Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Ethics of Complexity.

About half-a-decade ago I was helping a friend in his garden when he announced to me his new ethical framework. I was involved in that instant in ripping weeds out of the garden bed, a task which my friend was constrained from by repeated attacks of gout, and for which he paid me richly in beer and bourbon.

“I’ve just come up with a new ethical system.” He said. “It only has one commandment: Thou shalt not reduce complexity!” Later on he decided that particular expression of the core concept was too negative, and proposed “Foster complexity!” as a more positive formulation.

I paused in my labours for a bit to consider this idea. I thought at the time that it had considerable merit, and I still do. When we consider the central ethical tenets of the major philosophical and religious systems, we can see that pretty much all of them are expressing the same basic idea in different ways, and with different emphases, but what is that core idea? Although it is perhaps obscured in some interpretations, they all seem to attempt to provide a cultural framework for the maximisation of complexity in one form or another.

If someone is murdered, the complexity of the universe is diminished. If a forest burns up, complexity is diminished. If a peasant-society’s crops fail due to drought, complexity is greatly reduced. If a city is levelled by a nuclear bomb, complexity is greatly reduced. Most, if not all undesirable things and situations seem to involve a reduction in complexity, while most if not all desirable things appear to be an enhancement of complexity in one form or another.

One thing that greatly interested me about this notion is the possibility that complexity can be mathematically defined and quantified. If we reach that capability, I suspect that many complex ethical questions are susceptible to a mathematical solution… such as the relative balance of interest between environmental and economic concerns.

Well that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with nuclear power?

Perhaps when considering the merits and downsides to various energy solutions, we might ask ourselves how their implementation will impact the net complexity of our environment and economy. Does the proposed technology have a severe impact on the net complexity of the living world? Does it allow for the growth of complex, intricate social and economic forms in our society, or does it constrain them through impoverishment and resource diversion? Over my next few posts I might consider some of these issues in relation to nuclear power and its competitors.

14 comments:

Pete said...

Can complexity be mathematically defined? Yes, and it is called entropy. More specifically, entropy could be called 'negative complexity'. Perhaps "Foster complexity" is just another way of saying "Fight entropy". The problem, though, is entropy always increases. We can decrease entropy locally, and temporarily, but in the end the universe always wins. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay on this concept years ago. It was very insightful.

I've never thought of entropy as being an ethical concept, however. I am interested in seeing where you go with this concept of complexity and how it relates to nuclear energy.

Finrod said...

Hi Pete. Yes, I'm aware of the concept of entropy and its implications. I suspect there's more to complexity in biological, economic and information systems than the potential it bestows on them to be a heat source if you burn them.

Perhaps we're talking about two different things here. I'm thinking that complexity can arise as a byproduct of energy flows from a low entropy to a high entropy configuration. The hydrogen atoms in the sun's core are not in a particularly complex arrangement with each other, nor would you expect them to be at several million Kelvins. The infrared photons which our planet radiates into space at night are not intricately complex entities either. Somehow or other, that energy flow has managed to foster vast complexity on and near Earth's surface. It's true that the organic molecules of life are built into low-entropy forms by tapping that energy flow, but if you just look at the chemical energy content of, say, a tiger, then I put it to you that you'll be missing out on most of the defining characteristics of such a entity. So perhaps the concept of complexity to which I refer cannot be expressed just in terms of the equations of thermodynamics.

I could be wrong about this, of course. I'm happy to be corrected by someone with superior knowledge.

Pete said...

Looking at the wikipedia entry for entropy, I see it has been applied to much more than just thermodynamics. Although, some of these ideas of entropy are probably more conceptual in nature than quantifiable.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_entropy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_entropy

This is getting a little too esoteric for me, but I have a feeling these difficult concepts are partially why you created this blog.

Tony said...

Information and entropy are in a sense the inverse of each other. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(information_theory).

I first became aware of this when I was a lot younger and cleverer when I tried to read A.I.Khinchin "Mathematical foundations of information theory", Dover,1957 and his "Mathematical foundations of statistical mechanics" Dover, 1949. Sadly they are beyond me now.

The plot thickens for entropy when you consider non-equilibrium systems where the concept of entropy is less clear. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-equilibrium_thermodynamics. This is linked to chaos theory where dynamical processes involving energy flows can produce order even though viewed at the level of the universe as a whole entropy increases. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory .

We humans as self-aware, conscious agents with free-will(?) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will can harness energy flows to enhance or destroy complexity. Most things that are interesting to us tend to be complex.

Finrod said...

I'll just point out that the commenter tony is in fact the very same gentleman who first proclaimed the complexity ethic to me.

Alexandra Prokopenko said...

There is a Russian proverb, "the more complex the bicycle is, the quicker it breaks". Depends on how you look on technical complexity - rather through an idea of scientific progress proposed by the Enlightenment - then take a look at Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectics of the Enlightenment" - quite a substantial critique of that idea. In short, the world does not develop in a linear way, and one cannot predict the consequences of going from point A to B in technology development both from social and technical point of view.

David Walters said...

In answer to our Russian friend...there really is no difference between complexity and simplicity. Complextity is the *dialectal relationship* between quantity and quality; between that which merely works, and that which works better. Mandelbrot fractals are an example of this. They are both simply and complex, depending on the distance once views the fractal, how closely one looks it, etc etc.

Simple "peasant" agriculture, to use an example from Finrod's excellent essay, one can see what *appears* simple is really a hugely complex interaction of BILLIONS of human cells, factors like temperature, water, markets, transportation, etc.

"Simplicity", at best, is the subjective conclusion of romanticists. This is a "good thing" not a bad thing, but has little to do with saving this planet.

Forward to nuclear power,

David

randal.leavitt said...

Im glad to see the nuclear power debate move beyond arguments about the enviro-alarmist myths. There is much to discuss. For example, increasing the availability of energy through nuclear power will reduce fertility and cause unsustainable reductions in the human population. To counteract this we will need better ethical guidelines for reproduction, and better reproduction procedures. What should they be? For example, perhaps we should shorten our life spans down to a few days at most so we can evolve at a rate comparable with our arch-enemy, the bacterium.

I dont support the notion that increasing complexity is a good thing. It seems to imply that discovering a simpler proof for a mathematical theorem is unethical. It seems to imply that simplifying the explanation of planetary orbits by assuming that the Earth moves is wrong.

And I really dont want to be told by a robot that an ethical calculation has determined that I have to sacrifice my son on an alter in the morning.

I do think that we lack a vision of the future that is grand enough to inspire us. To this end I have tried to come up with some candidate visions. My favourite is a future where humans return all the land surface on this planet back to the plants and animals. We move out, living in orbiting stations or on floating countries on the ocean surface. In this scenario our goal is to keep evolution running in an exciting manner on the land. That should keep us busy and entertained for a while. Is it ethical?

Finrod said...

@Alexandra.

There is no reason for the bike to be more complex unless it does something more of value than the less complex bike. If it breaks down more often, that’s part of the extra cost of the greater functionality. The more developed a society is, the more information it encodes, the greater the scope for supporting complex equipment and processes which enhance and multiply options. A society which restricts itself to equipment which just covers basic needs (however defined) leaves itself dangerously exposed to emergencies and mischance. A society with greater economic complexity has defence –in-depth.
It is true that you can’t predict with precision the social and technical ramifications of going from A to B in technology development, but a good deal of experience has been gained concerning the consequences of not going form A to B at all. Especially by former European colonies.


@randal.leavitt.
"I dont support the notion that increasing complexity is a good thing. It seems to imply that discovering a simpler proof for a mathematical theorem is unethical. It seems to imply that simplifying the explanation of planetary orbits by assuming that the Earth moves is wrong"
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I’m glad you brought this up. These are exactly the sorts of issues which need clarifying to set the Complexity Ethic on a solid footing. Simpler and more coherent intellectual tools increase the efficiency with which we can interpret information and manipulate data, and ultimately, enhance our power over the physical world, enabling us to enhance the meaningful complexity in our environment. Specifically, we can do a lot more with our material resources when we have a better understanding of the physical world. The complexity which is of value to us, after all, is that embodied in the things which matter to us.
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"And I really dont want to be told by a robot that an ethical calculation has determined that I have to sacrifice my son on an alter in the morning."
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I’m kinda hoping that’s not where the complexity ethic leads. It shouldn’t do, as your son would be a highly complex entity whose ongoing existence should be supported in most cases by the ethic. Arbitrary demands for a reduction of complexity for no good reason have no place therein.

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"I do think that we lack a vision of the future that is grand enough to inspire us. To this end I have tried to come up with some candidate visions. My favourite is a future where humans return all the land surface on this planet back to the plants and animals. We move out, living in orbiting stations or on floating countries on the ocean surface. In this scenario our goal is to keep evolution running in an exciting manner on the land. That should keep us busy and entertained for a while. Is it ethical?"
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Is it ethical? I’d say it is by the measure of the complexity ethic. What you’re talking about is separating the human and ‘natural’ domains for the sake of the preservation of both, and in the process maximising the options for complexity in both systems… which is something I intend to discuss myself in a post in the near future.

arcs_n_sparks said...

Fascinating discussion. Would we not agree that nuclear power plants became more complex than required for their intended function? Generation III plants are actually engineered to reduce their complexity (thus increasing reliability, maintainability, and safety).

Finrod said...

@ arcs n sparks;
Would we not agree that nuclear power plants became more complex than required for their intended function? Generation III plants are actually engineered to reduce their complexity (thus increasing reliability, maintainability, and safety).
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I guess we would agree with that.

The complexity which needs fostering in accord with the ethic is the complexity resulting from our actions and choices. Having cheap, reliable electric power at our disposal increases our capacity to build meaningful complexity. The complexity of the plant which provides this commodity was selected for fostering over many other potential complex forms. If the complexity of the plant can be dropped and still result in the same (or better) outcome for providing cheap energy, then society’s capacity for fostering complexity is increased (ie, the new technology results in a higher (potential) complexity-returned-on complexity-invested, to borrow a term from elsewhere). Put another way, the complexity embodied in the power plant is ‘capital complexity’, whereas the complexity which is fostered by the plant’s output is ‘consumer complexity’. By reducing the complexity required to achieve the same result, you’ve fostered higher ‘consumer complexity’.

Nelmo said...

Re. randal.leavitt's view that simplicity is good, I think all would agree that systems should be no more complex than they need be in order to do their job well. It's interesting though that complexity sometimes emerges seemingly of its own accord, unintended and unpredicted (the case of fractals has already been mentioned). There was recently a documentary on ABC TV (in the Future Makers series) called "How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer". Its premise was that complexity emerges spontaneously from seemingly simple entities. An example is the networks that result from the scenario we all may have heard of in which everyone on Earth is connected by just six degrees of separation. We find hubs of connectivity emerging. You can watch the program on the ABC website.
The reference to cancer in the title refers to how we may be able to learn from human systems (such as the Internet, in which the hubs are websites to which many hyperlinks are made) in studying the ways in which cancer cells spread. To quote Prof. Steve Strogatz (Cornell University, USA), the world is small and yet very clustered. The ultimate example of this (that we know of) is the human brain.

Sigivald said...

"Foster complexity" is thus a requirement to never use birth control and have as much sex as possible; after all, even one additional human being is amazingly complex.

And you could make dozens of them!

(Plus let's not forget that while a forest fire reduces complexity at the time, it's both part of the normal cycle of forest growth, and can easily lead to more complexity in the future, when regrowth allows for more diversity.

I'm also not at all comfortable with the implication (probably not meant, at least not in this manner) that the core problem with murder is that it "reduces complexity" in "the universe". Surely the problem is that a person is now no longer extant.

That many bad things happen to reduce complexity does not imply that the reduction is what makes them bad.

Now, that - to paraphrase Tony - "interesting and complex tend to be correlated" is true, obvious*, and worth remembering.

* Obvious in the complimentary sense that it's obvious once pointed out, but unlikely to be thought of beforehand.)

Randal: A simpler proof is not reduced complexity at the "universe" level. It's reduced complexity at the level of explanation. The two aren't related; to riff off of Tony's quote again, a simple proof is more interesting than a convoluted one.

Complexity in the sense of information is not the same as complexity in the sense of convolution or difficulty of expression.

Finrod said...

@ Arcs_n_sparks:

The superior 'simplified' reactor designs embody great complexity in the process of design and the gaining of the experience necessary to do the designing. The complexity is found where it will do the most good, which is why the new 'simple' designs have their superiority.