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Meditation 716
Self-organizing systems

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Last week in responding to Talk Back 90, I noted that three consecutive Talk Backs had brought up variations of the watchmaker argument. The very next day, I received a submission for Talk Back 91 recycling the "house" version of the watchmaker. And that makes it four straight that think a weak analogy constitutes proof.

Still, the idea that a complex system requires a single organizing intelligence can be tempting. But, is it necessarily true.

There is an article[1] in the August 9-15 2008 issue of New Scientist which discusses control of complex systems, systems so complex that efforts to find a way to directly control them effectively and efficiently have proven beyond human capability. However, if the elements of the system are given a few simple rules and allowed through trial and error to discover what works, then the system can organize itself to run efficiently.

The same thing has been observed of schools of fish; millions of fish seem to move as a single unit, break up as a reaction to danger, and reform. There's no over-riding intelligence, just millions of individual fish, each reacting fairly simplistically in accordance with what their immediate neighbors are doing. A school of fish is a self-organizing complex system. A flock of birds is similarly self-organized.

But, where did the simple rules come from? Surely they must have come from a designer. Again, not necessarily. Rules can come out of trial and error: what works leads to survival; what does not work leads to failure.

Now, I am not saying a clockwork watch does not require a watchmaker. There are no simple organizing principles by which the gears and springs would create themselves, and then assemble themselves. But, as for the development of the universe and its various elements following the Big Bang, and as for the evolution of life, the self-organization of a complex system is quite possible.


  1. Law and Disorder, Mark Buchanan, New Scientist August 9-15 2008 p 28