Thunderstorms Are Alive Even in Complexity Theory

While many scientists who understand complexity theory are not comfortable with one of its more significant conclusions, the fact is that complexity science did find itself in a reality where inorganic elements of the natural world — famously and particularly thunderstorms — are alive (Keller 2005). Most scientists have had such a hard time accepting this conclusion that they’ve sidestepped the paradigm shift it would require by insisting complexity theory is really just a metaphor. It’s very meaningful to note, in this context, that the response of many Western scholars to Indigenous peoples’ insistence that the Land is alive is to say we are speaking in metaphor too. But the people who reached the conclusion that thunderstorms are alive, and the Indigenous people who say the same thing about thunderstorms as well as things like rivers and the Land itself, are not speaking in metaphor at all and have said so very directly (Meyer 2008, cited in Cram and Hopson 2018). It must also be added that although Indigenous people use metaphor in a very different way from the way Western culture uses it, we understand what people of Western culture mean when they say we are speaking metaphorically about the Land being alive. We are telling you that is not what we mean.

Evelyn Fox Keller is professor emeritus at MIT with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Harvard. She has the very good grip on complexity science you would expect from someone like that. She also really knows her biology and is equally knowledgeable about history and philosophy of science. Keller points out that complexity work started, to begin with, as a way of distinguishing living things from non-living things. The self-organization that produces a living organism out of a ball of cells was postulated much longer ago than most people realize, in 1790. It was proposed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who pointed out that the hallmark of life is that, because of self-organization, “an organism . . . behaves as if it has a mind of its own, that is it governs itself.” This is a description of what’s come to be called agency.

Years later, cybernetics took up complexity theory as a means of using self-organization to develop independent internal mechanical decision-making processes. The result was so unexpectedly successful that it collapsed Kant’s division between living and non-living things (Keller, ibid). The machines used self-organization to behave as if they had minds of their own, which meant they had agency and were therefore alive. The final erasure of the hard and fast line between living and non-living things, Keller explains, happened when biologists took up complexity theory and “the mathematical triumphs of nonlinear dynamical systems theory” led to “accompanying claims to having dissolved the boundary between organisms and such physical phenomena as thunderstorms” (Keller 2005:1069).

As an Indigenous person who is also a scientist, I wish to add two observations to this story. The first is that the distinction between living and non-living things that Kant wanted to define and that led to the research Keller described is actually all about the wall between Western culture and the natural world. Clearly defining a boundary between living and non-living things is important to Western scholars because that wall or boundary provides security. It is the collapse of this boundary, in fact, that caused so many scientists to back away from complexity theory and reframe it as “merely metaphor.” The wall itself was the point of the whole exercise and its loss was unacceptable.

The other observation I wish to make is that there’s an important distinction between cybernetic objects or programs and thunderstorms. One type of thing is human-made and the other is naturally-occurring. How important is this distinction? Perhaps that’s something to explore after you’ve made your paradigm shift.

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

When I taught college and university biology and was introducing the Cell Theory (which defines life this way: “All living things are made of cells”), the first student response when I asked, “How do you know something is alive?,” was almost always, “It can think and speak.” Subsequent student definitions of life usually included more animals but still left out plants. Almost no definitions included microorganisms or things such as bacteria. What do you think generated this common pattern of responses in students trying to articulate a definition of “life”?

How would the cultural worldview that made it so hard for my students to define life in a way that included microorganisms make it hard for people in Western culture to define life in a way that includes thunderstorms?

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