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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine flu, recession, terrorism, & Houston traffic: Connection?,; AP
What do these things have in common: swine flu, the recession, terrorism, the ecology, the red spot on Jupiter, your brain, and yes - Houston traffic? Believe it or not, there is one field that studies them all because they are all basically the same thing: a 'complex system'.

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 (the animating rational order of the universe - or the unfolding of the 'laws of physics' to put it in more modern terms).

Ok, that paragraph was an eye-full so let's slow down and back up a little.

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. 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. Complex systems can even include the ebb and flow of cultural traits and other meme-based intellectual concepts which interact with one another over time.

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.

So, now we have this swine flu breaking out all over the place, and you can bet that complexity scientists are taking notes. Here's an example of a paper studying epidemics in terms of complex systems: link. The goal would be that eventually we can use these models to actually help us do things, like hindering the spread of diseases.

And then we have the threat of terrorism. Terrorist cells are decentralized, independent, and often operate without a top-down hierarchy - yet, networks of information, supplies, and funds move throughout them. Sound familiar? Understanding complex systems can help us understand the behavior of Terrorist movements and hopefully disrupt them in clever ways.

What about the stock market? Again, that environment is a complex system, as is all of the economy. Here is a paper that came out in 2008 looking at patterns that emerge preceding recessions: link.

We Houstonians are well aware of the traffic issue, as I'm sure a lot of folks are around the country. Well, it seems there are complexity studies looking into the possibility of self setting traffic lights to optimize traffic flow, the best ways to handle mass numbers of cars in an open area [link] (like getting out of the parking lot of Reliant Stadium), and of course, dealing with highway congestion such as around 610 and 290. Here's a book on the Physics of Traffic: link.

There are even religious implications for our literal Creationist friends out there. I can't tell you how many times I've heard it exclaimed that evolution of various organisms and tissues is impossible due to their complexity. However, learning about complex systems theory has really helped to understand how these sorts of things can happen - and fairly easily. A good way to get a conceptual handle on how complex systems can spontaneously arise from a few very simple components, is by playing around with Conway's game of life.

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 the ancient Greek philosopher 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. In his observations of nature, 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 is what the red spot on Jupiter does, by the way).

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 of which we all appreciate the beauty. 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'.

A couple of years ago, I got to looking into the Taoist Chuang-Tzu 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 in some ways the Tao), then I wondered how knowledge of the Tao in Taoism lead to conclusions of how we live our daily lives. 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 some aspects of Taoism, 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 need to explore this further, and it's too intricate to go into here, but it has to do with perspectives on things, and where we place value and focus.

The ancient Stoics segmented the philosophy into 'Physics' (how nature works), 'Logic' (how to handle ideas and reason out conclusions), and 'Ethics' (how we are to live, based on those things). For modern Stoics, it is my belief that Complexity Theory is the Physics branch of Stoicism.

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