Credidero #8: Complexity

The concepts of “complexity” and “divinity” seem to be inextricably interwoven in much of Western religious and cultural thought. One of the most famous renderings of this philosophical and teleological duality is “The Watchmaker Analogy,” which was explored at length in English clergyman William Paley’s 1802 treatise Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Paley opened his tome thusly:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there . . . Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

The gist of Paley’s argument boils down to the presumption that when you find a watch, there must be a watchmaker.  So, therefore, when you find a stone, there must also be a stonemaker. And then when you find a perfectly articulated shoulder joint, there must be a perfectly articulated shoulder joint-maker. And then when you find a flaming bag of poop, there must be a flaming bag of poop-maker. Well, okay, actually Reverend Paley didn’t mention that last one. It was just the anchor concept from a humorous collaborative piece I wrote many years ago, in which some colleagues and I envisioned a dialog between Charles Darwin (in Hell) and The LORD about Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy. It piqued my curiosity enough to explore it all those years ago, even if in a satirical form, and it was the very first thing that popped to my mind when I rolled the 12-sided die last month and had “Complexity” selected as the topic of this month’s Credidero article.

Charles Darwin himself also spent a fair amount of time thinking about The Watchmaker Analogy, well before he went to Hell, even. Darwin was aware of and fond of Paley’s work, and scholars have theorized, with clear reason and reasoning, that Darwin’s explanations of natural selection in On The Origin of Species are actually framed and intended as respectful scientific counter-arguments to those made in Natural Theology.  Even Richard Dawkins, the high priest of neo-atheists and father of all memes, evokes Paley in the title of his influential 1986 tome The Blind Watchmaker. The good Reverend’s final book remains in print, and is a cornerstone text in modern “intelligent design” circles. Those are sure some long and limber legs for such a nominally arcane older text.

Given his longstanding popularity and cultural resonance, if you want to frame arguments for or against complexity as a function of a divine creator, Paley’s as good of a starting point as you’re likely to find. Unless, of course, you’re too much of a fundamentalist to see his work as anything more than a derivative text, and you just want to jump straight to the opening lines of the primary text upon which all of Western (and by Western, I mean American) religious culture has been erected:  “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of The LORD moved upon the face of the waters. And The LORD said, let there be light: and there was light,” sayeth the Book of Genesis, which many Evangelical types interpreteth as the literal Word of The Lord, their God and Savior. A few verses later, as we mostly all know, The LORD went on to make day and night, and stars and sky, and land and seas, and the sun and the moon, and plants and animals, and mankind and naps, with each day’s creations more complex than the ones that came before.

As the very first appearance of The LORD in The Bible highlights His ability to create complexity where none existed before, that seems to be the professional trait of which He (or his public relations team) is most proud, and He continues to conjure up something from nothing (stepping up complexity every time) throughout the Old Testament, in between all the smiting and the flooding and the worrying about what women are up to with their bodies that He so seems to enjoy in His spare time. Then later, when The LORD’s only begotten Son decides to unveil his own formidable chops as proof of his divinity in the New Testament, He does it by creating wine from water at a wedding party, simply by adding that magically divine special ingredient: complexity. Bro-heem Christ could have just ended his career right there and still been a legend.

The underlying viewpoint that increasing complexity requires some force greater than that which mere humans can muster isn’t restricted to matters of natural science. Case in point: Erich Von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, and the many sequels and imitators in print and on screen that followed it. The central argument of these tomes is that the design and construction skills behind ancient objects like the Great Pyramids or Nazca Lines or Stonehenge or the Easter Island statues were complex beyond human capabilities at the time, and therefore must have required inhuman assistance, only in this case not from The LORD, but rather from super-intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

I must admit that I ate those books up as a kid, their logic seeming so very obvious and profound to my 10- to 12-year old mind. But I’d certainly raise my eyebrows and smirk these days at anybody over the age of 16 or so who cited them as part of their mature understanding of the world in which we live, just as I do with people who consider the works of Ayn Rand to be rational adult fare. If we can’t figure out how something complex was built or got done, it seems like intellectual defeatism to simply attribute it to super-powerful unseen entities — either divine or extraterrestrial or John Galt — rather than just working harder to figure it out, and then recognizing that humanity’s ability to create complex objects and artifacts does not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion.

We cannot build a Saturn V rocket today, to cite but one of many examples. That doesn’t mean that those epic machines were built by Jesus, or dropped on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral by Bug-Eyed Monsters. It just means that the industrial base required to build them doesn’t exist anymore as our Nation’s economic, political and military needs evolved. Which I strongly suspect is also the case with pretty much every one of Erich Von Däniken’s examples of the allegedly extra-human skills required to build all of those ancient wonders. Humans, then, now, and in the future, are capable of great complexity in our creations, and if we care enough about something  — putting a man on the man and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade, building a tomb that will last forever, or impressing the ladies on the other side of the island with the chunky heft and knee-melting girth of our massive stone heads — then we’ll work marvels large and small to get ‘er done.

So why do so many people default to the notion that immense complexity requires some form of divinity as its motive force? I suspect it is because the natural order of things is to reduce complexity — bodies to ashes to dirt to dust, cities to ruins to iron to rust — so when we see something, anything, pushing valiantly against the never-ending corruption of eternal entropy, we are temperamentally inclined to judge it special, and meaningful, and not just an anomalous series of natural processes organized in a particular way that slows or reduces or offsets entropic forces for some (likely brief) period of time. In the observable universe, entropy always wins in end, so if we want to believe that acts and examples of increasing complexity are permanent, then a belief in something outside of or beyond that which can be known and understood with our senses and intellects is a darn good way to avoid dwelling on the fact that we and our creative works are going to die and become dirt at some point in the very, very near future, speaking in cosmic time scales.

In looking at casual Christian theology and practice, I sort of like the next order of logical thought that tumbles from this one: if complexity is the realm of God the Watchmaker, then is its opposite, entropy, the particular expertise of Lucifer, His Enemy? The written record on Beelzebub is certainly rife with destruction, and fall, and spoilage, and violation, and war, and madness, and off the cuff, I’d be hard-pressed to think of examples where the Crimson King showed complex, creative chops like those the Father, Son and Holy Spirit trot out at the slightest provocation to bedazzle their admirers. God makes, the Devil breaks, and as long as The LORD stays one step ahead of his nemesis, order prevails.

But if The LORD spent too much time watching over one particularly needy tiny sparrow, would Old Scratch turn the tables on Him (and us) and pull apart the fabric of the known and knowable? I think that when the Beast and the False Prophet and the Dragon are finally cast into the Lake of Fire in the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation, what we’re seeing is actually a metaphorical depiction of the final removal of entropy from the world. I’m guessing that the New Heaven and New Earth and New Jerusalem were seen by Saint John on Patmos as the most fabulously complex constructs imaginable in his time, and that most readers of the Apocalypse since then also envision them in such terms, defined by the norms of whatever time and place that they are pondered. The LORD’s not gonna come live with His people in a humble casita or pre-fab double wide now, is He? Nuh uh. The buildings in that glorious end-of-times city are going to have flying buttresses upon their flying buttresses, and there might even be a Saturn V pad in every yard, plus unlimited pocket watches available upon demand.

I recognize, of course, that I’m being a bit silly here in my analysis of complexity as it’s defined by The Watchmaker Analogy, just as I was being a bit silly when I first wrote The Flaming Bag of Poop-Maker circa 2003-2004. And I guess that’s because whenever I think about that particular argument for the existence of a Supreme Being, it just seems so very obviously and inherently ridiculous to me that responding in kind is the only logical approach to tackling it. There are so many arguments for the existence of God, and so many of them seem more sound and embraceable to me than Reverend Paley’s. I suppose my opinion might be different if I actually thought that The LORD created the world over seven days, some 6,000 years ago (thank you very much, Archbishop Ussher), but given 4.5 billion years for our planet’s natural forces to do their things, with the universe as a whole having an 8.3 billion year head start on our stellar system, I’m not in the least bit surprised by magnitudes of complexity far beyond all human understanding, since we’ve only been collectively pondering such matters for (at most) about 0.2% of Earth’s natural history.

To be clear, though, this does not in any way mean that I do not marvel regularly at the complexity of creation, even if creation created itself. I’m truly and deeply awed by so many complex natural things, from the little creepy-crawly ones that I rescue when I see them on sidewalks to the immense ones light years and light years away from us that I gaze at in stupefaction during the (increasingly rare) times when I have an unobstructed view of a night sky free from light pollution. I’m amazed by the complexity of my own body (creaky as it is), and by the complexity of my own brain’s machinations (awake and asleep), and by the complexity of the sea of emotions in which I swim, loving this, ignoring that, hating the other. I’m well read, reasonably smart, and actively interested in understanding how things work, and I still can barely perceive the tiniest bits of what natural selection has wrought upon the living things around me, as we all hop atop a ridiculously complex ball of elements and minerals and fluids, all governed by forces strong and weak, gravitational and electromagnetic.

Really and truly, I don’t perceive natural complexity as proof of divinity, I perceive natural complexity as divinity in its own right. The complex and ever-evolving canons of chemistry, physics and biology are the closest things I’d admit to admiring as sacred primary texts. I could spend a lifetime studying them, and understand as much as my brain could possibly absorb, and still I would be awed beyond comprehension by the complexity of the natural order in which I function, for the very short, sweet, warm time that I’m blessed to be a self-regulating blob of motile biochemical materials, animated by a denser blob inside my beautifully complex upper bony structure, within which everything that is really, truly me resides, amazingly and incredibly distinct from all of the universe’s possible not-me’s.

At bottom line, I don’t need to worship a fanciful Watchmaker, because I am perfectly content to worship the Watch itself. And the stone next to the Watch on Reverend Paley’s heath. And the tiny dinosaurs that hop around the stone, cheep cheep cheep! And the moo-cow that might pass us all by, chewing a cud rich with uncountable organic oozes, as I talk to the Cheep Cheeps, wishing I had some sunflower seeds in my pocket for them. And the 4,000 miles of metal and stone between me and the Earth’s center as I look down, and the uncountably, immeasurably vast distances above me as I look up, gazing billions of years into the past, perceiving light from way back then as it arrives in the right now on its way to the yet to come. There’s nothing in the Book of Genesis that can rival that, if we’re going to fairly assess things. Nor in Atlas Shrugged.

And now I’ve swung from a most silly approach to assessing complexity to a most abstractly profound one, likely more than two standard deviations away at both ends of the spectrum from how normal people in normal times in normal places would perceive normal complexity. Whatever “normal complexity” might be, anyway. Perhaps that’s an oxymoron? Perhaps it’s a phrase that doesn’t normally exist because it doesn’t need to? Or perhaps it’s just a simple way to describe the chaotic world in which we live and work, driven by complex forces that we often do not see, recognize or appreciate?

I’m inclined to grab that third explanation/definition when thinking about human complexity in human-driven spaces. There’s lots of stuff that we collectively create swirling around us, and when I ponder that, I’m still most drawn to the most complex examples of it, most of the time. I like the Ramones well enough, to cite a musical example, but I adore the far-more-complex King Crimson. Likewise in my taste for visual arts, where extreme abstraction and deeply technical compositions move me far more than literal still lifes and figure studies. My list of top movies is also rife with multi-layered surrealist complexities, while I tend to forget simpler character-based rom coms hours after I watch them. Books? I’ll take the complex Gormenghast Trilogy and The Islanders and The Flounder over the simpler The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men and The Call of the Wild any day. Man-made creative complexity is good in my eyes. It resonates with me. It moves me. It inspires wonder in me. It represents the spaces where we become most Watchmakery, to return to Reverend Paley’s paradigm.

There’s one weird exception when it comes to my love for complexity, and that would be work. I’m a deep devotee of the “keep it simple, stupid” paradigm in the office, and if you interviewed anybody who’s ever worked for me over the past 30+ years, they’d likely cite my penchant for process streamlining and organizational simplification, and my loathing for clerical redundancy and structural inefficiency. When it comes to my professional work, less complex is more desirable, almost to a point of fetishism. I suppose this could be explained altruistically, with me taking the position that my time equates to my organizations’ money, so that deploying my own time and the other human resources around me most efficiently represents a truly ethical approach to stretching our resources as far as they may be stretched. But I think the honest reality is that I view work as a thing that has to be completed before I can play with the complex things that move me more deeply, so by taking the least moves possible to achieve desired professional outcomes, I can preserve the energy I need to take the most moves possible toward the complexities that most amuse and entertain and inspire me. “Wasting time on the man’s dime, yo!” There’s a professional creed to motivate the masses, for sure.

If simple work is the opposite of complex fun, just as entropy is the opposite of creation, just as the Devil is the opposite of the Watchmaker, then we’ve got to wrap back around to opening arguments and conclude by accepting that work must be the purview of Satan, and play must be the purview of God, and that we model ourselves most clearly in His image when we frolic in fields of phlox and fescue and philosophy and felicity and feeling and friends and family and festivity and fun.

I’m ultimately happy to believe in such a simple truth when staring into the awesome face of such a stupidly, gloriously complex universe as ours!

Step aside, simple ones! Complex Nazca Line Building Alien coming through!

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eighth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eleven: “Eternity”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue



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