Embracing Complexity: Seeking Appreciation Instead of ‘Understanding’

milky way andromeda collision

NASA depiction of Earth’s night sky in 3.75B years when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are colliding

The thing that humans most hate about complexity is that it’s infinite: it can never be fully understood. And because of that, there will always be limits — serious limits — to the models of reality that scientists and philosophers put forward. And similar limits on our ability to control or even intervene in any reliable, useful way in these systems.

So today we have neuroscientists, like their predecessors who claimed to tell you who you were by feeling the bumps on your skull, who promise that we’ll soon largely understand human feelings, motivations, beliefs and behaviours by looking at brain images. And we have economists who claim to know how the economy will behave in the future, and engineers who think they can reverse climate change by hurling aluminum particles into the stratosphere. And we have otherwise intelligent scientists who still believe that the essence of who we are can be cryogenically frozen and one day implanted in a cyberstructure that will never die, and that there is still hope and sense in finding some way to send a small crew of Earthlings (human, of course) to deep space to outlive the sixth great extinction we have precipitated. And that there is some “grand theory of everything” that will allow us to predict the future perfectly and use current ‘reality’ with certainty of the results of our perfect interventions. And of course that there was a start and end to time, and space, and that there is a fundamental set of particles that are not further divisible into ever more mysterious and perplexing components.

They believe these things despite all the evidence, philosophical, scientific, theoretical and other, that these beliefs are wrong. They believe because they want to believe. They cannot bear not finding the ultimate simple answer, the ultimate truth, the map that is so precise that it becomes indistinguishable from the territory.

These foolish stubborn beliefs and hopes are perfectly understandable. We don’t want to admit that we can’t know, that our brains, which evolved through the collaborative volition of the cells in our bodies as a feature detection and mobility management system, and not as a cognitive one, cannot understand very much, let alone everything.

I don’t begrudge the muddy-thinking scientists and economists and business theorists and philosophers and neuro-“scientists” and other spiritualists their beliefs and hopes that what is unfathomably complex can somehow be made simple enough for us to understand and use effectively. People are entitled to their religions, even those who deny that’s what their models and theories and ideologies are.

My concern is that they have convinced enough other people of the veracity of their particular spiritualities and scientisms that we now live as if what they, and we, do actually conforms to their modern phrenologies. The life that results from this increasingly global worldview, the one that most now live, is an unreal one, a projection, a hologram, a mental fiction, and it’s not surprising that most people live in a state of constant disappointment in themselves and in others and in their ‘leaders’ over our inability to control ourselves and the world around us, and steer them in the directions we believe are in our personal and collective best interests.

The newest model of reality is one that comes closer to previous models to embracing complexity and unknowingness instead of fighting to simplify and fully understand it. It’s a geometric model, and it’s seriously shaking up the scientific establishment, because it does away with the need for the concepts of space and time entirely, seeing them as human mental constructs (very useful ones to us, granted) that are not essential to the nature of reality at all.


Artist Andy Gilmore’s partial rendering of an amplituhedron, part of a new geometric model of reality

It’s a model that reflects the complexity of the universe, appreciates it, rather than trying to explain and understand it. Indeed, the problematic issues of black holes and the big bang and the impossibility of testing the newest theories of subatomic particles are rendered moot by this model, not solved by it. They are seen for what they are — errors in our simplistic human modelling of reality that are inherent in the very scientific language and tools we use to create them. Here’s a quote from Nima Arkani-Hamed, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the new model’s developers, talking about how “change” is represented in this new model:

“In a sense, we would see that change arises from the structure of the object,” he said. “But it’s not from the object changing. The object is basically timeless.”

Change is emergent, in other words, and emergence is the closest our language can come to expressing the concept of complexity.

Like the drawing above, the new model is beautiful, not only because it debunks the absurdly complicated and utterly flawed models it replaces, but because it has the element of humility. It does not purport to be a “theory of everything” and from my reading seems to support the subversive notion that there cannot be a model of everything, and that a model is just a model, like a portrait is a recognizable model of the person it portrays but has no illusions of being anything like the person itself. It is art, more than science, and therein lies its beauty.

As our human species pushes its civilization towards inevitable collapse, and the complex organism of all-life-on-Earth to massive (but not total, thankfully) extinction, I see the emergence of such models as a sign that humanity is at last growing up. Too late to save the world, but in time to realize the staggering beauty of life and our planet and universe, and the foolishness of our reckless and well-intentioned experiments as recent custodians of the planetary laboratory. In time to start to appreciate, and stop trying to understand.

In time to embrace complexity, even as its immediate consequence is now almost surely our civilization’s demise and the end of our significance as a force on this planet, instead of fighting to try to defeat it.

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4 Responses to Embracing Complexity: Seeking Appreciation Instead of ‘Understanding’

  1. Yvonne Dolinka says:

    The Way to FIX Our World: The Most Promising, Least Painful SOLUTIONS to Most of
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  2. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m hoping your comment/link is ironic, Yvonne.

  3. Pingback: Embracing Complexity: Seeking Appreciation Instead of ‘Understanding’ » Murray J. Brown

  4. Markus says:

    Thank you for wording the amplituhedron in non-QT terms and in context all at the same time, Dave.
    I read about this virtual particle and was immediately struck by a sense of “this is big”, but haven’t been able to express this feeling in a coherent way.

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