One night, a young man who we’ll call Student went to sleep and fell into a strange dream.
Student: Huh, where am I? I don’t recognize this place.
In front of him was a large black box, with a door on one side. He walked in.
Inside, he found a backpack sitting on the floor. He looked inside, and found it full of little boxes, nicely packed and neatly labeled.
Student: Oh, ok. I recognize some of the labels on these boxes:
-The sun rises every morning and sets in the evening.
-I live in a village, along with 200 other people.
-It gets warm for several months, when we grow crops, and cold for months after.
-My comfortable walking speed is 3-4 kilometers per hour.
-I eat three meals every day.
Student: I see what this is. This must be my Backpack of Knowledge. It’s the collection of everything I know, and everything I’ve learned over my life so far.
He looked through the backpack for a little while, looking at all of his experience and knowledge all arranged inside it, stacked neatly inside. He opened a few of the packages of knowledge, and found familiar details. This made him happy.
Then he heard someone coming.
Student: Oh hello! I remember you; you were my Grade 11 Physics teacher. Nice to see you. It’s been a long time. What brings you here?
Teacher: Hi there. I’m just checking in to see how you’re doing in your life-long pursuit of knowledge and understanding. What’s all this?
Student: I’m glad you asked. Look at how much I know now! You must be so proud of me, knowing about so many different things. I’ve solved how all of these pieces fit together, and how one causes another, like clockwork.
Teacher: Can you tell me what you mean by that?
Student: Let me show you an example. See here are two boxes inside my backpack of knowledge – I comfortably walk 3-4 kilometres per hour and I live in a village of 200 people. You might wonder why those two boxes are packed next to each other, but the first one actually causes the second one.
See, I live in a village, and we feed ourselves from our farmland that spreads outwards around us. Our walking speed dictates how far from our village we can cover, and therefore, the radius of ground that we can harvest. And that sets an upper bound on our village population.
Therefore, he summarized proudly, given a walking speed of 3-4 km/hour, the natural size for how big our village can be is 200 people.
The teacher thought by herself for a minute.
Teacher: Can I show you something?
Student: Of course. I’m always happy to learn new things. I’m a good learner, as you can see.
They walked outside the box. The student looked around and was amazed. This world had all kinds of people, and tools, and ideas, and communities that he’d never seen before. He walked around and visited some of them. He saw a community of nomads and their horses, who were always on the move. He saw a crowded city on the sea, with an enormous market.
Then he looked higher and saw much bigger ideas, and more complex forces that shaped the world. He looked around at the laws of math and physics, classically spelling out the clockwork movement of everything around him. He was amazed, and realized how small and local his own experience was.
These must be universal truths, he wondered. The whole world felt like a finely crafted watch; running smoothly in balance, by laws of cause-and-effect.
Student: This is so cool. I can understand so much more now that I see the bigger picture. I was silly for thinking there could be a fixed upper limit on how big villages can be, based on only walking speed! Their size must be determined by a much bigger and more complicated formula, that doesn’t only incorporate walking speed, but also lots of other things.
I see why you wanted to show me all of this. I knew so little before. But now I know much more.
Teacher: I’m afraid you are mistaken. You haven’t learned anything yet.
Student: What do you mean? I’ve learned the laws of nature, and of civilization. I understand the whole picture now, like clockwork. What’s left for me to learn?
Teacher: Let me show you something else.
So they walked again, into yet again an even bigger world. This world was dark and hot.
The student looked around. He could see he was inside a giant furnace. He could see the world of clockwork precision he’d left behind, now surrounded by fuel burning all around him, and slowly crumbling into spent ash.
Student: What is this place? This is awful.
Teacher: Oh, this? She responded cheerfully. This is the real world. We learned this in the 19th century, when we discovered entropy and the laws of thermodynamics. We see the world as structured and orderly, but that structure is temporary.
Over the long run, all of the organized structure in the world slowly but irreversibly breaks down into perfectly uniform disorder. Mountains eventually grind down into dirt; plants and animals die. Friendships end, social contracts dissolve. Kingdoms eventually fall away and are forgotten. Even the sun will run out one day. It’s like that riddle from The Hobbit. Nothing survives time, in the long run.
She said all of this very excitedly, like it was somehow a good thing. The student did not understand how that could possibly be good news for anybody.
Teacher: I have one more thing to show you.
Student: That’s fine with me; please get me out of here. This place makes me upset.
They walked back towards the previous world, the one he expected ran like clockwork. But it had changed since they’d last been there. The world was now full of bugs.
Teacher: See? Aren’t they wonderful? They’re evolving.
The bugs were multiplying rapidly. Over in a far corner, they’d evolved arms and legs, and seemed to be building simple tools. In another corner, some of the laws of civilization and society he’d taken as hard truths were getting enthusiastically reshaped by the bugs. He could see all of the structure from before, that seemed so permanent, getting chaotically rearranged before his eyes.
Teacher: In a few days, you won’t recognize any of this. It’ll have become something completely new. They’re constantly evolving more complex and specialized features and tools that give them an advantage. It’s not just the bugs that work this way, for that matter. All of society is getting more specialized, more complex, and more structured; all the time. It’s very neat.
Student: I’m lost. First I told you about my little world and how I thought I understood it. So you showed me that my tiny world was actually a part of this much bigger world, with bigger laws and bigger structures. It was all new to me, but at least it made sense.
But then you told me that none of those laws or facts are permanent; every organized rule and structure I take for granted will eventually run down into disorder.
And now, you’re telling me the world is also getting more structured over time? That the world is constantly running up, and evolving into more complex structures and chaotic systems? Which is it? Is the world running down, or running up?
Student: What do you mean, “Yes?”
Teacher: It’s all quite logical, really. Everything in this place can be explained through four simple rules. They’re written down on that sign over there.
Student: Order is Chaos? Chaos is order? Order without chaos… is disorder? And order without disorder… is disorder?
None of these make sense to me. I don’t understand a single one. None of them feel like they could be possibly true. Am I stupid? Is there some riddle here I’m not getting?
Teacher: Don’t be discouraged. You’re making some important first steps of progress.
Student: I don’t feel like I’m making progress. I feel hopelessly confused.
Teacher: You’re going through an important unlearning process. You’ve been carrying around a weight this whole time, called cause-and-effect thinking. Don’t feel bad; most people carry this weight around with them. It’s uncomfortable to unlearn, and you’ve taken an important first step. If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to think about the world in a different way.
The student nodded, but still seemed upset. So the teacher led him back to their very first box, back to where he was familiar. His backpack of knowledge was still there, waiting for him.
Teacher: Ok, let’s examine some of those things you told me about your village. I’d love to see what assumptions are behind them.
Student: Okay, so like I said. When I look at all of these building blocks of what I know – how fast we walk, how we farm our food, and how big our village is – I see some pretty clear cause-and-effect relationships. A) this is how fast we walk, leads to B) how far out we can reach each day, leads to C) how large a harvest we can collect, leads to D) how large a village we can support. If it gets any bigger, we go hungry. Pretty clear to me.
Teacher: Thank you for helping me see your thought process. You’re certainly more familiar with your village and your farming than I am. But I’m skeptical that this system actually works the way you’ve presented it. I have a strong suspicion that you’ve told me a just-so story.
Student: What’s a just-so story?
Teacher: Whenever you hear an explanation for why a system works the way it does, with a neat, tidy conclusion, and you hear an answer that goes, “because it is just so.”
As an example, you may have wondered: why do Giraffes have such long necks? If someone told you, “because that’s precisely how high the leaves on the savannah trees are”, that is in fact a correct observation. But you ought to be suspicious of any kind of cause-and-effect conclusion you draw from that. Both the giraffes and the trees live inside a system. Same with your village: your crops, your harvest, and your villagers all exist inside a system.
Student: I’ll certainly agree with that. There are lots of factors in my village that go into the details of how we farm. I’ve learned about them over the course of my life. But I don’t see what’s in conflict with my cause-and-effect conclusion I laid out for you.
Teacher: Maybe I can show you something. How about we redraw our food system, except instead of focusing on causes and effects, first we start with something simple: what’s flowing through the system.
Let’s zoom out and ask: what is the basic thing that flows all the way through the system, from the beginning to the end?
Student: I’d say it’s nutrients. At the very beginning, energy and nutrients exist out in the world. And at the very end, they’re consumed by our metabolism. That’s the biggest picture I can think of, anyway.
Teacher: Very good. I think that’s correct. We don’t need to worry about how the nutrients got into our environment; and we don’t really need to worry about what happens after we burn them as calories. So let’s draw those as clouds at either end of our system, with a pipe that flows from one end to the other. This is our starting point.
Now, what’s the next thing we can add to our system? Do these nutrients accumulate anywhere in the middle?
Student: Sure they do. I can think of at least two places. First, they accumulate in plants, in our crop yield that grows every season. And then after we harvest them, they sit around, before we steadily consume them.
Teacher: Looks good to me. These two components you’ve drawn here have names – flows, which flow at a certain rate, and stocks, which accumulate in a certain size. Stocks and flows are the basis for good system thinking. So we’re making progress.
Now why don’t we add in those variables we talked about before – our walking speed, and our village size – and let’s see where they land.
Student: OK. So, as I said before, our walking speed influences how far out from our village we can cover. So let’s draw that in. And our area covered matters, because our area times our crop yield equals our potential harvest.
The other thing we’ve got to include here is our village size. Our village size affects the rate at which we can harvest our crops, and the rate at which we eat them.
And now we’re back to my point I was making earlier. Our walking speed affects our coverage area. That affects our harvest. And our harvest size affects our villager population.
Teacher: Again, I’m not challenging your claim that these factors are related to each other in some way. But what I am challenging is the idea of it being a fixed cause-and-effect relationship.
How about I ask you a different question. If your walking speed and coverage area is so critical to your well-being, why don’t you do something about it? For example, why don’t you have horses in your village that help you move around faster?
Student: That’s a great question. We’ve actually thought about this a lot. Let me show you by drawing it out in our system.
If we added horses to our village, they would increase our coverage area. But they also eat food; way more than a person does. We’ve done the math on this: adding horses to our village, even if it increases our crop coverage area, wouldn’t actually increase the population size we could support. Without enough food, it puts pressure on our village population, or our horses, or both.
Teacher: I’d like to highlight something important you’ve drawn here, which are these dotted lines looping back that keep the villager and horse populations in check. I’m glad to see you include this: this is negative feedback. It’s how systems find a steady state, and remain there consistently.
In this case, the negative feedback loops keep the horse population at zero. And that matches with your real life experience, which is that the village doesn’t have any horses – and from what you’re telling me, has no interest in getting any.
Student: That’s right. Horses consume more net harvest than they create, so they don’t make sense.
Teacher: Let me challenge you here. Remember when we met the nomads? They had a lot of horses. Any idea why?
Student: They did, that’s true. I guess they live in a different environment than we do. We’re in the fertile valley, whereas they’re up on the steppe where it’s cold and plants don’t grow very fast. So the rate of nutrients flowing into crops is much slower. Let’s draw that in.
Aha, I see it now. Since the nomads are in a harsh environment, their crop yield per acre is lower than ours, so they need a bigger coverage area to get any harvest at all. So they have to have horses. And although that doesn’t leave much food left over for a large village, they at least get to eat something. Their system is different than ours; and they’ve found a different steady state.
Teacher: So what does this tell you about the relationship between your walking speed and your village size?
Student: I see what you meant before about it being a “just-so story”. It’s not a cause-and-effect relationship like I’d believed before. The system is circular; it doesn’t start or end anywhere. But what matters is that we’ve found a steady state for our food system, and the nomads have found a totally different steady state for theirs. And when we saw the big bustling city, they had their own steady state too; that supported way more people, and I’m sure worked quite differently than either of ours.
Teacher: Let me ask you something. You’re using this word, “steady state”, that’s an important concept. Why are these systems stable?
Student: Well… at least for us, our system is stable because we’ve always got to eat. If we stopped eating, then this whole system would go away and eventually be forgotten. Our food system persists because it’s never at rest. There’s always flow going through the system, because we’re always hungry. Same goes for the nomads, or anyone.
Teacher: You’re a quick learner. That’s exactly right. These systems are stable and orderly, year after year, not because they’re at rest – but because they’re continuously flowing. This is an important foundational concept: order emerges in the steady-states of non-equilibrium systems.
Student: Order emerges… in the steady-states… of non-equilibrium systems. I think I get it. The driving purpose of our orderly food system, with its predictable flows and stocks, is that we always have to keep eating. The fact that our system is out of equilibrium is why it’s stable. That’s counterintuitive. But it makes deep sense to me.
Teacher: That’s why it’s so important we started our system diagram with those two clouds on either end – the nutrients on one side, and the metabolism on the other side. If those didn’t exist, and our system were completely closed, then eventually it would find some equilibrium point, and stop flowing. And, especially when it comes to metabolism, you don’t want to be at equilibrium. That means you’re dead.
Student: But hold on. Some things must be stable and at rest, though. Like, what about this big building that the city market is in? That’s pretty inert. It’s not part of some living system; it’s just a building made of bricks. It sits there.
Teacher: Are you sure? Why did it get built? Who takes care of it? Why has its identity remained consistent over time? Why do people keep coming back to it every day to market their food, with consistent purpose, for so many years?
Student: Got it. So if the building were actually at rest, it would be ignored, and would eventually crumble into dirt. But it’s not at rest. The building is stable because people actively maintain it; because it has a purpose. It’s part of a system that keeps flowing, called “the food market”, which is the people who are motivated to keep going there, and keep rebuilding it, and keep it in a consistent steady state and consistent identity for years and years.
And when we look at really big systems that seem so consistent, like the sun always rises every morning; that’s pretty consistent everywhere. But that’s just a big, old system we’re all inside, that’s in a really reliable steady state. That’s why it’s so predictable to us.
Teacher: You’re absolutely right.
Student: I just realized something. The first time you showed me the great big world, I thought you were teaching me that I was thinking small and I needed to think big. I felt like I was small and silly for only seeing my little boxes, and that by learning the laws of the universe I became wiser and enlightened. Now I realize that this wasn’t really your lesson at all, was it.
Teacher: That’s right.
Student: What you were actually showing me, by revealing all of the different people and places and practices out in the world, is how many different systems there are, and how differently systems can organize themselves, yet still be in equally valid and happy steady states.
So it’s not like ‘inside the box you’re dumb and outside the box you’re smart’. There are actually an infinite number of different boxes and arrangements and possible systems that could emerge in the world.
The point of exploring them is to understand their diversity, and the infinite number of different ways they can find steady states, not some deterministic laws of cause and effect. And when you bring along all of your backpack of knowledge, full of experience from systems you already know, and then explore a new one, you gain some remarkable new perspectives.
Teacher: It’s a real gift, isn’t it. Once you see it that way, the whole world opens up as a place of infinite possibility, rather than defined boundaries.
Student: Yep. But there’s something I don’t understand yet. And that’s why you showed me the bugs.
Teacher: The bugs certainly don’t seem like they’re in a steady state, do they.
Student: Not at all. They’re growing, evolving, and changing their environment all the time. It looks pretty chaotic and unpredictable. Maybe we can illustrate this with another system diagram. I’m not sure where to start though.
Teacher: Well, what is the main thing flowing through the system?
Student: I think it’s also nutrients. What’s a bug, after all, other than a sophisticated system for turning nutrients into more bugs?
Ok so let’s draw this out. Nutrients start their lives out in the environment just like before; and they end their lives consumed by the bugs’ metabolism. In between we’ve got a couple of stocks where it’ll accumulate along the way.
And let’s also put a large stock of bugs called Bug Population, which affects how quickly the nutrients get eaten.
Teacher: Anything else we know about that affects this stock-and-flow system?
Student: Sure. So the bugs live in a complex environment; they don’t have it easy. There are predators who eat the bugs. And there are competitors, who eat the bug food. The larger either of those stocks get, the more pressure it puts on the bug population.
Teacher: So far this looks good. But let’s get to the important part here, which is the fact that the bugs reproduce and evolve. There’s an important concept we haven’t talked about yet, called positive feedback.
Student: Ok, let’s draw this out carefully. Bugs reproduce by laying eggs. When they’re happy and eating lots, they lay a lot of eggs. Then, those eggs hatch into baby bugs at a certain rate, and they flow into the mature bug population.
That’s a reinforcing cycle. More of the same makes more of the same. If it goes on forever, you get infinite bugs. So clearly that must stop somewhere; either because they run out of nutrients, or the predators, or too much competition, or something.
Teacher: Now remember, the bugs don’t just reproduce; they also learn and evolve. They’re actively learning how to change their environment to their advantage, aren’t they.
Student: You’re right. Not only do the bugs make more bugs; they make more evolved bugs. And those evolved bugs are making tools and technology to alter their environment. Some of their tools help defend them against predators; some of their tools help them grow bug food faster.
The bug ecosystem is totally thriving. Lots of food means lots of eggs, lots of new bugs, and more evolved bugs. This system seems like it could totally go on for a long time; now that the bugs have learned how to build technology and alter their environment for their benefit. I can’t say for certain that any of the environment around them will survive intact, mind you.
So I guess I’d say that the long-term order and stability of the bugs – so, in other words, the fact that bugs can perpetually make more of themselves in a predictable way – feels inseparable from the environment around them being unpredictable.
Teacher: Hold up. There’s a lot in what you said just there. I want to make sure this doesn’t fly by without us noticing. Maybe we’d better critically examine what you mean by “predictable” and “unpredictable”.
Student: Right. So, when I’m saying that the bugs are “predictable”, I mean that what I see now – bugs making more bugs – is a pretty good prediction of what tomorrow’s or next year’s bugs will look like. Just like how our farm was orderly – our farm this year is pretty representative of our farm next year. Or the building that hosts the market is predictable – the building today accurately portrays what the building is likely to be tomorrow, with maybe only small changes.
The order comes from self-perpetuation. There’s always something driving the system forward, so that like makes like.
But the environment around the bugs is not predictable. Tiny changes today might cascade into massive changes in the future, because positive feedback can amply things so powerfully. Look, we can see the bugs right in front of us; they’re radically altering the ecosystem around them, with all these interesting second-order effects.
This must be what they mean by “chaos”. Tiny movements on one side of our system drive really big changes on the other, and those big changes drive other changes in our system somewhere else.
Teacher: How would you describe the difference between order and chaos?
Student: Hmm. This feels like an important question. I want to say, based on my experience, that systems are either orderly or they’re chaotic. But given our conversation so far, I’m getting this nagging feeling like that’s not true. It feels suspiciously like calling systems orderly or chaotic is actually a symptom of cause-and-effect thinking that I need to move past.
Teacher: Go on.
Student: Just now, when we went back to look at the bugs, the big idea we introduced was positive feedback. Like makes like. Bugs make more bugs. It’s a driving force, it’s like a sense of purpose for this corner of our system.
When we introduced this idea, I’d initially thought of positive feedback as this driver of order; like it drives alignment in a system. When I see bugs reproducing today, I know that I will see bugs reproducing tomorrow, and the day after that. When a group of people align around a purpose, that’s a kind of order.
But at the same time, positive feedback seems so dangerous and chaotic. When something in a system makes more and more of itself, that can rip the system apart, in some way you’ll never ever be able to predict. Positive feedback is clearly the driver behind systems that tip into chaos; like crowds that panic, or non-native species that invade new ecosystems. When a group of people all suddenly align around an idea or a purpose, that can be really unpredictable.
I’m not sure how to resolve these two ideas. But I know they both have something to do with growth, and with evolution. The bugs are a positive feedback system that makes the future both more predictable and more unpredictable. Depending on where you’re looking. Again, this feels like a cause-and-effect symptom that’s trying to fight for its life, as I’m trying to shake it off.
Teacher: I’m glad you mentioned that word, evolution. You’re on the right track. Is there anything we saw, in our travels together, that might resolve this paradox for us?
Student: Maybe. You know what, this actually reminds me of when we saw the city by the sea, that seemed so strange and advanced to me.
That city, and the market, and the whole system around it evolved, just like the bugs evolved. That market evolved because people need to eat; and it keeps existing because people continue eating. It has an ongoing purpose.
But that’s true for farming too. The market didn’t displace farming. It emerged as a new layer on top of farming.
Student: I’m not going to try to work out the new steady states it might find right now. But I’m sure that as the market evolves and settles into its own steady state layer, the Farming Layer next door responds by finding a new steady state of its own, and adjusting its purpose. That must have been an interesting transition.
Teacher: You’re on the verge of completing this breakthrough, and I want to push you here. I want you to think about that phrase from before: Order emerges in the steady-state of non-equilibrium systems. Remember that? It was a big concept.
Now I want you to take that concept and tell me about the bugs, and how the bugs evolve.
Student: Ok, the bugs are a layered system, just like the farm and the market. Their metabolism, cells, tissues, organs, and individual selves are all layers with their own systems in steady state. And beyond the individual bugs, they organize into communities, they make tools, they invent technologies. Each of these layers is its own system with its own purpose, but they all exist in context with all the other layers.
So maybe we should attach an addendum to our motto: if order emerges in the steady-state of non-equilibrium systems, then evolution is about emerging, multi-layered steady-states of non-equilibrium systems.
Teacher: I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
Student: I think I suddenly see my problem. It’s a problem with the way I’ve been using language, and with the words “predictable” and “unpredictable”. I’ve been using the terms in my old cause-and-effect way, like A predictably causes B and then C, or A unpredictably causes “?”. The problem was the word cause!
I see now. That’s why you asked me to critically examine the words “predictable” and “unpredictable”. I guess I didn’t totally pass that test; I still had some lingering cause-and-effect symptoms. I’m not 100% sure how to recharacterize them, though.
Teacher: Maybe we can find a good definition together. Tell me: where do layers come from? I think you already know everything you need to answer this.
Student: When I think about the market as a layer that emerged; it came from positive feedback. The market is a great idea; so it perpetuates itself, and makes more of itself; and copies itself across many different cities and use cases. So at some point it made sense to think of it as its own layer, distinct from farming; and to think of it as having found its own steady state.
And when I think about the bugs, I guess the lowest “layer” I can think of is probably the bug’s metabolism; which is basically the part of the bug that eats, in a really primitive sense. But at some point, some aspect of the bug’s metabolism started making more of itself, and more and more, and at some point it made sense to call that a “cell”. And then as the cells made more of themselves, they became organ systems and then bugs and then bug communities.
So I guess where you were probably hoping I’d get to is, new layers emerge from positive feedback cycles. When something persists, and makes more and more of itself, and starts to significantly change the system around it, it starts making sense to call it its own layer. And that’s useful for us, because we can try to understand that layer as its own little system that’s found a steady state, or is on its way to finding one.
Teacher: So, when do you think a layer officially becomes a layer? What gives a new layer its identity, as it comes into its own?
Student: I mean, I’m not sure you can formally draw a line and say, before this line it’s not a layer and after the line it is. But I can say this: before crossing the line, there’s no way to know what the layer will be. And after the line, we know what the layer is, because the layer has a purpose.
We can say, the purpose of the farming layer is getting nutrients into plants and plants into harvests. The purpose of the market is getting harvests into baskets. The purpose of the bugs’ metabolism is consuming calories. The bugs’ tools have purpose, and their community has purpose. Every layer has a purpose.
And we know these layers have continuous purpose, because they’re not in equilibrium. They flow. That is their purpose. And we know they’re out of equilibrium because the layers around them are out of equilibrium. All the way down to the bug’s metabolism; or the plants’ nutrients; and then if you go down further than that, all the way down to the furnace of the universe.
The student fell silent for a minute.
Student: Okay. Let me collect my thoughts for a second. But I think things fell into place. I think I understand the Four Rules now.
Student: Okay, I think I’m ready. I’m going to try to get all the way through the logic of how Dancoland works.
Teacher: I can’t wait. Let’s hear it.
Student: So, over the course of our journey together, you’ve shown me different systems that have found steady states. Before we met, I’d believed that this idea of “steady state” was somehow synonymous with the idea of “equilibrium”. But that was wrong: systems find their orderly steady state when they’re out of equilibrium, because they flow. They’re in motion. They have a purpose.
That makes sense to me now. But there’s one adjustment I want to make to this idea. And that’s to clarify something important: steady state doesn’t mean static, either. These systems aren’t flowing monotonously; it’s more like they’re breathing. They’re looping.
Think about every system we saw together: the farm, the nomads, the market, the bugs. All of these orderly systems are actually looping. The farm loops each year through growing, harvesting, regenerating, and planting seasons. The market loops each day through setting up, trading bustle, cleaning up, and preparing for the next day.
Teacher: I’m listening. This feels promising.
Student: Looping systems have one big rule. At the end of the loop, you have to end up back where you started. Something gets accomplished in between – things move through the system, like nutrients move through plants and into harvests. But at the end of the loop, the farm is back to where it started.
Year after year, the farm flows consistently, and it loops persistently. That’s why we say the farm has a consistent purpose. It loops in a way that accomplishes something, while repeatedly returning to where it started.
This idea got harder to follow when we started talking about the bugs. The bugs reproduce and evolve through positive feedback. I really understood how the bugs had purpose, and how that purpose coexisted with – and often, challenged – the other systems in the environment around the bugs.
But those other flowing systems in the environment around the bugs are trying to loop too. By purposefully making more and more of themselves, the bugs challenged and sometimes dominated the other loops, and threw those loops off into new directions.
That’s when, if you remember, I said that one sentence where you interrupted me; you said stop, this is really important to get right.
Teacher: I do remember that.
Student: I said, “The fact that bugs can perpetually make more of themselves in a predictable way – feels inseparable from the environment around them being unpredictable.”
Student: Remember how much I struggled here? I was having a hard time superimposing the idea of order – (“like causes like, predictably perpetuated, forward in time”) and chaos (“small inputs unpredictably cause massive consequences”). It’s like, are the bugs making the world more predictable, or unpredictable?
But then I figured it out, and the breakthrough came from a surprising place. It’s such a simple answer, it was hiding right there, in plain sight. And now I know how to show it to you.
Teacher: How so?
Student: Come walk around with me.
The teacher came over, and they resumed walking together.
Student: You see, this whole time, we’ve been walking around. At first I was just enjoying the exercise, but I began to enjoy seeing what we’ve drawn together, and what we’ve learned, from all of these different vantage points. But then just now, I realized something. Come over here, step into this middle loop with me. From the point of view of the purposeful bugs, what do you see when you look out?
Teacher: I see chaos. Everything around me is changing all the time, in unpredictable ways. My purpose is chaotic.
Student: Okay, now let’s walk out of the loop, and look back in. Now what do you see, when you look at where you just were?
Teacher: I see order. I see the relentless, predictable drive of the bugs, who keep looping and looping with consistent purpose. The purpose is orderly.
Student: And what does that tell you?
Teacher: It tells me that… oh hey! I see it now! Order and Chaos are just two different perspectives on the same thing!
When we say “Order” that means Purpose, from the Outside Looking In.
And when we say “Chaos”, that means Purpose, from the Inside Looking Out.
Student: I’m thrilled this is resonating. You never know if something actually makes sense until you can get someone else to explain it back to you.
Here’s how I understand it:
The ideas of “Order” and “Chaos” aren’t opposites at all. They’re both describing the same thing, but from mirror points of view. They’re describing purpose – the drive of a positive feedback loop in a world of other driven loops.
From the inside perspective, purpose feels like chaos – the more purposeful the loop, and the harder you drive the loop, the more unpredictable the world around you will feel. Everything changes around you, in ways you can never anticipate or even control.
But from the outside perspective, looking in, purpose feels like order – the more purposeful the loop, the more orderly the universe feels, because you can look at the positive feedback loop driving its flow forward, and driving its purpose forward. From the outside, you recognize purpose as order: the steady state of a non-equilibrium system.
I’m sure you’ve had experiences like this – where from the inside it felt so chaotic, but from the outside, it appeared so inevitable. That’s what purpose is.
Teacher: I think I’m going to call it. We’ve figured out the first rule.
Student: That’s right. The first rule of Dancoland: Order is Chaos. I think we can check that one off: Order is Chaos, because they both mean purpose – but from two different perspectives.
And you know what? I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders a little bit. I feel like “cause” and “effect” just became a little less important. Loops don’t have a start or an end; they don’t have a cause or an effect. They have a purpose.
I think I’m finally letting go.
Teacher: Nice! Feels good.
Student: Sure does. I feel like getting the first rule is the hardest step; and now we’re in good shape to work through the other three.
In fact, you know what, the second rule is actually just a stone’s throw away. “Chaos is Order”. I bet you that isn’t just a carbon copy of the first rule; it’s there for a reason.
Teacher: I bet you this has to do with where loops come from.
Student: You’re right. In fact, we already basically spelled this out, when we talked about layers emerging. Remember when we said, At some point, some aspect of the bug’s metabolism started making more of itself, and more and more, and at some point it made sense to call that a “cell”. And then as the cells made more of themselves, they became organ systems and then bugs and then bug communities.
These looping layers, with their own purpose, had to emerge out of somewhere. They had to “escape” the world that existed before them. For a new layer to emerge that’s actually new, it has to have come from a starting point that has never existed before.
That’s why chaos is so useful. Positive feedback loops are where “new” comes from. The drive of the purposeful loops in the existing world – which seem like such a strong barrier to change, if you’re looking from one perspective – is also what gives birth to change, if you look from another perspective.
Teacher: You have to break out of loops in order to enter new spaces.
Student: That’s right. That’s why chaos is such an important part of what’s going on. Nothing is permanent, because purpose creates the conditions for new purpose.
Teacher: I like that. Purpose creates the conditions for new purpose.
Student: Chaos is order. There’s number two. Let’s check it off.
Teacher: Done. But that leaves three and four. They seem trickier.
“Order without chaos is disorder.” And
“Order without disorder is disorder.”
Student: You know what? I think I know what these are all about, too. But to answer them, we have to talk about disorder, and we have to finally address the meaning of the Furnace of the Universe.
Teacher: Let’s do it.
Student: So here’s the thing. As we’ve been talking about Order and Purpose, it’s been bugging me that we’d never actually talked much about Disorder. What even is it?
My instinct was to say, “Disorder must be the opposite of order.” It seems sensible and obvious. But then I thought back to how I used to think that Chaos was the opposite of order, too.
And that sure wasn’t true. Order and Chaos both mean Purpose, just from mirror points of view. So then what is Disorder? Is it Anti-purpose? Un-Purpose? Lack of purpose?
It’s none of those things. Disorder is SPENT Purpose.
Teacher: Disorder is Purpose that’s been consumed?
Student: That’s right.
Let’s go back to our loops. The farm, the nomads, the market, the bugs. All of these loops are productive: they do something useful in the world. And they’re all perpetuating: they end up back where they started. That’s what makes them loops.
But they also consume something. They’re not perpetual motion machines. Each time the farm goes through the loop, it consumes the energy of the sunlight, the nourishment of the rainfall, and the effort of the villagers. Each time the market goes through the loop, it consumes the demand of the buyers, the arrangement and preparation of the vendors, and on a long enough scale, even the durability and structural integrity of the building. Every loop produces disorder. Every loop consumes purpose.
Teacher: Disorder is the remnant of consumed purpose.
Student: That’s the meaning of the furnace of the universe. The universe continually spends its purpose. I remember when you showed me the furnace at the very beginning of our time together, I could only see it as a bad thing. You told me:
We see the world as structured and orderly, but that structure is temporary. Over the long run, all of the organized structure in the world slowly but irreversibly breaks down into perfectly uniform disorder. Mountains eventually grind down into dirt; plants and animals die. Friendships end, social contracts dissolve. Kingdoms eventually fall away and are forgotten. Even the sun will run out one day. It’s like that riddle from The Hobbit. Nothing survives time, in the long run.
Maybe that’s how we should think about time. Time is the forward motion of purpose. Purpose is created, and purpose is spent. It moves forward, in one direction: the direction of time.
Teacher: Time is the forward motion of purpose. I guess that’s the final nail in the coffin for cause-and-effect thinking, isn’t it.
Student: That’s right. Cause and effect will fool you: in a world where everything is looping, there is no cause or effect. But there is purpose, and purpose moves in one direction: it is created, and it is spent.
Teacher: And it’s renewed, too.
Student: Well, it can be. That’s up to us.
The systems that persist, like the villagers and the nomads, persist because they’ve found an arrangement of stocks and flows and surrounding loops that both consumes and renews its purpose.
Think about the difference between the villagers and the nomads: they are similar systems with similar purposes. They’ve both found different ways of feeding themselves, with their own looping balances of stocks and flows that renew themselves season after season, and re-consume their renewed purpose.
Persistent loops must renew their purpose. They’re like muscles: the purpose of your muscles is for you to use them. How you use that purpose is up to you. You can spend them in a way that renews their purpose, by using them purposefully, or spend it in a way that doesn’t, by doing nothing.
The same goes with each of the loops we saw on our journey. The farm ends its growing season exhausted; in disorder. The market ends its day messy; spent; disordered. But they loop back again, the next day and the next year, not because they’re just passively orbiting around and around, but because their purpose is continuously renewed by the participants around them, as they carry out their own loops and their own purposes.
Furthermore, sometimes we act with enough purpose that we chaotically rearrange the participants and loops around us, until a new loop gets established, which finds its own purpose. Like the market found its purpose on top of the farm, or how the many layers of the bugs evolved on top of one another.
In consuming their own purpose, loops regenerate other purpose, and sometimes even create new purpose that has never existed before.
Teacher: Loops carry out their work by spending purpose. They regenerate through other loops spending their purpose.
Student: That’s exactly right.
Hey, I think it’s time to finish off our four rules. I think we’re ready.
Teacher: So what did we have left? Order without Chaos is Disorder, and Order without Disorder is Disorder.
Student: Let’s try the first one.
Order without Chaos is Disorder – so that means:
Purpose – if it’s never directed outwards – is Spent Purpose.
That makes sense to me. If purpose is not directed outward onto the surrounding world, it is simply spent, and nothing more. It’s never renewed, because there’s never any reason to do so. If you do things but don’t tell anyone, then your purpose can only really be consumed once. But if you do things and tell people, your purpose can self-renew.
And how about the second one?
Order without Disorder is Disorder – so that means:
Purpose – if you don’t spend it – is spent.
Yeah, that’s another way of saying, “Use it or lose it”, just even more clearly this time. If you never spend your purpose, then it goes away all the same.
Student: So there we have our four rules:
Order and Chaos are mirror perspectives of Purpose.
Purpose creates the conditions for more Purpose.
Purpose, if you don’t direct it outwards, is Spent Purpose.
Purpose, if you don’t spend it in the first place, is Spent Purpose.
Teacher: Looks great. I love it.
Student: And you know what? Now that I look around at all these boxes around us, which came in my backpack of knowledge, I finally realize what they are.
All of these boxes, together, represent everything I know, and everything I’ve learned and experienced over my lifetime. And each one of them – if you open them up – has a purpose.
There aren’t any just-so-stories in here at all. Nothing here is a cause or effect. There are just boxes and boxes full of everything I know, and why it’s there, and what’s their purpose in the world.
That’s what I’ve been accumulating my whole life. I just didn’t realize it until now, until you brought me here.
He looked over at his teacher, who was beaming with pride. She was clearly so happy for him. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but notice some sadness in her eyes, too.
Student: I don’t really know how to ask this, but why did you come here? You never actually told me why you showed up in my dream.
Teacher: So… this is a difficult question for me. But I’m glad you asked. It’s about time I told you why I’m here.
Over this past hour, it’s been so wonderful and inspiring to see you figure out Systems Thinking. At first, you didn’t really get it; but then you worked on it. You kept at it, and you figured it out so well that you’ve surpassed me. I’m so proud.
But, here’s the thing. This doesn’t come naturally to many people your age. Not because people are inherently bad at systems thinking! But it’s hard for people to make that first step, around unlearning cause-and-effect thinking. And I’ve been part of the problem.
Student: How were you part of the problem? You were a great teacher.
Teacher: I really tried my best, and I love teaching. But there’s something about school itself that does people a disservice, I think, when they go off into the real world and have to figure out the systems they encounter. I’ve traveled around, visiting former students, trying to figure out how to teach systems thinking. I never learned how. But then watching you, over this past hour, I realized something important.
Student: Watching me? What did I do that was so special?
Teacher: The big breakthrough, for me, was: you were able to learn systems thinking within the context of a system you already knew.
You see, my whole life I’ve taught kids who have all these different interests. Some of them love the woods; and know so many things about the forest as a system. Some kids love computers; and they understand it as a system too. Some kids love learning languages; some kids just love playing soccer.
What they all have in common is, when they’re inside a system they already know and love, they spend so much time looking around and so much time making things. They spend all of their time thinking about purpose, one way or another: either looking at things and wondering about their purpose, or making things with their own purpose.
Student: Student: You’re right. I’d never thought about it before, but kids are naturally great systems thinkers.
Kids don’t naturally think in terms of cause-and-effect. They think in terms of purpose. They look at the world around them, and say, “The flower’s purpose is to bloom, and the grass’s purpose is to grow, and the sun’s purpose is to shine, and the garbage truck’s purpose is to pick up garbage, and the fire truck’s purpose is to put out fires.”
It’s so simple, and to some people it appears young or juvenile but it’s actually so wise. You and I can see why: “The garbage truck’s purpose is to pick up garbage” is actually much smarter than, “because we put out the garbage, therefore the garbage truck picks it up.” Same for “The flower’s purpose is to bloom.” Or, really, anything: it seems too simple, but when you actually understand the whole system around the flower, you realize, that’s exactly right. The flower’s purpose is to bloom.
Teacher: That’s a great way to put it.
Student: You know when this first gets challenged, though? I don’t think it’s at school; it starts earlier than that.
Let me ask you something: what’s the most famous question that kids ask? All the time?
Teacher: That’s an easy answer. It’s “Why?” Kids ask Why all the time. It’s a well-known thing kids do.
Student: That’s right. Kids naturally ask, “Why?” about everything out there in the world.
But here’s the thing: when kids ask “Why”, they mean one thing; but parents hear something else.
When kids ask Why?, they’re asking, what is the purpose of something. But parents hear: what caused something.
Teacher: Oh wow. You’re right. Kids see the world as made of purpose, but grown-ups see the world as made of cause-and-effect. So the word “Why” means completely different things. Actually, opposite things.
Student: Yeah. I think that’s part of why grown-ups get frustrated answering the endless “Why” questions. Because they get harder and harder to answer, if you’re thinking about them in terms of chains of cause-and-effect.
For grown-ups, “Why” is like a tightrope. The longer the chain of questions, the harder it is to stay balanced on it. It’s stressful.
But kids don’t see it that way at all. To them, Why isn’t a tightrope at all. It’s like a spider web, or a jungle gym. They keep asking why in order to learn, what’s the purpose of that? And that? And that? And each answer makes the web stronger, and more stable, and more fun to climb on and explore.
Teacher: That’s exactly right. But here’s what I was getting at before: kids are naturally such great systems thinkers, and are so naturally curious about the world. They spend all of their time looking around, and making things, in environments that they already know.
But then they go to school. School doesn’t work like that.
Student: It sure doesn’t. In a classroom there can only really be one textbook; one set of lessons to learn, and one problem set to solve. So in order to make that work, you have to take all of the kids out of the environments they already know, and are already interested in, and put them into some neutral context that’s the same for everyone.
Teacher: And so, what do we do in school? We solve problems. We learn there’s a formula for how to do a problem, and then a set of problems with definite answers, and a cause-and-effect relationship between the questions and the answers.
When you initially told me that just-so story about your walking speed and village size, that was familiar to me; it’s the kind of thinking you learn in school. It’s sensible; it proceeds from X to Y to Z in an orderly manner. But it’s not how your world works; or how any world works. It’s tightrope thinking.
Student: Yeah. Whereas if you look at kids in environments where they’re thriving – so could be sports, or clubs, hobbies, their neighbourhoods, or to be honest sometimes it’s even in school, in subjects they’ve really fallen in love with – what they all have in common is they aren’t problem solving. There’s lots of looking, and lots of making, but no trying to “solve” anything.
Teacher: Well, I do know something at the end of all of this. And it’s that I want to thank you for sharing your dream with me. I know I learned something.
Student: I’m really glad you came here. I did too.
Teacher: And on that note, it’s nearly morning. I need to get going soon, before you wake up.
So in our last few minutes together, I have one last question for you: how do we preserve, and regain, that Childhood systems-thinking mode? Where instead of heading down the path of tightrope knowledge and cause-and-effect thinking, we can joyfully play in our purposeful, systems-thinking mindset?
Student: That’s a great question to end on. And I think I have something for you. Two things, actually. One parable, and one piece of advice I heard once. I heard both of them a long time ago, and they didn’t resonate with me at all back then. I never thought about them much before. But now I think they make sense.
The first one is the story of the frog and the scorpion. Do you know it?
Teacher: No. Tell me.
Student: A long time ago, a frog and a scorpion were friends. One day, the scorpion needed to cross a river. He asked the frog to carry him across, and the frog agreed. But then halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog.
Frog cried out: “Why did you do that? Now I will die, and then you will drown.”
And the scorpion replied: “I’m sorry. It’s just in my nature.”
Teacher: That’s a depressing story.
Student: It is; or, I guess, I thought it was. The scorpion had a purpose, and he carried out his purpose. There’s no cause-and-effect explanation for why this happened. You won’t find any answers there, or any comfort.
But here’s the second piece of advice, and once you hear it, I think you’ll understand the story in a different light. It goes:
We become the stories that we tell about ourselves.
Teacher: We become the stories that we tell about ourselves?
Student: That’s right. Because the stories that we tell about ourselves become our purpose. And then our purpose carries itself out. If we become the scorpion, it’s because we told a story about ourselves: “I am the scorpion!” And then that becomes our purpose.
Purpose is something that we choose. So it’s important to go find the right one, because the purpose you choose will determine how you spend it, and how you recharge it. And that will determine who you are, in this world.
Let me leave you with a simple system to think about. It’s a system with three parts: a parent, a child, and their toys.
Teacher: Sounds promising. I’m ready.
Student: Let’s begin with the toys. Through the eyes of the child, the toys have a clear purpose. They’re to be played with! That’s the point of toys; to play with them joyfully. By playing with the toys, their purpose is spent. They end the afternoon strewn all over the floor, in total disorder.
Meanwhile, through the eyes of the parent, there’s another purpose at work: the purpose of their child’s happiness. At the end of the day, the parent spends their purpose putting the toys away for another day of play. At the end, the parent is tired. They feel spent.
If those systems existed in isolation from one another, they’d reach equilibrium after one cycle. We’d end with the toys in disarray, and the parent exhausted. We’d achieve disorder, permanently.
But these two systems restore one another’s purpose, and that’s why they persist. The parent’s effort restores the purpose of the toys, and the child’s joy restores the purpose of the parent.
Teacher: I think I see where you’re going here. What makes this system work is the parent choosing: “My purpose is my child’s happiness”, as opposed to something like, “My purpose is cleaning up.” One recharges the system; and makes it loop. The other doesn’t. It dead ends.
Student: Exactly. If the parent tells a story about themselves that goes, “I spend all day cleaning up after my kid”, then they’re going to believe it. Not only are they going to get repeatedly tired and cranky, they’ll also be failing to participate in this system, in a meaningful way. The system will find a different, much worse steady state, with a tired parent and a resentful kid.
But when the parent sees their purpose as “I am the parent of a happy child”, then not only will helping out feel like recharging, it’ll also help this system enter new states, like the parent and child playing together, and making things together. The parent will get to participate in the child’s purpose, in the order and chaos of play.
Teacher: I bet this is where understanding “Order and Chaos being the same thing” can really help.
Student: Exactly! That’s one of the best things about being a parent, is appreciating how the child’s purposeful play is simultaneously so orderly (when you look at from the outside in), but also so chaotic (from the inside out) in a special sense: tiny discoveries made while playing can cascade into positive feedback cycles of new interests, new understanding, and a new way of interacting with the world that really changes the world around us.
Teacher: That’s right. Some small detail that a kid notices while playing, or some tiny event that shapes the course of a playful afternoon, could massively change how that kid goes on to experience and appreciate the world. It’s the best kind of chaos. Not only is it Purpose that recharges Purpose (the parent’s), it’s also Purpose that creates new Purpose (the child’s).
Wow, all of those lessons from our time together just came together all at once there.
Student: Kids show us the way, don’t they.
Teacher: They sure do.
Student: All right, I guess we’d better go. But I’m thinking we should probably leave something behind.
Teacher: You read my mind. Do you have a pen?
Student: Sure do.
The teacher and the student both smiled. They knew their time was up; it was morning. The student started to wake up. But before he did, there was one last thing he had to do, which was pack up this whole entire dream – the farm, the furnace, the bugs, the layers, and everything else – and put it into his Backpack of Knowledge. He had a feeling he might need that backpack another night, for another dream. Some day.
And then he put on the backpack, and woke up.
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