In the realm of everyday life as well as in the realm of philosophical reflection, science and culture, deterministic and libertarian thinking have the opportunity to be taken into account. If, for a moment, we interpret cognitive activity as a process through which we construct worlds to which we migrate as they become more habitable, we would say that the degree of “habitability” of the new worlds that we can construct, for example, with knowledge such as that which comes from science, lies not only in the possibilities of offering better conditions for satisfying the fundamental needs of all living beings, but also in the way in which the tension between determinism and freedom is resolved. In order to adapt to our environment, we require both a deterministic horizon and a horizon of freedom.

By David Sámano.

A world without regularities, or without any possibility of prediction, would be as difficult to live in as one that is totally predictable and determined.

It is impossible to adapt to an environment that we can never foresee, but at the same time, for human psychology, it is impossible to resign ourselves to the dictates of determinism, to abandon ideals simply because they do not coincide with the facts, or to keep our sanity in the face of a future scenario where everything is already calculated and without mystery.[1]

It has been said that determinism is the thesis of universal causality, expressed in the phrase: “everything has a cause”. This thesis has been opposed by the thesis of freedom: “some of our acts are free”, i.e., they do not respond to any cause. Both determinism and the doctrine of freedom are acceptable to the understanding, and operate at the level of belief, but lead to apparently incompatible results: if the thesis of determinism is true, then there are no free acts. The paradox is resolved by postulating a third thesis, the compatibilist thesis, which affirms that there are free acts without thereby denying determinism.[2] Until very recently, the compatibilist thesis has been held to be true.

Until very recently, the compatibilist thesis had very little to sustain it. Deterministic rationality seemed to make it increasingly clear that freedom, both in nature and in culture, was only an “anthropocentric illusion” – so claimed the American anthropologist Leslie White. To recognise the creative and free aspect of any process occurring in the universe, be it physical, biological or human, was “just an illusion”, as Prigogine would say, paraphrasing Einstein (Prigogine, 1997), with whom he differed profoundly in his conception of time and nature.

This also had consequences for the grounding of ethical acts. If everything is determined, there is no way to differentiate an ethical act, or a moral system, from the mechanical workings of nature.

With the development of thermodynamics away from equilibrium, things changed. It spilled out that the fundamental assumption of determinism, that nature behaves like a reversible automaton, took on the character of a mere idealisation that failed to show a fundamental aspect of reality, the irreversible progress of everything that happens, including the passing of time.

But, this new “non-reversible” rationality, besides being supported by facts [3], without denying determinism, can ground the field of freedom in nature. The essence of this foundation lies in the idea that as phenomena move away from thermodynamic equilibrium, they forget the initial conditions from which they started, they forget their past, or rather they free themselves from it. Close to equilibrium, we are in the realm of determinism, far from equilibrium nature becomes creative, free or intelligent, as Prigogine also said. It seems to me that this conception finds its parallel in the temporal structure of human consciousness that the thought of the new humanism will be proposing. For example, to express the reversibility of the arrow of time, implicit in the deterministic conception of nature, Prigogine resorts to the case of the pendulum:

“…in the motion of the ideal pendulum we cannot distinguish future and past. If we permute the future, i.e. (+t), with the past, i.e. (-t), we obtain a pendulum motion as plausible as the first”. (Prigogine, 1996:25)

Silo, for his part, to express the “mechanicity” of consciousness, being trapped in the compensation of the past, resorts to the following metaphor:

“Between the cold mechanics of pendulums or the ghostly optics of only mirrors, What do you affirm that you affirm without denying? What do you affirm without regression or without arithmetical repetition?

“Surrounded by a triangular wall of mirrors, your landscape is infinitely reflected in infinite shades. And there, every movement is converted and recomposed again and again, as you orient your vision along the path of images you have chosen. You can see your own back in front of you, and as you move one hand to the right, it will respond to the left. If you aim at something in the mirror of the future, you will see that it runs in the opposite direction in the mirror of today, or of the past” (Silo, 1989:92).

Both thinkers, rebel against this symmetrical view of time, one in nature and the other in the human condition. Prigogine stresses that not everything is symmetrical in nature:

“While reversible processes are described by invariant evolution equations in relation to the inversion of time – such as Newton’s equation in classical dynamics and Schrodinger’s equation in quantum mechanics – irreversible processes imply a break in temporal symmetry” (Prigogine, 1996).

Silo, for his part, highlights the absurdity of the reversibility of compensatory life, through which human life so often passes:

“Is life only action and reaction? Hunger dreams of satiety, the imprisoned of the release, pain seeks pleasure, and pleasure becomes jaded with itself”.

And like Prigogine, he breaks with it:

“If you affirm that which seeks itself, that whose nature is to transform itself, which has no satiety and which by essence is open to the future, then you love the reality you build. That then is your life: the reality you build! (Silo, 989, 92).

Thus, in the conceptions of both authors, we find this compatibility between determinism and freedom. Prigogine speaks of a “narrow way”, a place in scientific explanations where it is possible to insert the field of creative freedom in nature:

“We have tried to construct a narrow way (between chance and determinism) between these two conceptions that lead to alienation, those of a world governed by laws that give no place at all to novelty and that of an absurd, a-causal world, where nothing can be foreseen or described in general terms” (Prigogine,1996: 209).

Silo, too, recognises this third possibility in human action, in the internal landscape we read:

“And there will be action and reaction and also reflection and accident but if you have opened the future, there will be nothing that can detain you”.

In another work by Silo, we find an allegory to express the meaning of the narrow way. In his book Games of Images, he proposes a series of short stories, with a sparsely sketched scenography and plot, in the hope of inducing the reader to complete them with his own images and plots.

These “stories”, besides being an unusual literary work, written mostly in the first person, are designed so that the “practitioner”, i.e., the “reader – protagonist”, has the opportunity to “personalise” the story, encouraging some useful reflection on his or her own life. The “guided experience” – the name Rodriguez used to refer to these literary exercises – which we chose as a metaphor, is entitled: Repetition. The setting is a narrow alley, dimly lit by dim lights. Someone walks through it, encountering every now and then an old woman who obsessively appears to be asking for the time. Each time the subject consults his watch to answer, he notices that instead of moving forward, time moves backwards, until finally, on the watch face, he sees the old woman’s face. Then – the subject says to himself – “I realise that the end has come”. Despite the imminent fatal outcome, he also experiences this moment as an opportunity to analyse the general course of his life. After a recapitulation of what he has lived through, the character comes to the conclusion that his passage through this world is nothing more than a long chain of failures, from childhood, youth and current times, which will be continued in the future. In his future, he sees only the repetition of his past, until finally, all his forces are extinguished. However, he discovers that the alley divides into three paths, each marked by a sign. On one of them he can read: “annulment of life”, on another: “repetition of life” and on the third: “construction of life”. The story ends when the subject decides to venture into the latter.

In this short story, we observe that the protagonist experiences his life simultaneously in three ways. First, as something fragile, exposed to an accident of nihilistic outburst that can be “resolved” in suicide or in nothingness. The second assumes the total fact of our future actions as a result of the chaining to the past. The third, on the other hand, means the possibility of action, not compensatory, but creative, the “construction of life”.

The contingency of staying alive, or dying, in that instant; compensatory determinism and creative possibility, accompany us, in greater or lesser proportions, when we have the opportunity to take a break in our lives to reflect and give meaning to what has been, is, and may be our passage through the world. According to the metaphor, our life has generally been unfolding according to the second option, the repetition of life. We simply walk down the alleyway, pursuing objectives that compensate for our unfulfilled desires, until our forces are exhausted.

If we suffered poverty in the past, we will aspire to wealth, if we were not recognised, we will seek recognition, if we feel that nobody loved us, we will seek to be loved. Sometimes we succeed in compensating, sometimes we fail in the attempt, but regardless of this, we experience living as the inertia of a game of action and reaction in which wear and tear – like the friction of a machine or any mechanical system – sooner or later brings us to a halt. Thus, wear and tear is the most predictable future scenario, and our life can be explained by a formula of action and reaction, whatever point of trajectory we are on. However, the story invites us to intuit another possibility that suggests an ingredient of freedom, translated into constructive possibility.

Our subject, in the story of Repetition, could well be a scientist or a philosopher, standing before the crisis of knowledge and the foundation of ethical values. On the one hand, his look may be tinged by the most radical conclusions of extreme relativism and postmodernism, thereby weakening confidence in the relevance of the search for laws to build a science. This could finally lead to the closure of the authentically human and humanist project of knowledge development. But it may also happen that our thinker decides to continue with conservative deterministic positions. This would lead us to problems such as the following, posed by Prigogine:

“How to conceive human creativity or how to think about ethics in a deterministic world? The question reflects a profound tension at the heart of our tradition, which at the same time claims to promote objective knowledge and to affirm the humanist ideal of responsibility and freedom. Democracy and modern science are both heirs to the same history, but that history would lead to a contradiction if science were to triumph over a deterministic conception of nature when democracy embodies free society” (Prigogine, 1996: 24).

Finally, there is the one who would risk seeking a renewal of our way of conceiving knowledge. A path that grants a space for freedom and creativity, without denying the nomological possibility. In this sense, it would be a matter of going “beyond” the idea of “knowledge” that we have conceived under the classical approaches. I am talking about a knowledge, accompanied by a conception of the human being, not contradictory to the possibility of free acts, since the same cultural and natural objects, from the approaches of the distancing from equilibrium, have a margin for such a possibility.

And here, to conclude, I return to the subject of ethical values. We know that these have an antinomic aspect. They are based on freedom, and on the other hand, they establish a certain order, we create them, and at the same time we discover them, without being things, they have essence [4]. They require, in order to be thought and founded, the compatibilist thesis which, as I have tried to show, finds, both in the conception of nature of the new rationality, far from equilibrium, and in the conception of the human being of the new humanism, solid supports that epistemology, radically determinist, prevented us from conceiving.

Prigogine and Rodríguez, from fields as different as physics and existential reflection, glimpsed “the narrow way” (Prigogine, 1996:205), a space where, without renouncing determinism and chance, freedom and rationality are possible.


Prigogine, Ilya Just an Illusion? An exploration from chaos to order. Tusquets Editores. 1983 (1997).

Prigogine, Ilya. The End of Certainties. Editorial Andrés Bello. 1996.

Rodríguez, Mario. Humanizar la tierra. Plaza y Janes. 1989.

[1] Let us remember Facundo Cabral’s phrase: “what is certain no longer has any mystery”.

[2] See the book: Introducción a los problemas y argumentos filosóficos. 1990 (2002). UNAM. Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas. Cormman J.W., Pappas G.S., Lehrer K.

[3] Prigogine throughout his works highlights several experiments and phenomena where the irreversibility of the processes and of the arrow of time implicit in them becomes evident.

[4] See the text Gadamer and Habermas in dialogue.

The original article can be found here