The Deep Secret of Emergent Complexity

WARNING: This is somewhat heavy lifting, but when you get it, it will blow your mind. In a really good way.

If you want to immerse yourself in a miraculous and fundamental characteristic of our Universe, read Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop and Chaos by James Gleick. Or, if you’re in a hurry, watch these two Stanford lectures by the celebrated neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, but be warned: in spite of Sapolsky’s sense of humor, it is dense–although fascinating–going. These works answer a profoundly basic question about our Universe: why are things as they are? Why do simple things combine to make completely different things?

Our Universe is not decreed top-down by an almighty god or gods. No: in reality, it accretes from simple forms to more complex ones, according to simple rules repeated many times over. It does this simply at first, but after awhile these systems become unpredictable: you can’t tell what the outcomes of even systems running very simple rules will be. They become chaotic.

Think about it: there are a bunch of hydrogen atoms (and some others, but not many) whirling in a disk and being pulled together by their mutual gravity. They’re just doing what atoms do, without any kind of external organizing force or principle. Suddenly, without warning, wham! A nuclear furnace kindles and a boiling, chaotic star is born: a star that bears no resemblance to the cloud that preceded it.

This is emergent complexity. It’s how you get complex multicellular organisms from single-celled simple ones; how you get recognizable patterns–fractals–in ferns and trees and mountain ranges and galaxies: each pattern is unique, and yet as a group they are completely recognizable. It’s how incredibly complex structures like our nervous systems can be created from a very simple set of genetic rules.

And you can’t tell what the later version of the system will look like simply by looking, in a reductionist sense, at its component parts. This is why weather will never be predicted with absolute accuracy: because it is a chaotic system.

Now, I can’t explain complexity and emergence as well as Robert Sapolsky or James Gleick or Mitchell Waldrop. If you really want to understand these mind-bending concepts, avail yourself of the resources I have linked above.

Really. Because this is a ride you want to take if you want to appreciate the sheer wonderfulness of this Universe.

I bring all this up because it’s been awhile since I wrote about wonder.

This Universe is an amazing place. It is filled with beautiful treasures and amazingly improbable phenomena, especially in the realm of Life, the biological.

We live here, and it’s easy to become inured to the good stuff. Trees, right? Yawn, there’s another tree, leaves blowing in the wind.

Consider: that’s a mathematical dance those branches are doing. That turbulence–another chaotic system–behaves according to mathematical laws where coefficiencies are things like the springiness of branches and the surface friction of leaves, the temperature and speed of air, etc. And while it is impossible to predict the exact location any given leaf will move to in any given moment, we can graph the fractal turbulence in such a way that we can do a CGI rendition of a “tree” and have it be recognizable by anyone as the movements of a tree.

And that’s not even to start examining the miracle that is a tree. Consider photosynthesis for a second: leaves turning sunlight to food! Because ‘way back in evolutionary time, phytoplankton worked out how to incorporate little organisms that could do that into themselves: they absorbed these and they became chloroplasts functioning within the plant’s cells. And there you have it: the energy source for pretty much all the life on Earth.

That’s how you start with a monkey (or a tetrapod, or a cartilaginous fish, or any of our evolutionary ancestors), and end up with symphonies and novels and Gothic cathedrals and the Cassini mission. Emergent complexity.

In chaotic systems, you cannot predict the outcome state from the starting state.

And–here’s the punchline, the secret–this is why I do not subscribe to doom-laden theories about the future of the biosphere, nor of humanity: because both are chaotic systems, and you can’t predict what will happen in the future from what is happening now.

Now, we know the Earth is heating. Heat entrapment through addition of carbon compounds to the atmosphere is a linear, rather than a chaotic system, and predictable (although the results in the atmosphere and biosphere are chaotic). Heating is happening. And many forms of life are being squeezed by changes in their conditions to which they are not adapted. All of that is true.

But…human behavior (individual behavior, much less societal behavior) is not a linear system. Technological advances likewise. Cultural shifts as well.

We won’t know what the future looks like until we get there.

So I choose to curate my inputs to the system: to limit my carbon output, and maximize my cultural output of values and practices that I think will skew the system in a healthier, kinder, more egalitarian direction. That is what Atheopaganism is at a systems level.

So hold onto hope, folks. Things change, and we don’t know how they will change.

And in the meantime, it is an amazing, beautiful Universe we get to live in.

Take heart.

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