The Growing Problem of Complexity
How we must adapt to the endless multiplying of things, which may or may not be a good thing
The challenge of constant change is widely accepted and understood, at least on an emotional level. But what is not so well understood is the simple arithmetic of change and the need to deal with the resulting complexity.
This essay looks at the limits of the human being in accommodating to complexity, given a universe where complexity seems to have no limits. In other words, how do we as finite beings cope with something which appears to be non-finite? How do we cope with all the “things” that surround us and that demand our attention? While complexity theory is essentially scientific, here the focus is philosophical issues - the significance of complexity in human experience, and the way we might deal with the challenges and opportunities it presents.
The meaning of complexity
Complexity is much more than being intricate or complicated. Wikipedia explains it as a system whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions. In other words, it is the emergence of worlds within worlds. The Wikipedia article on Complex System describes this phenomenon in scientific terms:
Complex systems are systems whose behavior is intrinsically difficult to model due to the dependencies, competitions, relationships, or other types of interactions between their parts or between a given system and its environment. Systems that are “complex” have distinct properties that arise from these relationships, such as nonlinearity, emergence, spontaneous order, adaptation, and feedback loops, among others.
In simple everyday terms, the more things there are in the world, the more relationships there are, and these relationships go into relationship with each other, and so on and so on.
How complexity affects us
Complexity is seemingly an outcome of exponential change, and we are confronted with this change on a daily basis. According to Heylighen et al. 2006, p. 1:
Complexity is perhaps the most essential characteristic of our present society. As technological and economic advances make production, transport and communication ever more efficient, we interact with ever more people, organizations, systems and objects. And as this network of interactions grows and spreads around the globe, the different economic, social, technological and ecological systems that we are part of become ever more interdependent. The result is an ever more complex “system of systems” where a change in any component may affect virtually any other component, and that in a mostly unpredictable manner.
What does this do to us? I believe it leads to problems of both identity and intensity. Either way, our ability to manage our lives is weakened. So many things are swirling within and around us that we no longer feel sure of who we are. Indeed the truth is that we are many people all at the same time, but we don’t necessarily like to feel that way; we like mostly to have a bit more stability, to feel solid, to feel that we are something real and enduring, at least while we are on this Earth. Thus, complexity erodes our sense of identity. This sense of things having got out of control is arguably one of the reasons for fundamentalism and the rise of identity politics. Far right extremists feel alienated in their own country by the influx of people from other countries, which by the laws of complexity multiplies into change in all areas of everyday life.
Complexity itself might not affect us so much were it not for the accompanying sense of intensity. Things happen faster, on a grander scale, more often, in so many more formats – the dimensions of intensity are themselves subject to multiplication. We feel bombarded and are bombarded. This feeling of intensity is paralleled in the natural world by the effects of global warming, where all manner of species are under threat from complex new phenomena.
Increasingly as history rolls on, our grip on reality weakens due to the mammoth complexity of things. Human beings have always had to take other people’s word for this, that and the other, and this will continue to be the case. We may be better educated and have more access to information, but there is now far more to know. So, it seems, we remain effectively at square one.
Everyday lived experience
Whether by nature or nurture, we all have mechanisms for making sense of life and bending circumstance to something we – limited as we are – can manage. These mechanisms take different forms. They start with sense impressions (aversion to extreme heat or cold, attraction to fragrances, and so on) and include such things as socialisation, parental teaching, folk wisdom, formal education, on-the-job training, and all sorts of self-help initiatives, not to mention our innate sense that certain things are right or wrong. A problem however is that few of us make a concerted effort to bring all of this machinery into a consistent, coherent whole; in other words, we muddle along. Why? Partly because of the overall complexity, the difficulty of reconciling opposites and of simultaneously dealing with apples and oranges.
How on the individual level do we deal with complexity? One way is to simply add the new experience to what we already know and try to “grow” our understanding accordingly. Another is to avoid the problem altogether, consciously or unconsciously not recognising it, putting it into the “too hard” basket. A third method is delegation, entrusting other people (experts) to deal with it at least initially, making sufficient sense of it for us to be able to digest at a later. Imagine that all of this is a circle. We might choose to pull the blankets up and remain at 0 degrees, or confront the issue thoroughly and travel a full 360 degrees, or choose a point or points somewhere in between, dealing with complexity by resting on the fact that we are not ourselves alone in this world, we are a society, and other people may be able to help.
Whatever the case, we cannot altogether avoid having to deal with complexity, because science and society alike will not let us rest. Science, whether in the natural world or the world of human endeavour, is constantly generative, and society through its laws, rules, norms, market variations (and so on) compels us to make constant adjustments to our way of living. We cannot rest. Complexity, like the many manifestations of Satan, chases us.
How best to cope: rebalancing and refocusing
We deal with the stresses of complexity through a number of strategies, one or two of which have already been mentioned:
· Avoidance – choosing not to do certain things, e.g. use certain technologies
· Deflection – occupying ourselves with trash and escapism
· Delegation – entrusting the business of managing complexity to others, such as journalists and politicians
· Hit-and-miss simplification – making broad and ill-founded generalisations on certain matters
· Rejection (in various forms) – not “I reject the Labor Party because of its policy on X” but “I reject all politics and politicians”
· Reframing – embracing complexity through different media, e.g. arts and nature
· Miniaturising – focusing on just the present moment
· Full-scale acceptance – embracing an aspect of complexity at high (e.g. research) level, while inevitably cutting back on other aspects.
There are undoubtedly others.
Some if not most of these can be summed up in the word “rebalancing.” We cannot stop the course of complexity, so we ourselves have to adjust, and ability to strike better balances seems to be the only realistic way we can do so. In other words we re-order our lives so that the new pressures we experience are somehow lessened. Some of this occurs automatically, but some, as time goes on and the impacts of complexity are more deeply felt, will have to be more planned and considered.
I spoke earlier of two impacts of increased complexity: the feeling of unbearable intensity and loss or diminishment of identity. Rebalancing may be seen as the answer to the first of these. Loss of identity requires a different response. It requires a refocusing of ourselves - finding afresh our core or essence.
The way of life is such that polarities constantly spring up to keep us in balance. As the world gets more and more complex, simultaneously there are new initiatives encouraging or helping us to focus more on the simplicities, the essential. The book I am writing is one, but there are notable others, e.g. meditation, mindfulness, decluttering, ecumenism, and the uniting of nations. History is full of examples from the past:
· Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 1700s, manufacturing was often done in people's homes, using hand tools or basic machines. Industrialisation marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production.
· Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France largely because of the chaos that had arisen in government, afflicted by competing power centres, at war within itself and with its own people and with other governments.
· Central banking was instituted to enable monarchs to finance their wars, something which could not be achieved through the various commercial banks. Until the mid-nineteenth century, commercial banks were able to issue their own banknotes, and notes issued by provincial banking companies were commonly in circulation.
Émile Durkheim’s theory of suicide has been linked with increasing complexity in society, yet here too there seems to be a rebalancing, as Rosalia Condorelli 2016 has observed:
Can we share even today the same vision of modernity which Durkheim left us by its suicide analysis? or can society ‘surprise us’? The answer to these questions can be inspired by several studies which found that beginning the second half of the twentieth century suicides in western countries more industrialized and modernized do not increase in a constant, linear way as modernization and social fragmentation process increases, as well as Durkheim’s theory seems to lead us to predict. Despite continued modernizing process, they found stabilizing or falling overall suicide rate trends. Therefore, a gradual process of adaptation to the stress of modernization associated to low social integration levels seems to be activated in modern society.
We developed new life skills to deal with previous crises, e.g. skills in communication and environmental management. Now it is time to develop the life skills necessary to live with complexity. We need rebalancing and refocusing, which in turn require a degree of simplification – finding the simplicity that lies within and at the heart of complexity.
Origins of complexity
Where does complexity come from, beyond the obvious endless multiplier effect of creation? This is one of the questions addressed by complexity theory, which is not a single discipline but a broad field of inquiry spread across several disciplines. In this paper, which addresses philosophy rather than science or any of those other disciplines, I merely refer to a few key points, beginning with complexity as emergence.
Complexity as emergence
Emergence is something that is found not in the parts of an entity but in its developed state, when these parts have come together. In other words, there are properties or behaviours that emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. Heylighen et al. 2006, p. 5 cite kitchen salt as an example. Salt (NaCl) is edible, forms crystals and has a salty taste. These properties are completely different from the properties of its chemical components, sodium (Na) which is a violently reactive, soft metal, and chlorine (Cl), which is a poisonous gas.
Stuart Kauffman 2006 tells us that emergence is a “new” scientific world view that is taking the place of reductionism.
Roughly speaking emergence breaks into two sub-views, epistemological and ontological emergence. The former says that complex systems are too complex to be explained by reductionistic practices, but that ontologically, reductionism holds. The ontological view is that new entities with their own properties and causal powers arise and are part of the furniture of the universe. I hold strongly to this view and will present a number of cases that appear to support it.
According to the Wikipedia article on emergence:
Life is a major source of complexity, and evolution is the major process behind the varying forms of life. In this view, evolution is the process describing the growth of complexity in the natural world and in speaking of the emergence of complex living beings and life-forms, this view refers therefore to processes of sudden changes in evolution.
Heylighen et al. 2006, p. 6 make the remarkable claim that “In fact, on closer scrutiny practically all of the properties that matter to us in everyday-life, such as beauty, life, status, intelligence ... turn out to be emergent.”
Complexity as the origin of complexity
Stuart Kauffman has opened our eyes to possibilities in the way that evolution occurs through the growth of complexity. Diversity breeds more diversity; nothing can happen without diversity; and when diverse living things happen to be together in the same environment, they inevitably interact in a way that pushes the whole group into a higher form of complexity. Possibility becomes fact. Some laws may account for this – and Kauffman is constantly searching for laws to describe what happens in complex systems, but equally there is a lot that happens that is – to use his word – “lawless.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kauffman developed a theory for life’s origins, based on molecules that reproduce only collectively, called autocatalytic sets. At the heart of this theory is the notion of a very large number of enzymes; in other words, as a scientific proposition, life arose from something not simple but itself complex. Dana Mackenzie and Jennifer Tzar 2002 explain how Kauffman designed an elaborate computer simulation to demonstrate that individual enzymes could organize themselves into a self-reproducing collection of enzymes. Given a sufficiently large number of enzymes and sufficient energy, a self-perpetuating, self-replicating, non-equilibrium system could emerge – in other words, probable new life.
This research connects with some of the thinking of philosopher Jacques Derrida. The Wikipedia article on Derrida says:
Derrida asked the question: Must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something? In other words, every structural or “synchronic” phenomenon has a history, and the structure cannot be understood without understanding its genesis. At the same time, in order that there be movement, or potential, the origin cannot be some pure unity or simplicity, but must already be articulated—complex—such that from it a “diachronic” process can emerge.
If this thinking is applied to the origin of the universe, we have to assume that there was original complexity, not original simplicity, though the complexity could have been potential rather than actual.
Rebalancing: self-organisation and adaptation
The constant increase in complexity is a massive challenge, as Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, observed in the 6th century BC. But maybe this complexity brings its own tools which can help. The late 20th century, for example, brought us the Internet which enables us to have a glimpse at the possibility of universal mind.
Two important tools are the capacity for self-organisation and adaptation. These two are related. Self-organisation occurs within a complex system: the system spontaneously arranges its components and their interactions into a sustainable, global structure that tries to maximise overall fitness, without need for an external or internal designer or controller (Heylighen, 2006; Kauffman, 1995). Adaptation, on the other hand, has to do with the relation between this system and its environment (Holland, 1996). Whatever the pressures imposed by the environment, the system will adjust its structure in order to cope with them. Of course, there is no guarantee of success: given the intrinsic sensitivity and unpredictability of the system, failures and catastrophes can (and do) happen, often when we do not expect them. But in the long term, ongoing self-organisation and adaptation appear to be the rule rather than the exception. (Heylighen et al. 2006, p.12).
Self-organisation in systems theory is discussed in detail by Kauffman 2008. Kauffman links the origin of life with key developments thereafter. Life requires in the first place what he calls autonomous agents, which are things that can act on their own behalf. “All free-living organisms are autonomous agents” (Kauffman 2003) and it is this capacity in a given set of organisms which can lead to self-organisation and the “explosion” into a higher level of diversity and complexity. Autonomous agents enable the autocatalysis which Kauffman (and others) consider to be part of the story of the beginning of life. He goes on (p. 72): “the agency that arises with life brings value, meaning and action into the universe.” Arguably, agency – the simple fact of being able to do something – is utterly inconsequential without value and meaning. Philosophically, there is a necessity for value and meaning to exist, otherwise there would have been no evolution, no development beyond the so-called primordial soup.
Going beyond self-organisation there is the concept of the adjacent possible. Srivastava 2014 explains:
Stuart Kauffman in 2002 introduced the “adjacent possible” theory. This theory proposes that biological systems are able to morph into more complex systems by making incremental, relatively less energy consuming changes in their make up. Steven Johnson uses this concept in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” to describe how new insights can be generated in previously unexplored areas.
Central to this concept is the idea that living creatures are energy systems and that all biological entities should be definable in terms of energy. The adjacent possible can be seen as an untapped potential, which is a higher level of complexity. Simply to survive, these agents, including human beings, have had to evolve toward this higher complexity. Kauffman 2008, p. 64 believes that movement into the adjacent possible can be found in fields other than science, potentially explaining the growth of complexity in every aspect of existence:
The biosphere has exploded into its chemical adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history, and elsewhere. In general, we have no theories of these explosions, yet they are central to the evolution of complexity. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible.
This seems to echo Alfred North Whitehead and his Process Theory.
Sometimes the expansion into the adjacent possible could be due to one or more positive developments. Economic science, according to Heylighen et al.2006, p. 5, postulates
the principle of rational choice, which assumes that an agent will always choose the option that maximises its utility. Utility is supposed to be an objective measure of the degree of value, “happiness” or “goodness” produced by a state of affairs. Assuming perfect information about the utility of the possible options, the actions of mind then become as determined or predictable as the movements of matter. This allowed social scientists to describe human agency with most of the Newtonian principles intact. Moreover, it led them to a notion of linear progress: the continuous increase in global utility (seen mostly as quantifiable, material welfare) made possible by increases in scientific knowledge.
Alternatively, new action, including expansion into the adjacent possible, may occur as a reaction. In other words, when a new development – driverless cars for example – has an inherent dark side (in this case risks to safety) a response is necessary.
Adaptation may lead ultimately to integration. There is a body of thought which says that integration of thought and experience is the way to ultimate sanity. The philosopher Ken Wilber is an example.
Examples from history
The human urge to extend ourselves has led us in all sorts of directions. We have taken over other people, beginning with sex and going right through to the establishment of empires. We have taken over our natural environment. We have developed all sorts of technologies for “soft” colonisation, from the pen and the wheel to the microchip. We have formed empires of ideas. Now we are extending ourselves through cloning, robotics, artificial intelligence and the like – the list goes on. The result is a complexity that is beyond our control.
When we think of civilisation we tend to think of complexity, but this is merely the context for a pattern of behaviours that we call civilised. Some of the hallmarks of civilization, widely accepted throughout the world, are good order, respectful relationships and creativity. Civilisation implies refinement of thought and feeling. It also implies balance, for example a balance between unity and diversity, stability and the endless urge to establish new frontiers.
Two of the great achievements of the 20th century were synthesis and pluralism, as evident in the tendency to fuse different faiths and equally to be more inclusive, accepting the continued existence of different faiths. These achievements are signs of a civilisation that is still very much alive. They are also hallmarks of a civilisation based on principles of truth, love and creative action, which are core to the thinking advanced on this website.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of history so far has been the development of thought: not only the use of thought to inquire, to explore, to speculate, but the formation of complex systems of knowledge and belief. High on the list of these systems must come religion, if only because religion, by definition, goes into the realm of the transcendent.
Each discipline of learning has different levels of thought and understanding. There is the most basic level of pure experience – the apple falling on Newton’s head – then coping, systematising, management, teaching, research, and ultimately philosophy. So from Newton’s apple we proceed to Hawking, Goldilocks planet and all the rest. Of course, philosophy at its best will reveal the hitherto unsuspected richness of its field and the sheer wonder of what may yet be found. At its best too, it will help us understand better the fundamentals, the why as well as the how. At its worst it will simply confuse – sadly a characteristic of too much modern philosophy.
Complexity - good or bad?
Creation is assumed to be good but the complexity which it produces may not necessarily be good. This is a matter for individual judgement which is entirely subjective. One response might be that creation and complexity alike are neither good nor bad; they simple are. If this is the case we could say they encompass all values, good and bad. Perhaps they are outcomes of some “truth” and “love” which are not truth and love in the virtuous sense in which we normally use those words, but code for something broader. Perhaps, again, these things simply are, and any value we choose to attach to them is the result of our own take on life, which generally is “glass half full” rather than “glass half empty.” In other words, simply by being alive and choosing not to commit suicide, we indicate that we believe life to be on the whole good; and some go much further, claiming life to be so good as to be sacred.
Good and bad can be said to be subjective states, that is, a thing is good if we say it is, or bad if we say it is. This of course is debatable, but either way there is plenty of scope for questioning the merits of complexity. Complexity can easily be seen as a life attribute that is unbearable, and if that is so we have to say it is at least to some degree bad. Perhaps the question of good or bad is dependent not on the phenomenon itself but on our relationship with it. It may be good if it somehow reflects our glorious creativity, our ability to self-fulfil. It may also be good if it gives space for new and desirable possibilities – possibilities for healing, learning, comfort and so on. But if it simply confuses or crushes us, then it has to be seen as bad.
Does a more complex world necessarily mean a better one? No. A better world is one where there is more goodness, and goodness is a matter of quality not – as in complexity – quantity. Sadly we live in a world where quantity is increasing but quality in relative terms is – apparently - not. Rather than complexity we should be looking for more balance, using what we already have to nullify the bad wherever it occurs. A supplementary question is whether our time is substantially different from previous times. I think it is, because different trajectories of development have brought us to a point where we can wipe out much of ourselves and seriously damage the planet as a whole. And these trajectories of development have to be seen as outcomes of the planet’s relentless push towards greater complexity.
Mele 2013, pp.1-2 argues that “Radical connectivity – our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly and globally – has all but transformed politics, business and culture, bringing about the upheaval of traditional, ‘big’ institutions and the empowerment of upstarts and renegades.” The WikiLeaks are an example. He continues:
Radical connectivity is toxic to conventional power structures. Today, before our eyes, the top-down nation-state model as we’ve known it is collapsing. Traditional sources of information like broadcast and print media are in decline. Aircraft carriers and other military hardware that for decades underpinned geopolitical power are obsolete and highly vulnerable, while organized violence remains a growing threat. Competitive hierarchies within industries are disappearing. Traditional cultural authorities are fading. Everything we depend on to preserve both social stability and cherished values, including the rule of law, civil liberties, and free markets, is coming unraveled.
Mele’s book is ultimately about the nature of power in our modern world. Not all is bad, for example the increasing opportunities for small organisations to flourish – provided bureaucracies don’t strangle them with red tape. But how can we know what changes are right and how can we manage these changes?
One of the great truths that the West has rather lost is the human need for connectedness. This is something that indigenous people from all corners of the globe seem to have kept at the forefront of their cultures. We all need connection in all directions: connection with people from other parts of the world, connection with our past, connection with our natural environment, and so on. Connection with our source is part of this huge web of need. Inevitably, increasing complexity tends to take us further and further from our source. The way of goodness – the conscious daily practice of truth and love or goodwill – is the surest way of keeping us in touch with that source.
Complexity in religion
Many of us look to religion for guidance through life’s dilemmas; others look to science or philosophy. Religion should help but often does not. Faith traditions, being at bottom human, have succumbed to the human temptation to make everything more complex. They have allowed themselves to be encrusted with all sorts of barnacles like the creeds, pilgrimages, rituals and religious symbols.
The essence of faith traditions – the largely lost essence – is simple. It resides in the first place in humility, the acceptance that humankind is not the be-all and end-all of everything, and that there is something or someone greater. Secondly, there is acknowledgement that we are all, one way or another imperfect, but that equally this is a remarkable world with ever-present possibilities for becoming better. Thirdly, there is the adoption of an ethic, whereby we take responsibility for our own wellbeing and that of others and undertake always to do our best. And fourthly, there is the conviction that this will lead to some reward, after death if not before. There are, of course, other elements, but this summary is enough to make the point: religion at its best is hugely life-affirming and hugely anchoring.
There are unavoidable and irreducible pluralities in religion, just as there are in any other discipline. Either we are beholden to an external deity or deities whom we must obey, or there is deity somehow within us, or there is no deity. There are rules we must follow, non-negotiably, or codes we ourselves have developed and can therefore change, or there is no rule. Our behaviour in life is rewarded or punished after we die, or it is not.
Religion by and large ignores the problem of complexity, though there are notable exceptions. One such is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, discussed below. Process theology also addresses complexity to a degree, for example Gordon D. Kaufman 2011 who says “Creativity (God) is not purposeful. Purpose comes about when you have human beings” and “The movement to greater complexity is God. This is an ongoing process.”
Arguing from outside religion, Stuart Kauffman 2006 says:
Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet — it expands our consciousness and naturally seems to lead to an enhanced potential global ethic of wonder, awe, responsibility within the bounded limits of our capacity, for all of life and its home, the Earth, and beyond as we explore the Solar System.
If this is true, who are we to in any way reject complexity, the child of creation?
Coping: insights from ethics, religion and psychology
One counsel, which denies the pressures of complexity, is to accept the world as it is and as it is becoming, seeing change as an inevitable good. Happy indeed are the people who can do this. Whether or not we are individually fitted to this sort of acceptance, however, there is the question whether it is right to do so. Here again we come to the question of value, i.e. whether complexity is good per se or not.
Some branches of religion would drive us to fundamentalism. That, however, is a form of denial. Other branches of religion would drive us to original simplicity. Quakerism and the move back to primitive Christianity is one example; Lao Tzu’s call for reversion to the time of the sages (the Golden Age) is another. Lao Tzu would seem to advise simplicity that goes hand in hand with “natural balancing.”
At this point it is salutary to reflect on our assumption that past times were so much more simple than our own. Plainly they were simpler in many ways, but sociologist Jean Duvignaud 1972, p. 27 cautions that “there is no real evidence that ancient, primitive societies were any closer to nature and simplicity” and that “modern anthropology shows us that archaic classifications are no less complex than those of contemporary societies.”
I don’t think there’s necessarily been a Golden Age from which Western people have declined, but I do believe we have inadvertently drifted into trouble through our incessant devotion to multiplication. We have drifted away from first principles, beginning with the commitment to virtue. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Wokler 1995, p. 18) proclaimed it a general rule that “all great civilisations decay under the weight of their scientific and artistic progress.” This is Lao Tzu all over again.
There is an answer: attend to the simplicities, the first principles. In practice this is hard, but philosophers should be at hand to help. It is one of the tasks of philosophy, I believe, to relate developments in modern life to the first principles on which society is based. On the other hand, if we aspire to a return to original simplicity – what Ralph Alan Dale 2005 would call the Great Integrity (the Tao itself) – we may in fact be mistaken. This simplicity implies loss of the distinctions between good and evil, pleasure and pain, and so on. While losing these polarities might seem desirable, the result might be a bland, even state equivalent to a heat death of the universe.
Complexity can be seen as an unbearable burden which we can only deal with by simplifying. Simplifying is something that happens by default, e.g. the breakdown in democracy. We are constantly urged in business to Keep It Simple Stupid, but this does not come easily and we tend not to do it well. Interestingly, the great teachers in religion and philosophy – Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Kant etc. – have often had this gift.
How can we attain the beauty of simplicity while indulging in the beauties of complexity? How can we reach the One through the many? These are amongst the most intractable questions of all human existence.
Coping: implications for education
If it is true, as Heylighen et al. 2006, p.1 assert, that complexity is perhaps the most essential characteristic of our present society, we need to prepare. We need to recognise it, understand it and learn how to manage it.
Curriculum content is constantly changing at all levels of education, as indeed it should. But how these changes are determined is something that requires much more thought. Some things are no longer taught at all, others may be taught or learnt outside the formal system, and of course some areas of knowledge are lost completely.
In addition to content there is process. Fortunately the profession of education is more conscious than ever before of the problems arising here. Again the judgments that must be made are more than technical. To take just one example, there is an enormous number of ethical issues arising in sex education, not to mention the dilemmas of legality and practicability. A so-called simpler world once shut out issues such as sex between people with disabilities, but this is no longer possible.
A third issue for education is the need for people to acquire new coping skills. The task of identifying such skills is itself an issue. We now have meditation taught in some schools, while forest bathing might be another useful “new” technique. However, a threshold set of skills lies in the identification of individually and socially useful complexities, separating them from those which might be harmful. An everyday example is the drift to self-service checkouts in supermarkets, which some will see as desirable or at least acceptable but others will not.
The democratisation of aspects of society makes all these decisions even harder to make. Two apparently contradictory things are happening. Some disciplines of learning are becoming ever more democratised – we all become our own doctors – while others are retreating ever more from the exoteric to the esoteric. In other words, there is a tension between public knowledge (or things which decision makers want to be public knowledge) and private knowledge, which is too abstruse for the ordinary person to understand or which may be dangerous in the hands of the uninitiated. So in some disciplines we are more self-reliant, while in others we are forced to lean more on experts, trusting more to strangers. Here the relational aspect of life comes to the fore. Unfortunately, we are not good at relationships; relationships are the weakest point in our civilisation. Trust is compromised and collectively we have a problem.
Global rebalancing in the 21st century
Are we heading, through complexity, to a better future or worse? Better or worse are subjective states: things are better if we think they are, worse if we think they are.
On this subject I am one with Nicholas Rescher 1998, who holds that “the management of our affairs within a socially, technologically, and cognitively complex environment is plagued with vast management problems and risks of mishap.” I agree. Yet he also sees a positive, for “our imperfect knowledge provides a rationale for putting forth our best efforts.”
There are some very obvious tests for humankind where complexity is an issue, e.g. climate change. Our 21st century evolution responding to complexity also includes the development of new forms of life - artificial intelligence and robots, which may in fact be the newest species on Earth. Ironically, while they are designed to manage complexity, they also bring their own problems. We don’t know what to do with them, and are in fact afraid of them.
The ideal of full democracy in which everyone is constantly involved in collective decision-making is a fantasy. Complexity does not allow such a thing. To overcome this we have instituted an ever more elaborate system of delegation of authority and responsibility, which itself is part of the complexity problem. Delegation is based on power which is the formalisation of and sharp-edging of enablement. Delegation is with us to stay, but increasingly we have become aware that other types of relationship are also necessary, beginning with partnership and including strategic forms such as leveraging, whereby other entities are engaged to join a cause but at a remove, fulfilling their own self-interests and incidentally fulfilling those of other people as well.
What might be the effects of rebalancing in today’s world? One is the push towards reduced consumption, i.e. societies consuming enough to sustain themselves but not so much as to endanger the planet. Another is maintaining weaponry as a deterrent between nations but with safeguards to prevent mutual destruction.
The longer term future
Part of the challenge of evolution is dealing with evolution itself. Complexity has always been on the increase and humankind has always evolved to deal with it as necessary. But do we have the capacity to do so forever, and even if we have the capacity, do we have the individual and collective will?
We will find answers to problems through new technology, new structures, new processes etc. (which are themselves a form of technology), but human behaviour in its essence is not likely to change. Instead, we will have ingenious new checks and balances, new ways of guiding if not enforcing behaviour in directions necessary for our continuance.
An optimistic view is that we may be headed for a future where there is better disease control, stabilisation of climate change, low-risk driverless transport, improved democracy – and so on. Whatever our future, relationships will be at the heart of it.
We come now to the Omega Point, the vision of early 20th century Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin. Evolution and growing complexity in all aspects of existence extend to the development of consciousness. This occurs through the advent of better organised social networks. Teilhard imagines a critical threshold, Omega Point, at which mankind will have reached its highest point of complexification (socialization) and thus its highest point of consciousness. At this point consciousness will rupture through time and space and assert itself on a higher plane of existence from which it cannot return. This has a theological point, for in the words of the Wikipedia article on the Omega Point:
The increasing complexity of matter has not only led to higher forms of consciousness, but accordingly to more personalization, of which human beings are the highest attained form in the known universe. They are completely individualized, free centers of operation. It is in this way that man is said to be made in the image of God, who is the highest form of personality. Teilhard expressly stated that in the Omega Point, when the universe becomes One, human persons will not be suppressed, but super-personalized. Personality will be infinitely enriched. This is because the Omega Point unites creation, and the more it unites, the increasing complexity of the universe aids in higher levels of consciousness. Thus, as God creates, the universe evolves towards higher forms of complexity, consciousness, and finally with humans, personality, because God, who is drawing the universe towards Him, is a person.
The idea of the Omega Point gets weight from the development of human consciousness that most of us would acknowledge, but the power of polarity suggests we will not reach one single point, of this or any other kind. Instead we will simply raise our existence to progressively refined levels which will continue to be the meeting ground for yin and yang in all their forms.
Teilhard de Chardin 1970, p. 316 admits that the Omega Point may not eventuate. There is another possibility: “Obeying a law from which nothing in the past has ever been exempt, evil may go on growing alongside good, and it too may attain its paroxysm at the end in some specifically new form.” Either an ecstasy of concord or an ecstasy of discord, he cannot decide.
Seen another way, the future seems to hold a curious contradiction. The universe is expanding and so is our complexity, yet scientists tell us we are drifting toward physical extinction, our planet engulfed by the Sun then (so it is theorised) the whole universe coming to an end. In other words, we came from next-to-nothing – we might say a divinity (God) who is one, expanded to a magnificent many, only to collapse at last to – another version of one. But if a dynamic of creativity and endless movement from one to many is established, at some point can it or must it be reversed? We see this happen (apparently) in individual lives, where death ends creativity and reduces complexity to nothing, only to be followed by new life. In other words, creativity with its attendant complexity goes on forever, hand in hand with death and destruction.
If creativity and death go on forever at the level of individual lives, maybe this is what we must expect at the species level and cosmic level as well. In this sense, maybe we are in a world without end. And maybe, if we look back, the one of our origin was itself the product of something else. We cannot know.
This paper has described the nature and extent of the complexity problem we humans face today – a problem subject to irreversible and exponential growth. Whether or not we see complexity as good or bad it is a challenge, one which society at large has not yet fully grasped. Our lack of comprehension is largely because it is all too much in our faces, so to speak, and we cannot see the wood for the trees.
Science helps us understand the link between complexity and processes such as the origin and development of life, but long-term future predictions are problematic. Clearly complexity has to be part of any such predictions but in what sense? Maybe complexity to an immense degree might be necessary to provide the springboard for some future emergence, as suggested by Kauffman in regard to the origin of life. Maybe alternatively the density of a future complex world might serve as the precondition for some other state. In a broad sense we could say that complexity led to the birth of computing and artificial intelligence, and maybe the same sort of causation might be necessary for future developments as yet unknown and unimaginable.
The adjustments we humans will have to make have been addressed briefly here, beginning with the need for rebalancing and refocusing. As part of refocusing I have suggested a new emphasis on the simplicities of life, the fundamentals, the bigger picture. This of course is easier said than done. Sooner or later all disciplines of human endeavour will have to be involved: not just science and philosophy but education, economics, public policy – the full range.
Lead thinkers in all these disciplines will need to adjust their perspectives accordingly. Heylighen et al. 2006, p.10 observe:
Given these scientific backgrounds, most complexity researchers have not yet reflected about the philosophical foundations of their approach—unlike the systems and cybernetics researchers. As such, many still implicitly cling to the Newtonian paradigm, hoping to discover mathematically formulated “laws of complexity” that would restore some form of absolute order or determinism to the very uncertain world they are trying to understand. However, we believe that once the insights from systems science and postmodern philosophy will have been fully digested, a philosophy of complexity will emerge that is truly novel, and whose outline we can at present only vaguely discern.
Climate change and COVID-19 caught us napping, and the rapid advance of artificial intelligence is clearly doing the same. We should not let the same happen with the growth of complexity.
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Rapid change in all areas of existence presents us with a growing problem of complexity, whose dimensions are without limit. There are times now when life seems unbearably overloaded with choice, with different paths to follow to reach a simple end, and so on. In all of this our very identities are threatened, submerged by a world full of “things” and beings alien to ourselves. In various ways we rebalance and refocus, but can we do so forever?
Venturing into systems theory we find that science has explanations for the growth of complexity, such as emergence, and that there are standard responses throughout the natural world, such as self-organisation and adaptation. It follows that we need to as a race recognise the need to act accordingly and take charge of this phenomenon for ourselves. Education has a role as do other disciplines like philosophy and religion. At the very least, we need to keep a grip on the fundamentals of existence – this at a time when ideologies and other belief systems are making those fundamentals increasingly clouded.
We do not even know whether complexity is a good thing or a bad. In some ways the diversity enriches our lives but in others it consumes us. Some might see our long-term future as one of increasing accommodation to change, increasing refinement of consciousness such that we reach a new level of existence that in our present gross and clumsy world seems almost unattainable. Are we all headed, for example, for some kind of bliss, some nirvana, some Omega Point where all this might melt away? And while that scenario plays itself out, there is the question of the future of the planet and the future of the universe as a whole. Is it the case that we came from something very, very small, then multiplied to our present dimensions, only to be swallowed up and reduced once more to effective nothingness?
Setting aside these cosmic imponderables, we all of us need to take stock of our lives and work out for ourselves how we deal with this massive and ever-growing by-product of change.