Constraint and the Common Good

From everything I’ve said so far about flow systems and keeping the infrastructure rolling, you may get the idea that any form of constraint is an intrinsic obstacle to the common good. And yes, this proposition has been periodically aired both politically and economically and has its diehard libertarian advocates. But from an evolutionary perspective it can be quickly demonstrated to be flawed—not just operationally flawed but conceptually flawed. Constraint is a crucial ingredient in the evolutionary trajectory. Without it the entire system collapses.

For the original (and still the most extensive) development of this evolutionary argument t we turn once again to Teilhard de Chardin, whose entire “complexification/consciousness” theory can be said to hinge on this single insight. From his long view as a paleontologist, Teilhard observed that only when a system is put under external constraint is it forced to articulate itself internally. As long as it can simply expand outwardly, it will do so. Only when it finds itself enclosed within a limited space does the system buckle down to the task of organizing itself internally, creating greater and more intricate levels of interior “arrangement” through a process that Teilhard calls  “enroulement,” or “folding in on itself.” We see this process at play across the board in the world around us: from the first divisions of a fertilized egg in reproduction to security lines in airports. 

And of course, the greater the complexity of the interior articulation—”the greater the flow of information across more complex levels of relationship,” as Ilia Delio put it—the greater the candlepower of the consciousness manifested within that system. In just this way, constraint furnishes the backboard against which evolution steadily improves its game. [i]

From the perspective of the Law of Three we can gain further insight into why this is so. Without second force—“denying force”—there is NO new arising. Nada. The unchecked flow of first force—”affirming” or “pushing” force—does not lead to evolutionary development. It does not lead to authentic new arising. It merely leads to aggressive, unresponsive growth in a single direction which rides roughshod over the whole and will eventually wind up killing the whole. When this happens in a human body we call it “cancer.”  

If we start, then, from the assumption that constraint is an essential element in evolutionary development, we can move fairly easily to the second assumption: that the arising Integral Structure of Consciousness, inasmuch as it represents an evolutionary advance, will be no stranger to the principle of constraint. The question really then becomes: what form of constraint best serves this increasingly complex and variegated whole? 

We have learned from long experience that externally imposed governmental constraint (in the form of social or moral engineering) tends to produce more than its share of backlash: not only because it simply inflames the impasse between “affirming” and “denying” viewpoints, but because the sheer volume of bureaucracy that often accompanies these well-intended social interventions winds up alienating those even who most directly stand to benefit from them. When the fishermen in my part of the world sport bumper sticker commenting “Department of Marine Resources: Destroying Fishermen and their Families since 1976,” it’s not because they are anti-environmental (most fishermen I know are damned good seat-of-the-pants environmentalists) or anti-regulation, but because the regulation is so mechanical and cumbersome that it clogs the system, blocking the flow of individual creativity and local initiative. The challenge is to learn—and learn to TRUST—the gentle art of internal self-regulation and adaptivity—that comes from within the system itself, a function of its maturing autopoiesis.

In this regard, once again we have much to learn from the scientists and engineers. In describing how the “constructal Law” (a.k.a., The Law of Three) works to support intelligent design emerging from within the system itself, Adrian Bejan lays out some fundamental engineering design principles, the most basic of which are that 1) hierarchy develops naturally in a flow system because using the right combination of components of various sizes is the most efficient way to move the currents; and 2) the optimal combination is that “the time needed to move fast and long should be roughly equal to the time needed to move slow and short.” In other words, an efficiently flow system will feature main arteries which carry a high-volume traffic over long distances equally balanced by a network of capillaries which ensure the distribution of the current to all parts of the system. When the proportion is correct—as it was in Atlanta’s award-winning Hartsfield-Jackson airport—the traffic will flow smoothly and spaciously, even under peak usage.

Note that this is not artificial constraint enforced  by a series of external  regulations. Passengers are not ticketed and fined if they choose to bypass the highspeed railway (“fast and long”) and walk the entire way to their gates (“small and slow.”) But since the intelligence is built right into the design itself, most passengers will freely find their way to the optimal combination. 

Reflecting further on this principle, Bejan comments on the dynamic feedback loop between the part and the whole which drives this inner self-regulatory intelligence: “As each component of the flow system evolves to flow more easily, it is also part of a larger system whose shape and structure are also evolving to strike the right balance among all its components to enhance the flow.”

“To put this in human terms,” he concludes, “we could say that the constructal law finds the nexus between individual self-interest and collective action.” (Design in Nature, 178.)

Constraint is not an enemy; it is the necessary driveshaft of evolution. And freedom, as we head into the new structure of consciousness, does not mean the removal of all constraint, but the strategic use of constraint in service of the whole. The balance between “individual self-interest and collective action” remains unsolvable within the mental structure of consciousness because we are still thinking from the part to the whole. But as the capacity grows in us to think from the whole to the part (an evolutionary capacity now being force-fed in the human species through the double constraint of a worldwide pandemic and runaway climate change), I believe we will increasingly come to see that true freedom is experienced in harmonious flow, not in metastatic self-optimization. And at that point, the common good will magically appear.


[i] For Teilhard, the ultimate generator of constraint—and hence of consciousness—is space-time itself, whose relentless gravitational pressure creates spherical planets trapped in surrounding gravitational fields. There the countless bits and pieces of “the stuff of the universe,” locked within an ultimately closed structure, will eventually have to interact and self-organize internally, producing a solar system which proves, from the vastest possible perspective, to be a cosmic gristmill for the generation of consciousness. Teilhard often refers to this evolutionarily generative form of constraint as “convergence.” It is not oppositional or life-denying in nature, but instead furnishes the necessary conditions for authentic evolutionary development.

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1 thought on “Constraint and the Common Good

  1. How clearly written. I liked the railway analogy here, that “passengers are not ticketed and fined if they choose to bypass the highspeed railway (“fast and long”) and walk the entire way to their gates (“small and slow.”)+ .. yes, indeed, the crux here is as said above, namely that intelligence is built in to the design itself. much to contemplate here…with gratitude for the clarity of exposition.

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