Conceptual veils

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”   Does complexity both come from and lead to simplicity?   Isn’t it a relative scale like light to heavy?

A catalytic chemical reaction is a fine example of what he means, I think.  The before and after states are simple equilibria.   Complexity arises from a third molecule that has the capacity to temporarily couple and transform one simple state into another.  Complexity is the relationship of the three. It does not eliminate the essential roles of the two simpler states.

When we look at questions about complex systems we should similarly expect to find relative simplicities on either side of a complex intermediary.   Consider the question, How and why do living things reproduce?

  • Simplicity 1 :  molecules that are chemically compatible tend toward intimacy
  • Complexity arises:  the double helix of DNA
  • Simplicity 2 :  replication creates self-sustaining patterns

Before the double helix was understood, a veil hung over our understanding of the depth of the fundamental relationship between structure and reproduction.  The double helix itself was a mystery but so too were the pervasiveness of simplicity 2 and the importance of simplicity 1.  Watson and Crick and associates got at the complexity by first understanding the simplicities better than anyone else.

Science doesn’t deal well with deep mysteries.  Concepts are developed that allow for the discussion of observations and measurements despite no known causative agent or mechanism.  These concepts are, by definition, inferior.  In the case of reproduction, the pre-mechanistic scientific concept was “heritability.”  Scientists accepted that it was just a matter of time before a mechanism was discovered.  They kept doing their best thinking but left room for more.   The double helix came into focus and the veil lifted.

In theoretical physics, the most fundamental complex system is characterized by the question, How and why does something that behaves in predictable, stable ways exist? The answer, by default, has been terribly muddled.   All we have to deal with are concepts!   No one, despite what convoluted discussions and calculations imply, has seen an atom.   The onslaught of non-real concepts has made us forget that there is no reason to reject a real causative mechanism for material complexity, one that results in “simple” explanations of other emergent phenomena.   Quantum mechanics, Newtonian physics and special relativity create so many conceptual cross-currents that any simplicity 1 and simplicity 2 are hopelessly lost like a boat in a storm.

Consider this possibility –

  • Simplicity 1:  Nothingness can be somethingness
  • Complexity arises: Cosmological coherence with capacity for both redundancy and novelty
  • Simplicity 2: Autocatalytic, scaling phenomena lead to predictability and stability from atomic scale up

What the hell is cosmological coherence?  I have an idea, but until people acknowledge that existing concepts are worth sacrificing, it will fall on deaf ears.  I do have hope that helping define the simplicities might set the search on the right track.  (Thus the preoccupation with nothingness.)

A cosmological mechanism as organized as DNA – but without the organic requirements – is almost certainly at play.   If only we can lift the conceptual veils.