When Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of physics, a man who won the Nobel Prize for his creation of quantum mechanics and specifically the Uncertainty Principle, was lying on his deathbed, he claimed he’d have two questions for God: why relativity and why turbulence. To which Heisenberg replied, “I really think He may have an answer to the first question.”
Turbulence. It’s the gadfly of existence. It leads to uncertainty because it creates variables and situations impossible to predict.
But you know what? That’s the story of life. Life is turbulence, life is chaos, and life is complexity.
We want certainty. We want answers. We want things to be routine. And when that’s not happening, life can feel unsettled and ungrounded. You know that feeling? It’s what we’re going through right now, here in the time of the coronavirus.
You know what also is turbulent? Viruses. Due to their complex and diverse nature, viruses don’t follow predictable patterns. Because of this, it’s very hard to control viruses, since they seem to have a mind of their own and replicate at will inside the body.
Hence, the coronavirus is bringing the world to its knees.
I want you to understand, I’m not downplaying the coronavirus and the harm it’s causing. Instead, I want to help you look at it from a deeper perspective, one that includes a more integrated scientific viewpoint. When we are faced with uncertainty, it increases the fear and anxiety we may feel because of everything feeling untenable, and as a result, life develops a surreal quality due to all routines being dismantled.
One of the greatest of fears is fear of the other. And what greater other do we face right now than the coronavirus? It’s been called an enemy, and the language coming out of government and industry makes it sound like we’re at war with this enemy. But that isn’t the truth; the coronavirus isn’t an enemy. We aren’t at war, nor do we have anything to fear.
I hope I can shine a light on our situation and help you make sense of it, by giving you this deeper perspective that, as I said above, includes a more integrated scientific viewpoint.
Let me first clarify what I mean when I say an integrated scientific viewpoint. The whole of science is not one monolithic enterprise; there are various fields, and taken together, there is little coherence among its various parts. Many of the scientific fields attempt to use the logic of linear determinism to seek solutions, but linear determinism has its limitations and is not useful or helpful here.
Linear determinism assumes that if an action occurs, its effect can be plotted. A small action is believed to cause a small effect. Double the size of the action, it’s presumed, and the effect is doubled. Linear systems are predictable and controllable, and answers are given with confidence and an aura of absolute authority. The answer might turn out to be totally wrong, but because it’s based on a logic that believes in the predictable nature of life, it’s felt that the outcome can be known with absolute certainty.
But in real life, things don’t operate that way. You can’t always make predictions with certainty based on actions. That’s where turbulence comes into play. Life has too many variables, and these variables are usually nonlinear. Thankfully, the integrated sciences are the map of the turbulent terrain and lead the way out of the dark.
Chaos and Complexity
When I say integrated sciences, what I specifically mean is chaos theory, complexity science and the laws of emergence. It has been said that there have been three great scientific revolutions over the last 100 years: relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos and complexity theory. And it is chaos and complexity theory that can help us not only understand life better, but can also help us understand and navigate the coronavirus in particular and the world of viruses in general.
Chaos and complexity science explain the nature of turbulence: life is continually transforming order into disorder (which then leads to a new, higher order), predictability into seeming randomness, and constantly breaking rules by refusing to conform to the norm. We want things to be tidy; turbulence prefers otherwise.
Now granted, no one can live in turbulence on a full time basis: too much chaos is not a good thing. But it does occur, and when it does we have to be ready to adapt to circumstances. And that’s what’s happening right now – we have a whole lot of turbulence and uncertainty going on.
Chaos and complexity theory tell us that although life can be turbulent, due to its complex and diverse nature, it is not random and chaotic; instead, there is an order to it. This order is ruled by the process of self-organization.
Viruses, Ants and Self-Organization
Humans are not the only ones that live by the laws of chaos and complexity theory. Viruses do too. And that’s why all the modeling that’s been presented regarding predictions for the potential outcome of the coronavirus can never claim to be absolute. The modeling is based on linear deterministic logic, yet viruses don’t act by these rules. The movement of viruses are unpredictable. The coronavirus may continue its course for awhile, and it may not. It might continue unabated or it might dissipate at any point – that’s how complexity works.
Viruses, because of their complexity, self-organize. They have an innate intelligence in which all components synchronize their movements. Synchronization occurs with anything that complies with the laws of complexity, because synchronization is an inherent aspect of self-organization.
Take ant colonies, for example, as they also comply with the laws of complexity and synchronize their movements by virtue of self-organization. At one time, it was believed that in ant colonies, the queen ant commanded all the other ants to build the colony. But now it’s understood that it’s the other way around. The ants build the colony through collective action to protect the queen ant. Their entire behavior is predicated solely on finding safety for the queen so she can lay eggs. The ants have no set way to build the colony; they will be as creative as possible as long as it achieves their goal. To create the colony, the ants build new architectural structures that adapt to the geography of the terrain. Thus, the ants are not ruled by a master planner who commands them to build the colony; instead through collective action they self-organize into something new in order to meet their needs.
Viruses are not malicious; they are intelligent, full of complexity, and also full of information. They have a job to do: find a host and replicate. And in doing so, they self-organize by synchronizing their movements with their colony. Only about 250 of the known viruses use humans as their host; the last thing they want to do, once they find a host, is for the host to die. If the host dies, the virus also dies.
The Condition of the Host
This is where the condition of the host comes into play. As is known, the demographic that is most at risk of Covid-19 is the elderly, and especially the elderly in poor health. What isn’t known is how many of the fatalities related to the coronavirus are from Covid-19 or with Covid-19 – meaning, are people dying because of Covid-19, or were there other risk factors inherent and Covid-19 is just one more factor on top of all else?
Another question to understand: How many of the fatalities occurring in hospitals are being caused by iatrogenic disease? Iatrogenic disease is illness caused by medical procedures, treatments, and even medical settings. What I’m specifically referring to here is the possibility that because hospitals are well-known germ factories due to their sterile and antiseptic natures – MRSA is one of a number of superbugs that have sprouted out of hospital settings – it’s possible that Covid-19 could be even more endemic in a hospital setting, leading to the spreading of it within a hospital.
I’m not questioning Covid-19 patients being treated in hospital settings; it’s just that we need to understand that turbulence – meaning the variety of variables, such as the spread of the virus in a hospital – may play a role in the growing fatalities. And because of this turbulence, again, modeling based on linear determinism may not be accurate.
Besides the elderly population that could be more susceptible, anyone in poor health could also be at risk. And here in the U.S., where at least 50 million people suffer from autoimmune issues and 230 million people have chronic diseases, that’s a lot of people at risk.
That’s not to say everyone at risk is going to get sick or succumb to Covid-19. As I said, viruses are not malicious – they don’t want you to die, because when you die, they die. Viruses actually have altruistic natures – when they enter humans, they are transmitting DNA that can be helpful in the evolutionary process of humans. That ability to transmit DNA creates a symbiotic relationship for humans and viruses.
Viruses and Evolution
You see, viruses are a major driver of human evolution. When viruses infect us, they can embed small chunks of their genetic material in our DNA. The incorporation of this material into the human genome has been occurring for millions of years. As a result of this ongoing process, viral genetic material comprises nearly 10 percent of the modern human genome.
Many of our traits and capabilities have been developed with the help of viruses. Viruses are a catalyst for evolution, though I’m sure you’re wondering how that can be if the coronavirus is causing such harm.
If they are catalysts, perhaps they’re trying to tell us something. Maybe they’re letting us know that we need to cultivate and enhance our own complexity in order to continue our symbiotic relationship with them. Maybe, in the spirit of evolution, we’re being called to evolve – both in body and mind.
We can evolve our body by cultivating more complexity and diversity within. We do this by strengthening the microbiome within our guts and immune system – those trillions of microorganisms within the body that create an ecological soup teeming with bacteria, viruses and yeasts that support – or harm – our health. A diverse, complex and healthy environment can ward off viruses that may cause illness, because the internal chemistry of such an environment does not make for a susceptible host.
So perhaps the coronavirus is giving us this message: it’s time for those of us who have neglected self-care and good health practices, and by extension lack a complex and diverse microbiome, to start making that a prime part of life.
And the coronavirus may also be asking us to evolve our mind to allow for complexity to be the guiding force of our cognitive capabilities. A more complex thinker would see the world more holistically, and be less subject to the binary thinking that’s the hallmark of linear determinism. A more evolved thinker would look at our world and say hey, we’ve veered far off track – it’s time to do better.
The Opportunity for Great
It’s no secret there are major systemic issues in the foundational approaches in not only the U.S., but in most other countries in the world – especially in the Western, developed world. And the U.S. may be the number one perpetrator of these problems, by virtue of its unique brand of binary thinking, one that mixes free-market capitalism, religious fundamentalism, rugged individualism, and anti-science dogma: Climate change, income and wealth inequality, massive student debt, oligarchy-led government, chemical-laden food system, poor health outcomes, high levels of depression and anxiety, and a dysfunctional health care system are just some of the structural issues caused by this mindset.
In the wake of the coronavirus, we are seeing more social solidarity, as people realize we’re all in it together. The U.S. government, whose guiding philosophy is free rein to markets and rugged individualism for people, has done an about face and embarked on a multi-trillion dollar bailout of both businesses and people, with politicians saying more is on the way.
In times of massive turbulence, great evolutionary leaps take place – this has occurred throughout history. And that may be the mission of the coronavirus: to create the opportunity for great evolutionary leaps in society. DNA contains information, and the DNA being transmitted into humans by the virus may have this new information inherent in it.
Social solidarity is a form of soulcraft: when we connect with one another, we come together, heart to heart, mind to mind, and soul to soul. It’s one of the ironies of this moment: in our time of social distancing, when we are disconnecting from one another, we also have the opportunity to connect through soulcraft.
Complexity is the way of the world, and both viruses and humans operate in this way. And when there is complexity, the laws of emergence take place. Emergence is an evolutionary trait: it is the novel creation of higher levels of order and sophistication in response to the variables presented.
Emergence is a tandem, two-way process, whereby that which is evolving does so by virtue of the communication taking place between the evolving system and the variable – be it a virus, another human, the environment, or something else – that is putting pressure on the evolving system.
Emergence takes place in viruses by nature of their ability to mutate; when they see that they need to adapt to circumstances, they get creative and innovate into something new and novel – hence this current version of the coronavirus, of which there are already four existing ones that endure, has been called novel. And emergence takes place in humans by their ability to adapt and evolve into novel ways of doing things.
Emergence is a creative process; it allows for the new, the innovative, to come forth. And this could be the ultimate lesson of complexity in the time of the coronavirus: it’s time for humans to adapt and to adopt more complexity in body and mind – to become more healthy and to think more holistically – and in the process, evolve to new possibilities. If this is the case, when all is said and done, there is great potential for many profound and important lessons to be learned.