This brief essay is the fifteenth in a series addressing the emergence of meaning, by James Leonard.
(Please note: the following material is Â© copyright James Leonard 2006 and may not be used in any way without permission from author)
Summer is here. Last weekend I attended my first barbecue of the season. The weatherman had predicted rain, but we had nothing but warm spring air and a starry sky. The crowd numbered more than two dozen individuals and was a mix of University of Michigan graduate students and Ann Arbor locals. The hosts, two friends from the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the university, had invited me.
After several hours of beer, barbecue and small talk, a man in his late twenties or early thirties approached me. “Our host tells me you’re interested in complex systems,” he began. “I want to pick your brain,” he continued. The evening and the alcohol had left him itching for some intellectual sparring and he was trolling for a duel. We may have shared acquaintances, but we differed in our opinions regarding the validity and value of complex systems theory.
“What is the value of declaring that anything is chaotic or complex?” was his opening jab. He based his argument on three presumptions: first, science is ultimately a utilitarian endeavor; second, only a reductive approach can render the noise of the universe into utilitarian knowledge; and lastly, he assumed he was speaking to a scientist for whom complex systems theory represented a loosening of discipline in his field.
I tackled these presumptions in reverse order. First, I am an artist not a scientist. For three and a half decades, art and cultural theory have been biased towards a wholly unknowable, absolutely relativistic world. In my field, complex systems theory represents a tightening, rather than loosening, of discipline.
Second, complex systems theory shines when applied to realms that resist reductive methods. Human cognition, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, international finance and trade, and telecommunications network management are just a sampling of the breadth of realms of inquiry that have benefited from the advent of complex systems theory. Calling any of these systems either chaotic or complex (an important distinction better left to another essay) is not a gesture of surrender. It is a means of identification and a means of steering your method of inquiry.
Granted, complex systems theory is still a young field and its tools are still in development. But we are on the cusp of some marvelous discoveries. As Rick Riolo, a professor I worked with in graduate school has asserted: Though we may never be able to predict what species will exist a million years from now, we will someday be able to make solid assertions about future life on earth, such has what percentage of the biomass will be single celled organisms. We also may someday be able to identify the liminal zones where phenomena such as life, intelligence, and society emerge: How many connected catalytic reactions, nerve cells, or individual beings are necessary?
This brings me to his first, and in my opinion, deepest presumption: Science is utilitarian in nature. Science is a means of questioning the universe, investigating possible answers, comparing evidence, and sharing work. It is the collaborative effort of a professional culture that strictly weighs and reweighs evidence in search of proof. Throughout human history, scientific discovery has fueled technological advancement, reinforcing the presumption that science is, at its core, utilitarian. But at its edge, science remains a means of exploring fueled by curiosity. As an artist, though I benefit daily from the utilitarian side of science, I identify most closely with those scientists who spend their lifetimes indulging curiosity.
(essay 1: wandering; essay 2: the whole; essay 3: news; essay 4: belief; essay 5: debbie; essay 6: consciousness; essay7: culture; essay 8: prototyping; essay 9: fitness; essay 10: exploration; essay 11: meaning; essay 12: pie; essay 13: dots; essay 14: undecidability)