Complexity: Some Assembly Required

Not long ago, in “Philosophy’s Burgess Shale,” I wondered whether, in the 21st century, there are more crazy ideas than usual. I suppose it depends where you look. For me, if any site reinforces this impression, it would be Quanta Magazine, where accomplished science writers attempt to summarize the latest developments in math, physics, biology, and computer science. I say “attempt” because the source material is often difficult and abstruse, although some writers are very good at explaining it in lay terms.

Recently, Philip Ball had a go at something called Assembly Theory, which tackles the problem of the origins of life (“A New Idea for How to Assemble Life”, May 4, 2023). It’s refreshing to see this acknowledged as a problem at all, because modern science usually pretends to take it in confident stride. But as Ball conveys the view of the researchers, Lee Cronin and Sara Walker, “complex molecules. . . in living organisms are far too complex to have been assembled by chance.” He later elaborates:

In accounting for specific, actual entities like humans in general (and you and me in particular), traditional physics is only of so much use. It provides the laws of nature, and assumes that specific outcomes are the result of specific initial conditions. In this view, we must have been somehow encoded in the first moments of the universe. But it surely requires extremely fine-tuned initial conditions to make Homo sapiens (let alone you) inevitable.

“Assembly Theory,” he explains, “escapes from that kind of overdetermined picture.” It does so by postulating that complexity develops along an accumulative chain, determined not merely by the simple laws of nature, but by an additional sort of racheting principle (although the article doesn’t use that term).

Ball points out a certain similarity to Chiara Marletto’s and David Deutsch’s “Constructor Theory,” which he has described in a separate Quanta article (“Physicists Rewrite the Fundamental Law That Leads to Disorder”, May 26, 2022). To the simple laws of nature, Constructor Theory adds the constraint of possible and impossible transformations, by invoking quantum superpositions that effect irreversible losses of information (since with each superposition, we are less able to say exactly where or when a given thing exists or happens). Assembly Theory turns instead to possible and impossible pathways of combination, mathematically conceived; the mechanism remains unidentified. Either way, nature is forced forward, its simple laws no longer able to act indifferently in either direction, and the development of complexity becomes possible.

There are two important aspects to Assembly Theory: the math, which introduces an “Assembly Index,” or “AI”—a quantification of the steps needed to create a certain level of complexity, which the researchers hope will be useful to distinguish life from non-life—and the process, which, as I suggest, is somewhat obscure. “According to Assembly Theory, before Darwinian evolution can proceed, something has to select for multiple copies of high-AI objects.” This “something” invites speculation. Perhaps Constructor Theory might be of help.

I began by suggesting we are in the realm of crazy 21st-century ideas, but as it turns out, the concepts common to Assembly Theory and Constructor Theory are at least a century old. Alfred North Whitehead outlined them in 1925, while discussing the religious reaction to Darwin’s theories.

By a blindness which is almost judicial as being a penalty to hasty, superficial thinking, many religious thinkers opposed the new doctrine; although, in truth, a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. This material is in itself the ultimate substance. Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature. It also requires an underlying activity—a substantial activity—expressing itself in individual embodiments, and evolving in achievements of organism. The organism is a unit of emerging value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake.” (Science and the Modern World, Mentor 1963 edition, p. 101.)

Whitehead spoke of “organism,” but the parallel with some definite drive toward complexity, and indeed with the general thrust of Assembly Theory and Constructor Theory, is discernible. While we may think in terms of quantum superposition to explain how simple laws of nature can become caught up in webs of interconnection (or mutual reflections, as Rovelli might say) through an apparent loss of information (since we can no longer say exactly where or when a “thing” happens), Whitehead thought more directly in terms of the interactions themselves. When everything is everywhere all the time, as I discussed in “Things Matter,” the weirdness of quantum superposition appears as a confusion predicated on the misplaced concreteness of “simple location.” As Whitehead tried to tell us, this confusion underlies, and ultimately undermines, the classical paradigms of philosophy and science.

Related Topics

Philosophy’s Burgess Shale, or the Return of Metaphysics
Things Happen
Evolution as Process

Additional Resources

A New Idea for How to Assemble Life (Philip Ball, Quanta Magazine)
Physicists Rewrite the Fundamental Law That Leads to Disorder (Philip Ball, Quanta Magazine)

20 thoughts on “Complexity: Some Assembly Required”

  1. Unfortunately, the original assumptions we inherited from our culture about the natural world become the very stumbling blocks that stand in the way of understanding. Two of those dubious assumptions come to mind and are therefore rewritten by my metaphysical model:

    1. Life is universal and that life is defined as motion resulting in form. This corresponds with Whitehead’s own assessment:

    “The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. This material is in itself the ultimate substance.”

    2. There is no such thing as the laws of nature. What we call laws are regularities that we observe.

    Since there is no such thing as law, the question then becomes: If life is universal and therefore fundamental for complexity, what is the undisclosed nature of that life which results in novelty and complexity? Another way of stating this is: What is the basis of that life which drives complexity of living systems?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure if you’re posing these questions rhetorically. Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems as if you’re drawing them from your own metaphysical model.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. These ideas are from my own metaphysical model Jim, a model that I’ve built from the ground up. It is my style to pose questions that if others are intellectually stimulated by those questions they will investigate for themselves; so in a sense, even though I’m a hardcore dialectician I also rely upon the beauty of rhetoric.

        I cannot say that I’m “influenced” by native American culture, but much of what I’ve put together does run along parallel threads.

        For example: In the West we see the creator as one thing and see the creation as another thing. This rationale is the genesis of dualism, and once reality has been divided into parts there is no way to reconcile that division. In philosophy, this is where the West as well as the East finds itself today, and they has been struggling for over 2500 years to reconcile that division, with no success.

        In contrast, the native American culture does not divide reality into parts, it starts from the premise that the creator and creation are one and the same as well as life is ubiquitous and universal; again, no division.

        Of course, my metaphysics is much, much more explicit and complete and furthermore, it does not follow the rationale of western conventional wisdom. But it’s tenable to the point that it can account for motion, it can account for what drives novelty and complexity in the evolutionary process and it actually resolves the infamous hard problem of consciousness without contradicting the physical sciences (whatever that’s worth). Hint: be aware that I’m not a panpsychist either.

        I’ve been chastised by many a blogger over the years, materialists and idealists alike that there are no new ideas. Actually, I think this attitude is a code for “there is no way you First Cause, can known something I do not know or know something that the professionals of Academia and the physical sciences do not know.”

        After living seventy years I’ve finally come to recognize that I’m an intellectual savant. Now, if I was fortunate enough to be a musical savant instead, people would gather around, listen to my music and politely applaud. But by being an intellectual savant, all I do is insult the audience with my ability to reason correctly. Boo, hoo, hoo, right.😂

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      2. Some say the Internet is full of cats, but in my experience it’s full of lonely genuises. The trick is to bear one’s unappreciated genius with good grace. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I avoid the label of lonely genius by not having my own blog site. It has been my experience that those who have their own blog sites are seeking confirmation of their own prejudicial biases and are not interested in learning anything new.

        There are exceptions though. I have met a couple of individuals who have their own blog sites whom I have great respect and developed a working relationship.


        Liked by 1 person

      4. For what it’s worth, Jim Cross is one of those individual I have a great respect for. His blog is: Jim is a rare individual, possesses a very low threshold for bigotry, open to new ideas and an old hippie who was at Woodstock in ’69.

        He welcomes anyone to contribute and his own analysis is superb.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Thanks, I recently became aware of Broad Speculations, and I agree it’s an interesting and worthwhile site. His 2021 review of Mark Solms’ The Hidden Spring was of particular interest to me, since in 2022 I had posted my own five-part review. His comments at SelfAwarePatterns are also thoughtful and measured, a quality he shares with the host of that site.

        The two blogs seem to share a circle of friends, including Philosopher Eric and by times yourself. (I couldn’t help noticing a comment saying you’d been banned from SelfAwarePatterns.) Their interests align on Philosophy of Mind, and particularly on mechanisms of consciousness.

        I took an undergraduate course in Philosophy of Mind in 1976, and sustained a mild interest in its progress thereafter. While I’m sure much has changed in the field, the exchanges I see in the modern comments would be at home in any 1976 journal. The endless agonizing over fine points of discussion, within a larger context that seems hopelessly lost, made an impression upon me then and stays with me now. For this reason, I haven’t jumped in with both feet at either blog.

        There is something to be said in defense of the eagerness to find consciousness in the brain, just as there is something to be said for an interest in physical science generally. I’m not sure there’s as much to be said for philosophers dabbling in brain science. As I put it in my shortest post, “Philosophy is the exploration of paradigms. Considered as a way of life, it is the adoption of a paradigm.”

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Yeah, Philosopher Eric and I have a great relationship because we understand each to a high degree. We each have our own interests to pursue and respect that. I can say anything I want to Eric and he is not offended and that feeling is reciprocal.

        It isn’t so much that I’ve been banned by Mike Smith, it’s that he put all of my comments on hold for moderation. I have a tendency to push back pretty hard when another contributor uses back door ad hominem.

        Riccardo Manzotti used back door ad hominem relentlessly, always commenting in a condescending way that “it’s not our fault that we (are all too dumb) to understand his earth shattering model of consciousness because we’ve been indoctrinated by conventional views.”

        Originally, Mike posted a comment laying blame at both Riccardo and myself, recommending that we tone it down. Then he retracted the post and blocked me, followed by and email telling me what he had done. Mike and I don’t see the world the same way and he has a tendency to his blog as a bully pulpit. Plus, I think his blog has pretty much run it course.

        Another older blog you might find interesting is embracing It is currently inactive since May of 2022. Michael Mark and I are great friends and I love his poetic style of prose. We are kindred spirits if you will and have cultivated a relationship beyond his blog.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating. I saw and retweeted the Philip Ball piece but didn’t get round to reading yet.

    Question – does he make the Assembly Constructor connection in the article, or is that you in this post?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah yes, thanks. Now reading the article, I see the focus is Lee Cronin and Sarah Amari-Walker. Had some interchange with the latter and know she’s friendly with Marletto (and Deutsch) … Great that this stuff is making mainstream science journalism.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well once again Psybertron sent me this way.
    Not to beat a dead horse, but the quotes you chose for this post tend to bring out the horse-beater in me.

    I will say: To explain life, we don’t need extreme fine tuning of initial conditions, we don’t need Whitehead’s “external relations,” and we certainly don’t need quantum superposition. All we need is acknowledgment that physical patterns naturally evolve toward reduced volatility, by simple virtue of the fact that volatile patterns disappear. Whitehead would have to admit that this “internal relation” is enough of a driving force to lead to specialization and complexity (which enhance competitive stability); in other words, to things that look like life. In this sense, yes, organism is fundamental, because simple perseverance leads inevitably to organism. But nothing fancier is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Tim. Oddly enough, your name came up just yesterday, in the comments for Turing Test Fail, Part III—Find Out What it Means to Me. Philosopher Eric’s theories about the origins of morality reminded me of yours.

      The tendency to reduced volatility might explain why the world is full of rocks. As to “things that look like life,” that’s an odd phrase. It begs the question (in the technical and the vernacular sense) of who’s there to look.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi AJ, finally I have some time to get back to this.

    I have been talking with you about reduced volatility and delayed dissipation of stable energy gradients (and about rocks) for a little over a year now, on and off ever since our Straddling Ontologies days.

    On Oct 13, my comment under IS GOD SACRED included the following: “Just to be absolutely clear, when I talk about non-volatility or perseverance, I always mean in the context of an energized state, which is organized for cooperative self-maintenance and growth. The other kind of non-volatility, that of rocks, would be better described as ‘inertness.’”

    I was glad to see that you brought up my ideas during your discussion with Eric. Thanks for that; I may have a comment over there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Tim. I’d thought our exchange just now was more of a quick recap of our respective positions, which had reached an impasse. Re-opening the discussion may be flogging a dead horse. But since my next blog post is still gestating, I might as well give this a little more time.

      [Note: Shortly after posting this, I corrected a word here and there.]

      The idea that there are two kinds of process involved in volatility needs some expansion. On Oct 13, 2022, as you point out, you explained that “One key difference between life and rocks is that life maintains an energized state vs its surroundings.” From this I understand that rocks partake of a process which leads to inertness. They are not “energized,” and so complexity does not result. On the other hand, life partakes of a process which leads to development and growth. It is “energized,” so that complexity does result.

      Certain combinations of matter stick together. That which does not stick together disappears. This, you say, explains the growth of complexity and life. But I don’t think you disagree that it also explains rocks. Your claim is that sometimes, when matter preferentially sticks together, it results in cells and other active things; whereas at other times, it results in rocks and other inert things.

      The preferential sticking together, taken alone, isn’t enough to explain the difference. There must be something else that differentiates what happens with cells from what happens with rocks. On the face of it, this sounds like vitalism, or the idea that a certain energy inhabits some forms of matter, causing it to behave differently than other types of matter.

      If you were good with this, we could proceed along those lines. But I don’t think you believe in two kinds of process, or in a difference of physics between rocks and life. There is a single physics which leads to both. This physics is indifferent; what happens, happens, driven by indifferent laws. On Oct 24, 2022, in the same comment to which, under a different post, you referred Philosopher Eric, you defended this view, writing:

      “So, scientifically speaking, how can subjectivity arise from law-abiding machinery? How does preference arise from what appeared to be indifference? This is the point where you keep telling me I’m adding something back in at the end, and I keep saying I’m merely following thermodynamics step by step. I keep saying that a primitive form of volition or agency is already present in simple chemicals: In the path from lower to higher complexity, there is no single step which contains a discontinuity in volition, all the way from rocks to the conscious mind.

      “To be absolutely clear: What may appear to be fundamental indifference actually has a built-in preference, for non-volatility. It is not contrary to normal science to say that this preference is built-in; it is more like a tautology: Volatile things disappear. “

      This is, indeed, the point where I keep telling you you’re adding something. What you are adding is a mysterious difference between rocks as the result of volatility disappearing, and life as the result of volatility disappearing. This is our dead horse, and the only thing that will zap life back into it is an explanation of why dissipating volatility would result in anything but rocks, absent a revised physics that abandons simple, indifferent thermodynamics and introduces “energized states”. I don’t mind if you want to stray from standard physics (as you have done in places), but you can’t have it both ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks AJ this should be easy to clear up.

    You paraphrased me as saying rocks partake of a process which leads to inertness, while life partakes of a different process. No, it’s the same process, but with different conditions. If a stable energy gradient is present (this should sound familiar), then patterns will eventually evolve which take advantage of that gradient and slow its dissipation (store its energy). That is life. On the other hand, for the vast majority of matter which happens to be in the wrong form or wrong place for storing energy, such matter just collects in low-energy states and that’s the end of it; there is no longer any dissipation that could be delayed. That is rocks.

    You also said preferential sticking together isn’t enough to explain what differentiates the life process from the rock process. I agree. Even with a stable gradient present, rocks still form most of the time, due to their excellent preferential sticking together. What is needed is a lot of time for random chemistry to accumulate, until a significant fraction of the matter present happens to store energy better than usual. From that point those energized forms can get more interesting as they learn new ways to persevere together.

    Finally you said that I’m adding a mysterious difference between “rocks as the result of volatility disappearing,” and “life as the result of volatility disappearing.” But there is absolutely nothing mysterious about what I’m adding. It’s standard physics. Evolution collects cumulative changes in the way energy is allowed to dissipate, but each step in that process has exactly the same driving forces as the ones that make rocks seek low-energy states.

    Proto-life forms are also seeking a low-energy state. They just happen to be slower at getting there than rocks. And the added time the slower forms spend in an energized state provides an opportunity for evolution to do its work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, thanks for clearing that up. I misunderstood you to mean that the tendency of the non-volatile to persist was your simple and decisive explanation for life. I see now that you mean it is a necessary condition, but not the decisive one. There is a further mechanism which, when present, results in life. This is what I was asking about.

      This mechanism operates on what I think is called the Free Energy Principle, or FEP. By minimizing its loss of energy, in effect saving energy, a thing may store that energy, and use it to persist more effectively. It may be more accurate to say (since rocks also persist quite effectively) that it persists to a different effect, that is, toward growth rather than stagnation, development rather than stasis. This direction is the result of its happy ability to save and store energy. But there is more than that: it is the result of using that extra energy to help itself persist.

      This is where morality comes in, but also the conatus. The mere storage of energy is not enough; like the principle of volatility, an abundance of stored energy is merely the supporting condition for the truly decisive explanation: the will to persistence, the will to apply energy with minimal loss for purposes of self-perpetuation.

      At this point I would ask you to retire the two preconditions and focus on the heart of the question. The principle of non-volatility and the principle of differential energy exchanges may be plausible, although they could be questioned. But they are a sideshow to the real difference between rocks and life in your account.

      I think this is the real dead horse among our various exchanges: the source of the conatus. You say it emerges from thermodynamics, and I say it is primitive to the universe. Your argument from emergence invokes the conatus as a motivating force, as I have just shown—a force that wants to perpetuate itself and has extra energy to do so. But what is it about the extra energy that results in this force? It seems just as likely that the force is already there, and takes advantage of the situation. In fact this seems more likely, if only because the alternative involves us in a circularity where the emergence of the force requires its prior presence.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In requesting an explanation for “the will to persistence, the will to apply energy with minimal loss,” you are apparently taking the language of anthropomorphism literally. I think I have run out of ways of saying there is nothing needed beyond basic thermal activity. If something happens to store energy better, it will be there longer, *by definition*, than things that give up their energy and turn into something else (turn into a rock for example).

    If you put aside your focus on unexplained forces for a while, and think instead about why random combinations might be expected to drift in a particular direction over time, I think you could re-read some of my previous commentary and get more out of it.

    The conatus is not a force. It cannot push on anything. It is a cumulative effect of chance kinetics. It is a pattern that emerges, like the clouds of a cold front or the waves on a wind-driven lake. But the conatus becomes a much more stable pattern than those things, and is able to persist and eventually to reproduce and evolve further complexity. Clouds or waves will never have time for that, which is a pity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My focus is not on unexplained forces, but unexplained phenomena. Your theory that we need nothing beyond basic thermal activity to explain everything we observe is not plausible to me, and I have tried to show why. As far as I’m concerned, it’s inadequate as an explanation, and we are obliged to look further, however weird that may get.

      Insistently repeating your theory and hoping I see sense is not helpful. In fact I continue to see its errors, which makes us, at best, equally obtuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry AJ, my bad, and I like the way you put that.
    If a horse has died, I should not try to avoid responsibility for the role I played.

    At this point I think burial is appropriate.
    It was a good horse and we shall miss it.

    If I start a blog I may call it The Equal Obtusity Forum.

    Peace to all.

    Liked by 2 people

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