Quite possibly you too have walked across an abandoned university campus, numb from a last-minute revision-session in the library, with a quivering kind of wonder at the contrast between the physical reality surrounding you, and the cerebral strives in abstract-land that left your mind in such a somber state.
3 hours ago you watched highlighters run down the shiny coat of a lavish new textbook and ballpoint jottings connect revision-note marginalia. A frustrated feeling of trying to unify, to compress, to make inevitable. Of trying to extract an essence, as if the text contained some glistening liquid that could be pipetted, encapsulated, and implanted in your brain so that, if perturbed, it instantly would release an orderly avalanche of inferences. But instead: crammed across your pain threshold, waiting to escape once exams are over and done with.
An hour later you sat hunched over a laptop screen, with crumbly impressions from slides and bullet-points drifting behind tired eyelids, looking for a place to embed, but evading your grasp.
Finally: practice problems. The most soul-crushing part surely, one of burrowing desperately into the fabric of reality, where mathematical truths and physical laws are somehow encoded, in a metaphysical format currently unavailable to your wearily groping mind.
Absurd, isn’t it? The concept of “understanding”? How incompatible this imagery seems with the campus square reality in which you are presently immersed! Because, while at some level you could intuit a carved-up structure to the scenery around you, and while you could imagine labels hovering above each item as if by a Google Glass identification-app, you know that the wind that just swept past was not the work of a differential equation, the attendant chilliness not the act of a correlation. Similarly you know that the corrosive gas of oxygen now caressing your lung interior is flowing in a stochastic whirl fundamentally without pattern, marching towards disorder with thermodynamic resolve. And isn’t your aching head just a dark, skin-draped skeletal case filled with fatty meat, continuous with this plodding dynamic with neither mind nor meaning?
Zoom in enough, and you will find yourself in a pixelated cosmos of uncaring flux, of perpetual change of state, one that owes this unremarkable subset of you no promise of being understandable, explainable, or mastered whatsoever. So what are all our young minds actually doing, itching as we are for that elusive experience of “understanding” to obtain, clearly restricted by the flux but equally so utterly, painfully removed from it?
The following sections review a series of concepts from the discipline known as “complexity science” to explain how this reality can lend itself so readily to textbook subheadings, learning objectives, and practice problems, and why it is so neatly analyzable into “systems”. Why the perceived reality is one of a fizzing, spectral, kaleidoscopic mosaic precariously poised on flux, that makes us perfectly able to treat something as complex as a cell as a particle in biology, or humans as particles in economics, with predictive impunity and without inferential backlash. Why our reality has contours when nothing says it must.
Now try, for a moment, imagining the opposite – of a reality where all matter were organized as symmetrical assemblages and structureless contraptions, widgets arbitrarily tinkered together. Would “understanding” make any kind of sense in such an environment?
Such a simple thought experiment led a man in the next section towards fascinating conclusions. They may be qualitative and untestable, but they are bound to tickle your intellect.