Notes on Complexity: A Buddhist Scientist on the Murmuration of Being
By Maria Popova
“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.”
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.
Zooming out to the planetary scale, he argues that all living beings on Earth are a single organism animated by a single consciousness that permeates the universe. The challenge, of course, is how to reconcile this view with our overwhelming subjective experience as autonomous selves, distinct in space and time — an experience magnified by the vanity of free will, which keeps on keeping us from seeing clearly our nature as particles in a self-organizing whole.
To allay the paradox, Theise leans on a centerpiece of quantum theory: Neils Bohr’s notion of complementarity — the idea that because two different reads on reality can both be true but not at the same time, to describe reality we must choose between the two in order to keep the internal validity and coherence of one from interfering with that of the other. Inviting such a complementarity of perspectives, he writes:
The teeming hordes of living things on Earth, not only in space but in time, are actually all one massive, single organism just as certainly as each one of us (in our own minds) seems to be a distinct human being throughout our limited lifetime… Each of us is, equally, an independent living human and also just one utterly minute, utterly brief unit of a single vast body that is life on Earth. From this point of view, the passing of human generations, in peace or turmoil, is nothing more than the shedding of cells from one’s skin.
This is more than a metaphysical orientation to reality — it is a profoundly physical fact, of which cells themselves are the living proof. Furnishing the scientific affirmation of Whitman’s timeless poetic insistence that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Theise writes:
Most of the body’s cells are continually turning over. Some cells renew over a period of years, while other types of cells are replaced every few days. So, most of the molecules (and therefore atoms) of our bodies return to the planet as well, in an endless atomic recycling and replacement. From this perspective, then, are we living beings moving around upon this rock we call Earth? Or are we in fact the Earth itself, whose atoms have self-organized to form these transitory beings that think of themselves as self-sufficient and separate from each other, even though they only ever arose from and will inevitably return to the atomic substance of the planet?
This holds true across the scale of matter, on the molecular level above atoms and below cells:
We breathe out molecules (carbon dioxide) and perspire molecules (water, pheromones) and excrete molecules (urine, feces) into the environments around us, and in turn, we eat food that we break down into absorbable molecules (proteins, carbohydrates, fats), breathe in oxygen molecules from the planetary plant mass, and absorb molecules through our skin… since every surface we touch potentially has absorbable molecules on it. While you might say that molecules are only your own when they are within your body, complementarily, there are no real distinctions between “our own” molecules and the molecules of the world around us. They move from us, outward, and come into us from the outside. At the molecular level, just as at the cellular level, each of us is in perpetual, direct continuity with the entire biomass of the planet.
An epoch after Max Planck discovered the minutest scales of existence — energy quanta — then contemplated the limits of science given the fact that “we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve,” Theise adds:
At the smallest, Planck scales, the very smallest creations of all are wholes without parts that merely emanate from space-time and dissolve back into it like phantoms — there but not there, real but not real. Everything only looks like a thing from its own particular vantage point, the level of scale at which it can be seen as “itself,” as a whole. Above that level of scale, it is hidden from view by the higher-level emergent properties it gives rise to. Below that level, it disappears from view into the active phenomena from which it emerged.
It is difficult to consider this perspective without trembling with the question of what it even means to exist — and to cease existing. With his particular life-focused lens on mortality — as the child of two Holocaust survivors, as a gay man who survived the AIDS epidemic that killed many of his friends — Theise offers a redemptive answer:
While we feel ourselves to be thinking, living beings with independent lives inside the universe, the complementary view is also true: we don’t live in the universe; we embody it. It’s just like how we habitually think of ourselves as living on the planet even as, in a complementary way, we are the planet.
You are this body, and you are these molecules, and you are these atoms, and you are these quantum entities, and you are the quantum foam, and you are the energetic field of space-time, and, ultimately, you are the fundamental awareness out of which all these emerge, Planck moment by Planck moment.
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.
Published August 27, 2023