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Part 1.
Metabolic Metaphysics
Part 2.
Star Larvae
Part 3.
Space Brains

The Star Larvae HypothesisAstrotheology
Nature's Plan for Humankind
Part 1. Metabolic Metaphysics

Complexity Theory and the Retrieval of Vitalism

The new science of complexity, or complex systems theory, retrieves the discarded doctrine of vitalism. Complexity theory assigns to nature a capacity to self organize—to construct complex structures and processes spontaneously.

Science is undergoing a de-volution. It is backtracking. Scientists are reviving ways of thinking about nature that they previously had abandoned as unscientific.

Central among the old notions being revived is nature's inherent capacity to organize itself. Terms such as "self-organization," "emergence," "dissipative systems," and "autopoeisis," compose the language of the science of complexity theory or complex systems theory. This discipline cuts a wide swath, as it tries to account for every sort of complex system, from biological cells and planetary biospheres, to social and economic trends, to galaxies and beyond. Disregarding the categorical boundary that normally separates the organic from the inorganic, complexity theorists propose that spontaneous organization is fundamental to the physical world. The home page of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Complex Systems captures the interdisciplinary ambitions of the new science:

"The Center is based on the recognition that many different kinds of systems which include self-regulation, feedback, or adaptation in their dynamics, may have a common underlying structure despite their apparent differences. Moreover, these deep structural similarities can be exploited to transfer methods of analysis and understanding from one field to another. In addition to developing deeper understandings of specific systems, interdisciplinary approaches should help elucidate the general structure and behavior of complex systems and move us toward a deeper appreciation of the general nature of such systems."

Other institutions exploring and developing applications of complexity theory include the Santa Fe Institute and the ECCO Research Group in Brussels, Belgium. An ambitious survey of the principles and applications of this interdisciplinary approach is Erich Jantsch's, Self Organizing Universe. Additional resources that describe the new discipline are easy to find online.

Information, Please

"The universe is laying the foundation of a new type, where our present theories of order will appear as trivial. If remembered, they would be remembered or discerned in the future as trivialities, gradually fading into nothingness. This is the only possible doctrine of a universe always driving on to novelty."

— Alfred North Whitehead
"Process and Reality", in Essays in Science and Philosophy.

Complexity theorists in effect are retrieving the old doctrine of vitalism, but extending its reach beyond biology. The doctrine proposed that nature's animate qualities stem from an occult "life energy," a force ostensibly transparent to scientific investigation. The new science of complexity does not propose that occult forces animate nature, but rather that nature possesses within itself the capacity to organize complex systems. Surely vitalism per se is a cardinal sin, or a least a serious intellectual faux pas, in scientific culture. But no matter how many terms science coins to name nature's tendency to self organize, the causal chain that produces complex systems remains mysterious, an occult life force and "self organization" being operationally indistinguishable concepts. The difference is one of metaphysical assumption: Does there need to be a ghost in the machine?

"The new animism is emerging for many reasons. For example, once the idea of a supernaturalistic creation is fully overcome, the idea returns that the universe must be self-organizing and therefore composed of self-moving parts. Also, insofar as dualistic assumptions are fully overcome and human experience is accepted as fully natural, it begins to seem probable that something analogous to our experience and self-movement is a feature of every level of nature."

— David Ray Griffin
God and Religion in the Postmodern World

Science rejects animating spirits, but then tries to market its own brand of invisible controller, under the name, information. This causal agent inheres somehow in the geometrical arrangements of particles. The distinction between the arrangements of particles and any information contained therein remains to be articulated. In the meantime, under the spell of "information," science is led into absurdities, such as research into "The Algorithmic Origins of Life."

One arrangement of atoms constitutes a living cell. Another arrangement constitutes a formerly living cell. The arrangement of atoms seems to make an important difference. But attributing the difference to differences in "information" bumps the explanation back a step to the question, "What is it about information that makes the difference?" Invoking information is a stealth maneuver by science to retrieve vitalism without admitting the deed. It complicates descriptions without contributing to explanations.

What Causes Complexity?

Science concerns itself with, among other things, causality—relations defined by cause and effect. Objects fall to the ground because gravity pulls them to the ground, or because gravity warps spacetime in a way such that objects will travel toward the ground, or because somehow or other something, call it gravity, causes objects to fall to the ground. This is the normal scientific view. Science does not say that the falling of objects being correlated statistically with the presence of gravity is just a coincidence. Events do not occur merely in patterns of correlation. Events occur because they are caused to occur. But if this is the case, then what can be made of a science of self-organization, which concedes that the most interesting structures in nature are not caused in the usual sense but, rather, cause themselves to come into being? They "self-organize."

Complexity theory, insofar as it grants to natural processes the power to self-organize, to self-create, constitutes, if not a vitalism itself, then a kind of pantheism, in which nature's fecundity buzzes with divine self-causality. In his dealings with Moses, the God of western monotheism called his own name "I am that I am," laying claim to the power of self-organization. The Greek gods similarly were self-created; they were not products of any discernible causal chain. Complex systems are godlike, then, and complexity theory is a brand of theology. It redefines in its own terms occurrences that in prescientific language were referred to as "miracles," namely, events of self organization. The rhetoric and formulas of complexity theory do little to dispel the prospect of miracles. The whole scientific discipline of complexity theory can be seen as a vitalist, pantheist mysticism with spontaneous or emergent self-organization filling in for the abandoned life force or entelechy of the older vitalist formulations. Complexity theory is science's bow to the miraculous, an ironic shift in sentiment, given the origins of modern science. (And the possibility of making inroads through this shared borderland are not lost on the Intelligent Design advocates who embrace complexity theory.)

During the Enlightenment, rationalism, empiricism, and secularism collectively delivered to the Western mind an alternative worldview to that of church dogma. As a legacy of the Enlightenment, metaphysical concepts, such as soul and spirit, fell into disrepute among intellectuals. But these notions did not die. Beyond seminaries and houses of worship, philosophers of various stripes continued to argue for spooky influences that lent form to the expressions of nature. Even during, and as a reaction to, the Enlightenment, some philosophers, such as Hegel, argued against a strict materialism and for the notion of a formative spirit (of "the times" or a "national" spirit) that nudges the flow of historical events toward greater complexity (alternatively, toward "the good"). A list of cognates for such an influencer might include Henri Bergson's elan vital, Plato's metaphysical forms, Adam Smith's invisible hand, the Will of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Tielhard de Chardin's radial energy, Freud's libido, Whitehead's Creativity, Reich's orgone, and Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields. Tao, chi, shakti, kundalini and similar concepts from Asian metaphysics illustrate the universality of the idea that nature possesses an innate organizational capacity. Since modern complexity theory began its long gestation in the disciplines of general systems theory and cybernetics during the early years of computer/cognitive science, the metaphysical underground has been quaking and in places breaking the surface, delivering a spookiness into the scientific world.

Resurrected vitalist concepts, with technically polished names, such as "spontaneously self-organizing dissipative systems," that connote a scientific rigor, are disrupting the marketplace of ideas. Semi-adopted by science, they remain rooted in a metaphysics that is at odds with the established scientific model of the world. That is, they seem to be at odds with, or at least resistant to, the venerable Second Law of Thermodynamics.

NEXT > Entropy: Nature's Preferred Direction?

The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which    


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