A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell
Good Morning 21st Century
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Having been deeply enamored of physics and reductionist goals, I was going through my own antireductionist epiphany,
realizing that not only did current day physics have little, if anything, to say on the subject of intelligence but that even neuroscience, which actually focused on those brain cells, had very little understanding of how thinking arises from brain activity.
If you went to primary school after 1985, you might not need this book. Given the current state of education, however, I feel confident recommending Complexity: A Guided Tour to everyone who plans to live for any length of time in the 21st century.
Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity is essential reading. It’s a book whose capacity to inspire delight in your own intelligence makes Mitchell’s work akin to instructions for a Sol Lewitt drawing. With attentive reading, you’ll soon produce a competent understanding of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” leap millenia of physics, and turn a sharp corner with history.
You will even know, unlike less fortunate people, why it’s vitally important to catch up with the 21st century.
Descartes’ Flaw: Thinking about part of the whole
Since the time of Descartes, Newton, and other founders of the modern scientific method until the beginning of the twentieth century, a chief goal of science has been a reductionist explanation of all phenomena in terms of fundamental physics.
Mitchell begins with an explanation of scientific reductionism. In the 1600’s, Descartes described the approach of breaking complicated things down into parts and dealing with them “in order” from simplest to most complex.
For two centuries, the science produced by reducing things made the world seem an increasingly reasonable place, a finished and perfect creation. Its know-ableness and predictability were, unfortunately, fabricated.
Many late nineteenth-century scientists agreed with the well-known words of physicist Albert Michelson, who proclaimed in 1894 that “it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all phenomena which come under our notice.”
Of course within the next thirty years, physics would be revolutionized by the discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics.
The twentieth century, far from finding the world an orderly place, instead discovered chaos.
A foldout map of uncertainty
Mitchell’s affable handling of exceedingly subtle distinctions and the highly abstract science involved in this shift make Complexity a friendly Fodor’s Guide to the history of physics, presenting highlights of lesser known but expertly recommended moments of philosophic brinksmanship.
Along the way you get a really superb armchair traveller’s history of science with neatly capsulized contributions of Galileo, Newton, the aforementioned Descartes as well as Pierre Simon Laplace, who, following the implication of the science of these giants, suggested if all the rules were followed correctly, every outcome would be known, “it was possible in principle, to predict everything for all time.”
Except, as Heisenberg later demonstrated, not so much.
As the recent collapse of world financial markets demonstrates, we’ve arrived at a cultural tipping point where dealing in outdated ideas or being fashionably out of fashion, may prove a fatal laxity.
Nostalgia for the flat world will punishingly limit participation in the round one.
Your body is a temple of complexity
Make no mistake about it: the concept of bodies with minds sitting in them, driving them around and making them do things was, at its peak, already very 19th century.
Nobody thinks of bodies as provisioned with such limitation these days, yet the language of practice still often proposes a yoga based in these terms.
We need to educate ourselves. If minds are not separate entities, if the activities of our minds are the near relatives of the actions of our bodies, what relationship is there between our sense of mindedness, and our certainty of our physical life?
How are minds in possession of bodies? How do bodies think?
Such questions are the topics of complex systems, an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, into a collective whole that creates patterns, uses information, and, in some cases, evolves and learns.
The word complex comes from the Latin root plectere: to weave, entwine. In complex systems, many simple parts are irreducibly entwined, and the field of complexity itself an entwining of many different fields.
The Universe, it would seem, is in the details
Mind and body, then, are likely candidates for the “irreducibly entwined,” meaning, to speak of one as though it could be understood without the other is to stumble with Descartes. When it comes to understanding bodies and life itself, Mitchell is keen to guide us through the concept of computation.
Though our common way of talking about computing usually refers to computers as machines, Mitchell describes computation as a work of sense-making and presents it as a primary activity of cells and organisms. After explaining the contributions of Godel and Turing to mathematics, she leads us through Stephen Wolfram’s discovery of the emergence of complex pattens from simple rules.
She quotes Wolfram,
It took me several years to absorb how important this was. But in the end, I realized that this one picture contains the clue to what’s perhaps the most long-standing mystery in all of science: where, in the end, the complexity of the world comes from.
In other words, rather than large events producing complex situations that affect things in traumatic ways, much of what occurs in living things is the result of the steadily accruing effects of very small exponentially repeating interactions. The Universe, it would seem, is in the details.
Like that of the brain and ant colonies, the immune system’s behavior arises from the independent actions of myriad simple players with no one actually in charge. The actions of the simple players – B cells, T cells, macrophages, and the like–can be viewed as a kind of chemical signal-processing network in which the recognition of an invader by one cell triggers a cascade of signals among cells that put into play the elaborate complex response.
Graduate school in a box
Mitchell writes about science the way Julia Child writes about deboning a raw chicken all by yourself: you may wonder if you can really do it, but then ambition gets the best of you, and you throw caution to the wind. Good for you. Mitchell really is an excellent guide, the sort of friend who doesn’t show off, and she has an evident affection for her work that rubs off on you.
Complexity: A Guided Tour will gently and reliably carry any psychology/ anthropology/ sociology/ English major, artist, or yoga teacher across the threshold of a new born science. Mitchell brings readers usefully up to date on our best ideas of how bodies know, how groups of animals, people and other organisms behave differently than individuals, and what immune systems have in common with financial market crises.
Understanding Complexity will make you a competent contributor to the challenges of our time rather than a conservator of an inaccurate, misguiding history of the past. When you turn to look back after your guided tour with Melanie Mitchell, the twentieth century seems like an awfully long time ago, and that’s because it was.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.