Toward a New Cosmology: The Grand Pivot from Natural Law to Complexity Science

January 13, 2020

As we can see from the hardening religious impulse in our current authoritarian, autocratic moment, the traditionalist defense of “civilization” ultimately rests upon the complicated, combined influence of the major Abrahamic revealed religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The Abrahamic faiths – based as they are on divine revelation, sacred texts and prophetic moments – require a creator-centric moral order that exists outside of time and space. In the last millennium, Thomist natural law – the philosophical thread of law and logic running through many of our core assumptions about “the West” – has extended and refined, but in no way refuted, these central premises of the Abrahamic religions.

The Coming Civilizational Battle

In The Creation Project, my argument has been that the axis of conflict in the coming decades will be a civilizational battle between two irreconcilable, non-liberal (i.e., non-Enlightenment) regimes and worldviews – backward-looking, creator-centered natural law and forward-looking creation-centered complexity science. In prior posts, I have specifically focused on Princeton professor Robby George’s views on natural law because his ideas distill nearly everything about the foundational beliefs of western civilization that complexity science calls into question, and that require root-and-branch reassessment.

Complexity is a term that encompasses systems, species, and forms of existence and behavior consisting of thousands or millions or bazillions of entities and interactions that have no obvious external and defining logic or set of instructions. Consider the “swarm intelligence” of fish and birds. Or the complex division of labor and “hive mind” of ants and bees. Or the flow of traffic, the movements of markets, the spread of memes, the dynamics of contagion. All functioning without fixed systems of “command-and-control.” Without any obvious “prime mover” or “uncaused cause.” Without a God. With no universal “natural law.” Creation, in other words, without a creator.

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths and Thomist natural law, creation-centric complexity science assumes a fantastic disorder, within time and space, that is random and stochastic, but also self-sufficient and self-sustaining. For this reason, complexity science – of the sort studied at the Santa Fe Institute – gives us a lens on western civilization and western history that can expose and explode what one might call the non-liberal pieties of the Abrahamic faiths and the more conservative versions of natural law moral philosophy.

The End of Causation

What Abrahamic faiths and natural law cannot quit – and could not quit without disappearing altogether – are the chains of causation that stretch, ineluctably, from the first act of creation to the present day. Natural law specifically requires a logical path through life adducible by reason.

However, in a world governed by complexity (morally and biologically and otherwise), the idea of causation itself almost instantly breaks down. While it’s become a reflex to say, “correlation is not causation,” correlation is usually pretty much all we have. What complexity science reveals is that our universe operates across an unfathomably enormous bandwidth of randomness. A vast amount of the life outcomes and human behaviors Robby George attributes to practical reason, free will, and human agency are stochastic.

The reality, of course – one that science further confirms on a daily basis – is that other forms of created life are also impressively (even movingly) complex, with perceptual, communication, and adaptive capacities that in many instances dwarf our own, and against which the prideful claims of human agency and human morality badly fade.

Moreover, complexity science continually organizes evidence that all life on earth exists within marvelously intricate webs of interdependence, governed by spinning whorls of logic and imperative that exceed by orders of magnitude the marvels of Biblical revelation, and that require no justification or understanding outside of itself. Against these claims, natural law moral philosophy has no answers.

A Hive of Minds

I sometimes intentionally irk my son, who has traveled in China, by referencing the Chinese “hive mind,” with all that implies about the reality of cultural differentiation across time and space.

Obviously, the idea of a Chinese hive mind is a coarse-grained heuristic. However, in the context of: a) the Chinese experience with Confucianism and more recently with Communism; b) China’s unprecedented emergence, over a mere span of decades, as a global power; and c) the artificial intelligence technology foundations on which China is constructing this power (in both its soft and hard manifestations), and one can begin to discern the future toward which we may be heading in the West.

More importantly, as the recent Chinese-NBA kerfuffle about a single Daryl Morey tweet illustrates, one can begin to appreciate just how far (and how quickly) our future cultural and cognitive experience of living in and perceiving the world might veer from traditional Western cultural assumptions about identity that pack a huge amount of responsibility, agency, and autonomy within each individual, embodied self.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Intelligence

But let’s try to complexify this conversation. Complexity science tells us that culture is just one dependent variable among many, in a world in which independent (or causative) variables are difficult to identify. With this in mind, let’s consider the intersection of two variables, artificial intelligence and human intelligence.

While almost no one was paying attention, new possibilities for endlessly reproducing, recombining, and remapping data emerged early in the second decade of the 21st century. This “Big Data” revolution heralded and enabled the profound advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning of which we are only now becoming fully aware (but which the Chinese authoritarian state, for cultural reasons, may have more comfortably and quickly anticipated).

The advent of Big Data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning have rapidly encroached upon the biological, social, and perceptual foundations of individual human identity – the language, reason, judgment, and desire of the embodied, conscious self that constitutes itself in three-dimensional space as both an observer of and participant in an a stable, objective, enduring reality.

Data collection and extraction has in short order hollowed out and inverted – metaphysically if not literally – these physical forms and landscapes through which we have always, as a species, mapped our reality. Within several more decades, it now seems clear that digital data and artificial intelligence will reconstitute and reformat what it means to be human.

We will see the impact with machine-enabled processing, control, and decision mechanisms that infiltrate every aspect of our minds and bodies and every institution that touches us, which may encroach upon our autonomy and ensnare and manipulate our emotions and perceptions, but which may also create efficiencies, pathways, and opportunities to flourish (to use a term near and dear to the natural law philosophers) we can hardly now imagine. We do not know what the future has in store for us, but we can predict with some certainty that it will not much resemble the world in which we live today.

Big Data and Its Discontents

Critics have justifiably voiced concerns about the potential of AI surveillance technologies to reinforce and deepen systemic racial and gender inequalities, that they will be used to more intensively target some and to insulate others. We worry about the decision-making authority we may transfer to AI in the vehicles that transport us, in the clinics and hospitals that care for us, in the schools that teach our children, in the office spaces where we work, in the courts where we seek and receive justice, and most terrifying, in the weapons we use to hunt down and kill each other.

These are valid concerns, but they somewhat miss the point in two ways. The central premise of Western thought, dating back to antiquity, is the uniquely human capacity, among all species of life, to make conscious, deliberate, and rational decisions, short-term and long, that best serve our interests and that most closely align us with universal standards of judgment and justice (this the determinatio so favored by natural law philosophers). In reality, however, the quality of our judgments and our justice is at best nothing to boast about, and more often than not ranges between mediocre and terrible.

Most humans do not reliably recognize faces, especially those of people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. They do not accurately remember the details of events. They drive, diagnose, prescribe, instruct, discipline, manage, judge, and kill erratically. And they can only do these things, often poorly, for a limited number of hours each day. Who is to say that machines, which don’t get tired and don’t have emotions, and which can potentially remember and process information at a scale that vastly exceeds the capacity of any single human decision-maker, might not eventually perform these tasks and functions with an efficiency and reliability superior to the highest human performance standards?

The second point. We are already here. It is too late to roll back or return to some imagined moment in time when humans possessed agency, autonomy and individuality. What we see now with Big Data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence is the externalization and systematization of individual data points previously stored in our personal, internal random-access memory. With the cascading fusillades of personal data we extrude every day (from our laptops, phones, Fitbits, doorbells, security cameras, refrigerators, and voice-activated assistants), all of which is disseminated instantly to cloud servers (via the rampant proliferation of sensors and APIs), machines now know much more about us and our environments than we know about ourselves. Absent some near-term apocalypse (the prospect of which itself no longer appears to us as a Black Swan event), these machines will in the future – via feedback loops we can now hardly imagine – inform and condition our impulses, thoughts, behaviors, and decisions.

Toward a New Cosmology

None of this inspires optimism about the future. But if we accept even a portion of what I am proposing, the theological, philosophical, and legal claims of the Abrahamic faiths and natural law moral philosophy on behalf of some benighted concept of “western civilization” are of no use to us because they rest upon a creation myth that has nothing to do with the world in which we live today. These claims on which we rest our case are phantom butter knives we will be bringing – are bringing – to an all-too-real battle with Robo-Cops, assailant Transformers, and Predator drones.

Weird as it may sound, what we need and what will be of use to us is a new cosmology – an accurate, resonant, and actionable way to make sense of the universe in which we live. And this is where complexity science – with its interdisciplinary, big-picture, long-term focus on complex systems, Big History, Big Data, chaos, oscillation, self-regulation, scaling, and emergence – is positioned to give us the methods, resources, tools, insights, and perspectives to understand, appreciate, love, and fight for the unfathomably remarkable creation that we each, collectively and individually, unconsciously and consciously, are responsible ourselves for creating every moment of our lives.