Complex Systems Theory

There is a little-known but new and ’emerging’ field of science called Complexity or complex systems theory. Complexity science 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. Some of the revelations of complexity science are awe inspiring, but there may be deeper implications for modern scientifically-compatible spirituality. Complexity may just change the way you look at the universe.

Furthermore, it seems the study of complex systems theory, mathematical and technical though it may be, is very similar to what Heraclitus was referring to in his descriptions of nature, and what the Taoists were referring to with their concept of organic pattern or “Li” – that which is not entirely orderly, but clearly not entirely chaotic or random. And, unlike retrofits where some religious folks sometimes take the latest scientific theories and say, “hey that’s what x is in my religion”, in this case the thing being discussed by the ancients and that which Complexity addresses are the same phenomena. So much so, that one might consider complex systems theory to be the modern continuation of the Stoic investigation into the nature of the Logos (the rational order underlying the universe), and similar lines of thought in some other traditions. There are also numerous components of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy which observe traits about the nature of the world which are described by complexity science.

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. The actual science behind this is more mathematically deep than most non-scientists may need to understand, but these various equations 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 adaptive 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 best 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 much of this article paraphrases or quotes)…

“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, 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).

Heraclitus seems, in his own way, to address many features of complex systems theory. He was observing the very same sort of activity in Nature that Complexity scientists study today, although not nearly as 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). These observations had a large impact on philosophies that built upon them. Similar observations in other cultures also held a connection to the remainder of their philosophies; leading up to meaning, ethics, perspectives on life, and values. Chuang-Tzu’s attention to the ‘way’ of nature in his ethical and lifestyle prescriptions is a good example (see The Nature of the “Force” for comparative examples).