Flourishing and Thermodynamics

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I'm still chewing on the question asked by one of the readers of this blog. Is the emergence of flourishing, beauty, happiness… different from the emergence of observable physical phenomena like eddies or tornadoes? Thermodynamics helps explain how emergent structure appears in systems far from an equilibrium with little order present. These structures are patterns we can discern against a context of randomness, chaos, and disorder. In the late 1980s, the idea of "self-organized criticality" was developed and used to explain the suddenness by which these structures showed up. The term, punctuated, is often used to describe the jump from one distinct regime to another--the stock market all of a sudden crashes or a species suddenly disappears.

First, it's important to distinguish between patterns that appear in nature and qualities that emerge from human social systems. The appearance of a tornado is a matter that would engender little argument because there is almost complete consensus on what constitutes a tornado or ripples on the surface of a sand dune. The fact that the parameters of a tornado or hurricane are socially constructed is overlooked because no one ordinarily questions whether the boundary between a Category 1 and Category 2 hurricane is a sustained wind speed of 95 miles per hour, according to the the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, or is something other value.

Sustainability is concerned with the continuing presence of qualities considered desirable. But not just any old qualities; the qualities we care about enough to act to produce them are mostly related to the ancient notion of "goodness." The impossibility of settling universally on a definition of what is good has spawned a host of other qualities we use to characterize the world around us. But little or no agreement on how to bound them such that we would agree on whether or not they are present exists. There's no Saffir-Simpson Scale to use to detect and measure them.

The choice of which qualities to look for depends on the context. Art critics seek "beauty." Censors look for "pornography." We know that both of these "lie in the eyes of the beholder." I focus on flourishing as the central quality we seek to produce. Others refer to well-being, dignity, health, and more. There is nothing fundamentally different in any of these qualities from beauty or pornography. They are present only if someone, who can speak with authority, says so. But that does not stop people from treating them as emergent properties like temperature that can be measured and manipulated mechanically. If it is, then, a mistake to seek them by some deterministic, that is non-subjective, system of rules, can we intentionally run the world such that flourishing becomes more likely to appear, like the eddies in a basin?

I think we can, at least pragmatically. We already know that adding wealth to a society stops making people happy after a certain point. We know the opposite that the most basic signs of flourishing don't appear until people have the means to satisfy their basic subsistence needs. Needs, like hurricane categories, are arbitrary and socially constructed, but much less consensually agreed to than hurricane categories. Maslow's hierarchy of needs posits a set of distinct regimes that are sequentially satisfied as one moves toward some ultimate state of flourishing or well being. One could say that, in his scheme, one moves from one distinct regime to another.

As I have already written on several occasions, the key concept involved in any intentional try to increase the possibility that flourishing will emerge has to come from a pragmatic foundation. Complexity and emergence are the source of these elusive qualities: elusive because we cannot enumerate the rules by which they appear from the chaos that characterizes modern, socio-economic-technological societies. I am not sanguine about creating flourishing because this basic fact, I think it is a fact, is being ignored or, worse, denied, by those most powerful in determining our collective future. Maybe it is because they believe that well-being is not like beauty, and thus can be measured and produced by a machine. Or perhaps it is that pragmatism is anathema. Maybe, they think they are being pragmatic, but pragmatism works by learning from the experience no matter how it departs from the goals, not by saying "I told you so." Our culture has made an immense investment in monetary and intellectual capital over the past four or so centuries. Complexity is telling us it's time to stop throwing good money after bad.

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1 Comments

Ed said:

Many thanks, as always for sharing your insights and wisdom with the world John. Yes, "learning from the experience" where complexity is involved seems most appropriate. Much appreciated!