The Complexity of Simplicity
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
"Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine."
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Complexity rises spontaneously in nature through processes such as self-organization. Emergent phenomena are common as are emergent traits, not reducible to basic components, interactions, or properties.
Complexity doesnot, therefore, imply the existence of a designer or a design. Complexity does not imply the existence of intelligence and sentient beings. On the contrary, complexity usually points towards a natural source and a random origin. Complexity and artificiality are often incompatible.
Artificial designs and objects are found only in unexpected ("unnatural") contexts and environments. Naturalobjects are totally predictable and expected. Artificial creations are efficient and, therefore, simple and parsimonious. Natural objects and processes are not.
As Seth Shostak notes in his excellent essay, titled "SETI and Intelligent Design", evolution experiments with numerous dead ends before it yields a single adapted biological entity. DNA is far from optimized: it contains inordinate amounts ofjunk. Our bodies come replete with dysfunctional appendages and redundant organs. Lightning bolts emit energy all over the electromagnetic spectrum. Pulsars and interstellar gas clouds spew radiation over the entire radio spectrum. The energy of the Sun is ubiquitous over the entire optical and thermal range. No intelligent engineer - human or not - would be so wasteful.
Confusing artificialitywith complexity is not the only terminological conundrum.
Complexity and simplicity are often, and intuitively, regarded as two extremes of the same continuum, or spectrum. Yet, this may be a simplistic view, indeed.
Simple procedures (codes, programs), in nature as well as in computing, often yield the most complex results. Where does the complexity reside, if not in the simple program thatcreated it? A minimal number of primitive interactions occur in a primordial soup and, presto, life. Was life somehow embedded in the primordial soup all along? Or in the interactions? Or in the combination of substrate and interactions?
Complex processes yield simple products (think about products of thinking such as a newspaper article, or a poem, or manufactured goods such as a sewingthread). What happened to the complexity? Was it somehow reduced, "absorbed, digested, or assimilated"? Is it a general rule that, given sufficient time and resources, the simple can become complex and the complex reduced to the simple? Is it only a matter of computation?
We can resolve these apparent contradictions by closely examining the categories we use.
Perhaps simplicity and complexity arecategorical illusions, the outcomes of limitations inherent in our system of symbols (in our language).
We label something "complex" when we use a great number of symbols to describe it. But, surely, the choices we make (regarding the number of symbols we use) teach us nothing about complexity, a real phenomenon!
A straight line can be described with three symbols (A, B, and the distance betweenthem) - or with three billion symbols (a subset of the discrete points which make up the line and their inter-relatedness, their function). But whatever the number of symbols we choose to employ, however complex our level of description, it has nothing to do with the straight line or with its "real world" traits. The straight line is not rendered more (or less) complex or orderly by our choice oflevel of (meta) description and language elements.
The simple (and ordered) can be regarded as the tip of the complexity iceberg, or as part of a complex, interconnected whole, or hologramically, as encompassing the complex (the same way all particles are contained in all other particles). Still, these models merely reflect choices of descriptive language, with no bearing on reality.