Monday, November 3, 2014

Complexity Science and My Worldview

We humans have a strong sense of self-awareness and we seek answers to questions like why the universe is what it is, why the laws of Nature are what they are, who created the universe, who created life, . . . etc. In this partly autobiographical article I describe how the science of complexity has given me the answers to such questions and moulded my worldview.

The God Question

Many of us take it for granted that for every effect there must be a cause, and that that cause is the effect of a previous cause, and so on: Cause – effect – cause – effect - . . . . Is there (and can there be) an ultimate cause, the cause of all the ensuing effects? Many people are of the belief that ‘God’ is that ultimate and final cause, the ‘uncaused cause’.

But how can there be an uncaused cause? If you truly believe that God must be there because for every effect there must be a cause, then God also must be the effect of some still higher-level cause, and so on, ad infinitum. So, postulating the existence of God does not really help; it just pushes the ultimate question to ‘Who created God?’.

Suppose you say that one must stop somewhere in the reverse chain effect-cause-effect-cause-effect-  . . . and then say finally that ‘I do not know who created God’. If you are willing to say that, then God becomes an unnecessary and therefore superfluous hypothesis: You may as well say that we do not know how the universe came into existence, why is there anything at all, why are the laws of Nature what they are, etc. In fact it turns out that modern science (particularly its somewhat new branch called ‘complexity science’) does have credible answers to these questions now.

There has been a raging (even violent) debate on such issues among human beings. There are three types of people:

(1) Those who believe that there is a God (or many gods), and certain questions must not even be asked about God.

(2) Then there are those who take the stand that God is an unnecessary (and ‘failed’) hypothesis, and we should simply admit that there are some questions we cannot answer very well at present. I subscribe to this viewpoint, and therefore call myself an atheist.

(3) There is also a third group of people who are willing and able to be logical all the way, except that their belief in the existence of God or ‘some higher power’ must not be questioned! This, I think, is the result of childhood conditioning. Unlike me, there are not many people who are able to shake off what their early upbringing has done to them and strike out on their own.

Needless to say, it would be highly desirable to find a convergence ground for all these groups. I think the most pertinent and helpful question we should be asking in this context is: Is it always the case that if there is a design (or order) somewhere or anywhere, there must be a Designer or a designer; or is it that order and design can emerge even when there is no designer involved?

I wrote a series of 127 blog posts under the label ‘Understanding Natural Phenomena’ to explain how order can emerge and evolve even when there is no designer present. I give an easily comprehensible example here to illustrate this point.

Diamonds, as also silicon chips (used in integrated circuits (ICs)), are examples of crystals. Crystals differ from, say, glass in that in crystals the atoms or molecules are arranged in a highly ordered manner on a regular lattice. Is there a Designer involved here for creating this remarkably high degree of order? Certainly not. Who put the atoms or molecules on a regular lattice? Nobody. Small crystals of, say, common salt (NaCl) can grow spontaneously very easily. Here is how:

Take some water in a container and add a little bit of common salt to it. It may need some stirring to dissolve the salt. Add more salt and stir again. It dissolves. Go on adding salt in small amounts and stir the solution every time for dissolving the salt. There will come a stage when, no matter how much stirring you do, some salt is always left undissolved at the bottom of the container. Decant the clear solution into another container and let it just lie in a cool corner somewhere. When sufficient time has passed, you will see beautiful, cube-shaped, crystals of NaCl in the container. This well-defined shape is because of the underlying regular arrangement of the ions of Na+ and Cl- in the crystals.

Which designer is responsible for this design and order? Not any that I know off!

What I find amazing is that most people do not find this occurrence as something extraordinary or ‘miraculous’. There is the emergence of a highly ordered and extremely well-designed array of an enormous number of ions or atoms, and most people do not think much about it. And yet these same people find the ‘creation’ and existence of life as something which cannot emerge ‘just like that’, so there must be a designer or Designer (God). The fact is that both a crystal and a living being have a high degree of order and design, and they differ only in the ‘degree of complexity’.

‘Degree of complexity’ is a technical term in complexity science. A very good description of it was given by Murray Gell-Mann.

At a personal level, as I went deeper and deeper into what constitutes the essence of complexity science and what ‘degree of complexity’ really means (I have given a detailed answer in the 127 blog posts I mentioned above), my worldview and life philosophy underwent a change. It was a gratifying experience because, like everybody else, I also wanted answers to the usual fundamental questions we all ask about ourselves and about our universe. Complexity science provides the best such answers we have at present.

Why is it that I find it easy to accept what complexity science says, and many other people do not? It is because I have made a lot of effort to understand the finer points of complexity science. It is also because I have imbibed, at an early age, the spirit of the all-important ‘scientific method’ of interpreting information or data.

The Scientific Method

‘The scientific method’ is a technical term which needs to be understood by everybody, although that is far from the case at present. I have explained the 8-old way of the scientific method in a blog post Science, Scientists, and Scientific Temper in Society, but I shall repeat some of the description here for completeness. This method is actually a very potent tool, not only for investigating natural phenomena, but also for solving or preventing a number of social maladies afflicting society all over the world.

In the Wikipedia the scientific method is described as follows: 'The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses"'.
The basic scientific approach is as follows. Suppose there is a set of observations about a natural phenomenon which we wish to explain. The scientific method for doing this is the following 8-fold way:

1. A minimum necessary set of axioms. There is an agreed, minimum necessary, set of axioms, which are taken as givens (their validity is either a matter of assumption, or has been established already). 
2. Logic. There is an agreed set of rules for logical reasoning.

3. Hypothesis. The logical rules for reasoning, as well as the axioms, are used along with a hypothesis (or model) for describing and interpreting the observations we humans have made about the natural phenomenon under investigation.  It is not important how the hypothesis is arrived at, because it is always going to be tested thoroughly and repeatedly. And there can even be more than one competing hypotheses for explaining the same set of observations or material evidence.

4. Agreed meaning of each word. Every word used for making any statement in science should have the same agreed meaning for everybody. This requirement becomes particularly important when concepts like 'consciousness' are discussed or investigated. In the scientific method, a trick often employed wittingly or unwittingly is to define concepts in terms of things that are observable or, better still, measurable.

5. Reproducible verification by objective observation. A hypothesis must be able to explain the observations in a logically consistent way, and it must successfully stand the test of repeated experimental verification. If its success is only partial, we try to modify and improve it, and then check against the observations again. That is how we arrive at the best, i.e. the most successful, hypothesis at a given point of time in our history.

6. Predictive capability of the hypothesis. A validated hypothesis is an example of 'induction', i.e. inference of a general or universal statement from a number of singular or individual observations.  Our confidence in its validity grows if it not only explains what is already observed, but also enables us to 'deduce' correctly some predictions about what more can be expected to be observed about the natural phenomenon under investigation. Thus both induction and deduction are parts of the scientific method.

7. Elevation of a hypothesis to the status of a theory. A hypothesis (or a set of hypotheses) that has repeatedly stood the test of experiment, and that can successfully predict and explain a whole range of experimental observations, gradually acquires the status of a theory.

8. The falsifiability requirement. During the entire process of: (i) statement of the research problem, (ii) use of logical reasoning, and (iii) drawing of conclusions from the data and the reasoning, the most important constraint put in by the scientific method is that only falsifiable statements can be made. The term 'falsifiable statement' was introduced by Karl Popper (2005). I explain its meaning with the help of an example.

Consider the following statement S1 (Wudka 1998):
S1: 'The moon is populated by little green men who can read our minds and will hide whenever anyone on Earth looks for them, and will flee into deep space whenever a spacecraft comes near '. This statement is so worded that no one can ever observe the postulated green men and prove the statement to be false, so the statement is unfalsifiable (and therefore not permitted in scientific discourse).

Next, consider the following statement:
S2: 'There are no little green men on the moon '. This is a falsifiable statement. All you have to do to prove it false is to show material evidence for the existence of even one green man. Berry (2010) attributes the following famous statement to Einstein:  'Many experiments may prove me right, but it takes only one to prove me wrong'.

Only falsifiable statements are permitted in the scientific method. Therefore S1 is an unscientific statement or theory, and S2 is a scientific statement or theory.

In work beginning in the 1930s, Popper gave falsifiability a renewed emphasis as a criterion for acceptable statements in science. He also pointed out that not all unfalsifiable claims are fallacious; they are just unfalsifiable.  As long as proper skepticism is retained and proper evidence is given, even an unfalsifiable claim can be a legitimate form of reasoning (but not of what finally becomes a part of science). We should never assume that we must be right simply because we cannot be proved wrong.
Why did Popper emphasize the falsifiability requirement. It was an effort to tackle what he called 'the problem of induction'. As stated above, the process of doing science involves generalization from individual observations, and this is always fraught with uncertainty. How many observations or measurements should we make so as to be able to generalize correctly? All we can say is: the larger the number, the better. But there is always the possibility that the next observation (which we did not make) may go against the generalization. So we can only have low or high probabilities, but not certainties, in the induction process. The larger the number of observations which agree with the generalization, the more likely it is that the generalization is valid.

Similarly, the greater the variety of conditions in which the observations and measurements are made, the greater the probability that the inductive generalization is true. The question arises: Which variations in the conditions of observation and measurement are considered significant and relevant, and which ones are not. This is decided by the theory we believe in for the domain of investigation. If the theory is wrong, we are likely to be led astray, till somebody comes up with a better theory.

Thus, because of 'the problem of induction', strong likelihood, rather than complete certainty, is what the inferred laws of science are all about. Popper emphasized the falsifiability requirement in an effort to minimize the chances of inductivism going wrong. At the centre of the scientific method is the act of making statements based on existing theories. By restricting ourselves strictly to making only falsifiable statements, we are ensuring that even a single observation or measurement that disagrees with the pre-supposed hypothesis or theory is enough to dismiss the generalization, namely the theory, we inferred by the process of induction.

Notice the intellectual humility of the true scientist. The scientific spirit implies an ever-present willingness to give up even our pet theories and opinions if the evidence demands so. Contrast this with what is said in most of the organized religions. In them, certain statements cannot be questioned, and there are many statements or beliefs in them which are unfalsifiable.

Votaries of faith may be quick to point out that the axioms mentioned in the 8-fold way above are also a matter of faith. No, they are not. To understand why, let us consider the example of quantum theory.

All natural phenomena are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Why the laws of Nature are what they are is something I have discussed elsewhere. Another article of mine on the anthropic principle is also relevant in this context. The laws of quantum mechanics are highly counter-intuitive for us humans. The quantum theory is based on certain assumed axioms, like any theory is. But the most important thing here is that the quantum theory is the most repeatedly and the most thoroughly tested theory ever. It is the best theory we have at present for understanding the world around us. If anybody does not agree, he/she is most welcome to come up with another theory, with its own set of axioms and logical structure. If the new theory is better supported by experimental evidence than the present quantum theory, science and scientists will have no compunctions whatsoever in abandoning the existing theory, and accepting the new one. This is not faith and reverence; it is, in fact, the negation of all that.

My Evolution as a Humanist Atheist

I was born into a Hindu family in the western part of the Punjab district of Undivided India, and was about two years old at the time of the Partition of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947. My parents opted for Indian citizenship, and we had therefore to migrate (rather flee for dear life!) to the new, truncated India. The Government of India had hurriedly set up many ‘refugee colonies’ (in Delhi and elsewhere) to house families such as ours. We occupied a house in such a colony in West Delhi. These houses were constructed in such a tearing hurry (and low cost) that walls were raised using bricks made of unbaked mud, put together with, what else, more mud. Not much cement was used. No RCC. And also no water connection, no electricity, no sewage pipes.

The school I went to (all the way up to higher secondary) was also set up very recently by the Government, and mine was the first batch of students. So, as I went up the education ladder, new classes were started by the school for my batch each year. Mine was thus the first batch of students to pass the Board of Higher Secondary Education examination. The medium of instruction was Hindi.

My mother, a homemaker, was an extremely religious and superstitious person. My father also was very religious and superstitious. We had lost our house and all other wealth and belongings when we fled from Pakistan, so my father had to start from scratch, all over again. We were not exactly a poor family, but we were lower middle class. My father did his best to make both ends meet. And he did not hesitate even to take loans to ensure that all his children had college education.

As I said, mine was a highly religious Hindu family, so I was a religious person to start with. I was a voracious reader of short stories of all kinds, including the mythological stories in Hindu texts.

By the time I finished school and entered college, my life philosophy began to change. Nehru and Bertrand Russell were the early influences on me as I started questioning the basic things taken for granted in Hinduism. I became an atheist gradually.

Bertrand Russell was a mathematician and a writer, among other things. I noticed that his prose had strict logic and mathematical precision. This I tried to emulate in my writing and speech. The tendency to ensure that my language must convey exactly what I want to say, without any shoddiness on logic, has stood me in good stead.

Abandoning the God concept was fine, but what about the vacuum left behind? I still needed to get answers to the great fundamental questions everybody asks. My flair for writing resulted in the publication of my first book (on ferroic materials) in the year 2000. This happens to be the first comprehensive book on the subject of ferroic materials. A particularly important feature of ferroic materials is that, because of their highly nonlinear response to one or more types of applied fields, it becomes possible to field-tune some of their properties. This makes them very attractive for use in smart structures. Therefore, from ferroic materials to smart structures was the obvious next step for me for pursuing my research work.

Published in 2007, my next book had the title ‘Smart Structures: Blurring the Distinction between the Living and the Nonliving’. While researching for this book I was exposed to the absolutely fascinating subject called complexity science, which has had a lasting influence on my worldview.

I am a condensed-matter physicist by original training. What a pity that whereas every student of physics is routinely taught subjects like quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, nobody has yet thought of teaching complexity science routinely. I want people to pay attention to what Stephen Hawking has said: The present century belongs to complexity science.

My Experience with Hinduism

My parents reacted to my atheism with some concern, but they were not unduly alarmed. There is something remarkably inclusive about Hindu philosophy. Unlike in Islam and Christianity, there is no single holy book which is the gospel which cannot be questioned or challenged. It is accepted in Hinduism that different people have different needs, inclinations, and innate strengths and weaknesses. So a variety of options are available for realizing God. There are at least four spiritual paths for realizing God: Karma Yoga (Yoga means union with God), Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. ‘Karma Yoga is suitable for a man of active temperament, Bhakti Yoga for a man of devotional temperament, Raja Yoga for a man of mystic temperament, and Jnana Yoga for a man of rational and philosophical temperament, or a man of enquiry’ (Swami Sivananda (1947), ‘All About Hinduism’).

The Jnana Yoga (union with God through the knowledge route) is particularly interesting. It says that people can realize God through the questioning method as well, i.e., even by denying the existence of God to start with. Hindu philosophy is so confident of itself that there is no doubt that even a doubter will ultimately realize God! So, in principle, a person can well be an atheist and still be in the Hindu fold. ‘Hinduism does not condemn those who deny God as the creator and ruler of the world, who do not accept the existence of an eternal soul and the state of Moksha or state of liberation. Hinduism does not render the upholders of such views unfit to be recognized as pious and honourable members of the Hindu religious society’ (Swami Sivananda 1947). No wonder my professed atheism has never created any social or family problems for me.

Hindu philosophy also asserts that all the great seers and prophets help lesser beings in realizing God. Therefore there is no problem in viewing even Christ, Mohammad, Nanak and Buddha as just that many additional prophets or seers who helped people realize God. ‘Hinduism, unlike other religions, does not dogmatically assert that the final emancipation is possible only through its means and not through any other.   . . . Hinduism allows absolute freedom to the rational mind of man’ (Swami Sivananda 1947). I think this is the strength of Hinduism which has made it an indestructible religion. Many invaders brought their respective religions to India, but Hinduism simply assimilated what it found worthwhile in those religions, and moved on.

This same spirit of accommodation is visible in the Constitution adopted by India, a Hindu-majority nation. But I now see a serious topical problem there. Organized religion seems at present to be the number one threat to world peace and to the very existence of the human race. Gandhi and Nehru did much we Indians can be grateful for, but they also screwed up a few basic things. Under their pressure the adopted Constitution of India provided for freedom of religion as a fundamental right. But a close look makes obvious a clear logical inconsistency there. The Constitution says that Indian citizens have the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion of their choice. Suppose a religion says that its God is the only real God (and there are such religions in India), and that it is a pious act to liquidate the followers of any other God, or to induce or force such people to change their religion for their 'betterment'! How can the practitioners of such a religion be legitimately given the fundamental right to ‘freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion’?

Of course, it was added in the Constitution as an afterthought that the above fundamental right is ‘subject to public order, morality and health’. I think this is not enough. What is needed is that when a person is, say, 18 years old, he must declare, under oath of allegiance to the Constitution of India, that he does not accept any such exhortation in his religion which holds the God of any other religion as inferior to its own, or which says that its God is the only genuine God. [If the God concept is logically meaningful at all, and if there is only one such God (!), how can Mr. A’s God be different from or superior to Mr. B’s God?]

Such is the inherently irrational nature of religion that I can be certain that my suggestion will not be accepted any time soon!

Complexity Science

Complexity science is about complex systems. A complex system is a highly nonlinear system, usually comprised of a large number of interacting components, the interactions often leading to structures and properties which cannot always be foreseen or predicted using the methods adopted in conventional, reductionistic, science. Two apples plus two apples is not always just four apples. New, unexpected, properties or phenomena can ‘emerge’. Life from nonliving origins is one such example of emergence.

Complex systems are dynamical systems. A dynamical system is one which changes or evolves with time. So, evolution is a defining feature of any dynamical system. Biological evolution is a subset of dynamical evolution.

Complex systems are usually ‘open systems', in the thermodynamic sense. What this means is that they are able to exchange energy and/or matter with the surroundings. This, when considered along with the second law of thermodynamics for open systems, explains why order can emerge in a complex system: Entropy can decrease locally, so long as there is an overall lowering of the free energy.

Darwin and Wallace gave us the insight about natural selection and the resultant biological evolution. This must rank as perhaps the biggest game-changer idea to have occurred to any human. The idea was used for explaining, among other things, the underlying link among all life forms. Recently, Pope Francis made a valiant attempt to come to terms with science when he said: ‘God is not... a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. . . . Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve’.

This prompts me to point out another aspect of evolution, namely nonbiological or chemical evolution. The Pope is accepting biological evolution after life had been created by the Creator. Even Darwin’s book did not deal with how life was created (or got created); it only discussed what happened after life had emerged. The fact is that, as complexity science tells us, biological evolution was preceded by chemical evolution.

Chemical evolution is nothing but dynamical evolution occurring in the domain of chemistry rather than physics. It is about natural selection and survival of the fittest in the world of chemical reactions, leading to the emergence of ever more sophisticated and information-laden molecules. This is how DNA emerged, without the intervention of any Designer.

Ever since the Big Bang our universe has been expanding and cooling. This means that gradients of various types have been getting created all the time. And the second law of thermodynamics says that phenomena occur so that some gradient or another may get annulled. This is how atoms emerged.

Our Earth condensed out of interstellar dust and gas ~4.6 billion years ago, and life emerged ~4 billion years ago. The 0.6 billion years before the appearance of life were the years of chemical evolution on Earth, leading to the gradual appearance of life as an emergent phenomenon. Lightning and UV rays from the Sun broke up the simple hydrogen-rich molecules and the fragments combined into increasingly complex molecules. These dissolved in the oceans and moved around, interacting in various ways. Given enough time even a rare event may occur. One such event was the chance emergence of a molecule that could use the smaller molecules floating around in the organic soup to make crude copies of itself. This was the ancestor of DNA, and the rest is history. The important message here is that with reproduction, mutation, and selective elimination of lest efficient types of molecules, (chemical) evolution was occurring all the time, and is still occurring in the oceans and perhaps elsewhere. This was the mechanism for the emergence of life from nonlife. No miracles there. No Creator needed.

With the further passage of time, molecules with specialized functions got together, resulting in the emergence of the first biological cell. The coming together of single-celled organisms into multi-cellular conglomerates was the next big development, culminating ultimately in the emergence of humans.

I came across an internet meme recently, which said something to the effect that atheism is the belief that ‘there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything, and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense . . . matter of faith . . . ’.

No. Such a definition of atheism is from a person who has a vested interest in ridiculing and demeaning atheism. As I said before, an atheist is one who says that the God hypothesis is unnecessary and therefore superfluous, because it explains nothing and simply shifts the fundamental question to a different fundamental question. The God hypothesis stems from the causality argument: There must a cause for every effect, so there must be a cause (God) for the existence of the universe. But by this logic there must also be a cause for God. The people who oppose atheism say that God is an uncaused God. But if they are willing to accept that, they may as well accept that the universe is an uncaused cause.

That reminds me of a sensible variant of atheism, namely scientific pantheism. The best known votary of pantheism was Einstein. And as Richard Dawkins has explained (in the book ‘The God Delusion’), pantheism is nothing but ‘sexed-up atheism’. The pantheism philosophy says that Nature is all we have. We do not know why it is there, or how it came to be there, but it is something tangible and tenable (unlike the God concept), and it is a jolly good idea to respect it, cherish it, love it, and, of course, try to understand its secrets and laws by the scientific method. This is how a votary of pantheism has expressed his sentiments: ‘We are part of nature. Nature made us and at our death we will be reabsorbed into nature. We are at home in nature and in our bodies. This is where we belong. This is the only place where we can find and make our paradise, not in some imaginary world on the other side of the grave. If nature is the only paradise, then separation from nature is the only hell. When we destroy nature, we create hell on earth for other species and for ourselves. . . .  Nature is our mother, our home, our security, our peace, our past and our future. We should treat natural things and habitats as believers treat their temples and shrines, as sacred - to be revered and preserved in all their intricate and fragile beauty’ (Paul Harrison: Revering the Universe. Caring for Nature. Celebrating Life).

To conclude, complexity science has taught me that there can be art without an artist, order without anybody trying to create order, and life without the intervention of a Life Giver. And modern quantum field theory has a credible answer to the question: How could our universe have arisen out of nothing? (cf. Lawrence Krauss (2012): ‘A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing’).