I’m a huge science nerd, which anyone who reads my blogs knows, and I like to think about how the world works a lot. Not very often, maybe once or twice a year, I will see how several cool things connect with each other. In this blog I will try to explain one of the more amazing realizations I’ve had. To do so I’ll have to explain a few different concepts (all interesting if you’re nerdy) and then tie them all together, so here goes. I just wanted to let you know in advance that I really do have a point and I think it’s pretty profound, so please read to the end.
Anyway, the first is the notion of emergent phenomenon. This is where patterns that seem designed or orchestrated emerge as a result of many individual things behaving the same way under similar conditions. One example is a snowflake:
Something seemingly orchestrated and designed occurs simply because the water molecules all react the same way. This is also what allows processes like fire to be possible, each carbon bond breaks apart which releases energy which breaks another carbon bond apart and so on, like dominos. This is what allows a whole forest or house or city (without a fire department) to go up in a puff of smoke. Another example is an instance where a bridge was built supported by cables on the sides instead of above – all was fine until people began to walk across it, then the slightest wobble back or forth caused all the people on the bridge to compensate by shifting their weight the same direction at the same time, which made it wobble even harder the other way, which made them compensate the same way in the other direction until it began violently wibbling and wobbling back and forth. All of the individuals were behaving in a uniform way producing a large scale effect the same way the molecules above formed a snowflake or turn a spark into an inferno.
I knew this already, but a few days ago I started thinking about moods, how people react differently depending on what mood they’re in and how people are kind of random that way. Sometimes you tell someone to fuck off and they ignore you, other times they want to punch you. Sometimes you tell someone a joke and they smile, other times they laugh until tears roll down their cheeks. I started thinking about this and it reminded me of yet another phenomenon in nature, something I saw on a nova science now episode about how trees grow. Basically a tree has many branches and when wind hits it the branches all wibble and wobble in different directions which absorbs the shock of the gust of wind because while one branch is wibbling another is wobbling and the opposing forces largely cancel each other out, stabilizing the tree and keeping it from being uprooted.
This got me thinking and I realized that moods are like the wibble and wobble of the branches of a tree. The random, conflicting moods balance each other out and allow society to be stable, they prevent emergent phenomenon in humans from running amok. Because if you get a thousand people in the same place and they’re all pissed about the same thing it’s not hard to start a riot. Because they are all in the same mindset and all react to each other much the same way just like the molecules in a snowflake or a forest fire which creates a wide scale effect.
But it doesn’t end there. The same principle can be applied to economic and political systems (and already has). Because just as the contradicting wibbles and wobbles keep a tree from falling over and allowed the tree to evolve, checks and balances and conflicting political parties allow democracy to be possible and competition allows capitalism to function. If you are a businessman your competitors are the branch that wobbles to your wibble, or wibbles to your wobble. They are the reason why you offer a product or service at a price and a level of quality that is beneficial to society. When you have a monopoly it is akin to all the branches of a tree wibbling or wobbling at the same time, the tree falls over. And while I know democrats hate republicans and republicans hate democrats, without the other we would have a one party system and the whole thing would fall apart because power corrupts.
I’ve always been sympathetic to the yin and yang idea in zen philosophy that without an opposite nothing good would mean anything, that light would be a meaningless concept in a world without darkness etc. But only now do I think I fully realize that not only is this an interesting philosophical idea, but that it actually allows civilization to exist at all. It’s an actual working part of our society just like the wibbling wobbling branches on a tree are a functional part of what keeps the tree alive. It isn’t just an interesting abstraction.
Anyway, I thought you might find that interesting.