Wednesday, January 05, 2005

What is the universe made of?

"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
--Muriel Rukeyser

The newest science of complexity is finding that this is true. Atoms are not independent stuff, but are instead nodes of energy patterns in relationship to everything, literally everything else. A further twist: everything else is also not stuff, but always already just this relationship.

Nothing comes first; nothing is fundamental. Everything is always already interactive. A decent paraphrase of Bell's Theorem in quantum physics is "Reality is non-local." Complexity science reaffirms this in a new sense: self-organizing co-adaptive systems that emerge in conditions that are near chaos are constituted only in cooperation with an "environment" that consists of other such systems. Systems nesting inside systems all the way down and all the way up. Networks of probability waves instead of atoms. At a higher level, networks of molecules manage genes in complex interactive systems. Networks of biological communication allow the immune system to learn new tricks, to adapt. Cognitive networks such as immunity that become recursive eventually create symbolic capacities. Neural networks. This allows the emergence of a new complex system called consciousness. Consciousness allows for social symbol systems (languages) to elaborate a new emergence called culture. The story continues, as history.

History reveals its own chronology of "strange attractors" just as with the smallest phenomena. A decent paraphrase of complexity science is "More is different". New qualities, new rules, new values emerge out of such new relationships, new stories.

Patterns are a kind of information. Information is a kind of pattern. Information in dynamic process over time is narrative. Reality is a story.

In short, this is why we must study interpretation. Inside every story, the agents or "characters" so to speak see the meaning of their story differently. Enlightenment is to realize this: there is no transcendental signifier, no fundamental self, no guarantees. Reality is dynamic process, interactive systems, layers of networks in which "you" are a node. Significant, yes! But you are non-local too. To keep your story going is to engage in dialogue with the entire universe of relationships.

This has been a wake up call from my node to yours.


At 8:45 PM, Blogger E. Heroux said...

Since a couple of my intimate correspondents asked, here's an annotated edition of "What is The Universe Made Of?":
If you want some of the sources from which I cribbed that little piece, see Fritjof Capra's _The
Web of Life_ or his _Hidden Connections_ for a no-frills clear summary of the science of complexity.
I felt like I even understood the math after reading Capra -- fractals and algorithms and the graphing
of "strange attractors" in phase space.
One of the main scientists in this field is Stuart Kauffman (winner of a MacArthur "genius" award)
-- _At Home in the Universe_ is his more accessible book. Although his books are written for a
general audience, some of that stuff is heavy going.
Ilya Prigogine has a couple of books out about chaos and the "new dialogue with nature" -- he won
a Nobel in thermodynamics for showing how chaotic flows lead to "bifurcations" and the spontaneous
emergence of order, what he called "dissipative structures". That emergence is paradoxically
unpredictable yet sort of predictable. And once the new organized system of order emerges, you cannot
work back from there to the initial conditions (unlike in Newtonian science). The process is
Other biggies are the Chilean biologists, Maturana and Varela. They are more interesting about
the implications for cognition. I think that their work on "autopoeisis" or self-organizing in living
systems should be far more recognized than it already is, which is considerable. If I have enough
time left to work out my two dozen projects, I want to write up how their work on "bringing forth a
world" could inform the way we think about literature and culture and history. But before I can
finish this paragraph, someone else has already finished such a manuscript.
For the quantum physics angle, I've read scraps here and there over the past 20 years, so it's
harder to recommend a single source. Quantum theory is much older and yet in some ways still more
weird and more controversial than people realize. There are only theories and math, yet several
different theories / maths offer competing explanations. And then every year some new experiment
favors one flavor only to be contradicted the following year by another experiment. Still, like in
evolutionary theory, there is a dogma that tends to dominate. It's the "Copenhagen Interpretation".
E.g., one physicist, David Bohm, wrote the benchmark textbook about that dogma, yet he believed in an
alternative version: his "Implicate - explicate order". Don't ask me to explain that! Other versions
are "string theory" which is still too weird for me to imagine, and also "S-matrix" theory or
"bootstrap" theory, which I intuitively grasp as the way to go. Yes, from my towering scientific
heights, I look down long enough to bequeath to the world my stamp of approval on this latter. It may
never be accepted by normal scientists in my lifetime, but of course they are poor benighted fools.
Actually, such theories about the quantum level are not entirely incompatible. Einstein went to his
grave still looking for a "Unified Field" explanation to cover all of these mysteries. He couldn't
make it, but I think that something like a synthesis is very possible.
And at another level, even the competing theories are merely attempts to explain the weirdness of
observations at a subatomic level, a weirdness that all physicists agree requires some new version of
reality. We do live in a world where time and space are not independent; where light behaves as
either a particle or a wave, but never both at the same time, and depending on how you observe it.
Where there is action at a distance, or non-locality, or quantum "entanglement", where electrons are
either here or there, but never moving in-between; where they are only "probably" here or there too.
And it's oddly interesting, isn't it, to be told that scientists cannot account for most of the mass
in the universe, according to standard calculations. So they began to theorize "dark matter" and
"anti-matter". Serious theories of wormholes through space-time are offered. Etc....
Chaos theory, by the way, is not exactly the same as the newer complexity science. The paradox of the former is that chaos leads to order. The paradox of the latter is that complexity comes from simplicity, while simplicity is complex. So order is chaos; entropy is development; utterly simple rules lead to vastly complex structures if given enough iterations. Chaos is about nonlinear dynamic systems, usually in feedback loops, where a tiny initial variation leads to very significant changes in a system. Complexity draws on this, but is more concerned with self-organizing, emergence, or autopoeisis through the networking of relatively autonomous agents. In both cases however, we can conclude that "More is different."
My future research is heading toward a critique of how this kind of science is being misapplied to social and economic analysis. In some ways, we are going back to the 19th century misapplication of evolutionary theory in Social Darwinism. That wound up supporting the status quo of laissez faire capitalism. Surprise: the ruling ideas are the ideas of the rulers. Again, today we see the science of complexity used to support the status quo of global capitalism.
Instead, I will argue that Castoriadis long ago had a more productive interpretation of complex-chaos and the emergence of autonomous social institutions, in his rediscovered early work of postmarxism, _The Imaginary Institution of Society_. We all could have saved a lot of energy by reading his postmarxist, post-Lacanian, proto-complexity theory back in the '70s.


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