Re: complexity and heat, an analogy in the history of science

Nicholas Bostrom (
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 14:29:00 +0000

Eric Watt Forste wrote:

> In
> modern scientific usage, "heat" serves as a taxonomic word, referring
> to phenomena of interest to thermodynamicists without referring to
> any particular one thing. (In non-scientific usage, it continues
> more or less to refer to the fictitious caloric, just as some --
> not all -- modern non-scientific astronomical talk makes use of
> the Ptolemaic model.)

"Heat", in modern thermodynamics, is used to refer to the thermic
energy of a system.

"Tempererature" is used to denote a parameter describing the thermal
distribution function, roughly a measure of the mean kinetic energy.
It is interesting to note, however, that even this updated notion
of temprature is rather out of tune with contemporary science. In
some contexts (e.g. in certain quantum descriptions of lasers) there
is talk of systems with hotter than infinite temperatures, or of
temperatures below zero Kelvin. It is a matter of debate whether this
is a concept extension or whether a new concept has been introduced.
In my opinion it may be unwise to expect a yes/no answer, because it
seems all to be very much a matter of degrees and aspects.

> I suspect that a similar disintegration is happening to the word
> "complexity".

Yes, many people mistakenly think that our intuitive notion of
complexity is a uniform, precise one. It isn't, only
certain mathematical (related) concepts are, but these tend to be
irrelevant except for mathematicians.

On this list, people often seem to use the word "complexity" to
mean:" system which I happen to find intellectually interesting". The
people who do this then ususally assume without argument that the
post-singularity future will be extremely complex in this sense. In
my opinion, that is a possibility; but it is also very possible that
it won't be, even if we assume that some form of highly intelligent
life survives. We should be on our guard against possible biases that
might make us inclined to believe in something just because it would
be interesting it it were so. (Is this bias toward intellectual
interestingness our equivalent to emotional biases more prominent in
other groups?)
Nicholas Bostrom

*Visit my transhumanist web site at*