Complexity

The Science Of Change

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 51
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Consider a world in which approximately five and a half billion people form a Gaian pattern of teeming, endless motion. Each of us is wonderfully autonomous one from the other. Yet strangely our collective pattern – our motion – is synchronized and thus survives this autonomy and difference. No one is in charge, and with all the billions of particular paths, no one is privileged.

Sciences of process and change are today known as sciences of complexity. What is complexity and what is in the making of these "postmodern" sciences? Can the mystery of process and change be held intact while the essence of these sciences is essentially demystified, and can this demystification assist our personal contribution to cultural transformation? Can the insights offered by postmodern science serve us as we look for ways to express our love of the Universe in meaningful ways?

A brief discussion of three syndromes of these sciences may help to clarify these questions. These include the Eighth Day Syndrome, the Green Dragon Syndrome, and the Hologram Syndrome. Taken together, they may provide an ontology within which our personal frameworks of change can emerge.

The Eighth Day Syndrome

The Eighth Day Syndrome reminds us that The Big Bang or The Creation (take your pick) never ceased as a process. Rather, wholes of the moment now descend unpredictably from prior wholes of previous moments. Taken loosely, the Monday morning after the Biblical first day of rest (comparable, shall we say, to time after the Big Bang’s first two seconds) and all days thereafter are considered to be much more special than previously thought. Post-modernists now see self-organized emergence as filling the Universe. This emergence is neither randomness nor survival of the fittest, but unfolding order built upon wholes of the moment through intrinsic error. Time/order is cumulative.

This postmodern sense of time and order frees us to create new value systems. We note, for example, that the disappearance of a species is quite different from its appearance, and that the process of learning is totally different from the non-process of forgetting. They are not simple inverses of each other; irreversibility and novelty are granted central roles.

We grant (perhaps encourage) others their mistakes and errors, for in place of a totally rational unfolding, the Eighth Day Syndrome insists it is impossible to gain adequate information about the future. Therefore, no longer anywhere in the Universe can we expect to "get there from here." That’s too predictable, too linear. From a postmodern scientific perspective on time and order, we can only "get there by going there." That’s complex.

The Green Dragon Syndrome

Following then from a first syndrome of unforgetting emergence, this second syndrome reminds us that living systems 1) exhibit the greatest complexity, and thus 2) hold the greatest potential for surprise and unpredictability. However, within a purview of both thermodynamic and dynamic systems, what is living and what is not living seems increasingly unclear. We all know that butterflies are alive, but consider our vernacular: today some of our leading sustainability thinkers speak and write of living machines, living soils, living water, living democracy, and of Gaia. More formally, living Nature, or the Living State, is being contemplated by scientists and philosophers of complexity alike.

Responsiveness to information in order to maintain existence is held as the central criterion for defining the Living State. Accordingly, a salamander and a waterfall are similarly alive and complex. These dynamic structures provide only a few more surprises than do three dots linked dynamically by an algorithm on a computer screen.

Thus, from salamanders to falling (even dripping) water, to dynamic coordinates, and on to landscapes and tectonic plates, and to Gaia and beyond, our entire Universe would now be born alive as a Dragon. All renders to us surprise as all moves in unexpected ways to breathe its fire. This conclusion holds for processes both big and small, long and short.

The modern scientific axiom that only very small particles observed over very short periods of time are beyond prediction is now fading. A postmodern scientific axiom states: Independent of scale, and with enough time, nothing is predictable. Earth mountains erode like flowing water, and silt-laden waters hold both shape and substance. This varies starkly with the belief held for so long that, given enough time and resources, we can know and thus predict everything.

The Hologram Syndrome

The "wholes of the moment," caught within the Eighth Day Syndrome, blend with the punctuation of surprise and unpredictability inherent within our Green Dragon Universe to become enfolded within each other, co-evolving. Holons (curiously, defined as "whole parts") embody this co-evolution to the postmodern scientist. Within holons, nothing is ever (historically) forgotten, as the blind goddess watchmaker goes ever about her (surprising) work.

As noted, scale matters less now, yet we note that self-organizing holons situate within other self-organizing holons, which situate in yet other self-organizing holons. Entire holonarchies arc across the Universe, enfolding one another, forming one colossal, unforgetting organism.

Our syndromes blur at the boundaries of these holons, at the edges of chaos, where for a mysterious moment consciousness of some ilk expresses itself much like the impact felt from the gentle wings of a butterfly. This consciousness is our empowerment. Counterintuitively, even gentleness may annihilate when all is enfolded.

When scientists study sub-atomic wave particles, their observations affect the outcome of the inquiry. Likewise none of us is outside the Green Dragon and its surprises. You might draw the conclusion that you could now think of yourself as a 15-billion-year-old Universe with a microscope in hand. We are the Universe. Each is the other, inside the other. The intrinsic error mentioned earlier is also on the inside, as is emergence. Paradoxically, the Dragon and we create ourselves, and all within self-create. We are all whole.

What is Complexity?

These paradoxes have been offered thus far: wholeness remains incomplete; the Universe creates itself and all within it, too, self-creates; and gentleness may at times annihilate.

Through these paradoxes we can perhaps better appreciate that where complexity momentarily resides we find a display of local behaviors that generate perpetual surprise and indeterminacy, if not unpredictability. These instances strike us as capricious, even as we are drawn to them. (That may be the lure of future science.)

Authority is diffuse at sites of complexity, for decision making is seen to move along decentralized routes. Nobody is in charge, yet the actors get by quite well, thank you.

What a paradox this is at this time in our millennium. Actions of a number of units, linked with but strangely autonomous one from another, combine to generate a holistic community behavior. Inside mistakes are quite easily forgiven as life goes on error prone. Unexpected fluctuations originating from within other units are, within limits, just as easily absorbed if not actually shrugged-off.

Processes found within a variety of complex homes and neighborhoods appear irreducible; neglecting any one unit at these sites or severing any linkage between units destroys essential aspects of the entire community’s behavior and structure.

Complexity and Transformation

Complex, self-organizing systems, as they evolve, explore only a minute portion of an enormous "phase space" of possibilities, and apparently this exploration takes time. Breakthroughs resulting from this exploration can occur after long periods of stagnation.

Today’s principal breakthrough in the sciences of complexity deals with our perception of change and its relationship to order. We all want order, and for a very long time we found order in stasis, or, at best, in dynamic equilibrium. When order was lost, some kind of change impacted us. What could be simpler?

Today, our sciences are becoming counterintuitive and so should our lives. No longer do we reflect upon change as a brute force that takes us when we are not looking.

Change is an unpredictable, residential process growing inside all things complex. Change links us positively to the Universe. Our world view, our very sense and definition of reality, now evolves rapidly. An entire Universe is being held differently in our arms and in our minds, a Universe where order unfolds unexpectantly from change. Scientifically, change is on our side.

Recommended Reading on Complexity:

Casti, J. L. (1994). Complexification: Explaining a Paradoxical World Through the Science of Surprise, NY: HarperCollins.

Hall, N. (1991). Exploring Chaos: A Guide to the New Science of Disorder, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mishra, D., et. al. (1994). On Self-Organization: An Interdisciplinary Search for a Unifying Principle, Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Swimme, B. (1985) The Universe is a Green Dragon, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company


Thoughts conveyed in this piece were born of ideas found particularly in the writings of David Bohm, John Casti, R.K. Mishra, V. Nalimov, Brian Swimme, and William Irwin Thompson.

Larry Patrick is associate professor in the Masters of Science in Sustainable Systems program at Slippery Rock University, where he teaches courses on bioregionalism, permaculture, and organic plant and animal care. Information on Slippery Rock’s "MS3" program can be obtained from the Environmental Education Department, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, PA l6057.


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