In recent years, some high-powered thinkers, including Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Laughlin and theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, have written about the emerging paradigm of science that is replacing the linear Newtonian paradigm we all grew up with. One of the key elements of this emerging paradigm is the way it focuses on processes rather than individual elements. The purpose of this discussion is to play with the possibility of applying such a process-oriented approach to the study of Big History. I thought it would be valuable to begin by working to develop a shared definition of the word “process”. Here’s my shot at it: A complex process is a set of causally or functionally related actions performed by an evolving network of agents. A couple of terms in this definition deserve explanation. First, it’s essential to note that history is a “complex process”. As opposed to a simple, linear process, like the recipe for a chocolate cake, a complex process demands constant adaptation. As a result, while the religions that developed in Israel and China during the Axial Age have the same processual dynamics, the different histories and local immediate conditions created very different religions.
In addition, the actions in a complex process are performed by “an evolving network of agents”. I agree with Bruno Latour that human social networks are composed of people, ideas, and technologies, embedded in the natural environment. What makes them all “agents” is their ability to drive adaptive change in the network. Think, for instance, of how mass manufactured autos and the personal computer changed American society, or of how the Black Death altered societies across Eurasia. As members of a network, these agents work together to create habits for the network as a whole, habits such as culture. As a result, to understand the behavior of the network and its components, you have to examine both how the components interact and how the network, as a whole, evolves. Networks do not merely reflect the actions of individual people and things within them. Rather, they respond to conditions in the environment, reflect the many interactions within them, and become limited by the habits elements in them develop to survive.
There are several advantages to this way of thinking about human history, which I find worth examining further. First of all, in many ways, Complexity Theory examines the patterns that emerge as complex systems/processes evolve. One key pattern that appears over and over is the oscillation between relatively long stable states and shorter transformational states (phase transition). In evolutionary theory, we know this pattern as punctuated equilibrium. Dmitri Bondarenko and I have done a lot of work applying this pattern to human history, in comparing the Axial Age (800-200 BCE) with Modernity (1500 CE-present) as historical phase transitions, for example. In addition, thinking of processes as evolving networks embedded in environments creates a framework for examining history as the emerging paradigm suggests. This view of agents in networks in environments offers, I believe, a way to begin understanding the enormous richness of the world as Big History pictures it.
I look forward to responses and other thoughts. We live at a time when the basic way we think about the world is shifting, and I suggest that applying process thinking to Big History could enable us to be at the forefront of that new way of experiencing the world.
Very interesting. I've heard of this kind of process thinking applied to what had been naively considered solid, static objects. For example, instead of thinking of a proton as a solid ball, it is actually a dynamic process of exchange of gluons among a group of quarks. Likewise, covalent bonds in chemistry, which children learn are like sticks that connect two balls, are actually an exchange network of electrons. A cell is not so much an object as a frenetic dance of molecules. Everything you look at closely enough transforms before your eyes from a solid, static thing to an active process of interaction among component parts, which themselves turn out to be dynamic processes. All 'things' are actually processes. I guess our brains invented the illusion of 'things' just to make thinking about them more convenient.
That last post was me. I wasn't signed in.