Friday, October 15, 2010

A New Theory of Everything?

My Zoology Department colleague Jim Pawley (now retired, as I am) gave a talk to the Chaos and Complex Systems Seminar here at the University of Wisconsin this past Tuesday (I had done a dry run of my Istanbul lecture for this group last May), and I thought his summary of the talk would be of interest to MindBlog readers:
"Climate, energy, and the economy: A new Theory of Everything."
During the industrial revolution, science gained a reputation for mathematical accuracy and precision. Scientific models were effective at predicting the performance of simple systems, from those that spun and wove to those that created the worldwide web. Less appreciated was the fact that these technologies worked ONLY because, during this same period, humankind had also acquired access to a new and immense store of controllable energy. Instead, we were taught that these riches were due to increases in "economic efficiency" and, like the sciences, economics promised a future that was both predictable and bright.

Then a few decades ago, one scientific discipline after another seemed to hit a wall: Although the Uncertainty Principle was at first understood only to affect very small systems, scientists began to realize that some uncertainty was unavoidable, and furthermore that, as it propagates through a complex system, the errors become so large that it is hard to have confidence in any but the broadest of predictions: often only those emerging from thermodynamics.

We had entered the Age of Chaos. Although at first some theorists hoped that "faster computers" might be the answer, in the end computers merely clarified two things: 1) that large changes were exponentially less likely than small ones and 2) that the presence of positive feedback makes it very hard to make any confident predictions, while the relative stability of our environment was based on a variety of negative feedbacks. As time went on, it became evident that most aspects of modern life, from arctic ice to advertising, from politics to preaching and from Wall Street to war, acted as though they too were largely chaotic.

In the real world, the one that now entirely relied on the technology, the advent of the Age of Chaos was not much noticed. Accurate predictions were still expected ("If we can put a man on the Moon...") from a science that now recognized that such things were impossible.

This was unfortunate because, over the past 2 centuries fossil-fuel-powered technology had allowed humans and their domestic animals to multiply until their bodies represented over 98% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. More important still, acting either directly, by producing CO2 and other gasses that affect the climate, or indirectly, for instance by the creation of bioactive chemicals, changes to the albedo or barriers to migration, the use of fossil fuel had brought all of the major ecological systems (the atmosphere, forests, oceans etc.) near to the point of collapse.

So now, when society went to science for the precise answers needed to guide a response to these challenges, science had few simple answers, and most of these were from from thermodynamics: There is no free lunch. Use less energy or else.

Previous meetings of this forum have addressed many of these matters individually or in small groups. I have the feeling that the fact that so many of these essential but chaotic and interacting factors are approaching a critical point simultaneously adds an additional level of concern. Perhaps we can use what we have learned about chaotic systems to improve the odds? I hope to get some ideas. Or perhaps to raise the threat level...


  1. Deric, this is a great brief synopsis!

    I would add to the description of our difficulty, that as a culture, our felt sense of the normal way of things--whether natural or one of our artifacts like an economy--still, is that things occur by way of Newtonian Physics; every event is the next link of a linear causal chain: Any solution only requires that we find the problem link. (Freud anyone?)

    But as I understand the way the science of Complexity sees things, large scale events occur from a non-linear type of "causation" called Emergence.

    What's interesting to me about the idea of Emergence, is that its dynamic arises, not from a force in terms of its quantitative features alone, but from forces in terms of some QUALITATIVE features as well.

    So for example, as we analyze our economic melt down, we have to do more than look through a lens of a causal chain and simple force. We have to also analyze the 'quality' behind the the inputs which gave rise to the emergent phenomenon in the first place.

    What this means on the front side of things, is that we can't command and control an economy. What we can do though, is shape the quality of our inputs. Greed based inputs will result in the emergence of results characterized by greed.

  2. Thanks Deric for posting this talk of your colleague Jim. Indeed very interesting and thought provoking.

    As Mike said above, human 'greed' should also be factored in to understand the disasters -- alienating oneself (or the human species as a whole at another level) from the One Universe that is!

    Hope and wish you will provide access to Jim's full article too.

  3. I'll ask Jim if he has any more stuff that I might pass on.

  4. Thanks again, Deric and thanks to James too for the slides - but the only unfortunate thing is that the web link does not work for me!

    it says:
    Page not found
    Sorry, the page you were looking for in the blog Deric Bownds' MindBlog does not exist.

  5. I just brought up today's posting, which is at and all the links are working, I just downloaded the PDF documents...... not sure what is happening with your setup.