Notes on Complexity: Neil Theise

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Originally published in The Marginalian. Read the full article by Maria Popova there.

“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole,” quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger wrote as he bridged his young science with ancient Eastern philosophy to reckon with the ongoing mystery of what we are.

A century later — a century in the course of which we unraveled the double helix, detected the Higgs boson, decoded the human genome, heard a gravitational wave and saw a black hole for the first time, and discovered thousands of other possible worlds beyond our Solar System — the mystery has only deepened for us “atoms with consciousness,” capable of music and of murder. Each day, we eat food that becomes us, its molecules metabolized into our own as we move through the world with the illusion of a self. Each day, we live with the puzzlement of what makes us and our childhood self the “same” person, even though most of our cells and our dreams have been replaced. Each day, we find ourselves restless miniatures of a vast universe we are only just beginning to fathom. 

In Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being(public library), the Buddhist scientist Neil Theise endeavors to bridge the mystery out there with the mystery of us, bringing together our three primary instruments of investigating reality — empirical science (with a focus on complexity theory), philosophy (with a focus on Western idealism), and metaphysics (with a focus on Buddhism, Vedanta, Kabbalah, and Saivism) — to paint a picture of the universe and all of its minutest parts “as nothing but a vast, self-organizing, complex system, the emergent properties of which are… everything.”

Murmuration by Maria Popova

Theise defines the core scientific premise of his inquiry:

“Complexity theory is the study of how complex systems manifest in the world… Complexity in this context refers to a class of patterns of interactions: open-ended, evolving, unpredictable, yet adaptive and self-sustaining… how life self-organizes from the substance of our universe, from interactions within the quantum foam to the formation of atoms and molecules, cells, human beings, social structures, ecosystems, and beyond.


Neither we nor our universe is machinelike. A machine doesn’t have the option to change its behavior if its environment changes or becomes overwhelming. Complex systems, including human bodies and human societies, can change their behaviors in the face of the unpredictable. That creativity is the essence of complexity.”

A century after Schrödinger made his haunting assertion that “the over-all number of minds is just one,” Theise considers the ultimate reward of this lens on reality:

“Complexity theory can foster an invaluable flexibility of perspectives and awaken us to our true, deep intimacy with the larger whole, so that we might return to what we once had: our birthright of being one with all.”

Central to complexity theory is the notion of emergent phenomena like ant colonies, like crowds, like consciousness. Theise writes:

“A distinguishing feature of life’s complexity is that, in every single instance, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even if one knows the characteristics and behaviors of all the individual elements of a living system (a cell, a body, an ecosystem), one cannot predict the extraordinary properties that emerge from their interactions.


The emergent phenomena of ant colonies do not arise because some leader in the colony is planning things. While emergence often looks planned from the top down, it is not. A simple ant line provides a good example. Ants take food from wherever they find it and bring it back to the colony. Back and forth the ants go, so efficient and well ordered it seems as though someone must certainly have set it all up. But no one did. The queen ant doesn’t perform an administrative function; she does not monitor the status of the colony as a whole. She serves only a reproductive function. There is no single ant or group of ants at the top planning the food line or any other aspect of the colony. The organization arises only from the local interactions between each ant and any other ant it encounters.”

Throughout the rest of his lucid and luminous Notes on Complexity, Theise goes on to intertwine the discoveries of Western science — from particle physics to neuroscience to chaos theory — with Eastern metaphysical traditions and his own longtime Zen Buddhist practice. Couple it with physicist David Bohm on wholeness and the implicate order, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about the totality of being.

Listen to a full conversation with Neil Theise on Notes on Complexity at Science and Nonduality’s Sounds of SAND podcast.


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