The more we discover, the more certain we can be of this: even elemental particles are less solid than they seem, behaving like tightly bound arrangements of impenetrable, irreducible spherical bodies, they apparently achieve this physics by behaving like something they are not (now widely accepted in particle physics, “string theory” proposes that elemental particles are actually 2-dimensional vibrating “strings” whose vibration causes them to interact as if they were not strings at all). Complexity is the basic state of nature as we know it.
The human body is an astonishingly complex organism, programming with viral code (DNA) the arrangement, development and physical or chemical task assigned to each cell, organ and extremity. The brain is so complex, we can only begin to grasp it as “circuitry”, though it processes information through chemical processes that allow it to achieve many millions of times more computational capacity than even the most advanced neural networks. Consciousness is part of this, or is the result of this, but we can say almost nothing with certainty about how consciousness itself arises. We can describe what we witness, or what we think we are witnessing, but we cannot replicate the process by which the conscious mind arises from the background noise of material, chemical and energetic interrelationship.
For many, the mystical or spiritual approach still yields the best explanation: a force more powerful than the sum of all things, a conscious creator, a God, an energy field that pervades and unites all other phenomena. Jean-Luc Marion calls it the saturated phenomenon: that reality so vast it could never be approached by human understanding. That infinite vastness means the human intellect is quickly saturated and overwhelmed by all the lesser component phenomena. The human intellect is, then, limited by time and mortality, by the laws of physics, which prevent simultaneous multi-focal conscious presence—being in two places at once—and so cannot possibly acquire enough information to even initiate a viable definition of what lies beyond saturation.
The mystical road to understanding complexity takes us, eventually, if we are honest, to Marion’s problem of saturation. That said, we now understand that simple complexities abound, even within reach of our limited phenomenological potential: five senses feed into one consciousness, which also in optimal conditions absorbs information through language, through text, by way of human gestures, settings, emotions, by fearing and desiring, by approaching or getting distance from an object of its attention, by creating, by dissecting, by appreciating or by competing with other realities. The depth of that “other reality”, the reality of the vast multiplicity of otherness, existing “out there”, but also deep within the basic structure of our body, our physical existence, our chemical awareness of self, that complexity is the lifeblood of what makes being human more interesting to us than being a mass of granite.
In this light, complexity is really a fundamental truth for us all, and as such is increasingly a right of every conscious individual. We are entitled to experience, to seek to know, to indulge in and to express complexity, entitled because complexity is what the human life is made of. Simplicity, or the “simple life” as it is often called, a life away from the chaos of big cities, even the aesthetics of “clean edges” or a so-called minimalist style, are all complexities designed by the individual or by human surroundings, to indulge an aspect of our humanity that we prize above others.
In the complex and intertwined human relationships that comprise today’s global village, in friendships that exist across far borders, as with diplomatic negotiations, we can find there is something deeper and more true, more accurately applicable to the human element in that connection, in the contradictions, in the vast terrain of “gray area”, in the relational vortex that is neither black-and-white nor non-negotiable. We find that one moment’s staple truth is another moment’s straightjacket, that we evolve, not just as a species, but as individual spirits, to consume and to make contact with an ever-broader range of information, not so we can be corrupted and post-modernized, but so we can better adapt to environmental factors, carry out the natural imperative of survival and procreation, and devote the power of our conscious attention to the vitally important human work of forestalling unnecessary depletion and unraveling of prized stabilities within a hotbed of relentless self-overturning.
Natural ecosystems depend upon a bewildering degree of complexity to remain dynamic, adaptable, resilient. The degree of elasticity in an ecosystem—its ability to absorb harmful interactions or infusions of matter or energy—determines its “fitness” for survival in the wilds of geological changes over time. Climate variations and intrusive organisms can upend a seemingly balanced and harmonious ecosystem suddenly, leading to disaster for its most habitat-dependent species; the degree of biodiversity, of food-web complexity, of climate-elastic charac-teristics, determines the long-term viability of an ecosystem, and by extension the possibility for relative homeostasis in surrounding ecosystems or the broader natural environment.
The degree of elasticity available in a given context also affects directly how human civilization is able to interact with the natural environment. Where monoculture cropping exists—meaning only one variety of a given species of plant is cultivated—an entire agricultural economy can be in danger of sudden collapse, as happened in Ireland in the 19th century, due to its dependence on a single variety of potato. All human activities depend on the persistence of natural “services” that emerge from complex webs of relational phenomena—basically, for example: what happens to rainwater after it hits the ground, how much is absorbed into the soil? or runs to the sea? what force does this give to river currents across a given region?
We cannot say that poverty is caused by ignorance or by negligence or by laziness. We cannot say that wealth is caused by knowledge or by perseverance or by merit. There is no clear answer to such questions, because the relational data is so multifaceted, so layered, so many-threaded and intertwined, it is effectively impossible to make singular declarative statements of universal truth that ably define all related circumstances. So we must travel to the frontiers of our awareness, and seek out the best and newest information, the closest thing we can get to the actual experience of another point of view, and we must shape composite ideas, that play well in our own and in others’ narratives, so that we can speak differently and imaginatively, without sacrificing precision or stumbling into untruth.
Without this ability to work through the complexities of plural-interest relationships, we cannot ably locate or respect the freedom of the other, which means in a world now globally interconnected, we cannot guarantee our own. Science is demonstrating that, while elegant theories can be crafted to make universal statements of fact—E=mc2, for instance, or the idea that all matter is really just astonishingly minuscule vibrating strings—complexity is better able to explain what really is the truth of the physical universe than is simplicity.
Our choice is to understand that we must never stop inquiring, we must never claim there is nothing more to learn, and embrace complexity and the work of living within it, or ignore it, build up superstitious complaints against its effects, and hope for the best. Technology has reached a level of complexity such that most people could not fashion from scratch most of the basic tools they use to get through their everyday existence: this is a demonstration of complexity, both the virtue of its vast efficacy and the difficulty of its dominion over us. The right approach to complexity is the thing we must pursue, not the means by which to erase it from our consciousness.
The right approach is the one which allows us to deal, sustainably, with the actual fabric of aspiration and incident. What the scientist, the mystic, the politician or the poet, learns, if she is honest about what she is doing, is that there is no room for the false claim that reality abhors complicated or complicating considerations: reality is made of complicated and complicating considerations. What the honest thinker, explorer, seeker of true and relevant ideas about the shape of the universe must acknowledge is that to consider complexity is to begin to ask the right questions. From there, we can explore what otherwise appears to be, or to ask for, the very simple.
The Untiring Web of Influences
Consciousness seeks to know the shape of the universe; reasoning is inherently cosmological. Whether we approach the problem of all that we don’t know by way of Descartes’ admonition to first doubt of all things, insofar as is reasonable, or by way of Hume’s contiguity principle—that we can know what is beyond our experience by intuiting its relationship to something specific within our experience, by tracing “necessary connections”—we labor, sometimes heroically, to form viable pictures of the universe as it must be.
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (detail). For more information, go to bit.ly/hubbledeep
The Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field survey—until this month the deepest observation into the far reaches of the universe (learn about the HXDF image at bit.ly/hubblexdf)—captured the light of 10,000 galaxies. The HUDF project was able to go deep enough to identify 10,000 galaxies by focusing on just a tiny sliver of the night sky. There is 12.7 million times more sky to explore. This means the Hubble Ultra Deep Field survey revealed to us that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. It would take over 1 million years, however, to observe them all, using the technology that got us this one astonishing image.
The HUDF marked a paradigm shift in our understanding of the observable universe. It confirmed theories that had not yet been proven by observational data, and it revealed to us the unimaginable vastness, the crisis of experiential saturation that we face, when we seek to do that very thing which is most inherent to our conscious activity—seeking to know the shape of the universe, the nature of things, the truth behind what appears to be.
The HUDF revealed not only galaxies and galaxy clusters, but vast star-forming regions, some bigger than galaxy clusters and thought to be concentrations of matter and energy that might differ greatly from the physics we know and experience here on Earth. It is difficult to know what piece of information from the HUDF, HXDF and future intergalactic observations, will provide the catalyst for world-changing scientific breakthroughs. The web of influences going to work, all the time, on the universe we inhabit is untiring and unswayed by factional interest. We cannot urge it or believe it into being what we require. Natural systems seek stability, without giving evidence of a conscious plan to acquire it. Human systems give that evidence, but still contain flaws that allow for unraveling.
The stability of all that we plan and do and love depends remorselessly on the resiliency of natural life-support systems. We are now challenging those life-support systems to survive our unknowing campaign of hyper-exploitation and flawed vision. We want what they offer, but we are not aware of its true value. In September 2012, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, made up of 20 national governments, released a study it com-missioned from the humanitarian organi-zation DARA. The DARA study found that by 2030, climate destabilization could kill 100 million people around the globe. While skeptics say climate predictions are “alarmist”, the DARA study deals simply with existing facts in evidence, and then looks at what they indicate about a future in which no action is taken.
The findings reveal something we need to know in order to understand the paradigm shift that is coming: we are already living with the impact; our climate is destabilized in dangerous ways, and we are paying a price. According to the study, global economic output—collective GDP—has already declined by 1.6%, or $1.2 trillion. That is real wealth that real people do not have the chance to have contact with, because a destabilized climate is undermining ecosystem services, agricultural integrity, access to resources and the reliably temperate climate patterns that make much of the world favorable to human habitation.
There is untiring complexity in the bio-chemical infrastructure of sustainable life, and there is unrelenting complexity in our relationship to the natural world, which includes the worst of our vices and inefficiencies. The coming paradigm shift relating to climate is not that global climate patterns can be destabilized; that one has come and gone, for most astute observers—those who define a paradigm. It is not that we must “do more with less”; efficiency of consumption, resiliency and resource retention are also well understood. The paradigm shift that is coming is the double awareness that we have no choice—we must make sweeping changes to the industrial infrastructure of the built environment—and that we are already fully equipped to make the transition affordably.
This double awareness can be called a paradigm shift, because—most importantly—we don’t know exactly what lies on the other side: as we come to understand the immense complexity of everything we touch, we will be better able to envision the solutions to the immensely complex problems that arise from our fumbling through complexity. When that moment comes, we will see new uses for old technologies, new technologies that emerge from simple variations in perspective and practical application, and we will recognize that complexity was, all along, the best source of the solutions to the problems complexity demands that we confront.
The difference will be our understanding, and we will get there together or not at all.
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A version of this article first appeared on The HotSpring Network, on November 12, 2008. This version of the essay appears in the inaugural edition of The HotSpring Quarterly (Fall 2012) to illustrate the essential idea that we can do better if we acknowledge the complex nature of lived experience, and then work together within the truth of our world to improve the outcomes most likely to occur at the human scale.