Sunday, May 10, 2015

#22: Spontaneous Order

Countless starlings fly together in a single flock with precision that rivals that of the Blue Angels. Countless fish swim together in a single school, their every movement synchronized with one another’s as if they were one fish. Countless tiny ants collaborate as a single colony carving an expansive network of tunnels. Countless snowflakes fall from the winter sky, each one with unique and intrinsic patterns, and no two the exact same. Slime mold spawns from a single spore from a single leaf to span across the forest floor as a finely-woven tapestry. Crystals spawn from a single rock and grow into intricate formations that even the finest diamond cutter could hardly sculpt.

From the billions of stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy to the billions of atoms that make up the human eye that gazes with wonder upon the night sky, the universe exhibits order and design that rivals the clockwork of the most skilled human watchmaker; and yet, it is tempting for us, in our human simplicity, to attribute this complexity to a simplistic explanation, be it a higher power or motherf***ing miracles. (Because f***ing magnets, how do they work?) After all, how could such order and design arise from mere random chance and accident?

And yet, here we stand on an orb hurling through the vast emptiness of space, spinning in an orbit around our sun that is so intrinsically set as to permit the ideal conditions for life—all with everything having been previously set into motion from the explosion of matter billions of years ago. From this disorder arose order, and from this chaos arose design.

As incomprehensible as it seems for our simple human minds to comprehend, the complexity that we witness within our universe was perfectly capable of originating, not by a guiding force, but through the “random chance and accident” that we so easily dismiss. Order is perfectly capable of arising from chaos, and design is capable of originating without a designer. In fact, there is an entire scientific field dedicated to studying this very phenomenon, known as “emergent complexity”, or simply, “emergence”.

Now, as someone who’s never studied science outside of high school (and whose basic scientific understanding mostly comes from having watched Bill Nye and Magic School Bus at a younger age), I cannot do justice in articulating the concept of emergence. So I’m simply going to recommend that you watch this NOVA segment on the subject. Long story short: organisms, both living and non-living, have the capacity for self-organization without guidance from an outside force.

And so, if nature and everything within it is capable of self-organization without top-down guidance, why not human society? After all, we human beings are part of nature, so we should be equally capable of such bottom-up organization. What makes us so different that we require top-down leadership?

So long have we as a species lived under the authority of the hierarchical power structure known as the state that we cannot comprehend the existence of human society without it. As such, we fear that, without government, society would devolve into chaos with everyone pursuing their own greedy self-interests and with no concern for their fellow human beings. And yet, what is society but human beings collaborating with one another to help each other pursue their own interests? As Adam Smith once wrote, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Since the dawn of civilization, we human beings have worked with one another to pursue our interests, and in doing so, have accomplished amazing feats that we would have otherwise not been able to do on our own. For so long, we have done all this under the watchful eye of government, either to our own benefit or  detriment. Who is to say that humans would cease their mutual, voluntary interactions if government were to cease? Human civilization continued to thrive long after the collapse of the Roman government. Who is to say it won’t continue to do so after the collapse of government itself?

To learn more about “spontaneous order”, I suggest consulting the works of F.A. Hayek, especially "The Fatal Conceit" and "The Use of Knowledge in Society". I also recommend watching this video by Shane Killian, as he does an excellent job of explaining how spontaneous order reveals itself in both nature and economics: