Complexity Theory and the Nature of Consciousness

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When it comes to understanding the nature of consciousness in the universe, there are two main philosophical approaches. One is panpsychism, in which consciousness pervades the universe at all levels. The other is emergentism, in which consciousness only appears once the universe has reached a certain level of complexity.

Complexity theory has often been seen as supporting emergentism, largely because of its apparent similarity. In complexity theory, groups of interacting units self-organize into larger-scale structures. This can be seen with groups of cells forming tissues or entire animals, animals working together in colonies, and collections of animals giving rise to ecosystems. In all these cases, the properties and structures found at higher levels arise from the bottom up, rather than through top-down planning and design.

In spite of its emergent tendencies, some scientists say that if you apply the principles of complexity theory to all levels of scale in the universe — from the quantum realm to cities and ecosystems —complexity theory may actually provide support for panpsychism.

In a paper and video:

Neil Theise, MD, a diagnostic liver pathologist and adult stem cell researcher at the Beth Israel Medical Center of Albert Einstein College of Medicine takes this approach to consciousness, or what he refers to as sentience.

Theise draws on the work of Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, who coined the term autopoiesis — which literally means “self creation.” Autopoiesis was Varela’s and Maturana’s attempt to define life, or the presence of sentience or “mind.”

According to autopoiesis, a living system has four main features:

1) a boundary that separates the “being” from its surroundings,
2) processes that can sense and react,
3) a nervous system that connects external information with internal processes,
4) communication channels between the being and its external environment.

These criteria can be applied equally to simple cells — such as the Paramecium — and complex organisms with a central nervous system such as people, elephants and whales. One key feature of autopoiesis as defined by Varela and Maturana is that it sets the lower limit of life as the cell. This implies that sentience in the universe only begins to exist at this level of complexity or higher.

Theise uses complexity theory to expand on autopoiesis. The self-organizing nature of complexity theory occurs at all levels of scale, from the very simplest to the most complex. For this to happen, systems must display four characteristics:

1) a large number of interacting units,
2) negative feedback loops that maintain balance,
3) no sensing of the entire system by one individual component, and
4) limited randomness.

To give a better sense of these characteristics, Theise uses an ant colony as an example. In this case, the individual units are the ants, which self-organize into a larger-scale structure, a functioning colony. If you don’t have a lot of ants, the colony cannot function at the higher level of complexity, and you end up with just a bunch of ants doing their own thing.

Negative feedback loops in the ant colony keep the conditions of the colony within a constant range. In actuality, the level is not entirely static, but oscillates within that set range. A thermostat in a room represents a simple negative feedback loop — if the room is too hot, the thermostat turns off the furnace. In an ant colony, negative feedback loops keep the conditions of the colony from wildly fluctuating or shifting too far in one direction, such as preventing ants from gathering more food when they already have plenty.

Also, there is no single ant monitoring the entire colony, although what each ant perceives and how they behave can influence the self-organization of the colony. Finally, there is some level of randomness in the colony — if you watch ants walking in a line, a few will stray from the path. This opens up opportunities for the colony, such as finding new sources of food. However, too much randomness will not allow the colony to self-organize, and can lead to chaos.

These characteristics — as defined by autopoiesis and complexity theory — can be found in other complex systems, including cities, cultures, political systems and ecosystems. Theise says that they can also be seen in some simpler forms at levels smaller than the cell.

He gives the example of the DNA helix, a type of biomolecule. The molecules that make up DNA allow electrons to flow along the helix, just as electricity flows through a wire. At certain points, there are “holes” where no electrons flow. These areas, which are located near genes, can trap potentially damaging ionizing radiation.

Once captured, the energy of the ionizing radiation is transferred from the coding region to a non-coding region. As a result, mutations are more likely to occur in the non-coding regions, where they will have less of an effect on the organism. This is a simple example of the sensing, processing and responding that Varela and Maturana defined as being a characteristic of life, or sentience.

Similar sensing, processing and responding occurs at the atomic level, with electrons or subatomic particles serving for the transfer of information. Even at the quantum level, simpler forms of this sentience exists. But at this level things are somewhat different than at the macro level. Every particle or string can be thought of as a closed unit, but they can also be described by wave functions that extend throughout the universe. As a result, complexity theory supports a panpsychism view of consciousness in the universe.

In the video, Theise says that at the quantum level, “every tiny thing overlaps with every other tiny thing. There’s no longer inside and outside. It’s actually a kind of self-awareness, a self-sentience. So according to this model, sentience is pervasive throughout the universe.”


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