Five Hierarchies of Complex Systems (Adaptive Substrates)
Let’s look now at five hierarchies that that seem to be intrinsic to our universe’s evolutionary development. The hierarchies outline the Big Picture developmental direction of universal complexification, and thus they say some general things about the nature of universal progress.
A historical view offers us the following five major computational “substrates” for complex systems. These substrates have emerged hierarchically over the universe’s lifespan, in a natural process of evolutionary development. Each has a different set of material structures within which it operates. Sociology, for example, operates in the nervous systems of biological organisms with brains and language.
The Five Hierarchies (Substrates)
Note that each substrate has properties within it that cannot be explained using the language of the simpler substrate from which it is constructed. We call such properties “emergent”. They are unpredictably more complex than the actors and laws which generated them. Chemistry, for example exhibits a variety of emergent properties, like the taste of salt (an emergent property not found in sodium or chlorine prior to their combination), and emergent constraints like Le Chatelier’s principle, a kind of chemical homeostasis, that cannot be fully explained in physical terms. The chemist Eric Scerri, editor of Philosophy of Chemistry (2015), is a leading advocate of the hypothesis that there are many emergent properties and principles of chemistry that will never be reducible to quantum mechanics (physics).
Why do these five exist as discrete systems? Developmental processes attract (funnel) complex systems toward future-specific forms and functions. One way they do this is by building their complexity in hierarchies. The new layers of the hierarchy are built using the old layers, and their new complexity, intelligence and adaptiveness, give them emergent new rules of operation, new evolutionary abilities, and new developmental constraints that continue to guide them toward future-specific destinations in both form and function.
Think of the way a human develops, from egg to adult. The more developed it gets, the more of a certain kind of freedom (to be non-human) it loses. The more hierarchies of complexity emerge (organ systems, nervous system, endocrine system, psychological development, etc.), the more it is guided to a particular future. These new hierarchies, which emerge in the same way in all developing humans, direct the human to increasingly specific, complex, and future-fated behaviors.
So too it must be with our universe, if it also is an evolutionary developmental system. Our universe has built intelligence in a developmental hierarchy as it has unfolded, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, to biological minds. Our human culture will soon develop some form of postbiological intelligence. The accelerating rise of intelligence in our universe, via hierarchies, is little-discussed by current science. Yet any aware high school student can now see that there is a clear directionality to universal complexification. Seeing this directionality is a foundation for all modern universal and global foresight, and it has organizational and personal implications as well. One of those is that we should not think of technology as just a human-created system, but one that is undergoing evolutionary development, and which must soon be fully independent of biology, as it’s further development is intrinsic to the nature of universal progress. We can greatly influence how it develops, and that is a moral responsibility, but we can’t stop its development.
In this view, future physics, chemistry, and biology, via both theory and simulation, must eventually tell us that part of the developmental role, purpose or “destiny” of biological civilization, everywhere it emerges, is to create first social and then technological descendants of biological systems that are much faster, more complex, and more resilient than purely biological life. This concept is called postbiological evolution (more accurately, evolutionary development) a topic a few philosophers and computer scientists are thinking about today.
Our current science is nowhere near advanced enough to prove or disprove the existence of a universal process of postbiological development. Yet this idea seems a natural outgrowth of the idea of universal accelerating change, discussed in Chapter 7. Looking at universal development from this perspective, we can imagine that everywhere complexity grows in the universe, it must move from physics to chemistry to biology to culture (replicating ideas in brains, or “memes”) to technology (replicating technologies in cultures or “temes”). None of these steps can be skipped, if they are developmental, and they must be taken in the order we’ve proposed. That is the essence of a hierarchy.
Recall that in the last section we treated physical and chemical systems as one system, which we called Cosmology. That’s a convenient shorthand, and we made it because most foresight work can ignore physical and chemical system differences, and consider them as one system. So for a typical foresight practitioner, the four category CBST model in the last section is sufficiently complex to suffice for general foresight education.
But scientists need to understand puzzles like how replicating chemical systems create replicating cells, or life, and how replicating chemistry may have arisen from replicating universes in the multiverse. For such work, which we’ll briefly discuss in the next section, a PCBST model is a much more useful model, and the one we should use when we talk about universal hierarchy.
Again, if we live in an evolutionary and developmental universe, progress always involves some kind of balanced advancement of each of these two fundamental processes, evolution and development, in service to greater general adaptiveness. We can also observe that this advancement tends to occur in a sequence of brief bursts and longer plateaus, via punctuated equilibrium. As we’ve just seen, we can also say that some of this advancement will also be hierarchical (developmental), and that the leading edge of hierarchical advancement will happen in accelerating manner, in ever more localized spacetime domains, with progressively briefer plateaus before the next punctuation.