Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Remarks on complexity

"We exist in a real universe many billions of years old. We live on a planet several billion years old. The tendency existing within this universe to produce more and more complex relationships had reached the point here on Earth, after a billion or so years, of producing self-replicating compounds which came to have the characteristics of life. All forms of life share built-in goals of surviving, of reproducing, and of expanding their numbers. The universe's tendency toward complexity continued to operate within the field of living things, once they had appeared. With living things, this tendency took the form of evolution."

Harvey Jackins

Wonderful mysticism! It amuses me that in allegedly non-theistic movements, some kind of theism creeps in (or is it a "tendency to creep in") by the back door. Evolution, of course, is presented in the next paragraph as a ladder leading upwards to man (another potent idea of "progress"). I should congratulate him on his "field of living things", which seems to anticipate Sheldrake's "morphological fields" by some decades.
(Just in passing, I like the superfluous and amusing adjective "real" before "universe", which suggests there could be an artificial universe, or it could all be an illusion - reminds me of Peter Cook to Dudley Moore on the part of Tarzan, a part for which "two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement"!)

A link with this "tendency toward complexity" of the universe (makes it almost sentient) to evolution, and all the while, the old, old enlightenment idea of "progress" in the background. In fact, the Universe's "complexity" is actually an increase in disorder.
Schoedinger in his book "What is Life?" (extract below) took this more sophisticated view, the universe actually tends to disorder (entropy) and "complexity" in terms of stars burning themselves up; unfortunately he coined the term "negative entropy" in his discussion of life, which has had all sorts of bad effects in the popular mind, as it is assumed that life has some kind of "negative entropy" taken in isolation, and which is a kind of science fiction object like antigravity! Freud of course, managed to use the phrase in relation to sexuality, which is hardly surprising for someone with such an "idee fixe"!
In fact, what he meant was that life can make use of "free energy" to stave off the tendency to maximum entropy (in that case, death) - the free energy (which he terms negative entropy) coming from the surroundings, and ultimately from solar energy, so that overall the total entropy in the solar system (for instance) is still increasing, despite the areas where there is free energy available, mainly because the universe is random not ordered.
His views however were criticised by Popper as he took "negative entropy" to be a characteristic of life. When Schroedinger remarked "Thus the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (=fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment", Popper countered that this was not only true of life:
Now admittedly organisms do all this. But I denied, and I still deny,  Schrödinger's thesis that it is this which is characteristic of life, or of organisms; for it holds for every steam engine. In fact every oil-fired boiler and every self-winding watch may be said to be "continually sucking orderliness from its environment".

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