Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

From above

I haven’t been on a plane for a long time. However, here’s a photo I took a few years back. I looked out of the window just before dawn and what struck me was how solid the clouds looked. They look like a landscape on the surface of the The Earth. There even seems to be a deep ravine as if there is a river flowing far below, down in the dark depths of that gap.

Of course, I know that these clouds are simply water and that if I were to try to step on them I’d fall straight through. And I know that the surface of the Earth is not like that. I know that when I stand in my garden, for instance, I am standing on solid ground.

But this last year of extreme weather events in a wide variety of places in the world has shown us that this sense of solidity is based on somewhat shaky foundations. We are witnessing the Earth reshaping itself….glaciers shrinking, ice mountains falling into the ocean, volcanoes covering the land with lava, overflowing rivers sweeping away hillsides, roads and houses in a few minutes, fires razing forests and whole townships to the ground.

Then along comes a pandemic and the entire world is faced with the certainty that nothing is certain. Day after day “experts” make predictions about what’s going to happen next, then something else transpires instead. We’ve even become a bit obsessed with the future….juggling fears, anxieties, plans and “what ifs”.

Maybe we are being forced to learn to live outside of our shared delusions – the delusion that human beings can control Nature, the delusion that Nature is something outside of us, something apart from us, the delusion that we exploit and consume without limits, (add your own favourite delusions here).

Maybe we are going to have to learn new skills, learn that we live in a complex inter-connected world, learn to emphasise adaptation over control, learn to rate relationships more highly than consumable goods, learn to co-operate and collaborate more than we compete.

Maybe if we do respond to these challenges by seeing the world anew, by taking the view “from above” as the old philosophers taught, then a new, bright, dawn lies just over the horizon.

I hope so.

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One of the greatest skills we have as human beings is the ability to spot patterns. My eye was drawn to this fungus growing on a tree stump, but later, once I’d uploaded the photo onto my mac, I was amazed to see the echoes, similarities, even symmetries between the patterns in the fungus, the cut slice of the tree, the bark around the tree, and even the shell lying on the ground.

Beautiful. Amazing.


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That reductionism is limited, however, does not mean it is not powerful, amazingly productive, and tremendously useful scientifically. We simply need to understand its place, and recognise that we live in a very different universe from that painted by reductionism alone.

So writes Stuart Kauffman in “Reinventing the Sacred” (ISBN 978-0-465-00300-6). I agree with that. As a medical doctor who practices in a field of medicine which values an understanding of patients from a holistic perspective, seeking to know, not just the diseases they might have, but to know the individuals who have those diseases, I find reductionist approaches both useful and insufficient. As Mary Midgley says in “Wisdom, Information and Wonder”,

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

The key point Kauffman seeks to make in his book (he is a complexity scientist) is how our relatively new exploration of complex systems in non-reductionist ways has revealed characteristics which fundamentally change the way we understand reality. The central characteristic is, he feels, “emergence”.

…while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value and doing are real in the universe. This stance is called emergence……….Emergence is therefore a major part of the new scientific worldview. Emergence says that, while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, not reducible to physics nor explicable from it, and are central to our lives. Emergence, already both contentious and transformative, is but one part of the new scientific worldview I shall discuss.

The other major characteristic he describes is how Nature does not conform to “natural laws”, and so the world is not nearly as predictable nor controllable as we have believed (well you only need to read about this year’s economic crises to see that’s true, don’t you!)

Kauffman explains how emergence is a quality of unceasing creativity, and he explains how unpredictability challenges the supremacy of reason as a guide to life. When you first encounter them, these are radical ideas for a scientist, but the more you learn about complexity as a way of understanding reality, the more you realise how reductionism does not equal science. Science is a greater way of thinking than that, and its the modern concepts and methodologies which are expanding science beyond its limited and reductionist constraints. He shows how “ceaseless creativity in the evolution of the biosphere” undermines the Newtonian concept of “natural laws”.

We will soon find its analogues in economic and cultural evolution, which, like the biosphere, are self-consistently self-constructing but evolving wholes whose constituents are partially lawless.

(This book was published in January 2008, and therefore written well before the economic crises of the last year)

This is a radically different scientific worldview than we have known. I believe this new scientific worldview breaks the Galilean spell of the sufficiency of natural law. In its place is a freedom we do not yet understand, but ceaseless creativity in the universe, biosphere, and human life are its talismans. I believe this creativity suffices to allow us to reinvent the sacred as the stunning reality we live in. But even more is at stake……We must come to see reason as part of a still mysterious entirety of our lives, when we often radically cannot know what will occur but must act anyway. We do, in fact, live forward into mystery.

I do resonate with these ideas. Emergence is a fascinating concept. To connect it to the concept of ceaseless creativity and beyond that to the notion of God as Creator is an interesting step. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite work. I am with him in the awe-inspiring inspiration of ceaseless creativity. I think human beings, other creatures, Nature itself are endlessly fascinating and can, in fact, never be wholly known. But to use “God” symbolically to represent this phenomenon doesn’t work for me. I do like how contemplation of emergence, however, can help us to put reductionism in its place. In fact, reductionism can be more, not less, useful, if instead of trying to understand absolutely everything from that single standpoint, we use it in appropriate contexts and never consider that it gives us the whole “Truth”.

I also resonate with the idea that the acceptance of the inevitabilty of uncertainty makes us aware of the ineffable. In so doing, it makes both the mysterious more real, and reality more mysterious.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be a great book. But that’s not where I’ve ended up. I’m grateful to Stuart Kauffman for this work though, and coming from the perspective of a scientist gives his ideas a particular and a unique value. But in terms of “reinventing the sacred”, I think poetry, art, photography, music, and stories do all that so much better. Take a look at the photos of the frozen Scottish countryside I posted earlier, read “Anam Cara” by John O’Donohue, or “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery, get in touch with what the French call “emerviellement” in your daily life (in the “quotidien“) and tell me if you agree. Yes, the new science of complexity can make us a bit more humble again, has a good chance of firing up our sense of awe, but I think it takes both Art and Philosophy to really put us in touch with the sacred again.

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