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Reflections on Per Bak’s How Nature Works

Reading Per Bak’s “How Nature Works,” (1996) I came to think of and reflect on a couple of ideas. One can relate self-organized criticality and punctuated equilibrium on uniformitarianism, ideas of God by 17th-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, and Marx’s ideas of communism.

On Uniformitarianism

Back in college, we were taught uniformitarianism as the underlying principle in most geologic processes. Mountains form because of the gradual collision of two slabs of Earth’s crust and layered sediments form because of the gradual piling up of silt over millions of years.

However, it seems that uniformitarianism as a geologic principle of how landscapes form and how organisms evolve is incomplete. What can explain sudden events like mass extinction, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes? Uniformitarianism may work for extended periods of little activity but fails for instances like sudden events that quickly and radically change the Earth’s surface. Apparently even Charles Darwin loved the idea of uniformitarianism so far to deny the existence of mass extinction events. He was wrong.

Modern science tells us that extinction events do happen. To reconcile the existence of such events with gradual changes, one may consider the idea that geologic and biological events may alternate between long periods of gradual change (uniformitarianism) and bursts of radical changes (catastrophism).

On God

In 1929, Albert Einstein told Jewish leader Rabbi Goldstein about his views on God. He said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind… “

Learning about the ideas of self-organization in complex systems, I become more inclined to share the same viewpoint. Looking at how the universe self organizes to complexity through some mathematical rules, such as elementary particles becoming molecules and becoming ever more complex to give life and all the beautiful landscapes. And to think that these things don’t need to be designed but rather merely allowed to interact with each other in the dynamic harmony between order and chaos. Reading a bit about Spinoza’s God in his seminal work, Ethics, I came to realize that Spinoza’s God is nature itself that encompasses all things and all rules.

How complex things and patterns that seem “designed” can arise given simple rules with a feedback loop is an interesting finding. Evolution by natural selection, for example, is one such rule or “algorithm” that can give rise to seemingly designed organisms with complicated organs. Such rules can be simple enough that they can be approximated using code in a computer. Yet these simple rules yield powerful results.

If there’s an intelligent grand designer to the universe, that grand designer probably didn’t design the complex things we see today. That designer may have instead come up with the rules that can give rise to complex things.

About Complexity from Simple Rules

Conway’s Game of Life is one of hundreds or probably thousands of algorithms that show how complex patterns and movements can arise from simple initial conditions and simple rules.

I find it to be a metaphor for life itself. Complexity arising from simple particles → molecules → cells → organs → people → societies, each with some guiding rules. It’s complexity that’s built up from complexity.

How in a primordial soup of sorts, amino acids eventually self-organized by some rules to form the first organisms. And how millions of years, an algorithm called evolution by natural selection eventually led to diverse life we see now.

There is a myth that complexity only arises through a more complex thing or maybe even some intelligent design. There is a new paradigm.

It has been shown over and over that complexity can arise from interactions of elements with simple rules. What looks “designed” doesn’t necessarily need to have a central controller that designed it. How interactions of cells in some kinds of fungus can optimize its shape to maximize resource intake. How people interact with each other to cause the Bitcoin price to rise and then burst. And most importantly, how our favorite memes are the result of 13.8 billion years-worth of complex particle interactions since the Big Bang.

About Self-organized Criticality

The principles for the dynamics of avalanches are the same principles for rivers and earthquakes: self-organized criticality.

Is it possible to extend the same idea to the stock market? An avalanche on a hill or a huge earthquake may follow the same principles as a sudden drop in the stock market. The idea of self-organized criticality is very interesting! It may be some rule that encompasses many disparate things.

Another principle underlying complex systems is referred to by the author as “punctuated equilibrium” or “bursty” behavior. Complex systems often work in bursts. They are characterized by long periods of little movement or change and then short periods of rapid changes. These changes approximately follow a mathematical distribution called Power Law. This pattern applies to earthquakes, avalanches, evolution, and mass extinction events, among others.

Right now, we are possibly undergoing a mass extinction event and climate change. Do these events follow the definition of a burst?

High temperatures can increase soil bacteria activity to generate more carbon dioxide in a feedback loop. Warmer temperatures may also cause the oceans to release CO2 into the atmosphere faster, again in another feedback loop.

Chaos theory tells us that a simple feedback loop can yield results of ever-increasing magnitudes. I think of how the feedback between a microphone and a speaker quickly generates a loud, piercing noise. This is where the popular saying “a flap of a butterfly wing can eventually lead to a tornado some thousands of kilometers away.” With a feedback loop, this is very possible.

With the ongoing water issue in Metro Manila, one question that came to my mind is how will rising temperatures and ever-increasing population impact freshwater availability? Might we see a sudden burst in water scarcity - one so quick and severe it’s hard to catch up once it happens? And how will the problem of water scarcity affect social dynamics and politics?

The scary thing is people are almost never as alarmed as they should be. Some residents of Tacloban didn’t evacuate because they already “experienced huge typhoons before.” Residents near landslide-prone areas, do not evacuate because “no landslide has ever occurred in their years of stay.” Might it be that people are similarly complacent with other events like climate change, mass extinctions, epidemics,  and water scarcity?

On Economic Systems

Marx’s ideas of communism are possibly based on intuition and his observations of events happening around him. They didn’t have millions of data as we do now to allow them to check empirically how humans behave on which to base an economic system.

Communism, summarized in Marx’s Communist Manifesto as a system that abolishes all private property, may turn out to be a system of control. In the absence of private corporations, a central government may be mandated to control everything in the economy – prices of goods, what goods to produce and how much, how to sell, who gets which and how much. From a computational standpoint, one may think that the computational complexity of such a system is huge. Who’s to think and decide? And how do they plan to execute? Is it even possible to implement one? And given human behavior, is it really the best approach to wealth-production and sharing?

The way I see it, Its over-reliance on human judgment to control everything does not fit with our modern notions of complex systems — that do not require central control to calculate all decisions. Rather, local interactions give way for emergent patterns. This principle applies to ants building colonies and finding food, as well as traffic self-organizing even without a traffic enforcer. Sometimes, enforcers controlling traffic can ironically make traffic slower.

I find that Adam Smith’s invisible hand, possibly also a product of intuition, interestingly more closely matches the ideas of complexity science. That the interactions of entities will give rise to the prices, what goods to sell, and so forth. The invisible hand is like evolution by natural selection — both are optimization processes. While natural selection optimizes organism survivability, the invisible hand optimizes the production and distribution of wealth. Whether or not the optimization is ideal is a question for another day.

In contrast to capitalism, communism wants to take away this dynamic property of a social system and wants to introduce encompassing control to the entire economy. What optimization algorithm will be used in this case?

With all the data on how society behaves, we may have a more reliable and definite way to decide which economic system will work and which is doomed to fail. From our knowledge of real-world systems, we understand that they are inherently dynamic — always changing and never settles at a fixed equilibrium. Most arise not because they were controlled but because their parts interact with one another. Do societies follow the same principles? Most likely. Among all systems, there are few more complex than societies. They are made up of billions of unique people, who individually can make unpredictable decisions. Once we quantified societies, our next questions are whether or not we control them, give them autonomy, or a mix of both? Which to control? How much? And what aspects to optimize and how?

Traditional ideas of communism and capitalism need to be revamped for the new fast-changing, data-generating, technological world. I strongly believe we must move forward from an intuition-based approach to a data-driven approach when analyzing economic systems. The details of this, I don’t know. But at the very least, we can form new mental models on how to perceive economic systems.