Our Tower Of Babel, Ctd

May 20 2012 @ 10:32pm

795px-Brueghel-tower-of-babel

A reader writes:

You quote Robert Bellah:

"The more complex, the more fragile. Complexity goes against the second law of thermodynamics, that all complex entities tend to fall apart, and it takes more and more energy for complex systems to function."

Utterly untrue. Bellah is making the fundamental mistake of confusing the fate of the individual entity with the fate of the larger dynamic system of which it's part. A quick glance at the overall arc of the 4.5 billion year evolution of life on earth shows the inevitable march of complexity. Complexity does not "go against" the second law, any more than does the metabolism of your individual body—it uses it, through a related, albeit higher-order mechanism, to advance higher and higher stages of self-organization.

More complex systems are in fact far more efficient in their use of energy than less complex ones, which—from the thermodynamic perspective—is precisely what drives evolution (biological, social, technological and mental). Dawkins might not like it, but from the system's science perspective, evolution is not directionless: Increasing complexity is built into the fabric of the universe.

Bellah not only has it deeply wrong on the science, he has it deeply wrong on the implications for philosophy; at least to judge by this short snippet you quote: more complex is not more fragile, it is more robust.

His outlook reads as dour and pessimistic. That's not the world as it is—that's Bellah's projection onto it, based on a deep misreading of the interplay of thermodynamics and biology. The truth may be something almost 180 degrees different—something much more akin to Malick's vision in "The Tree of Life:" not only is the evolution of biological complexity inevitable, given sufficiently propitious initial conditions, so is the evolution of mental, emotional and spiritual complexity—including consciousness, empathy, compassion, and grace. To cite Einstein, "The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe."

Bellah's science—again, to judge by a very small snippet—is inherently hostile, at least from our human perspective. Were his science right, we would all perforce become mid-50's French existentialists. But it's not. The applicable science is in fact friendly—I would say, grandly, magnificently friendly, even if, from the individual human perspective, humbling, awe-inspiring, or, like Krishna in his cosmic form, or Yahweh in the whirlwind, sometimes terrible to behold.