Many philosophers and other experts argue that we are in a transition period in global society that is broadly similar to the European Enlightenment. It is noteworthy that in 2010 the tagline of the RSA, which was born during the original Enlightenment, changed to “21st Century Enlightenment”.
Some believe the original Enlightenment was catalysed by the printing press. This new technology facilitated an explosion of communication and, with it, a flurry of creativity. In the centuries that followed, Europe – and the world – witnessed the industrial revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation in the Church, as well as the Enlightenment. This time, the catalyst appears to be the computer, and the enormous information processing power it provides. In this context, Synthesis strives to be part of the present-day Enlightenment, and a catalyst of requisite social, political, and institutional change.
To those familiar with complex networks, it is clear that policy decisions in the western hemisphere – both in the political and corporate worlds – are largely based on thinking that emerged out of the Enlightenment. Social sciences have been heavily influenced by the scientific method and the tools and techniques developed within classical physics during the 19th and early 20th Century. These cognitive frameworks appear out of date in the context of our modern, globally integrated world; and now seem obsolete in the context of the study of complex networks.
Synthesis now seems viable for two broad reasons. First, the recent political, economic, and financial crises have left the mainstream of orthodox thinking in social sciences wonting – many policy makers are now searching for and examining new approaches and new ways of thinking. Second, the analysis of social systems through the lens of Complexity science has only recently reached a stage of maturity and utility, both in academia and outside.
What are “complex networks”?
The term complex network is an amalgam of complex systems and networks. A complex system is defined here as a system containing a number of parts (atoms, molecules, human beings) that interact with each other (bump into others, shake hands, discuss) and adapt to each other over time.
The study of complex systems, known as Complexity science, emerged during the 1970s and matured largely in the natural and computer sciences. Network Theory, having emerged from within mathematics, is viewed by many as a close cousin of Complexity science. Broadly speaking, a complex system can be thought of as a network that evolves over time. To incorporate both the complex and networked nature of such systems, we refer to them simply as “complex networks”.
We believe that this new approach, centred on the study of complex networks, has enormous potential to integrate, reconcile, and synthesise the social sciences. Viewing society as a complex network requires us to focus on actual human psychology and the nature of human interaction, rather than some inaccurate abstraction (such as “the rational agent”). We can drill down further and understand that neuroscience can help us to understand the nature of human cognition (the brain being a complex network itself), action, and interaction. Starting from these micro levels we can build a more representative understanding of social groups, including what we understand as the “macro level”. Therefore, complex networks offer a synthesis between subjects that until now have been largely kept apart, such as psychology and economics.
Furthermore, we believe that this new field of study offers the possibility to synthesise political viewpoints. By appreciating, dispassionately, the nature of human beings within networks of interaction, and the dynamic nature of human psychology, we can understand that political ideologies are, broadly speaking, constrained. They are often partial, static framings of social systems.