Musings on Complexity: Interconnections Abound

Albert Einstein, in his theories of special relativity and general relativity, speculated that space, time, energy, matter and forces were not in fact “separate” entities in the “Newtonian” universe, as was commonly believed at the time.  He theorized that space and time were inseparable (spacetime) and energy and matter (E=mc²) were equivalent and that these “things” were all tightly coupled together with gravity. The theory was proven correct by subsequent experiments. Everything is interconnected! Truly one of the greatest discoveries of all time (uhhh… spacetime?) However, what is even more interesting to me is that these discoveries at the time and even today were and are described as COUNTER-INTUITIVE in most physics books.

Aaarrggh!!! What arrogance! If you read about tribes of hunters and gatherers, you’ll find that many of them believed that everything: humans, animals, plants, wind, water, Earth, the stars, and even time were all interconnected in a vast cosmic web:  oneness.  Ohhhh, how BARBARIC! What a PRIMITIVE idea! Hmmm, is relativity really counter-intuitive, or does it just seem that way because of the cultural baggage that gets packed into our brains by mass society?

Here we are in 2015 with many global problems, and what is our technocratic and “advanced” society trying to do to solve them? Do we really want to fully control our planet, and solve all social, ecological and environmental problems with measurement and technology? How could that not end up as totalitarianism? Even if we could theoretically have total control; practically speaking, how many problems today were caused by previous so-called “solutions”?  There’s been a lot of unintended consequences stemming from “solutions”.  How do we solve that problem? Our society is trying to quantify and control the infinite complexity of the universe! How could this possibly end well!? Do many scientists, engineers, economists, and other social scientists truly understand the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics? He proved that mathematics can never be both complete (every statement can be proved true or false) and consistent (can only the true statements be proved?)! This theorem has huge implications for quantitative science and for a society trying to quantify everything! If you think all of this is over your head, IT IS NOT! Here, if I have one grain of sand and another grain of sand, that makes two grains of sand, right? 1+1 = 2.  That’s true. Well, in reality, aren’t grains of sand composed of silicon and oxygen atoms, which are each composed of other particles down to the quantum level? 1+1 = 2 is quite a simplification!  How do you “objectively” apply that simple mathematical statement to extremely complicated reality?  I can’t believe our “advanced” culture does this with humans and social systems! 1 human + 1 human = 2 humans, right? WHAT!? We just reduced the infinite complexity of a human being to a SINGLE DIGIT!  Not to mention reducing the infinite complexity of a human relationship to the number 2.  Ohhh, I guess a human being is just another bit to be input into the computer to solve a problem, right!? Just another statistic!? That reminds me of that “Feel Like a Number” song by Bob Seger…

But C-Rock!!!! What you write here is heresy! How are we supposed to solve all of the world’s problems if what you say is true!? Aren’t computers and genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence going to save the world!? Oh my…. well, I personally believe each of us knows very deep down the difference between right and wrong, and how to live a good life. I mean, really, are another 100 exabytes of external data really going to make a difference for you in order to make the “right” decision?

I’m sick of all these damn measurements we make on everything. No wonder so many people, even in wealthy countries, are anxious, depressed, and confused, including myself at one point, before I realized it was all bullshit. Grade point averages, wages, net worth, age, prices, hours, minutes… good grief!  Well, these things do have their uses but to obsess over them as our society does is pathetic. The infinite beauty of life, of the universe, reduced to mere numbers. Yikes!  Putting a price on an ecosystem; on a human life? That’s progress? The benefits of our scientific and other kinds of progress are impossible to deny but the costs of progress are truly astronomical, and Earth has already begun instituting bankruptcy proceedings against our society in the form of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the depletion of high-grade mineral ores.  The growing Permaculture movement gives me hope that many people are finally starting to sense and do something about all of this on an individual level.

I don’t buy the whole measurement and price scheme thing (total technological and economic control) as a solution to everything and I’m someone who reads the World Almanac, chock full of data and numbers, for fun almost every day! I’m obsessed with data and numbers! Oh yeah, and I’m a scientist (geologist) as well! HAHA! I guess the econ-techno-totalitarian control freaks will have to send me away if I keep writing about this stuff! Ahh! One of our own is turning against the Machine, gotta keep him quiet! Thankfully, though, many of us live in democracies (imperfect ones) and I am far from the only scientist or engineer raising these questions.  Philosophers and other social scientists have always brought up these questions but they get drowned out by our society’s tendency to focus mostly on the progression of economics, science, and technology, which is unfortunate.

Alright, you can probably get a lot of people with a PhD in either physics, economics, philosophy, computer science, or psychology etc., to tell me that I’m being naïve, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I don’t know “how the world really works.” Yeah, but do they know everything? Type the word “complexity” into Google Scholar and you’ll get 4,120,000 results.  Wow, the study of complexity is complex!  Do they really know everything about complexity and how it affects their disciplines?  I sure don’t with geology.  Unintended consequences abound. Oh, and just a head’s up, never tell an Earth scientist that they “don’t know how the world really works.”

So what does all this mean for us? It means freedom! Think for yourself!  Be your own philosopher. You intuitively know the Golden Rule(s), you intuitively know what you want out of life, you intuitively know which technologies seem “right” or “OK” and the ones that are disturbing, and you intuitively know the things required to build a trustful, local community.  All of those timeless proverbs can’t all be wrong, can they?  I may not know everything or if the things I do know are truly right, but the one thing I do know for sure is that everything is interconnected in an infinitely beautiful cosmic web, and you know what?  That’s good enough for me.

Suggested Readings:

1984 George Orwell
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
Peeking at Peak Oil Kjell Aleklett
Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering The Planet Ugo Bardi
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis For Revolutionary Change William Catton, Jr.
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
Energy and the Wealth of Nations Charles A.S. Hall and Kent Klitgaard
Ascent of Humanity Charles Eisenstein
Complexity: A Guided Tour Melanie Mitchell or any other “systems thinking” book

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