For our everyday experience has led us to expect that an object that looks complicated must have been constructed in a complicated way. And so, for example, if we see a complicated mechanical device, we normally assume that the plans from which the device was built must also somehow be correspondingly complicated.
But the results at the end of the previous section show that at least sometimes such an assumption can be completely wrong. For the patterns we saw are in effect built according to very simple plans—that just tell us to start with a single black cell, and then repeatedly to apply a simple cellular automaton rule. Yet what emerges from these plans shows an immense level of complexity.
So what is it that makes our normal intuition fail? The most important point seems to be that it is mostly derived from experience with building things and doing engineering—where it so happens that one avoids encountering systems like the ones in the previous section.
For normally we start from whatever behavior we want to get, then try to design a system that will produce it. Yet to do this reliably, we have to restrict ourselves to systems whose behavior we can readily understand and predict—for unless we can foresee how a system will behave, we cannot be sure that the system will do what we want.
But unlike engineering, nature operates under no such constraint. So there is nothing to stop systems like those at the end of the previous section from showing up. And in fact one of the important conclusions of this book is that such systems are actually very common in nature.
But because the only situations in which we are routinely aware both of underlying rules and overall behavior are ones in which we are building things or doing engineering, we never normally get any intuition about systems like the ones at the end of the previous section.
So is there then any aspect of everyday experience that should give us a hint about the phenomena that occur in these systems? Probably the closest is thinking about features of practical computing.
For we know that computers can perform many complex tasks. Yet at the level of basic hardware a typical computer is capable of executing just a few tens of kinds of simple logical, arithmetic and other instructions. And to some extent the fact that by executing large numbers of such