So many of our scientific theories suggest that, from singularity or homogeneity, everything grows more and more complex. I say 'so many' here because I'm not speaking only about cosmology (and literal singularities) but also fields such as biology, psychology, AI/computer sciences, sociology, and so on. I hazy comparison, but there seems to be some common sentiment among researchers which could draw together and converge in physics itself.

From heavier and heavier elements to stars and planets, to self-replicating cells, to multicellular organisms, to abstract pattern-seeking, intelligent, social, linguistic organisms, and so on . . . . I seem to see this pattern (lol) emerging in many arenas of human thought.

Somehow, this supposedly closed system (the universe) separates itself into many disparate pockets, inside of which matter and energy converge, and complexity emerges. Complexity in this case, perceived through a lens of human value, might be considered elegant or 'beautiful,' which would be another dimension to existence previously unactualized.

Yet at the same time, entropy is running its inevitable course, guiding us supposedly towards the heat death of the universe. As an entire system, we can't possibly envision that it could tend infinitely (or unsupported) towards complexity. Yet it did so already, at the Big Bang?? Or am I missing something?

Reductionism, deconstructionism, rationalism have led us here––and have been extremely useful in doing so. But could we be missing something fundamentally emergent or transcendental about reality? Something that must actually be quantified and integrated into our scientific models?

I know there are some who propose that the universe tends towards complexity, even self-aware complexity. They suggest that there are dimensions to reality which are being generated as we interface with perception, phenomenon, conscious experience, and so on. The 'illusion' isn't so much an illusion as it is an entirely new dimension to existence.

What do you guys think? Any papers to recommend? Is this a better question for the physics forum?



EDIT: I thought I should better clarify some things. I was a bit ambiguous, and was trying to tie multiple unfinished ideas together which several commentors helped point out. I suppose I'm looking for a place to begin researching when it comes to fitting pre-singularity ideas (consciousness, information, fractals) into our conception of entropy, thermodynamics, and so on.

I'm also wondering how these things might tie in to arenas of phenomenology, aesthetics, anti-realism, and so on.

I'm seeing several suggestions that complexity doesn't exist outside of subjective perception. I think that would require some serious philosophical argument to establish. I suppose we should distinguish here between order and complexity––order being a state of complexity which aligns with some subjective value, and complexity being simply a state of relative low entropy.

I didn't make that clear in my initial phrasing, instead seeming to draw a misleading distinction between 'elegance' and complexity.

  • Welcome to SE. There's just one thing about this question that puzzles me. The headline question offers two possibilities "towards complexity" and "towards elegance". But there's nothing about elegance in the main text. Instead, you mention entropy (which is the obvious alternative to complexity. Can you explain - or perhaps edit?
    – Ludwig V
    Aug 3, 2023 at 9:44
  • @LudwigV I think the 'or' meant two words for the same thing, like: "may cause injury or death".
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 3, 2023 at 10:41
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    Careful with the fisbowl bias / observer bias: 1) you are trying to describe the world from inside a fishbowl. 2) The terms complexity and elegance exist only in the heads of the fish; 3) Complexity and elegance are not exclusive, they can manifest simultaneously; 4) Thermodynamics describe the evolution from complexity to simplicity, but there are no discipline that describes the opposite: how are thermodynamic systems with low entropy created in the first place (which occurs permanently)? 5) You include multiple unrelated concepts that should be addressed in separate questions.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 3, 2023 at 16:53
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    Echoing RodolfoAP's comment, without minds the universe is without form and structure and knows nothing of concepts like complexity and elegance, or our scientific laws.
    – nwr
    Aug 3, 2023 at 23:39
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    @CriglCragl Thanks, I did enjoy that answer! I also agree somewhat with the critique though, which points out that entropy has a very precise mathematical definition. I suspect the 'counterintuitive' viewing of entropy hinges more on a semantic than a mathematical perspective. I also wonder about fractals. With Penrose's CMBR stuff, it seems like there may be a 2D informational fractal beneath the singularity, w/ potentially infinite complexity. If this, say, and consciousness, were fields preconditional to the universe, would they answer my question or simply push it one step further back?
    – Jesse Tate
    Aug 4, 2023 at 4:09

4 Answers 4


Reality rarely fits into a neat little box such as "entropy always increases".

I don't see any reason why complexity would always decrease or always increase. I'm also not convinced that complexity is a trait that objectively exists, as opposed to being a subjective concept we came up with.

Rather, it seems all we can really say is that the interaction of particles eventually resulted in things we see today (in various known and unknown ways), and we may consider those things to have greater complexity than the particles that gave rise to them. We also see things breaking down into simpler parts, or giving rise to greater complexity.

I don't see any conclusion about how complexity necessarily changes over time, that can reasonably be drawn here. On the contrary, it seems clear that complexity, as we'd judge it, fluctuates.

But could we be missing something fundamentally emergent or transcendental about reality

That's possible, but I don't see anything that needs explaining, in order to justify adding such a claim. We also don't have any way to quantify this hypothetical thing, and no way to include it in scientific models.

  • You don't see any reason? Like, the Second Law of Thermodynamics..? "objectively exists, as opposed to being a subjective concept" You seem to be confounding a self-evident point about labels, with observed regularities in phenomena.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 3, 2023 at 15:44

Think of it like an elaborate sandcastle being built on a beach. At first, it might just be a simple mound of sand (like the universe right after the Big Bang). But as you keep working on it, you add towers, moats, and intricate details, making it increasingly complex (like stars, galaxies, and life evolving in the universe).

However, the tide (which is like the force of entropy) is gradually wearing away at your sandcastle, smoothing out the details and eventually reducing it back to a simple mound of sand (like the predicted heat death of the universe).

So it seems like there's a contradiction, right? The universe is getting more complex in some ways (like the sandcastle being built), but entropy is making it simpler in other ways (like the tide eroding the sandcastle).

As for the part about the universe potentially creating new dimensions of reality as we perceive and interact with it, that's a more speculative idea. It's like saying the act of building and observing the sandcastle changes the beach in fundamental ways.

Now about books... Well, these three come to mind:

  1. "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins
  2. "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time" by Sean Carroll
  3. "The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory" by Brian Greene
  • Books come out, become popular, eventually fade in popularity, are forgotten, then lost. Think how many billions of humans have been born, and now all information about them is utterly lost.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 4, 2023 at 16:40

Here are a few observations:

I prefer to leave elegance to tailors. Our real task is to get things right.

It is not true that entropy always increases. In systems with energy inputs, you can decrease the degree of disorder locally and create ordered structures- at the cost of increasing the amount of disorder someplace else. Heat death begins when those energy sources run out.

Regarding the question about "something fundamentally emergent or transcendental about reality... Something that must actually be quantified and integrated into our scientific models": If our scientific models were missing something big like that, they would not be consistently furnishing us with correct answers.

  • I just wonder if there's a deeper model which accounts for consciousness, perception, even aesthetic judgements. I suppose I see it this way: either such things are either emergent properties, & must be accounted for by a less reductionistic model; or they are fundamental. Either way our models must expand. The same can be said for thermodynamics. Our models seem to be increasing in utility, yes. But we KNOW they're missing something big, don't we? If we do find a unifying theory, and if it does explain singularity, we can only assume it will explain thermodynamics as well.
    – Jesse Tate
    Aug 4, 2023 at 5:13

Entropy and complexity are parallel concepts, both are indefinitely increasing. In the heat death no events occur anymore, but the Universe still keeps on expanding and thus increasing both entropy and complexity.

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    Like how we make more products and also more waste. But, eventually the waste wins.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 3, 2023 at 10:42
  • Complexity isn't always increasing. Thw Heat Death of the universe, or the more modern Big Rip picture, or Penrose's Conformal picture of a smooth timeless photon soup at the end of the universe, all involve simplicity. Complex systems occur between simple order & smooth disorder.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 3, 2023 at 15:39
  • @CriglCragl Complexity means the minimum amount of information required to describe the system. It has nothing to do with orderliness or smoothness. Aug 4, 2023 at 4:35
  • No, that would just make it a proxy term for entropy. In Complex Systems Theory it is the domain between deterministic order and randomness. See eg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_system#Features or uwaterloo.ca/complexity-innovation/about/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 4, 2023 at 10:17

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