Complexity Science Explained

8 of 9 – Complexity Science Explained

By Marlyse Carroll
(Author of ‘Am I Going Mad? The Unsettling Phenomena of Spiritual Evolution’ –

In previous articles on the general theme of spiritual evolution, we introduced Carl Jung, explored initiations, Kundalini, enlightenment, spiritual emergency, psychiatry and spiritual regression. In this article, we’re turning to science for a contemporary perspective on the ups and downs of personal growth.

Today, a well-respected scientific model backs up Dr Carl Jung in acknowledging that perturbation is a normal stage of evolution. One that is essential to reaching higher, more sophisticated levels of functionality.

So maybe, the challenges that we face along our life journey aren’t just the result of bad luck, a poor upbringing, unfortunate genes or unpleasant acquaintances!

Could it be that our psyche is so beautifully programmed for growth that we follow universal laws regarding evolution and perturbation?

If so, complexity science offers us a perfect mathematical model.

A change of direction

Complexity science focuses on the large picture of how everything works in our universe. This fairly new paradigm represents a huge change of direction for the scientific world. Not only is it all-inclusive rather than exclusive, it also welcomes mysteries.

It acknowledges turbulence as a sign of growth. It seeks to understand the meaning of wide-ranging interactions. It celebrates the infinite realm of possibilities unfolding in the universe. Rather than seeking certainties, it refuses beliefs in immutable laws and remains open to surprises.

“I think the next century will be the
century of complexity”
Stephen Hawking (January 2000)

Dissipative structures

Its founder, Ilya Prigogine, was a world-renowned scientist, a concert-level pianist, a Viscount of Belgium and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (1977). He also received 53 honorary degrees! This brilliant man died in May 2003, at age 86.

Towards the end of his life, in the 1990s, Prigogine had the genius to reconcile two conflicting theories. The first one relates to entropy, which states that, with time, all things invariably break down and fall apart. The second one relates to the evolutionary capacity of the living world, which demonstrates the opposite, that chaos can lead to order.

Entropy vs Evolution

Everything in the world follows what Prigogine called ‘the arrow of time’. But not everything ends up disintegrating as a result of the changes experienced along the way.

Complexity science encompasses both entropy and evolution. It describes mathematically how, in special circumstances, order can arise from apparent chaos. Its principles apply to every single aspect of life, from human beings to international politics, from weather patterns to financial markets, from education to ecology, from a body’s immune system to the world wide web, and everything else we encounter in our reality.

Dissipative structures

The process of change starts when an organism gets stressed to the point of becoming dysfunctional. At that point, simple systems disintegrate and eventually die, whereas complex ones adapt to circumstances and grow.

Another fundamental axiom of complexity science is that the universe is made up of microstructures evolving within macrostructures, somewhat similar to Russian dolls nesting within each other. The main difference between live structures and dolls though is that adaptable organisms or systems become more and more complex at each new level of growth.

And complexity science studies the interconnectedness of such structures, those that are open, complex and adaptive.

The adjectives complex and adaptive describe non-linear organisms open to change that interact, and are therefore influential on each other. Human beings are certainly open systems because they are both complex and adaptive.

The opposite of open systems are closed or simple systems, entities that don’t interact much – if at all – with their environment. For example a car left to its own device will just stay there and rust, which is entropy.

Whereas a small business that interacts well with its stakeholders will grow and become more sophisticated at each evolutionary step.

“You cannot sit on the lid of progress.
If you do, you’ll be blown to pieces.”
Henry J. Kaiser

Growth and Perturbation

Let’s explore the mechanism of growth in more detail.

When adaptable structures are put under more stress than they can comfortably handle, they move from a state of equilibrium to one that is both unstable and unpredictable. Prigogine called this response ‘perturbation’.

And perturbation is characterised by a very complex system of new connections that allow the stressed organism to exchange energy with its environment. This in turns dissipates the products of its instabilities, its ‘waste’. In the human experience, we usually call the ‘product of instabilities’ an emotion!

This is why Prigogine called open systems ‘dissipative structures’ – because they know how to transmute any unstable energy they cannot handle. Through this process, not only do they resist entropy, they spontaneously grow ever more structured.

As a result of this sophisticated self-organising process, the organism ‘reorders’ itself – to use Prigogine’s words – until it reaches a stable new level of functionality that is more complex than the previous one.

Dissipative structures

As an example, think of the road network of a city. As the city expands, with more cars on the road year after year, drivers experience increasingly frustrating times of traffic congestion. Main arteries become choked at peak hours. There are more accidents. We could say that the traffic is ‘perturbed’ by too many vehicles and not enough roads to handle them.

So planners, engineers and builders reorganise the network, which, as a result, becomes bigger and more complex. As new highways become available, traffic flows and all is well again. For a while.

Human Consciousness

Please allow me to ask you a personal question. Could complexity science explain some of your own life experiences?

Can you relate to a time of stability turning into chaos, leading to perturbation and strong emotions, which eventually resolved themselves with a new situation better adapted to circumstances than the old one?

I believe we’ve all experienced such events, whether they were related to a spiritual awakening or not. We all started school at some stage, we all went through puberty – powerful times of growth when we stretched our boundaries and transcended the limitations of our previous view of reality.

And would you agree that, as adults, we also face challenges that require us to grow in order to find peace again?

So we all know that resisting change is painful. We cannot stop the arrow of time. But we can certainly choose our responses to it. And the more open and adaptive we are, the easier each transition to a higher level of functionality becomes.

Which means that going with the flow is essential for a smooth journey. For resistance keeps us in perturbation by delaying growth. It’s as if consciousness was bursting at the seams, and this is stressful to the nervous system. Which tends to upset both body and mind. Something has to give.

So we find ways to dissipate energy physically, mentally or emotionally. Various phenomena arise. We might become highly emotional. Issues of integrity surface. We might experience inexplicable aches and pains. Or we create external dramas that test our strengths and weaknesses.

Inner chaos

As we all know, inner chaos is painful, it obliges us to face who we are.

But remember that perturbation isn’t bad in itself. It points to a functional dissipative structure at work! As such, a crisis reflects some of the neurological and psychological upgrades taking place as an old system prepares itself for reordering at a higher level.

This is why people in crisis benefit so much from open communication, love and understanding, which is a dissipative response to stress. They also need to know that they are moving towards a breakthrough. Medication on the other hand suppresses symptoms, which is therefore non-adaptive and more likely to lead to a breakdown.

Think of the various spiritual crises we’ve explored so far. Whether it’s existential or spiritual emergency, a fast Kundalini awakening, a dark night of the soul or a regression in the service of transcendence, these events all fit in perfectly with Prigogine’s positive view of ‘perturbation’, don’t they?

Under the right circumstances, they all point towards a powerful change for the better.

New butterfly

When handled appropriately, their outcome is multi-faceted growth. An increased ability to love, deeper emotional intelligence, a greater self-awareness, a larger capacity to handle stress, more enjoyment of life, better health, increased creativity, and the list goes on.

Which brings us to our next and last article in this series: Transmutation Explained

In this article, we’ll explore the various steps each one of us can take at any stage of growth to ease the transition. In other words, to speed up the process of re-ordering at a higher level.


Feel free to copy this article provided you reproduce it in full, acknowledging the author and source (


Click here to return to Articles on Spiritual Evolution

Orange buy now button

Want to get my blogs?

Be the first to know when the next blog is posted. Subscribe now.

Cheers, Marlyse
Privacy Guaranteed, unsubscribe any time Powered by ConvertKit