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The Big Deal About Complexity

A good fellow named Gich on the International Stoic Forum asked me,

You've mentioned [Complex-Systems Theory] in the past and obviously consider it useful. It's new to me. Could you give a brief outline of the Theory so that others can possibly see its use or potential, in the same way you clearly do. :-)
This was my response (more or less)...

Complexity is a fairly new field that has brought together professionals from a multitude of vastly different disciplines.

It seeks to study what are called "complex adaptive systems", which as it turns out, tends to be just about everything that is interesting about the universe. Furthermore, I believe the study of complex systems theory, mathematical and scientific though it may be, is exactly what Heraclitus was referring to in his descriptions of the Divine Fire, and exactly what the Taoists were referring to with their concept of organic pattern or “Li”. And, unlike retrofits where some religious folks sometimes take the latest scientific theories and say, “hey that’s what x is in my religion”, I think that in this case, the thing being discussed by the ancients and that which Complexity addresses really are the same phenomena. So much so, that I consider Complex Systems Theory to be the modern continuation of the Stoic investigation into the Nature of the Logos.

A complex system is one where you have multiple agents interacting according to their own individual rules and, as a result, this large system operates in a very ornate and even “intelligent” way without orchestration from a top-down hierarchy. Complex systems include things like: the economy, the ecology, individual biological organisms, the weather, some computer networks, flocks of birds, and our brains. Complex systems even include the ebb and flow of cultural traits and other meme-based intellectual concepts which interact with one another over time.

Something that is completely orderly is inert and static, and something that is completely chaotic is random and haphazard. But complex systems lie in balance between these two extremes, maintaining an order that is dynamic.

The fascinating thing about Complexity, and why there can be a single field at all, is that all of these systems operate by the same fundamental principles. It’s all much more mathematical than I as a layman can really appreciate fully, but as these various equations and laws are discovered, we find that they can be applied to both neurons in the brain, as well as organisms in an ecology or corporations in an economy. What this suggests is that Complexity is not merely pointing out analogies, but that all of these manifestations portray an underlying order that governs how matter in our universe organizes itself. Traits of complex systems include:

• They undergo spontaneous self organization.
• They are adaptive to the environment around them.
• They are dynamic, unlike snowflakes and computer chips, which are merely complicated but static.
• They result in emergent properties.
• Once they reach sufficient complexity, there is no way to mathematically deduce their behavior from the base rules by which the individual agents operate, even using every particle of the universe as a bit in a computer that runs for the lifetime of the universe. The quickest and only way to see how they will perform is to simply run and observe the system. They are effectively "indeterminate".
• The smallest of changes in initial starting conditions can lead to enormous differences in behavior of the system.
• They tend to bifurcate into layers of organization, where module-like systems work as single agents in larger, more complex structures.

What Complexity teaches us is how simple components acting on just a few basic rules of interaction, can lead upwards to greater levels of complexity. This addresses divergent questions such as:

• Why and how did the Soviet Union collapse overnight?
• Why did the stock market crash more than 500 points on a single Monday in 1987?
• Why do ancient species and ecosystems remain stable for millions of years and then transform or die out in a geologic instant?
• Why do rural families in a nation such as Bangladesh still produce an average of 7 children, even when the villagers are aware of the ill to society and birth control is freely available?
• How did the primordial soup of amino acids emerge into the first cells?
• Why did individual cells form an alliance into the first multi-cellular organisms?
• How can Darwinian natural selection lead to intricate structures such as an eye, whose components require simultaneous development?
• What is “life” exactly?
• What is a “mind” exactly, and how does a 3 pound lump of matter give rise to one?
• Why is there something rather than nothing?
• How is the cosmic compulsion for disorder matched by an equal compulsion for order?

In fact, Complexity science is now having an impact not only in multiple previously unrelated scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, and economics, but also in several new business and corporate concepts. Some people think this is all about math and science, and don’t see the enormous philosophic implications of what’s actually being addressed here. Consider the following, from “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos” by Mitchell M. Waldrop (from which I have been paraphrasing, and by the way, will change the way you look at the universe)...

“I’m of the school of thought that life and organization are inexorable,” he says, “just as inexorable as the increase in entropy. They just seem more fluky because they proceed in fits and starts, and they build on themselves. Life is a reflection of a more general phenomenon that I’d like to believe is described by some counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics – some law that would describe the tendency of matter to organize itself, and that would predict the general properties of organization we’d expect to see in the universe.”
(bold mine)

Now, when we consider the words of Heraclitus, who originated the concept of the Divine Fire, he tells us of a process that never rests; an everliving fire in an unceasing process of eternal flux. He speaks of the way upwards (order/peace/harmony) and the way downwards (entropy/chaos/disorder). Paradoxically, the everliving fire which creates this flux also secures its stability. This eternal exchange is the same for both microcosm and macrocosm alike (layers of organization).

Nearly every feature of complex systems is spoken of by Heraclitus and I find it impossible not to think that Heraclitus was observing the very same sort of activity in Nature that Complexity scientists study today, although not as nearly refined or informed. Even his famous statement that one cannot step twice into the same river, is essentially a description of Autopoiesis (a process where some complex systems are constantly remaking themselves with new material, while keeping the same form).

This everliving fire, the creative force in the universe, seems to me to a description of what Complexity scientists call the counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics. The Taoist Li, or organic form, are those structures in nature which the artist thinks about in his compositions, and which we all appreciate the beauty of. These are forms that are not completely orderly but you know them when you see them. They have an order to them and include cloud formations, and the structures and tissues of living creatures. This is how the Taoists described Li.

My recent investigation into the Taoist Chuang-Tzu was for a very specific reason. I was trying to think of just how these incredibly interesting notions of Complexity can or should play a role in our approach to life. So, since Complexity seems to be the modern incarnation of the Logos and Li (and in some ways the Tao itself), then I wondered how knowledge of the Li and/or Tao in Taoism lead to conclusions of how we live our daily lives. I was informed that Chuang-Tzu addressed this very issue.

After making some notes on it, I came to see that the arguments he makes for how we approach life, based on the Nature of the Li and the Tao, hold up quite well and, incidentally, are incredibly Stoic in nature. Most fascinating though, I found that they DO indeed apply in connecting Complexity-based perspectives to our approach to life, just as I had suspected.

I have not yet formulated the Chuang-Tzu arguments into a presentable Complexity-based form yet (working on it). However, it is my belief that, if we are to look at Stoicism as segmented into Physics, Logic, and Ethics, that for modern Stoics, Complexity Theory IS the Physics branch of Stoicism.

Here are some good links for learning more about complex systems:

Note to all on a similar topic:
Especially look at the section on Autopoiesis on the prototista site below, as it relates to the definition of life, and references to the nature of consciousness: