grist

 

Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Such arenas of fruitful interaction are only now beginning to be understood in their general laws; a hierarchy of sciences—chaos theory, complexity theory, new mathematical flesh on the vague old concept of "emergence"—has recently arisen, itself emerging by the very processes it formalizes out of a chaos and complexity of ideas. The essence of these theories is this: that if a collection of entities is sufficiently numerous and richly interactive, and if it is continually feed with energies that disturb it from sluggish equilibria, eventually parts of it will fall by chance into patterns or cycles that have some capacity for persistence; and if such persistences are continually forthcoming, eventually some will arise that have the property of seeding the development of their like, of replicating themselves; and once there are relatively stable dynamic systems all calling on the same resources of material and energy, they will evolve, be co-opted into systems of higher order. All this is a consequence of the law of large numbers—that if enough things happen, then it is certain that something extremely improbable will happen. Life, intelligence, and love are not aliens marooned in a hostile world of iron determinism, doomed to be chilled to death by the dreadful second law of thermodynamics if left unredeemed by the transcendental. . . .

This is drawn from Tim Robinson's excellent essay called The Fineness of Things, and it contains many such distillations and fruit for reflection. The core idea of this--that the application of energy into systems creates persistence and complexity is a delightfully rich one--I can see in this passage a speech to lethargic teens, and an examination of the sometimes-pointless or hopeless feeling within marriage or as a parent of our own waves of unacknowledged love--that there is some bedrock math on our side that lets us feel, finally, that the order of the universe is predicated on building rather then simply dissolution. I remember reading Pynchon's story Entropy and feeling devasted by the conspiracy of empty space in the universe--that it was sure to suck away our tiny packets of heat and that surrender to the absurdity of our own efforts was the realistic position to hold. Hardly something to get you out of bed in the morning (which I seldom managed as an undergrad).

This is also an interesting set of concepts to apply to economics, which I have the sinking feeling is entirely dependent on the development of unhealthy appetites--that it is a sledge driven by gluttony and lust and envy and that we poor prisoners must distend as patriots in order to prevent the whole massive machine from grinding to a halt. What new thing is created through our labors and where does it intersect the pathways of human affairs. I think often if you look at people, at their work (especially when you have not had steady work yourself) the whole mess becomes increasingly bizarre--how it is that we can get food and heat in return for such abstract exercising of the mind that may intersect the lives of others in only the most attenuated ways and then have little clear value. This is a terrifying reflection to indulge in, makes me want to plant vegetables immediately.

But the idea of these persistent systems, and their necessary allocations of energy starts to ease this black fog--so what if I am one of the other proverbial thousand monkeys typing away in the infinite room and that I will not be producing Shakespeare (what about an incomplete Beckett and some off-color nursery rhymes?) for my infinite typing? There is some comfort in feeling that the pouring out of absurd energy may at last be generative, and though our faith is blind at least Big Math is backing us up.



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