominance of uncertainty and the higher likelihood of falsification of experiments rather than the opposite, is addressing an openness that is part of the everyday life of all scientists. But again, if this is a property inherent in the systems we work with, then indeed we will be forced to return to the pessimist view presented above. If a true, real feature of the world, then why do science at all? Popper refers to the findings of Heisenberg as "objective indeterminacy", but argues against the solution of translating everything into probabilistic terms. Popper claims that most scientists picking up the probabilities turned it into a question of "lack of knowledge" (the information as entropy approach that is strongly connected to Shannon and von Neumann—our comment) leading to what he calls a subjectivist theory of probability (Popper, 1990, p. 8).

After working with probability theory for more than 35 years, he claims to have come up with "satisfactory and very simple solutions". One of which he refers to as 'the propensity interpretation of probability', a concept that originated back in 1956. Ulanowicz later used this interpretational framework in the development of his Ascendency concept (Box 4.1) that has been proposed to be an indicator of ecosystem development (Ulanowicz, 1986a, 1997).

In his explanation of the propensity interpretation, Popper began with an example of tossing a coin or throwing dice, in which we deal with known equiprobable outcomes— probability of 1/2 or 1/6 of any of the possible outcomes, respectively. Most of us will be familiar with these examples and consider them rather trivial, but what happens in the case when either the coin or the die is manipulated, i.e., loaded.

First of all, it is clear that in this case our assumption of equiprobable outcomes ends. One may introduce a very simple solution to this situation and just continue to work with the new weighted possibilities. We could hope that it would be as simple as that. But the consequence of such a situation on our work is much greater than we may imagine.

At least two major problems originate from the character of the situation: (1) how are the weights determined? (2) What is the consequence to our ability to forecast such a system? In determining the weights, a feasible method may easily be found. We may just continue "normal" coin tossing or dice throwing a considerable number of times, registering the outcome of each event. The point is now that this procedure will eventually take more time (more tosses or throws) in order to reach a reliable result and yet the determined weights will still be connected to a relatively high uncertainty. Popper stated, "instead of speaking of the possibility of an event occurring, we might speak, more precisely, of an inherent propensity to produce, upon repetition, a certain statistical average" (Popper, 1990, p. 11). Each event will happen with a more or less certain probability, a tendency—or as we now know it—a propensity. The immediate effect will be that our chances of successfully predicting a number of sequences will be very small.

We may now consider that the evolving world around us is a composite of events that all have non-fixed probabilities. Assigning weights is further complicated if the weights are not fixed, but rather varying, say on the external conditions in which the event is cast. In fact, adaptation is an inherent property of biological systems, thus, we must consider that the propensities themselves may change with time. This should lead to the understanding that propensities are entailed in the situation not the object. Our ability to predict, or our hopes to do this, will vanish within a short time, just as our abilities to predict the development of music is disappearing after just a few bars of playing as described earlier.

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