Nature and complexity

The natural world is strikingly beautiful and ornately complex, from the large scale structure of the universe, to the sparkling galaxies, to Earth’s natural landscapes, to the minute detail of our own internal systems. Ancient people, to the best of their ability for logic, attributed the complicated perfection to supernatural forces, and even though we should know better by now, Western religions still generally believe that God deliberately designed and subsequently micromanages life on Earth.

But when we view the observable universe and any parts we can arbitrarily divide it into, it appears to behave as a holistic causal network, free from any bosses, middle management, or other types of micromanagers.

Indeed, pure anarchy is the nature of nature and the reason behind the qualities of nature that any decent human appreciates. Nothing about nature is random or arbitrary or “designed”, and it is because it is all connected. Many different types of experiments in many different fields demonstrate that the universe has its own mechanisms for coalescing and blooming with the complexity that we see all around and within us. Even pure mathematics alone—chaos dynamics—demonstrates this and has opened many people’s eyes to the cleverness and independence of the natural world.

We should also know better by now that people don’t need the “higher power” of government to design and forever micromanage every fragment of society.

Once someone learns even the most rudimentary mathematical explanation of chaos dynamics and begins to see the world through a “fractal geometer’s eye”, it seems like nonsense to assume that the complexity of the world must have been designed, and it seems equally like nonsense that society needs to be “designed”. Being exposed to a tiny bit of the right kind of simple recursive mathematics—or even the right kind of pictures—can go a long, long way for humanity to better grasp the nature of nature, which is forever bubbling with new ideas, is robust, and is creatively self-correcting.

Chaos theory

Chaos theory is a mathematical mirror of the natural world that allows us to inspect otherwise unnoticed or under-appreciated dynamical patterns within the complexity and to make important, objective statements about our world and many areas of our lives. It is still highly misunderstood by the general public, partly because of the poor choice in names. “Chaos” was traditionally used to refer to randomness, but by definition there is nothing random in chaos theory, or in any of the patterns it relates to such as fractals or spontaneous orders (the self-organization of large groups of individual agents, whether molecules, birds, people, or galaxies).

We are drenched in a wonderful world of chaos and fractals—mammoth cobwebs of clustering galaxies, infinitesimal webs of neurons zapping data around in our brains, splitting streams of rain running down windshields, bifurcating branches, roots, veins, lightening, river valleys, cascading consequences of human actions, evolving trends in society, and even our meandering moral behavior. Whether a process involves a superabundance of factors like weather or is a simple system like a dripping faucet or pendulum; whether it involves growing and shrinking of gaps like those between cars flowing like waves on the highway or our ever changing knowledge gaps; whether it’s the pattern on a bee’s wing, or the entire swarm, or the forming of a snowflake, or even the sound of a windblown snow flurry—chaos theory peels away any illusion of randomness and reveals the deterministic inner workings of these diverse and interconnected systems. Chaos theory also demonstrates how complexity is never predictable to an exact degree even though it is deterministic.

Our natural world is an intimate mix of unpredictability and order. Things, processes, people, ideas, and even sounds and smells are all connected through a flow of cause and effect, acting and reacting to each other in a constant mingling. So of course it results in many unpredictable outcomes. But for the most part, it is the kind of unpredictability that we shouldn’t worry about so much.

It is actually counter productive to worry about most of the things that we expend so much energy trying to “manage”. It is one thing to manage our individual lives or a system of machines, or a small group such as a family or small business. But managing highly nonlinear things that involve multitudes of individual agents such as societies or ecosystems always backfires to some degree. If we ever do attempt to control the weather it will drive the point home, if we survive to talk about it.


Part of the definition of chaos theory is that it is deterministic. The material world seems to be made of a whacky indeterministic fabric, but at some tiny size, matter and motion pile up to become probabilistic, and at an even larger and more massive scale—although still microscopic from our point of view—the probabilities are so high as to be safely labeled “deterministic”. Things on our level are so deterministic that, in linear systems at least, we can make mindbogglingly accurate predictions.

Yet at the same time, our causal universe is not “predetermined”, which is a word that is often misused, and probably better off not used at all. It makes no sense and serves no purpose even for a Determinist. Even if there was no probability involved (and there certainly is on the level of quarks) and everything was entirely deterministic down to the pinpoint, the universe as a whole is already busy computing its entire self incrementally, laying out the world before us moment to moment, so it has no extra mechanism, let alone purpose, for figuring itself out beforehand. Nor does it have a storage device, let alone an infinitely large storage device, on which to store the data and then from which to replay it so that we can live out or pre-calculated fate. It is the “pre” in predeterminism where this ridiculous misunderstanding stems from.

The conclusion I find so beautiful is that we are all riding a wave-of-determining together, the future still completely undetermined. It is just a much larger scale example of the infinite potential of a quantum particle before a high probability of its potential is collapsed into the “present”, thereby creating only one cohesive “past” as we go. The beauty also lies in the realization that as sentient beings we are consciously carving bits of this wave-of-determining as we go.


It is an amazing and mysterious fact that consciousness exists, and that on this planet somehow humans evolved to become the most self aware of any species. We make deliberate choices and we have a will. Western religion believes that a “soul” is assigned to every human which gives us “free will”, but when someone attempts to define these things, there can only be a breakdown of logic. Most people never attempt the logic but rather adopt a purely emotionally based belief that we have a “soul” and “free will”.

What the ultimate cause or purpose for consciousness existing in the first place is is still a complete mystery, but I imagine that the seed of awareness is somehow woven into the fabric of space-time itself, and that it only takes a special type of complexity, like brains, to focus it enough to become recognizable as “consciousness” to us. So consciousness in that case would be a weak emergence, relative to the complexity of the brains in various species. It is really just a matter of degree how conscious—and therefore self-aware—a life form is.

This view pushes the question of consciousness up against the rest of the great mysteries of the Cosmos, to be included in the same question of the very fabric itself. It is a more logical place for the possible origins of awareness to sit, rather than have it be some sort of strong emergence or “soul”.

Ruling out divine intervention, souls, and extra dimensional explanations means the universe has its own mechanism for consciousness to emerge in complex organisms, and this leads to the least belittling and most empowering image of ourselves possible. In fact, it is awesome to imagine that we naturally evolved to be self aware and to control our destinies simply as a result of what we are. We have all of the things the reader is feeling and has ever felt, and in a strange loop sense, we are the prime initiators of our future. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of free will as people have come to think of it.

No matter how vast and mysterious as the Cosmos may seem from our point of view, and no matter how lonely we might feel, drifting on the spec we call Earth, we can always feel comforted by the fact that we are that universe; at the very least, tiny conscious pieces of it. We are dynamically changing aspects of the Cosmos just as much as our minds are dynamically changing aspects of our brains. We are made of the wondrous stuff of chemicals that were at first born in the stars, and electrical processes which are fundamental to the universe and nature. And what a cosmic religious feeling it is, to not only have the capacity to look outward and contemplate the universe but to analyze and perhaps someday fully understand the process of our own consciousness.

Abstract thought

At some point in our long evolutionary history our self awareness became sharply focused (we are aware that we are aware that we are aware…). At that point our abstract thought which had been gradually evolving alongside our self awareness suddenly took exponential flight, overtaking most of our natural instincts.

Our abstract thought is now truly unrecognizable from nature; its original source. It causes us to perceive the world in flattened abstract shapes, categories, and hierarchies that don’t exist in nature. It makes us creative and powerful, yet awkward and even dangerous in a number of ways. Abstract thought has brought us wheels, transistors, and particle accelerators, but also leaves us with crumbling buildings, computer repair bills, bureaucracies, and bombs.

Many feel pride in the way that we have come to organize ourselves and each other into variously labeled groups and hierarchical structures in society and government. But we ought to take care when we use abstract thought for such control purposes in society because that inevitably leads to various forms of centralized power and oppression of the masses.

Instead we can reserve our abstract organizing skills for our personal needs or to use within groups of people which are so small that spontaneous order would not otherwise take affect, like our families or partnerships, and for higher creative concepts such as art, science, technology, and ultimately space migration.

What we have managed to build and maintain our material world is quite amazing. For the most part, it clearly stands out as separate from nature. But I assume we will eventually choose the contrary—to have our material goods and machines mimic nature, by self-replicating, self-repairing, and self-upgrading. Eventually there will be less of a need to manufacture so many abstract geometric shapes like walls, doors, chairs, and tables, in zero gravity space environments that we will someday inhabit. We may want more surface area and variety, especially in small, confined living quarters, and I imagine some beautiful fractal habitats.