Q & A

How Does Complexity Lead to ‘Agency’?

Greetings from Saskatchewan Canada!

I am thoroughly enjoying your articles about complexity and thermodynamics! Thank you for writing and providing your excellent thought-provoking explanations.

As I read, I am trying to find an satisfying answer to the following cluster of questions:

As every living organism I consume energy to “fight entropy and stay away from a state of thermodynamic equilibrium.” I have trouble understanding the evolutionary step from being merely a passive complex product of a thermodynamic system to being a willful, goal-oriented agent within the system. In your view, how has agency evolved? Or do you conclude that agency is a psychological illusion?

Thank you very much!
-Peter Jonker

Thank you for your comments. Your question can be split into two parts:

1. Why and how did life evolve out of nonlife?
2. Why and how did the so-called ‘consciousness’ evolve?

I am using the words ‘life’ and ‘consciousness’ in spite of the fact that both are ill-defined terms.

1. If you have read all my articles in the series, or if you have read my recent(2010) book ‘Complexity Science: Tackling the Difficult Questions We Ask about Ourselves and about Our Universe’, you must be aware of the emphasis I have placed on the work of Stuart Kauffman. The thermodynamic conditions have been so favourable that life just HAD to emerge as a mere link in the chain of events in the relentless evolution of complexity with time. And complexity evolves (generally increases, at least locally) because of the nearly inexhaustive supply of free energy or negative entropy. Negative entropy is equivalent to information, so information builds up with time (at least locally). And anybody can see that a living organism is truly an information-laden system compared to, say, a crystal.

2. There can be innumerable forms of life, but they cannot all coexist and survive because the resources available are limited. So there is competition, and only the fittest can survive and propagate. Even the most primitive life forms APPEAR to be goal-seeking agents. But this is really no different from why a crystal grows out of a fluid when the conditions are right.

Only those organisms can win the battle of survival which are better at ADAPTING to changing conditions. This constant need for improvement finally led to the evolution of humans with a large brain.

Brain science is not as developed as, say, physics, so there is plenty of room for disagreement and debate. When even the experts do not agree on some very fundamental issues, the best that lay people can do is to have an open mind and suspend judgement. Naturally, many issues also become a matter of opinion. My opinion about ‘consciousness’ is in line with that of Marvin Minsky. I have explained all this in some detail in my book, and also in this series of articles.

I hope I have been of some help. Happy New Year!

Dr. Vinod K. Wadhawan’s series, Complexity Explained, can be found here.

About the author

Vinod Wadhawan

Dr. Vinod Wadhawan is a scientist, rationalist, author, and blogger. He has written books on ferroic materials, smart structures, complexity science, and symmetry. More information about him is available at his website. Since October 2011 he has been writing at The Vinod Wadhawan Blog, which celebrates the spirit of science and the scientific method.

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