Where has all the novelty gone?

Is spontaneity real? Is novelty possible? These are profound philosophical questions for all of us to think about. Does anything really new happen? A determinist might say no. The doctrine of determinism is often interpreted to mean that everything is caused. The state of everything is predetermined by its past state and the next state of everything is determined by its present state. There is no novelty. If we are to adopt this position there are two questions which we must address.

Question 1:  Why are we not able to predict the future perfectly? If everything is predetermined we should be able to predict the future with certainty based on what we know about the present and yet we seem woefully unable to do this accurately.

Question 2: How do we account for the variety that we do see? It does appear at least to some extent that new things occur and that the amount of variety and diversity in reality can increase. Where does this increase in richness come from?  

The answer to the first questions is most often said to be that the sheer complexity of reality is so vast that we can’t possibly take into account all the causal factors that create the future. Theoretically it would be possible, but practically the factors to consider are simply too varied and too complex to deal with – at least at the current time. This could certainly be true, but it is ultimately an assumption that cannot be proved. The only way to prove that our current inability to predict the future is due to our ignorance of causal factors is to get to the point where we can predict the future. If we get to that point we will then know that our previous inability was due only to our own ignorance.

To answer the second question people usually point to some mysterious initiating point in which all of the potential and possibility was injected into the universe. In religious circles this is often attributed to some creator God. God initiated the whole process. Those who are more scientifically minded most widely attribute the initiation of the universe to something called The Big Bang. An explosion of sorts from which the universe burst into existence. In both cases the idea is that from that initial point everything was predetermined to unfold exactly the way it has. This implies that if we knew the mind of God we could predict everything that has and will ever happen. Similarly, if we knew all of the conditions at the moment of the Bing Bang we could predict everything that has and will ever happen.

The obvious question that arises in response to this second answer is what caused God or the Big Bang? This leads to the mystery of what has been called the causeless cause.  And when we talk about a causeless cause we are talking about spontaneity and novelty.  The answer of either God, or the Big Bang as the source of the universe simply takes all of the novelty and spontaneity and states that it all burst into the universe during the first instant. From then on all of that chaotic possibility has been unfolding through a process of lawful interaction to create the universe as we currently know it.

There is a philosophical duality to these interpretations of reality that many find unsatisfying. The universe we live in is considered to be governed by immutable laws that were somehow initiated in one chaotic burst. Part of the nature of that burst must have been novelty. So where has all the novelty gone? Did the novelty get all used up? Or was the initial instant of the universe in some essential way different from and other than the universe that it initiated? In a religious framework you seem to end up with a God that is separate from and other than the universe that he or she creates. And from a scientific viewpoint you seem to end up with a moment of creation that is governed by laws dramatically different from the laws that moment seems to have initiated. Considerations like these lead the American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce to come up with a different and remarkably original conception of the creation and evolution of our universe.