Cohesive Complexity


  • All that is, is.  Everything is connected to everything else in space and time, sometimes in unknowable ways.  Even in a simple scene such as this, invisible radio and x-ray radiation surrounds all, countless neutrinos pass by, and dark matter, dark energy, and spiritual values are unknowable.  To believe that any element can be an island is an illusion.
  • Society seems just as interconnected, and just as complex.  Each of us is a complete universe, and a group of us is almost an impossibility.  Our hubristic illusion, fostered by our scientific outlook, is that somehow we can break society into little elements like “government” and then control each piece in isolation.  That’s a dangerous fallacy.


Wisdom treads fearful
Sensing complication

Universe moves on

  • Away from the water, this is one of the most spectacular autumns ever.  Experts try to predict which years will be particularly colorful, but none dare try earlier than July.  And even a week ago, nobody could plan a day reaching nearly seventy degrees.  Times like these are when industrially scheduled jobs are the most painful for those who must remain indoors, because this special confluence of wonder cannot last long.
  • Walking on my way to vote, I remembered that three years ago, doing the same task, I left a frigid home which had been without power for days, and I dodged fallen trees all the way.  Nobody had predicted that superstorm either.  If we cannot determine such simple things, what ignorant hubris must be driving us to believe that changing a tax rate or extending a jail sentence will have a known outcome years from now.


John’s sitting on a bench in the park, watching the swans run along the water to take off.  “Got another traffic ticket for turning too soon.”
“One of those automatic cameras?” I ask.
“Yeah.  Stupid things.  Nanny state.  Full stop on red instead of common sense when nobody is around.  What can you do?  Government regulation and power …”
“Just part of law and order.” I reply smiling.
“Never goes after the ones they really should catch anyway.”
“Which is everybody else, no doubt.”
“Well, yeah, I suppose,” he admits.
“What did they say _ ‘if men were angels there would be no need for government.’”
“As I recall,” he notes, “the angels in Paradise Lost didn’t do any better than people.”
“The problem is,” I remark, “that we switch roles so easily.  If I’m a pedestrian crossing here at the light I curse the stupid drivers who don’t slow down.  But if I’m a driver I curse the pedestrians paying absolutely no attention to me.  I always think I should have the right of way, you know?”
“Cameras don’t care,” he notes glumly.

“Price of progress,” I say as I continue with my laps around the pond.


  • Heavy fog, unnoticed by bats, fish, trees, and probably dogs.  Organisms, according to current theory, inhabit a restricted umwelt of which they are aware.  Nothing else is perceived.  Fog is invisible to a bat using echolocation, or to a dog primarily aware of smells.  Anything outside the umwelt simply does not exist.
  • Science claims we extend our umwelt with technology, and although I have never experienced radio waves, neutrinos or nuclear forces in a carbon atom, I concede they are “real.”  Some people claim they foresee the future, or talk to the dead, or hear meaning in the universe.  I am not vouchsafed such abilities or illusions, yet I am less dogmatically sure about such things than I once was.  I am too well aware of my own umwelt to swear that all the fogs I cannot perceive are someone else’s fantasy.


  • This culture is afflicted with what may be called “simplistic utopianism.”  If only one thing could be changed, the world would become a paradise.  If only th
    is swamp were drained, if only this forest were cleared, if only taxes were lowered, if only I were left alone, if only everyone could be made to work, if only all agreed on what was right.  Yet doing any of those things, even successfully, has side effects and produces its own set of problems and paradise continues to slide away.
  • We have only recently become aware of impossibly intricate webs of ecology in nature.  My favorite example is a simple one:  in India, killing all the cobras menacing people tending rice fields seemed a simple “silver bullet” to make life better.  But the natural prey of cobras are rats, and without predators the rats multiplied geometrically, ate the rice, and caused the dirt dikes _ the result of centuries of work _ to collapse as they burrowed freely.  Dealing with cobras is awful.  Getting rid of cobras has costs.
  • Society is even more complex than ecology, because each individual is a complete universe.  Degrade poor people enough and they will either willingly die or revolt.  Redistribute wealth and some things taken for granted _ parks and museums and new hospital wings _ may no longer exist. 
  • The “Goldilocks” society in which we live has evolved just as fiercely and purposefully as any fruit fly species.  Nooks and crannies that make no sense, annoyances that would seem to be easy to eliminate, idiotic and convoluted chunks of daily life _ all possess some purpose.  Eliminating the wrong ones may leave us without the dikes we take for granted, and civilization may degenerate into the family and tribe Hobbesian struggle now apparent in the Mideast and parts of Africa.
  • I am not against draining swamps, clearing forests, or killing cobras.  Ecology also informs us all is in constant flux, and change may be good, change may come no matter what we do.  But I do insist that we realize nothing is simple, no “if only” will produce utopia, and we should worry more about side effects before we begin to slice our culture into something better.


  • The thing about everything is that it is so unexpected, because we ignore it until we don’t.  We’re so busy talking, thinking, planning, driving, or doing something requiring concentration that much of the world never exists in our perception.  Like in that famous experiment where people instructed to count the number of passes in a video of a basketball game never see a gorilla that is walking casually through the scene.
  • I know I miss an awful lot of gorillas every moment.  Even more distressingly, even the ones I take note of fade as time goes by.  That’s one reason I am less certain of what I am certain of these days.      

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