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In defense of complexity

Fractal Blue

By Joe Perez

Who’s winning the war over simplicity and complexity? The Daily Dish gives voice to an interesting discussion of evolution and culture. It began yesterday when Andrew Sullivan quoted Robert Bellah, the sociologist of religion, on a scientific matter:

Simplicity has its charms. Some relatively simple organisms have survived in more or less the same form for hundreds of millions of years. The more complex the species, the briefer its life. In some cases this is because species have changed into even more complex forms, yet extinctions have been massive. There have been several species of the genus Homo; now there is one. The one remaining species may be partly responsible for the extinction of its last remaining relative, the Neanderthals. The more complex, the more fragile. Complexity goes against the second law of thermodynamics, that all complex entities tend to fall apart, and it takes more and more energy for complex systems to function.

Today, a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog responds:

Utterly untrue. Bellah is making the fundamental mistake of confusing the fate of the individual entity with the fate of the larger dynamic system of which it’s part. A quick glance at the overall arc of the 4.5 billion year evolution of life on earth shows the inevitable march of complexity. Complexity does not “go against” the second law, any more than does the metabolism of your individual body—it uses it, through a related, albeit higher-order mechanism, to advance higher and higher stages of self-organization.

More complex systems are in fact far more efficient in their use of energy than less complex ones, which—from the thermodynamic perspective—is precisely what drives evolution (biological, social, technological and mental). Dawkins might not like it, but from the system’s science perspective, evolution is not directionless: Increasing complexity is built into the fabric of the universe.

Bellah not only has it deeply wrong on the science, he has it deeply wrong on the implications for philosophy; at least to judge by this short snippet you quote: more complex is not more fragile, it is more robust.

His outlook reads as dour and pessimistic. That’s not the world as it is—that’s Bellah’s projection onto it, based on a deep misreading of the interplay of thermodynamics and biology. The truth may be something almost 180 degrees different—something much more akin to Malick’s vision in “The Tree of Life:” not only is the evolution of biological complexity inevitable, given sufficiently propitious initial conditions, so is the evolution of mental, emotional and spiritual complexity—including consciousness, empathy, compassion, and grace. To cite Einstein, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”

Bellah’s science—again, to judge by a very small snippet—is inherently hostile, at least from our human perspective. Were his science right, we would all perforce become mid-50’s French existentialists. But it’s not. The applicable science is in fact friendly—I would say, grandly, magnificently friendly, even if, from the individual human perspective, humbling, awe-inspiring, or, like Krishna in his cosmic form, or Yahweh in the whirlwind, sometimes terrible to behold.

The anonymous Dish reader gets the better of the famous sociologist here, I think, striking notes that remind me of some of Ken Wilber’s twenty tenets of all holons. It’s so difficult to think about scientific principles such as evolution or entropy without our conscious and unconscious beliefs about the nature of reality sneaking into the equation. A dour-minded existentialist is prone to believe that everything is winding down and dying in a massive frozen heat death. An optimistic-minded American pragmatist is prone to believe that progress is inevitable and the world is what we make of it.

An Integral theorist is inclined towards appreciating that both pessimists and optimists have a piece of the truth, and the truth cannot be separated from the way that individuals construct their beliefs about reality in complex interactions of meaning-making and enactment.

Photo Credit: Fábio Pinheiro

About Joe Perez

Joe Perez is Executive Editor of Spirit's Next Move, Director of Communications and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for World Spirituality. He has eight years of blogging experience and has seen two of his blogs published as books including Soulfully Gay, a pioneering Integral Spirituality memoir. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University, has studied at The Divinity School at The University of Chicago, and holds a certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. He also blogs at Gay Spirituality.

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