The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce believed that the universe was evolving – the whole universe, not just the things in it. He believed that the universe itself, including the seemingly immutable laws of time, space, and physics, was evolving as one continuous whole event.
Most of us believe in evolution, but we tend to see ourselves as evolving beings living in a static universe. Peirce believed that the universe itself evolved, not just the things in it, and there was one simple observation that each of us makes every day that demonstrates that fact. We all know that the future is never precisely known, and for Peirce this is all the evidence we need to know that our universe is evolving.
Peirce was a scientist, one of the best America has ever produced, but he stood in direct opposition to the deterministic view that has come to be associated with science today. Determinism is the assertion that ‘nothing comes from nothing.’ In this view of reality, everything comes from something, and if we understood all of the conditions from which things emerged, we would be able to accurately predict everything about its future. Everything is part of an ongoing chain of cause and effect that could be exactly anticipated if only we had enough information. Nothing comes from nothing. Unfortunately this seems to imply, at least to thinkers like Peirce, that there is ultimately no real creativity in our universe. Nothing novel ever happens.
Peirce built a philosophy that rested on the opposite assumption. He believed that the essence and ground of our universe is a field of spontaneous creative potential.
What evidence did Peirce have for assuming that the universe at its core was undetermined and spontaneous?
Peirce’s area of expertise was in measurement. In his scientific work he was constantly striving to make measurements with increasingly accurate precision. He knew from experience that the assumption that our universe was fixed and unchanging was not born out in reality. In fact, the universe seemed to constantly be revealing itself to be indeterminate and unpredictable.
It seems impossible to measure anything with perfect exactness. And the more precise we want to measure, the more it seems that no two measurements are ever precisely the same. Most of us assume that this is due to errors in our measurements. We assume that reality itself is exact, but that we are not capable of measuring it exactly.
Peirce realized that this is an assumption, and the opposite assumption is just as valid. It is equally likely that we are actually encountering the inexactitude of reality. Maybe the universe is just not exact. Maybe the reason we can’t make exact measurements is because reality has a little bit of chance built into it. You measure something once and it is one size; you measure it again it is actually a slightly different size. The universe has changed, shifted, moved, since the first time we measured it.
What Peirce was imagining was an indeterminate universe. He was a century ahead of his time in anticipating the new physics of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and his ideas were an inspiration for Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle.
The universe is not exact. It is not fixed. It is not a solid stage upon which change takes place. The universe itself is changing all the time. Novelty, spontaneity and chance are built into its fabric.