The what, how and why of Big History

  • Sunday, October 23, 2016 4:50 PM
    Message # 4328617

    As I struggle to see the big picture, I find myself needing to understand three different types of things:

    1. WHAT happened (Big History is the field that explains this and concludes, to summarize, that progressive complexification happened)

    2. The mechanism for HOW complexification happened, given that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is pushing the universe in the opposite direction (it seems like Complex Systems Science is the field that explains this and concludes, to summarize, that open complex adaptive systems form that import energy, use it to build and maintain order, and then they export entropy.

    3. The causal forces for WHY complexification happens, instead of things staying simple. For example, once eukaryotes evolved, why evolve multicelularity? What drives the jumps in complexity? Is there a unifying principle that explains WHY things complexify across all levels of organization? Its hard to see a single driving force because at some levels, it seems like the free energy source drives the complexification (like gravity creating planets and stars). At other levels it seems like the micro-level entities drive the formation of the macro-level entity (like people create civilizations). In other cases, if you're not careful, it seems almost like the the complex systems are self-assembling under their own agency. Then of course there's chance and nonrandom elimination like universal darwinism that may explain it.

    Can anyone tell me if there is a field that addressed this third, 'WHY' question, and if so do they have a single general principle that explains what causes complexification to happen over all the levels of organization?

    PS.  This is sort of uncharted territory and I find it hard to express myself clearly, so if my question doesn't make sense with your worldview, please point out where clarification is needed.


  • Monday, October 24, 2016 9:32 AM
    Reply # 4329798 on 4328617
    Lowell Gustafson (Administrator)

    You not only express yourself perfectly clearly, Karen.  You ask a crucially important question, which others can respond to better than I.

  • Monday, October 24, 2016 6:35 PM
    Reply # 4330993 on 4328617

    Hi Karen. This may well be a bit rushed (appologies!!) but it may contain some ideas that are of use to you.  I have something to offer on the ‘what” and the “why”. I am of the view that progress to complexity is not the only valid narrative that applies to Big History. It is of course a very obvious narrative but it may actually be contained in - and possibly a consequence of -  another narrative .I would argue that the fundamental narrative of the cosmos as it has unfolded to date is the one that has led from the big bang to us, the humans. We may list the phases of this narrative as follows; the pre-atomic, the atomic, the molecular; within the living, the single celled and the multi-celled. In turn within the multi-celled, the non human and the human. There are different dynamics associated with these phases and what we may come to know as the classical evolutionary (Darwinian) dynamic may not be the ultimate one. It seems to me to be very obvious that in the human realm, if we progress, we do not choose to do so by classical evolutionary dynamics alone (if at all!)

     We certainly see a progress towards increasing complexity within the narrative that gave rise to us but if we apply a collective term to all the entities that stock the narrative, and the term that I like to apply is the term “priunit” we see another - possibly relevant - narrative at work. To begin with, all the entities that stock the narrative can be called priunits, so atoms are priunits, as are molecules as are all living things. The simplest thing we can say about priunits is that as the cosmos progresses the total number of priunits is decreasing. We see this very clearly at the atomic level. As the cosmos unfolds the total number of atoms in it is inclined to decrease. As hydrogen becomes helium, the number of atoms halves and so on. It is not as obvious when we get to the molecular level, there may actually be a proliferation of molecules,  but if you take the atoms and molecules together, the total number of atoms and molecules is decreasing and so on. What looks life a proliferation of living things is actually part of an overall decrease in the total number of priunits (Since the Big Bang 4.7× 1027 hydrogens have made their way into my body!!) While a progress to complexity is obviously happening, this is also happening. Is it of any relevance??

    What seems to guide this narrative is a measure of fidelity to presentations and conceptions and in turn realisations of unity. It has produced in us, the humans, a phenomenon that is actually capable of realising unity and in turn naming it. The human is an embodied realisation of “the one”!! This has a religious ring to it which is not altogether out of place here, but up front here, i intend it in the purely mathematical sense.  It may help to explain what seems like a departure from the strict dictates of classical evolutionary (Darwinian) dynamics in the human realm. We see classical evolutionary dynamics at work in the cosmos, recognise that they have produced us but look to improve upon them (as is our wont) with respect to service to the broader narrative (of priunits). This gives rise to many codes of law and morality and general considerations of human behaviour which could be seen to exist to ensure that the total priunit count, as expressed in living things, stays low and gets lower. We strive to undertake to ensure that as many humans (and by some codes, living things) stay alive and thrive for as long as possible.  While we are (at this point any way) unavoidably genetic phenomena, we intervene in the dictates of the gene and the classical evolutionary dynamics that proceed from it to ensure that as many living things survive and thrive for as long as possible.

    Many argue that there is no “why” in the cosmos. This was true of course up to the emergence of the human, but the cosmos has produced in us a phenomenon that can firstly, use words and secondly use that word. In all kinds of ways we can act in service to that word. We look to an “evolution” within it (and beyond it!!). We may well evolve beyond the general phenomenon of the word, leaving all words, even the word "why" behind!! What will “we” be then??

    One of the most interesting things about the idea of a cosmic narrative that has given rise to us is that we can chose to act in service to a continuation of that narrative, unless of course we have reasons to believe that the narrative has come to a conclusion in us and our experience. Why would we do that? We could also choose to avoid service to the narrative without any reason. On the grounds of what understanding of the narrative would we do any of these things, if any? If the narrative of priunits has validity then we would choose to take actions which would see us lending ourselves as entities in other units which contain us, ceding in turn a sense of prior unity to the emerging entity. At our best as humans, we make ourselves available to this kind of dynamic all the time. The concept of “unity” holds a central place in all the best aspects of the human project. Things come about in the cosmos by way of two fundamental dynamics, the reproductive and the assemblative. In the human realm we serve both.

    Karren, I have been developing these ideas over a period of about ten to fifteen years now and was amazed, having joined the IBHA over a year ago,  to read a comment that you wrote here around that time. It was something to the effect that to our cells, we must be like gods!! Project this simple mathematical idea forward and where does it bring you..........


  • Tuesday, October 25, 2016 3:43 PM
    Reply # 4334854 on 4328617

    Thanks, guys. Jack, I see what you're saying. I know you're committed to the word priunit, but if you used the term 'complex system' instead, you could link your work with the body of thought from systems science. Then your narrative would be that complex systems form, then systems of systems form, etc. From one vantage point, systems are getting more complex over time, but another view, yours, is that necessarily the total number of independent systems is decreasing and thus unity is increasing. Its the same dynamic, just two different ways to describe it. In the former, the pattern is from simplicity to complexity. In yours, the pattern is from disunity to unity. The former has a scientific ring to it and the latter has a spiritual ring to it, but they're just different ways of articulating the same pattern. Have I understood your view accurately?

  • Wednesday, October 26, 2016 8:28 AM
    Reply # 4348834 on 4328617

    The best resources for working out the answers to your questions, Karen, is in Complexity Theory. I strongly recommend "The Collapse of Chaos" by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart as a starting point. In many ways, Complexity Theory is as much a worldview as it is a field of study. In any case, the short answer seems to be that the Universe over time encourages combination. First, it manifested matter as sub-atomic particles. They combined into atoms, then, molecules, and on to all sorts of things. Similarly, life appears to have begun with one cell animals, then multi-cellular organisms, and so forth. At each point in time, there are more complex entities that can combine into new sorts of wholes that are even more complex.

  • Thursday, October 27, 2016 4:02 AM
    Reply # 4350979 on 4328617

    Hi Ken. You say the following, "In any case, the short answer seems to be that the Universe over time encourages combination. First, it manifested matter as sub-atomic particles. They combined into atoms, then, molecules, and on to all sorts of things. Similarly, life appears to have begun with one cell animals, then multi-cellular organisms, and so forth. At each point in time, there are more complex entities that can combine into new sorts of wholes that are even more complex."

    And in the process, the total number of complex entities (priunits) constantly decreases. Is it true to say that this is a simple, indisputable fact? If so, the next question is; is this fact of any relevance when it comes to analysing our experience and the narrative that gave rise to it? Speaking as one of the complex entities (perhaps even a representative of them!!) there is much that can be understood about the cosmic narrative that gave rise to us (the humans??) and perhaps still drives to act through and beyond us, if we look at it from this point of view. You might like to read more at (or not as the case may be!!)

  • Thursday, October 27, 2016 6:27 PM
    Reply # 4352405 on 4328617

    Sorry Karren for not responding to you. I agree with you that what I am proposing has spiritual implications, but it is not a spiritual offering, it is drawn in its fundamentals from the existing cannon of scientific information at a reasonably simple level and goes, I think, some way towards explaining why spirituality and religion are important to some humans. In making these observations I am neither promoting or rejecting religion and spirituality, just pointing out that these can make sense in the context of a particular broad cosmic narrative. I will certainly investigate complex systems and am not married to the word "priunit" at all. It is very handy though and refersspecifically to the entities that stock the narrative that lead from the big bang to us. There may be many complex systems that are not actually priunits like stars for example. (are they?) or computers. The latter are priunit like in that they go through some similar evolutionary dynamics and much can be learned from them when it comes to trying to understand the dynamics that pertain within the human narrative.

    Ken, just a few other points; You say "First, it manifested matter as sub-atomic particles. They combined into atoms, then, molecules, and on to all sorts of things. Similarly, life appears to have begun with one cell animals, then multi-cellular organisms, and so forth" Could you give us more detail on "all sorts of things"? Also, you talk about the narrative that began with the first primitive cells, do you see this as separate from the atom/molecule narrative that went before it?

  • Friday, October 28, 2016 8:46 AM
    Reply # 4353485 on 4328617

    Two things, Jack:

    1) In the process of combination -- I guess "evolution" might be equally valid -- the number of complex systems (I actually prefer "complex phenomena," because the world "system" sounds a bit mechanical) does NOT decrease. All the molecules, cells, organelles, and organs in my body still exist, even though I can be viewed as a unity. What the process of combination does is to create more and more sophisticated (complex) islands of order.

    2) Whether molecules combine to create organic or inorganic phenomena, the process is essentially the same. Reality appears to be a multi-scaled nested network of phenomena. Neurobiolgists, such as V.S. Ramachandran, have explained how our brains model such reality, reducing it to images that enable us to survive. So what it really all is seems a bit beyond my paygrade.

  • Saturday, October 29, 2016 6:39 PM
    Reply # 4355526 on 4328617

    Hi Ken. You’re absolutely right. The number of complex phenomena does not decrease, but something does?? Perhaps the number of “islands of order”. When you say “more and more sophisticated (complex) islands of order” do you mean ‘more islands that are more sophisticated’, or ‘islands that are more and more sophisticated’? I don’t think the former could be accurate. But then it depends on how you count and how you use collective terms in the process. In any case, this clarifies an aspect of the distinction between priunits and complex systems for me. Thank you. The fundamental cosmic narrative involves an evolution within the concept of “presentations of unity” that has obviously reached a particular stage in the human capacity to perceive and conceptualise such presentations. Ramachandran seems interesting. I will admit to a quick google. Something to add to the reading list. Are we only concerned with survival and what are “we” in that context? Or more accurately, what is the phenomenon that is “we”?? What is that phenomenon “evolving” to and what will accommodate its “evolution”?? Will "we" promote and facilitate it and how will we do so, if so.  I like this Ramachandran quote: Science tells us we are merely beasts, but we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence” As for the limits of your “paygrade”?? What if we gave you more pay!!

  • Wednesday, November 02, 2016 5:04 PM
    Reply # 4361474 on 4328617

    Thanks everyone.

© International Big History Association
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software