Jan 05 2011

How Things Happen

Published by at 3:44 pm under Complexity Theory


uring an evening patrol two policemen notice an elderly gentleman scouring the ground around a lamppost. Venturing over, they ask him what he is doing. “Looking for my car keys,” replies the gentleman. “Are you sure that this is where you dropped them?” asks one of the policemen. “Actually, no. I think I dropped them somewhere by the fence.” replies the gentleman. “Don’t you think you’d be better off looking over there?” the policemen inquire. “Oh, no,” says the gentlemen. “The light’s not as good over there. I’d never find them.”

A happening is a name given to any sort of spontaneous gathering that involves some form of artistic expression. The first ‘Happening’ was thought to be the 1952 performance of Theater Piece No. 1 at Black Mountain College by the composer John Cage. Cage stood reading from a ladder, Charles Olson read from another ladder, Robert Rauschenberg showed some of his paintings and played scratched phonograph records, David Tudor performed on a prepared piano and Merce Cunningham danced.

In the last two decades, a new paradigm for scientific inquiry has been developing based on the acceptance of simple things acting together in complex, network-like relations. Classical science, as exemplified by Newtonian mechanics, is essentially reductionist: it reduces all complex phenomena to their simplest components, and then tries to describe these components in a complete, objective and deterministic manner. Reductionism is the theory that everything can be reduced to smaller and smaller parts. The idea of reductionism, that the world was like a giant machine, was introduced by Rene Descartes. He went so far as to state that animals (unlike humans) could be reduced and explained as automata.

To Descartes, animals were the sum total of the interactions of their parts.

Complexity theory holds that this is inherently impossible, if not delusional. Complex systems, such as organisms, societies or the Internet, have properties—emergent properties—that cannot be reduced to the mere properties of their parts. Moreover, the behavior of these systems has aspects that are intrinsically unpredictable and uncontrollable, and cannot be described in any complete manner.

The root of all generative science is the quality of emergence and the process of self-organization. If we can summarize holism as the “whole is greater than the sum,” then emergence might be paraphrased as “levels of significance arise with new hierarchies.” Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. These properties allow for a holistic interpretation of events, versus the more common linear interpretation seen in reductionism, the heretofore dominant medical worldview.

How does an irreducible, top-down causal power arise? Causal powers such as these are quite unlike anything within the current reductionist understanding of causality and materialism. Reductionism per se does not preclude weak emergent phenomena, but it does imply the ability to understand the emergent in terms of the materialistic phenomena and processes that it emerges from. On the other hand, to a reductionist, strong emergence looks a lot like trying to get something from nothing. All in all, reductionism as an investigatory algorithm is not a completely worthwhile pursuit for the investigation of naturopathic causality: It tends to granularize informational relationships into simple, linear cause-and- effect processes, plus it does a very poor job of accounting for emergence. However, in its defense, reductionism does tend to ‘deliver the goods’ in terms of direct, cause and effect, relationships. Thus it is, and will likely remain, the sine qua non of bullshit detectors.

An example of a systems approach to molecular complexity: A depiction of the Notch signaling system I created in Cytoscape.

The image at the left depicts the Notch Signaling System, a method by which cells communicate by sharing certain surface (Notch) receptors. The Notch signaling system is often disrupted in cancer. The dots (nodes) represent genes and proteins while the lines (edges) represent their interactions. Nodes towards the center share many connections and are known as hubs. Hubs represent areas of potentially greater control through pharmacologic or nutritional means, but carry a greater risk of unwanted consequences. Less connected nodes have a more discreet influence and may afford a safer opportunity for intervention but their influence is less widespread.

Emergent processes, like self-organization, literally create order out of disorder. They are responsible for most of the patterns, structures and orderly arrangements that we find in the natural world, and many of those in the realms of mind, society and culture. Patterns form from a state of non-equilibrium, according to the laws of thermodynamics. From the work of the American mathematical physicist Edwin Thompson Jaynes (1922-1998), it is increasingly becoming accepted that “the more entropy (energy dispersion) gets maximized, the more things happen.” In other words a system tends to adopt a state in which entropy is produced at the greatest rate.

This probably sounds counter-intuitive to most people. How can entropy be a prescription for order, rather than its opposite? According to Jaynes, this is simply because ordered states are more effective at dispersing energy that disordered states. This makes sense if we consider “ordered states” to have accumulated a lot of pent-up energy and thus develop a need to discharge it. This discharge itself is highly ordered. For example, consider a thundercloud containing a built up electrical charge. It might be possible for the energy to dissipate by hopping onto droplets or moisture or dust but this would be a very slow, ineffectual process. Instead the charge grounds itself all at once into an energy bolt and lightning, the dielectric breakdown of air, provides the structured channel for the release of the maximal rate of energy production, creating along the way one of the most basic patterns, the branch, seen in an infinite number of manifestations, from rivers, to blood streams, to neuronal networks.

A single molecule of water does not possess a temperature in any exact sense of the word. Yet a glass of water can most certainly be hot or cold. Temperature thus is an emergent property of water. The nature of emergent properties is to self-organize. Self-organization is a characteristic of all living things, from cell membranes, to organ development, to brain neuroplasticity. Generative forms are multi-centered: there is no single chain of command that runs from the top of the pyramid to the rank and file below. There are many web-like networks that become more or less active, and often their complex behavior stems from interactions between very simple components.

Generative medicine employs the tools of systems biology, including network theory, complexity theory and bioinformatics (a type of information technology) to better understand the complex behaviors seen in both health and disease. These behaviors go beyond simple cause-and-effect relationships and provide for a better understanding of the relationships between the individual parts, whether they are genes, cell organelles, organ systems or even an individual’s place in society. Naturopathic systems analysis can provide better approaches to safer and more individualized treatments of sickness and the enhancement of well-being.

Portions excerpted from Fundamentals of Generative Medicine copyright 2010, Drum Hill Publishing, USA.

One response so far

One Response to “How Things Happen”

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