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Big History, Complexity Theory, and Life in a Non-Linear World

See on Scoop.itBounded Rationality and Beyond

WHEN , IN THE late 1970s, desktop computers suddenly made it simple to solve non-linear equations, scientists in fields from fluid dynamics to ecosystem studies began modelling their subjects with them. This was an earth-shaking development. Earlier, scientists could only model their subjects with relatively simpler, quicker-to-solve linear equations. With linear equations, ‘the sum of two equations is again a solution’. 1 A small cause will create a small effect, and a large cause, a large effect. They were the kinds of equations that Isaac Newton used to perfect his physics. Combined with René Descartes’ philosophy, Newton’s physics created a world view in which independent objects interacted according to a set of ‘Universal Laws of Nature’ in linear processes of cause-and-effect. Johannes Kepler had called the resulting world a ‘Clockwork Universe’. 2 However, as successful the resulting scientific paradigm proved to be, most of life is non-linear. After all, it took only a few small shifts in the genes of bacteria in Chinese fowl sometime around 1917 to cause the influenza epidemic that ravaged America and Europe at the end of World War I. Small causes can have enormous effects. But non-linear equations were much more time-consuming to solve. With the desktop computer revolution of the late 1970s, it was suddenly possible for scientists to model their topics with non-linear equations, with which small causes can have large effects. The scientists using them quickly made two discoveries. First, non-linear equations created a more accurate picture of how things in the world behaved.By Dmitri Bondarenko and Ken Baskin in History and Cultural History. Big History emerged as part of this non-linear way of understanding the world. What we discovered in working together is that the insights of complexity theory, which studies the 



Time is real? I think not

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