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[Back to Essays]

The Human, the Spiritual and the Complex

(Thoughts About Our Love of Complexity)

I was listening to a talk show -- guests were bio-science buffs interested in the possibility of life on other planets. What, asked the host, are the criteria for life -- what do you look for? Both experts said all life is characterized primarily by COMPLEXITY, and one added that life reproduces itself, but does so imperfectly -- doesn't produce a perfect duplicate of itself.

Why is it, I wondered, that this total simplicity, life (you, me) should be so intimately involved in complexity, so that the forms most associated with life are also the most complex forms. And I had a vision of it, hard to express, but here's what I came up with: What we call "complexity" is our description of a form that can be greatly and continuously altered (thus having much persistence) without losing its IDENTITY.

Persistence depends on continual change. As a shark must move even while sleeping in order to stay alive, as the molecules in solids must keep bouncing about randomly for the solids (tables, chairs, rocks, toe nails) to hold their form, so all persistence depends on change. The human body changes all its cells every 8 years, but remains distinctly this or that body (in our consideration).

Suppose I decided to be a blue cube - nothing else to my identity than that. If I changed to a red cube or a blue sphere, in most contexts, I wouldn't be recognizable as the same identity, for I've changed half of what I am.

Or suppose I'm utterly random to the point where, according to the habits of perception of those with whom I wish to associate, I have no distinguishable identity? For example, suppose I become one bit of a cloud or of water in a running stream: I'm too simple at the level (or magnitude) where identities are assigned (humans quickly grow bored with a bit of cloud or a few drops of water), too chaotic (formless) in other ways: Where do you shake hands with a cloud?

Any "chaos" is an order when viewed at some level of magnitude (size, speed, etc.). Water is predictable and orderly when viewed in certain ways, chaotic when viewed in other ways. Scientists can predict some things (e.g., how fast water will flow through a pipe), but not others (e.g., where a given droplet in an ocean wave, mid-Pacific, will touch a California beach).

For most of us humans, an individual we know well is very predictable, but 100 million humans is a riddle. In some contexts, it's the other way around -- mobs or nations are more predictable than individuals.

If we think of our lives with one another as games, where it is often important to be able to tell the players apart -- and not hang or reward the wrong person, for example -- then we want the units we identify (Tom, Dick or Harry or America or Christianity or the human or canine species -- all these are identities) -- we want these units to be complex, meaning that we want to deal with forms that are maximally variable without loss of identity.

This is analogous to the notion of a "complex" work of art that varies a theme greatly; yet the theme remains identifiable as that theme. This is one way of characterizing aesthetics: a form is considered aesthetic to the degree that it can be one thing while being a great number of things. That's why art involves a combination of recognition and surprise, because we think we're meeting something alien, then recognize in it an old friend, or, conversely, we recognize in what, at first, seems only an old friend, something strange and new.

Complexity is not chaos or complications. It's capability for change without loss of identity. It's that curviness that men love in women, for example, all those curves going their various ways with every motion -- much change of the form without loss of the form.

This probably relates to the idea that aesthetics has a very fine, high frequency compared to cruder forms of communication: The higher the frequency, the more capability for complexity of patterns.

A rock is complicated at the molecular level (all that random motion), but not very complex at that level (random, without the incredibly complex organization of protein, for example) and certainly not complex at the level where we humans perceive it. At that level, the rock changes not at all, or if it changes, it ceases to be itself. If it breaks in two or melts or is crushed to gravel, it ceases to be itself. Some changes do NOT do this, but they involve life. For example, if moss grows on it or if a human throws it, we usually consider that it remains itself -- but life intervened to create those changes.

So here we are, simplicities, life, yet science misidentifies us as complexities and defines us as complexity - because complexity is dear to life. Why? BECAUSE IT PERMITS MAXIMAL CHANGE, AND THUS PERSISTENCE, OF FORMS WITHOUT BLURRING THE IDENTITIES OF PLAYERS AND GOALS AND, THUS, DESTROYING THE GAMES.

And thus the forms that art creates are dearest of all to life. Biology, I suppose, is a subset of art -- or was once to those beings who developed it (and continue to develop it?).

No wonder spiritual practices are feared (and therefore scorned) by many: They promise separation of the simplicity from the complexity. Those who fear this don't understand that it takes a simplicity to have a complexity (or to create one).

This is a way to understand the strengths of the American Constitution: The founding papas sought optimal complexity, a form of government that could change easily, but not TOO easily. We have a very complex government (the checks and balances). After all, change is the challenge for a Government. A powerful, benevolent monarchy with an effective monarch is often prosperous, but comes a cropper on the chaos of dynastic succession: After the monarch dies, his sons and brothers and other challengers bring war and chaos to the broken kingdom or his idiot son takes power and wastes it. Monarchy might be an ideal form of government if one could work out the succession so that it went from one good king to another.

Succession -- how does one change, yet remain what one was to a desired extent? How does one amend the constitution, change the law, elect a president. What changes should be made simple, which should be difficult and complex? A country can be destroyed if it doesn't change fast enough in some cases. Of course, where complications become a mystery, they obscure identity. A huge bureaucracy, a voluminous tangled tax law -- they aren't confrontable to most, so aren't really an identity, are more like a rock, persisting in solidity based on random interior particle motion. Psychotic individuals convey that same impression.

Complexity: That property of a form that, in the consideration of the perceiver of that form, allows maximal change (and thus persistence) without loss of the beholder's consideration of the form's identity.

Persistence is associated with change, and one of the changes that occurs is change of ownership: Father lives on in one's own bad temper or ulcers, which are really Dad's -- and perhaps really grandfathers. Songs live on because we make them our own, give our own lives to them. That love song is "our song", entwined with our own experience. So it is with all art that persists -- and with all our unwanted persistences (problems).

If a form is complex, there are many perceivable components that can be misowned. A rock has lots of atoms, but doesn't present to our view the multiplicity of aspects that we get from a human face. It persists, but not humanly.

All this relates to another talk-show favorite: How Artificial Intelligence Gets Real, How Computers Get Souls -- which would be quite an evolutionary step for what is, essentially, a very complex sort of rock, whose moss is our ideas.

The artificial intelligence gurus have everything backwards: They think that if you create a powerful enough computer and load it with the right programs and data, the computer will become, because of its computational power, data and software, an intelligence at least comparable to human.

First, they assume that they are constructing intelligence by systems somehow analogous to how humans learn. What they ignore (or have learned to forget [or, to be less insistent, what they never seem to consider as a possibility]) is that humans are bodies operated by immortal spiritual beings who begin, not with ignorance, but with knowing. Or rather, we begin (if something senior to time itself can be called a beginning) as pure potential for knowing and the unlimited ability to create spaces, energy, objects and their persistence. And when we create, we know our creations utterly.

What we call "learning" in humans is a brief partial recovery in the course of our prolonged process, lifetime by lifetime, of forgetting -- this has long been the direction for both individuals and societies. We decided to forget some things (which makes unpredictability and games possible), and the process got out of hand. Education, where it is at all educational, rather than indoctrinational -- where it makes us smarter, not stupider -- is a tiny upward blip on a down-trending graph.

But we began with limitless knowing and limitless creativity, so can forget a great deal, yet still be smarter than the smartest machines, nor can a machine take on human intelligence without emulating the human pattern of learning: The machine must be occupied by immortal life, a knowingness that, however much it forgets, continues to know more than it could possibly be taught.

Does this mean that machines will never equal or exceed human intelligence? Not necessarily, but the process by which this may occur is not a matter of making better computers, except incidentally, in that it is necessary to build machines intricate enough to engage the imaginations of their creators.

The process by which objects acquire souls is similar to what happens with children and their dolls, men and the cars they love, people and their beloved pets, with houses haunted by those we once loved and with any humans who become more alive when with other humans they love: Those things to which we grant life (that is, in which we invest love and attention, which we treat as alive, attribute beingness to, exchange communication with) become more alive for us.

The intricate high-tech developments in AI are relevant as follows: When a computer has acquired enough complexity and vocabulary and computational skills and ability to surprise with unexpected responses, it will begin to seem lifelike to researchers. Then researchers will begin to treat the computer like a living creature, address it by name, talk to it, feel affection for it -- as children do towards their dolls.

But children, with greater faith in imagination (that is, a clearer memory of their ability to create life), can bring the most primitive dolls to life, not only for themselves, but for parents and friends. Our researchers, having learned (as adults do) not to invest much of themselves in toys or anything else, will need far more elaborate dolls before they share their attenuated lives with them.

To the degree that computers (or dolls or dogs or cars or houses or nations or their flags) are treated like living human beings, they will become human and alive. (A dog or cat treated with the respect accorded a human being and spoken to with the assumption that communications are understood does act more human. Loved cars have, it is said, saved lives -- stopped for no apparent reason in time to avert collisions, for example.)

We grant life, and because our attention and life-granting are valued by other beings, beings -- immortal spirits like ourselves -- will eventually occupy these computers and BE them in order to be part of the communication game. ("If you build it, they will come.") In other words, at first the life in these machines is the life of those who create the machines. The machines are alive as symbiotes, as parts of their creators, much as their bodies are alive. But eventually they have lives of their own.

All theories of artificial intelligence are superficial compared to the tale of Pinocchio, the puppet so lifelike that he was loved, and through this love, became a boy.

Sometimes, as I speak to you here, reader, you, too, become alive for me. These letters on the page or screen in all their squiggly complexity (nothing like long rows of 00000...) -- do they seem to speak to you, as if some life not unlike your own were speaking through them?

Some of the above concepts were inspired by the author's understanding of the Scientology Axioms.

copyright c. Dean Blehert 2002

Last updated: December 13, 2004