Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Complexity and Time

I'm trying to sort out my current thinking about complexity, and I started the process of untangling myself a couple of weeks ago with a reference to time as that zone of engagement between the chaos of an open-ended future and the simplicity of a fixed, closed past.

I was pleased then when I came across the RSA lecture Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, founder of The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:



If you have watched Smolin's presentation, then I think you will see that he is arguing that the laws of physics are themselves emergent properties that change. I do not presume to know how they change, and those details are somewhat tangential to the point I want to make. If Smolin is correct, then ALL of the universe is a dynamic, open-ended, complex system. Even time, or space/time, is dynamic, and the laws that describe it change as it changes. It's all a dance, and nothing lasts forever. I mean, if you can't rely on time, what can you rely on?

That every where and when is complex does not mean that we cannot carve out simple spaces for ourselves. For instance, we can examine the mating habits of red ants or the development of the Italian sonnet, and we gain great powers and capabilities through this focus and reduction. We can learn about cell structures and processes and then figure out how to curb disease or correct an injury. We can, and should, define discrete, simple systems within which we have the ability to know to a nearly complete degree all elements and processes within the system so that we are able to work forward to predict all possible states of the system and to work backward to uncover all possible causes of those states. These are wonderful accomplishments and of great benefit to humanity, but the moment we believe that our knowledge is stable and eternal, then we deceive ourselves and list heavily toward error and closed-minded fundamentalism.

All can and will change. Fortunately, at the scale of human life, many of the processes we work with day-to-day function at a much different scale; thus, those processes appear within a normal human lifespan to be stable. Time changes, but not as quickly as we do, so most of us can effectively ignore its changes.

Like time, rocks and stars fall into the slow category, but rock stars do not. And here is the rub. Much of human life is changing today much faster than it did before, so fast that we cannot expect for things to be stable for years or decades, much less centuries. As I've noted within this blog before, roughly from 1995 to 2005, humanity changed from fewer than half the world's population having ever made a phone call to over half the population owning a cell phone. This is hyper-churning. With our technologies, we have created an evolutionary dynamic that is churning knowledge and culture so fast that we can no longer fool ourselves that things are eternal.

Rather, I should say that we must fool ourselves to continue to believe that things are eternal in the old sense of lasting unchanged forever. "We hold these truths to be self-evident": and so on. This undeniable hyperactivity is unsettling for many, and may well explain the resurgence of all kinds of fundamentalisms as people seek stability, a respite from the heat of change.

It seems that once you start looking for things, then you see them everywhere. Just days after I listened to Smolins' talk about the emergent properties of time, I read a book by Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres tries to explain his view of time and its implications for his approach to philosophy. It seems that for Serres time is not merely, or simply, the steady, laminar flow of events along a straight line from future through now into past that most of us think it is. Rather, time is a topological structure of great complexity. Time percolates, flowing unevenly through the loose rock of now, moving rapidly here, slowing elsewhere, and in some places, completely reversing. And this uneven, turbulent flow is not along a smooth, straight line, but through a richly contoured, deeply textured landscape that runs smoothly downhill here and stalls there and swirls into eddies elsewhere. Thus, for Serres as for Faulkner, we are not evenly separated from the past and the future. Rather, some of the past folds back into the present, and the future arrives unevenly. As Serres says it so well:
Time does not always flow according to a line … nor according to a plan but, rather, according to an extraordinarily complex mixture, as though it reflected stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps—all sown at random, at least in a visible disorder. Thus, the development of history truly resembles what chaos theory describes. Once you understand this, it's not hard to accept the fact that time doesn't always develop according to a line and thus things that are very close can exist in culture, but the line makes them appear very distant from one another. Or, on the other hand, that there are things that seem very close that, in fact, are very distant from one another. Lucretius and modern theory of fluids are considered as two places separated by an immense distance, whereas I see them as in the same neighborhood. … The classical theory is that of the line, continuous or inerrupted, while mine would be more chaotic. Time flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way. (57, 58)
Serres then connects time and weather in the French word le temps, which  "at a profound level … are the same thing" (58). Well, Serres took some time for me to read, and the meaning of his book percolated through my brain very unevenly. I think this has implications for reading and writing, but I'll have to think more.
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