Picture technology as a “buffer” between humans and their environment. With each new scientific discovery an environmental constraint is removed, and new resources, usually in the form of energy, become available for exploitation via new technologies.
We require energy in order to counter the constant tendency of the universe to become chaotic (i.e. counter entropy), and to build ever more complex structures needed to support progress. But since any new uncovered source of energy is finite, our civilization has to keep innovating in order to uncover new types of resources. Framed as a critical survival mechanism, innovation becomes much more than a “neat” buzzword. The steady state argument of being content with what we have doesn’t fly because, at any given time, maintaining steady state requires energy we derive from finite resources, such as fossil fuels.
Just like the universe has an in-built tendency for disorder (i.e. entropy), so it seems intelligent life has a natural affinity to discovery. Said differently, progress is not something we necessarily have control over, it’s (in) our destiny.
H.G. Wells remarked that “civilization is a race between disaster and education”. In light of the above, I would say that the race is rather between disaster and innovation. Our educational systems, particularly those related to management and organization, should instill imagination rather than build “static” knowledge and skills.
You’ve probably noticed the growing interest in complexity. And it’s not just scientists. Want proof? The very first sentence in Davos 2013 executive summary pays homage to complexity: “we live in the most complex, interdependent and interconnected era in human history – a reality we know as the hyperconnected world.” As global systemic problems (terrorism, 2008 financial crisis, etc.) proliferate , the interest in the topic is understandable. Democracy, capitalism and other fundamental social constructs are becoming fair game for possible adjustment, or even overhaul. Steve Denning’s “Can Complexity Fix Capitalism” piece in Forbes (http://tinyurl.com/bonnswe) or the 2013 Global Peter Drucker Forum’s “Mastering Complexity” theme are illustrative of the general perception that complexity is the next challenge that humanity must master.
So when everyone’s still struggling with grasping complexity (myself included), I’ve decided to ask the next level question: is there anything beyond?
To go after that question, we first have to capture complexity in a nutshell. I propose we start at the “mechanism” level. Emergence is a key observed complexity mechanism where the outcomes of a collection of building blocks display properties or behaviors that are beyond those of individual blocks. So this means that emergence implies hierarchy. The direction in which the hierarchy is constructed is important. In the case of complexity, smaller things give way to larger things, and so there is an “upward causality”.
Enter 20th century physics. It tells us that all things are made of atoms, and apparently the microscopic scales they inhabit are governed by the paradoxical quantum physics. So taking the upward causality complexity route, atoms form molecules, molecules form cells, and we get to neurons and finally the human brain, ironically the most complex thing we’ve come across in the universe so far. And it too appears to have emergent properties, such as free will and consciousness. Problem solved, the most beautiful of emergent properties of the universe, human consciousness, can be explained with complexity, right? And so, no product of the universe is beyond the grasp of complexity according to the upward causality model. So complexity appears to be the ultimate barrier and there is nothing beyond it?
Well in order to answer this last question, we would have to reconcile quantum physics with emergence and complexity. And quantum physics presupposes a matter-probability dualism which remains beyond human comprehension. Here’s the problem. The brain supposedly functions based on electrical signal transfer between neurons. And so there is an exchange of energy across a tiny time and space inside your head. But quantum physics includes at least a few observed principles that defy the space-time-energy construct. Take quantum non-locality, where two photons that come in contact can be separated by vast differences, and yet, with no energy exchange they are able to instantaneously affect each other. It’s as if somehow one “knows” about the other. Another interesting phenomenon in quantum physics says that an observer is able to collapse the myriad of parallel probabilities in the quantum world to a single possibility simply by observation alone. It’s as if any choice is possible until the observer intervenes and induces an irreversible choice.
So what happens to all these highly mysterious properties at the quantum level as they are embedded in higher order complex structures such as the brain? Could such quantum properties that appear to presuppose choice have something to do with the free will aspect of human consciousness? What about quantum non-locality? Information processing and communication in the quantum world apparently doesn’t necessarily require a space-time-energy construct, so why should consciousness do so if it is made up of basic quantum particles? What if the brain is not just an electrical computing device but also a quantum computing device? What would that the quantum non-locality principle imply for individual consciousness if it cannot be contained in a space-time? Would that point to a collective consciousness? Does the fact that two subatomic particles “know” their state at a distance or the fact that a subatomic particle appears to “know” it is being observed imply a universal space-time-energy free construct within which complexity can live? Is this the “fabric” which complexity requires just like Einstein’s space-time is the fabric on which energy-matter can be manifested? And if there is a such a construct, is there a downward causality which influences emergence in a certain direction? Ultimately is or consciousness a manifestation of the subtle interaction between upward causality emergence and the rules of an elusive space-time-energy invariant construct we have yet to observe?
Apparently I am not the first to ask this question. Amit Goswamy has been a self titled “quantum activist” for quite some time. His background in quantum physics certainly helps him. But what I am additionally proposing in this blog is the exploration of the intersection of quantum physics and complexity sciences. Apparently there is a connection between the two, and attempting to see how they relate might provide at the very least important philosophical insights.
And finally moving ahead to “beyond complexity” when we haven’t yet figured out complexity? Who said exploration has to follow a neat sequence?
“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” Einstein. letter to Robert A. Thornton, 7 December 1944.
First, there was the universe. And then came humans. We study the universe sometimes forgetting we are the universe. There are lots of pointers to our cosmic connections. I am not referring to the documentaries on National Geographic where Michio Kaku, the celebrity physicist, tells us that every atom in our body was forged in supernovae that exploded a long time ago. Rather, in this blog I will be exploring a more more fundamental connection, between the least understood laws of the universe we’ve so far uncovered and a basic social human activity, between quantum mechanics and economics.
Why even explore such connections? Because similarities across sciences may have profound philosophical implications. We have to remember that dividing the observed reality into various sciences is a human construct meant to make things easier to deal with for us. The universe was not set up that way. So, every opportunity for common insights across sciences should be taken seriously, as it might shed light into our very nature and purpose.
Quantum mechanics had profound philosophical implications since the moment its laws were discovered in the earlier 20th century. It basically implied that the universe is unpredictable, that there is a fundamental limit to what humans can determine. Until then, Newtonian physics promised determinism, since, if one could measure the motion of all atoms, one could even predict the future, which becomes but the sum of all motions. But quantum mechanics, still beyond the grasp of human logic, says that there is a yet unexplained connection between the observer and experiment. Somehow the observer cannot be separated from experiment, and so, past some microscopic scale, the very process of observation changes the experiment, so that we can never determine exactly the initial state of a given situation.
As interesting as the implications of quantum mechanics might be, the general consensus was the microscopic scales don’t apply in the macroscopic world of humans.
But in economics a similar principle proposing a link between observer and experiment has been proposed. A number of cyberneticicians in the 1970s challenged the classical economic theory proposing that markets tend to equilibrium. They instead proposed that classical economic theory is based on the observer being clearly separated from the experiment. But if the observer is also part of the economic “game”, there is a limit to what we can predict about future outcomes reminiscent of quantum mechanics. The observer being embedded in the experiment is deemed in cybernetic theory as “reflexivity”. It’s as if cause and effect are not sequential, but rather they affect each other simultaneously Gives one a headache just thinking about it.
So the question then becomes, how could the micro and macro worlds share characteristics? What is the connection? Well, social systems are made of people. And people act according to a computing device called “the brain”. And the brain is made of neurons which transmit electrical signals, i.e. exchange electrons. And electrons are small enough to be influenced by quantum laws. If the brain has the characteristics of a quantum computing device, this might explain why human behavior in inherently unpredictable and why, systems that include many humans, are even less predictable. While this reality may really piss off statisticians, it is otherwise a good thing: it says that humans have free will, are creative beings that can design their own future. But those insisting on predictions and reading into coffee cups shouldn’t get completely depressed. There is a way to predict the future: design it! 🙂
I have claimed that all the hype about how the information technology revolution, culminating with Apple and Facebook, has changed the quality of our civilization may be over-rated.
A lot of the benefits hype associated with social networks and other interconnected means of communication facilitated by information technology may be just that: hype. Networks come with volume (people, information, “likes” and so on) and they do have their benefits: speed with which the information propagates for one and the beginnings of the creation of a global village. But we should not confuse information with wisdom, intelligence and creativity; more quantity of information delivered ever faster does not necessarily mean an increase in the quality of our understanding or wisdom. I’ve used the following example to make my point to several audiences lately: “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity could not have been a crowd-sourced innovation”. And I honestly believe that is true, having provided at least one supporting argument from the management consulting industry (see my blog entry “Russell Ackoff, the Albert Einstein of Management“).
And so I have claimed, supplied limited examples, and will continue to argue over the course of coming posts that some of the world’s top thinkers are in fact aligned with a view that argues for qualitative, holistic path to the world’s progress that can be traced all the way back to roots of Western civilization in ancient Greece.
Below are three examples of insights that go against commonly accepted wisdom. These insights share a common denominator and namely that quality is more important than quantity which is equivalent to effectiveness being more important than efficiency. See also my post on this blog of the fallacy of the business performance consulting model.
In his Harvard Business Review Blog, Jeff Stibel makes the case for intelligence and creativity being a qualitative rather than quantitative, a primarily individualistic rather than group phenomenon:
In a Q&A with Alan Hall at Forbes, Clayton Christiansen, the innovation guru, argues that our obsession with efficiency, based largely in quantitative methods and thinking, is killing innovation:
The same finger prints of holistic, qualitative thinking can be noticed in Roger Martin’s and Jack Welch’s motivations when arguing against the “shareholder value” concept in economics and business: