Complexity, or the Democracy of Matter, Part II: A Networkological Approach

Complexity: Why Brains Beat Vortexes

But are brains more democratic than vortexes? Certainly they are more complex, and the question is getting at precisely what this distinction means. In a vortex of water molecules, all the molecules that compose the vortex are exactly the same. That is, while there’s macro and micro levels, beyond this, there’s no long term structure.  And this is why as soon as metastable energetic conditions vanish, the vortex collapses.

Brains, on the other hand, make sure that they have a continually meta-stable supply of energy, by means of the support structure commonly called a body, which eats food, etc. But this means that the brain must also support the body in question, they don’t just exist ‘in vats’, so to speak. Unlike vortexes, bodies are specialized for the environments in which they were evolved. And brains are full of specializations as well, and specialization implies differentiation and limitation.

Brains are specialized in highly specific ways, however. What brains do best is adapt, and they skirt right in between specialization and flexibility, by means of a higher level of democracy. For in the type of democracty we see in brains, it is not so much that everyone votes in terms of which direction the vortex as a whole should go, and which particular water molecule decides to do this, but rather, which particular cluster of brain cells gets to determine the decision made by the whole brain. Of course, this happens at many levels of scale, and this is what is so wonderful about emergence, the fact that it opens up many quasi-levels of scale in between the macro in the process of emerging and the micros from which it is composed. Each cascades up and down until equilibrium is reestablished.

This is what deep, complex democracy looks like, and the brain is the model. The brain develops deep specializations. Difference is encouraged in every possible manner, such that there are multiple, slightly different copies of most pathways in the brain, allowing for the maximum potential for divergence. But when the brain eventually decides, it chooses specifically which set of hyperspecialized clusters decide for the whole. This is what democracy and difference look like when combined together. This is what is known as complexity.

Complexity takes two forms. It can be dynamic, or static. Dynamic complexity is precisely what we have just described. But if you take a snapshot of a brain, at any given moment, you see its formal architecture, the intertwined differences it had to build in matter to support its dynamic processes. This is the other side of complexity, the static side. Both are complexity, just of different sorts.


But how does the brain vote? Unlike a vortex, in which everything is connected simply to its neighbors, and each neighbor’s vote counts equally, the brain is much more complex. There is massive division of labor. But the brain has massive feedback between parts and levels to compensate. This communication takes the form of the following: can I guess what you are going to say or do next? Most of the brain’s energy is spent on having various parts predict what other parts are going to say/do next. If they can, then they are said to ‘agree’, and there’s no problem, things go to the next level. For example, if I can predict that when I scan my eyes across the room, my room will continue like it always has, then I don’t have to pay too much attention. But if all of a sudden a black hole opens up midway in my living, room, my perceptual cortexes and my motor cortexes are going to predict different things, sending a message higher up the chain – don’t step into the black hole! And then, of course, other parts of my brain will start wondering if maybe I’m dreaming . . .

Either way, as Jeff Hawkins describes it, the brain’s cortexes function as one huge, intertwined, feedback mechanism which works by ‘memory-prediction.’ Remember and predict is what brains do, or at least, what cortexes do. And if you wire them together right, you get the most democratic body on the planet. And there’s even a giant modulatory system, the limbic system, which helps deal with things like focus. In times of crisis, global functioning it kept focused, while during times when ‘outside the box’ thinking is needed, the brain naturally seeks out more diverse opinions on matters. We all know we think differently when someone goes to hit us and we have to duck, and when in a state of deep reverie, we let our brain jump from topic to topic. Jumping between more and less democratic, the brain gives us the maximum stable diversity possible for the task at hand, namely, surviving, and in a manner in which complexity as a whole can increase.

And this is why the brain isn’t perhaps the most strictly democratic entity on the planet, if we take democracy to mean equality. Surely the visual and auditory cortexes are generally kept out of the loop of decision making, though they do their part in deciding how to recognize what we see. But they don’t decide what we will eat, say, do, etc. Does this mean that democracy relies on a form of inequality here?

Yes, it does. Likewise, while the brain gets to decide, the feet that walk don’t. And the evolutionary population as a whole gets to decide the general form the body takes, not even the individual organism itself. What gives?!

Let us say this. If vortexes show us complete equality in democracy in matter, brains show us the maximum level of development of democracy and diversity, or complexity, in matter. Brains aren’t completely democratic. But they are the closest things we’ve got. The more diversely democratic, the more complex. And, as we will see, the most robust, that is, the most sustainable complexity over time.

And this is why, according to network ethics, the primary value is the promotion of robustness, that is, sustainable complexity. Pure democracy can often lead to collapse, and vortexes in fact collapse as soon as they run out of steam. But organisms, and their brains, their evolutionary populations and the cultures they build, are the closest things to democracy and diversity in matter. And evolution, when it works, takes this to greater heights.

Our goal then, according to (the fundamental maxim of) network ethics: “let all your networks operate at maximum robustness.” And I use ‘let’ here as in the widest sense of ‘foster, help, assist, allow,’ and ‘your’ to mean all those you are connected to, which means all, but differently. Understanding how to apply the maxim to particular circumstances, well that can be addressed another time. But it seems to me that the task is at least clear. Can we evolve? What would it means for us, as a species, to evolve, to evolve biologically, culturally? To me, it seems, increase in curiosity and decrease in paranoia, at multiple levels of scale, are key, at least in relation to where we are in our evolutionary development.

All of these issues are discussed at length in my works on network ethics. But at least from what is described in these two posts, we have a sense of the ways in which emergence and complexity can be made into rigorous philosophical concepts, and in manner which describes at least the general parameters of the ethical stakes involved.

~ by chris on January 28, 2011.

3 Responses to “Complexity, or the Democracy of Matter, Part II: A Networkological Approach”

  1. Robustness, not resilience!

    Resilience is a dumb ability to maintain whatever state you happen to be in.

    Robustness is the power to maintain a tenable state.


  2. […] We come back to the centrality of Dissensus. Unless we can find a dynamic interaction between realms with seemingly incompatible differences of outlook and expression then we have failed one of the deepest manifestations of the evolutionary process. If dissensus of viewpoints and between disparate ways of life cannot interact, then we leave out the social and mental equivalent to genetic variability within our social and mental evolution. […]

  3. right up my street.

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