A Hot Rock and a Classroom

Sometimes chaos can be complicated and beautiful.

  1. Relationships can be created and destroyed.
  2. All relationships tend toward empowerment.

I want to tell a few stories about complexity, which isn’t something that we understand that well. I studied physics in undergrad, and learned that really complicated things can be understood the way that we understand heat. When you leave a rock out in the sun, all of the molecules in that rock start vibrating in really complicated ways. In thermodynamics, the physics used to describe pretty much anything that’s really complicated, we use the word the word “entropy” to describe the process of the molecules in the rock going crazy. Entropy is disorder, entropy is chaos. The lecture bugged me because it was happening in a classroom which existed on a giant rock (the earth) that had spent several billion years out in the sun. The fact that the classroom existed meant that the molecules on the rock didn’t JUST get crazy, they also get complex.

In thermodynamics, we take matter and energy to be a unit of analysis. Thermodynamics looks at the way that stuff moves around closed systems like coffee cups. It has two big limitations. First: matter can’t be created or destroyed. If you want more stuff or more energy to move it around, you’ll need to get it from somewhere. Second: all systems tend towards entropy. In the long run everything everywhere gets more chaotic and jumbled. If you want to put milk into your cup of coffee, all you have to do is pour it in. The law of entropy will take over (facilitated by a little stirring), and you’ll get an even mix. Thermodynamics says that taking milk OUT of your cup of coffee is much harder. It’s technically possible, but it takes a lot of energy, way more energy than it takes to put the milk in. Things like to mix together, to become disordered and homogeneous. That’s just the way of the world.

What thermodynamics isn’t good at describing is the way that this tendency toward entropy can create elaborate, beautiful types of order. We know that things go from ordered (milk and coffee) to homogeneous (milk in coffee), but we don’t really get what happens in between. Those elaborate, beautiful swirls as it reaches out to the edge of your cup are an example of the fascinating complexity that happens as systems disorder themselves.

A coffee cup is one example, another is the planet. For eons, the planet earth has functioned a little like a radiator. Energy from fusion in the sun bombards the planet’s surface, and an equal amount of energy gets radiated out into space as heat. No energy is created or destroyed, we’re doing things by the book.

What’s interesting is what HAPPENS to that energy between hitting the planet’s surface in a focused beam and getting radiated off in all directions. This process used to be fairly simple: the earth was a big rock, and it radiated heat just like any other rock left in the sun. But something strange happened. The system which absorbs the sun’s energy and radiates it out again got LESS homogeneous and more intricate. Like the spirals in a coffee cup life shot up from the surface of the earth, steadily growing in complexity until it created all of the complicated problems that our complicated brains grapple with all day. This is the irony: in tending towards disorder, systems generate infinite complexity. That’s what I want to talk about.

In order to think about this complexity, we need to stop thinking about matter and energy. Following an imaginary photon from sun to sugar to lion and back out to space is an interesting exercise, but it doesn’t tell us much about how the lion got there or where the lion’s going. Instead, the only meaningful unit analysis is the FLOWS of matter and energy, the relationships that evolve to get energy from focused to dispersed. Thinking in terms of relationships lets us name and analyze things that are otherwise impossibly complicated. Technically, your relationships with your Aunt Gertrude is a flow of matter and energy- a few soundwaves here, a few electrons shooting through the internet there, but if all you do is track the electrons you’ll have a hard time understanding what’s going on. As a unit of analysis, relationships are a powerful way to understand complexity, and they turn the limitations of thermodynamics completely upside down.

Relationships can be created and destroyed.

The first big bummer of thermodynamics is that it’s zero sum. If I’ve got a system and you’ve got a system, the only way for me to get more stuff is to take it from you, since neither of us can create stuff out of nothing. But relationships are different. If I measure a system not by the amount of stuff but by the sophistication and complexity of its relationships then I CAN make something out of nothing. Without increasing the amount of matter and energy I’m using I can make my system better, and you can make your system better. Relationships allow for the notion of a win-win.

This idea that systems of relationships can get richer and more complicated over time is called emergence, and scientists are just beginning to wrap their heads around how it works. Emergence describes the evolution of life on earth, the creation of the internet, the birth of the civil rights movement and the way that people fall in love. Wherever relationships evolve and change, emergence tends to show up. Think about the difference between a pool table and a classroom. The pool table has plenty of interactions- between the eight ball and the five, between the cue and the table’s edge- but few real relationships. As the pool table busies itself getting played on year after year the eight ball and the five don’t get to know one another any better. They don’t evolve a more sophisticated connection or find new and unexpected ways to suddenly connect with the trimming, they just interact and wear out. A classroom is different. A classroom is greater than the sum of its parts. The kids and the teacher all get to know one another, their interactions evolve to get more sophisticated over time, and an emergent property called education happens as a result. Interactions are boring, they happen again and again until entropy breaks them down. Relationships are self-organizing, they get deeper and they spontaneously branch out to form new relationships.

Of course, there isn’t a binary distinction between interactions and relationships, between pool tables that degrade and classrooms that evolve. Most complex systems have properties of both. When things interact the laws of entropy wear them down, and when things relate the laws of emergence build them up. Thermodynamics has the wearing down part pretty well mapped, the trick to understanding the emergent part is understanding what those relationships are reaching for.

All relationships tend towards empowerment.

I know, I know, I just brought a new age social justice word into a discussion of thermodynamics, but bear with me.

As quickly as you can, please define the following words:

Square
Road
Muffin
Wheel
Hair

Nice work! Now define these words:

Love
Justice
Health
Intelligence
Life

Why are some definitions fairly straightforward, and others the cause of timeless philosophical debates? You can pick up a muffin. It’s got a certain shape, a certain smell, and other physical properties that distinguish it from a lug nut or a cupcake. But you can’t pick up love. I’d like to argue that that’s because the words in the second list are all emergent properties, concepts that relationships organize themselves around which have no tangible manifestation. These abstract concepts that relationships reach for all have similar properties. I like to call these sorts of emergent properties empowerment.

Let’s go back to our imaginary classroom and look at Tania, one of those fidgety kids in the second row. What determines how that particular node in the system will form relationships with the rest of the classroom? Since we’re analyzing things in terms of relationships we need to see her not as an object, but as a big knot of threads. Her relationship with her parents is telling her to sit still and do well, and also telling her to rebel and do poorly. Her relationship with her friends is telling her to act cool and seek respect, her relationship with her body is telling her to run around outside, and bat eyes at the girl in row three. Her job is to optimize across all of these relationships as best she can, to find a course of action that empowers all of these relationships as much as possible. The result is behavior that’s incredibly complicated, but remarkable for it’s ability to hit all the marks. She raises her hand eagerly, waving it back and forth to give her muscles a mini-workout. When the teacher calls on her, she demonstrates that she understands the civil war (to keep her parents happy), then asks a question to undermine the point that the teacher was making (to rebel against her parents), then sits back smugly (to impress her friends), and glances at the girl in row three. There isn’t a supercomputer in the world that could answer the question that well.

For Tania, something is empowering if it lets her optimize across the complicated web of relationships that define her life. If she sees a new relationship that let’s her optimize better than she was before, say a relationship with a new smartphone, she’ll focus on building that relationship. She’ll earn money to buy it, spend time learning how to use it, and otherwise increase the intricacy and complexity of her existence. Every waking hour of her life, she’s working to build new, empowering relationships and to maintain and deepen the ones that she’s already got. It’s this optimizing behavior that leads to the incredible complexity and beauty of emergent systems. When your body optimizes itself you get health. When your relationship with your spouse optimizes itself you get love. When your mind optimizes itself you get intelligence. When Tania optimizes herself she gets happiness. In order to understand the complex matter and energy reality that we live in, we need to understand how relationships reach for this type of empowerment, and why they sometimes fail.

I’ve got a nifty theory for how this “reaching” happens, but I’ll stop before going further out on this intellectual limb (going from thermodynamics to love is already a cardinal sin of physics!). If you’re reading this, I would love your thoughts. What holes exist in this idea? Does it work as an intellectual party trick? Could it be functionally useful to solve problems? If so what sort of problems?

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