Chaos and Complexity

20120428-170548.jpgI typed ‘Where does complexity come from given entropy?’ into Google this morning. Why? Because my life and work are in pretty good order, so a law of physics which threatens to mess them up is most inconvenient.

Given how hard it is to get anything done at work, given how fragile our lives and life’s works are and given the formidable obstacles to multicellular life a – how on earth do we get from chaos to complexity.

Before Googling, I’d read in the New Scientist that Precambrian alkaline oceans may have forced floppy-walled cells to get a shell – to keep the toxic alkalinity out. Alkaline oceans would also have promoted calcification. A problem and a solution jostling together.

I also read E.O. Wilson, the Harvard sociobiologist, explaining that the simplest way to understand complex human motivations, is the constant competitive/cooperative interplay between our loyalty to ourselves and that we pay to tribes and collectives -which give us faith, identity, mythologies and protection.

Speaking of which, high up the Google list of answers to my complexity vs entropy question was our old friend God. If the second law of thermodynamics demands increasing entropy, then a creator and His constant intervention seem to some like our only hope.

But I’m reminded of the classic sociological example I cited at work this week, in favour of not planning big things too much. You’re never more than five minutes from fresh bread in chaotic Paris but couldn’t get it anywhere in centrally planned Moscow – ecosystems are too complex to plan or design.

Instead of God, I preferred a great paper, which came top of the highly evolved ecosystem which is the Google search rank. MIT physicist Michel Baranger writes that the 20th century ‘certainty’ of scientific analysis has given way to the chaos of fractals and non-linearity.

Baranger admits complexity still defies a simple definition. But it does have these six features:

1) Complex systems contain many constituents interacting chaotically.

2) The constituents of a complex system are interdependent.

3) A complex system possesses a structure spanning several scales. (cell, leg, person; building, district, city)

4) A complex system is capable of emergent behaviour. (properties emerge at a higher level which are more than a description of the constituent parts – consciousness, life, society, culture)

5) Complexity involves an interplay between chaos and non-chaos. (if it’s all chaos nothing happens, if there’s no chaos nothing happens either)

6) Complexity involves an interplay between cooperation and competition for resources (the big one – drives reactions, feedback loops, religion, ethics, moral dilemmas, kindness and cruelty)

Fully embracing the messiness of chaos and complexity opens up the possibility that we might come to better understand the biological and social systems which drive us, and which we in turn drive.

The answers won’t be in neat models. But they would be a small step towards what E.O. Wilson calls a ‘New Enlightenment’. An Enlightenment built not on the determinism of Newton’s calculus and Adam Smith’s pin factory. Or on the individualism and reductionism of pure ‘survival of the fittest’. But one recognising that complexity comes from the jostling of chaos and order, competition and cooperation, small scale and large and interdependence of the whole.

What does that mean for my efforts to maintain a well-ordered life? Accepting a meteorite could flatten our house. That disagreements at work and at home are probably the drivers of progress. And that the competing demands on me create, yes, chaos; but also new complexity and the spur to creativity.

A reminder then that chaos and change can’t be avoided – you can only ride the waves not hold back the tide.


I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.