A step in the right direction

By Greg Fisher

On Thursday we co-hosted an event with the RSA called “21st Century Policy Development” (21CPD).  This blog is a sort of follow-up to that event, arising out of a number of the questions asked during Q&A.

What I want to do is to illustrate quite how intractable social systems and the biosphere (and in fact the whole universe) are; and to contextualise what value I believe networks and complex systems add to our understanding (and, by implication, our ability to make good decisions).  There were some questions at 21CPD which hinted that perhaps complexity scientists were seeking to achieve some nirvana of understanding with the right model and right data.  Ironically, the same approach tells us such perfection is impossible – the world is inherently intractable, uncertain, and it is constantly evolving; and human cognition is limited.  My point here is that an approach based on complex systems and networks is a firm step in the right direction if our aim is to improve our understanding of reality.

So how intractable are things around us?

Let’s start off with the agent in our social systems, the human being.  Traditional approaches to social sciences would typically reduce people to over-simplified algorithms of behaviour.  In fact, as we know, in reality people are a messy mix of emotions and reasoning, conscious and sub-conscious processes.  And we know that people are made up of multiple organs, including the brain, that interact with each other – so people can be viewed as complex systems themselves.  Moreover, if we drill further “down”, we can see that people are made up of complex sub-systems, and we can see that the smallest stuff has self-organised in to atoms, chemicals, cells, organs, etc.  We get to the point where we realise that we are merely time-consistent patterns of energy and matter.  This is quite mind-boggling.

Stuart Kauffman, Author of "Re-Inventing the Sacred"

Traditional approaches to social science have tended to over-simplify this complexity through reductionism.  What this means is that people have specialised in particular aspects of human nature (psychology, neuroscience, the blood stream, etc).  As Stuart Kauffman wrote in Re-Inventing the Sacred, a lot of stunning discoveries have come out of this silo-based scientific system, orientated around the idea that you can break something like a person in to constituent parts and then add it together to understand the whole.  But if a human being is a complex system of interacting complex sub-systems, this silo-based approach can only take us so far.  Biologically, everything relates to everything else.

Of course, for those familiar with the weird and wonderful world of quantum theory, the mind boggles at an accelerating rate once we delve into the sub-atomic level.  The notion of subject-object duality is brought in to sharp focus by quantum theorists who have shown that outcomes in their experiments depend on whether the experiment is being observed or not.  And quantum uncertain is one of a number of apparent sources of inherent uncertainty in our universe.  I’ll note two others below.

So much for drilling down in to the human being.  It leads to us to an intractable mess that makes me want to run away screaming.

Now let’s go “upwards” from the human being.  If a person is a complex system, then we can also think of society as a complex system of interacting complex systems.  *sigh*, as my cousin sometimes messages me.  Moreover, it is important not to draw “discrete” boundaries around interacting complex systems – we are not finite, given “things”.  Rather, we are open systems that are constantly being influenced by other open systems.  We don’t just evolve, we co-evolve.

One of the implications of this is that the economy cannot be detached from the rest of the biosphere and treated as if it were a discrete object of analysis.  For example, I have argued elsewhere that we cannot understand the macroeconomy properly without understanding how narratives emerge among groups of people.  This means that the complex nature of human psychology affects the allocation of resources (behavioural economics has not got us there yet).  And to truly understand psychology we have to understand neurology, including how different parts of the brain (including the reptilian, mammalian and neo-cortex layers) mix in a conscious and sub-conscious maze, as well as cognition, and all of the facets of being human.  More generally, the biosphere and the economy are intimately linked such that we cannot hope to understand the economy in isolation.

But, not only are “we” not discrete units, we are also in a constant state of flux.  A number of people in the complexity community prefer to emphasise verbs more than nouns because of this e.g. referring to the process of “patterning” rather than “patterns” to emphasise that patterns exist but they are constantly emerging and changing.  Related to this, in his talk on Thursday, Jamie MacIntosh referred to leadership as a social process, distinguishing it from “leaders”.

So we humans are open systems that are constantly changing (and, together, these should lead us to question what “we” actually mean by “we”).  Indeed, there is also the curious problem of reflexivity, which we have to contend with in our daily lives.  I described reflexivity in a blog entitled Reflexivity and Narratives.  One way of looking at this concept in human systems is that when we interact, I am trying to anticipate you anticipating me anticipating you anticipating me, etc.  It’s an important concept and a second source of inherent uncertainty in human systems.  And, by nature, it is not solvable, it is simply something we have to live with.

We can also see a third inherent source of complexity in the form of emergence, which is also prevalent in human systems.  Emergence is probably the most important concept from complex systems and which, to paraphrase Stuart Kauffman again, breaks the whole idea of the deterministic, clockwork universe.  One important example of emergence in human systems is the evolution and perpetuation of human values.  To understand this, it is important to appreciate that humans are neurologically plastic i.e. our neurology (and cognition with it) can evolve through time.  In fact, when it comes to human values we can see that we influence others’ values and they influence ours – both at the same time.  As some people have put it, we simultaneously create and are created by the rest of society.  Human values emerge and evolve within human systems.

Further-furthermore, we have to contend with the “problem” of subjectivity.  I’d prefer not to delve too far in to philosophy here but it is unfortunately true that there is no objective reality.  Sorry.  Everything is filtered through our own subjective, cognitive lens and we cannot get away from that.  This relates to a point Richard Bronk made on Thursday when he pushed against the idea of data as if it were some objective artefact.  Our models of reality can influence what data we collect and how we then make sense of that data.  So, we have to deal with this pesky lack of (ultimate) objectivity in the worlds we create for ourselves.

We can keep going further “up” from social systems and the biosphere.  For instance, the biosphere itself is not a closed, discrete system.  It is also open, not only to the sun but also to radiation left over from the Big Bang and pesky little asteroids that hit us every now and again.  And, to return to quantum theory, assuming I remember this correctly (my apologies to physicists if I don’t) it turns out that every sub-atomic particle in the universe is related to all the others; and they can (metaphorically) “communicate” at faster than the speed of light (cf the Aspect experiment).

And, finally, it is perhaps worth bringing the agent and the whole system together to contrast the limitations of human cognition against the complexity of the universe in which we are living.  When I think about this I feel like a microbe sat on a flee, which is in turn on a mouse scurrying around a field on this little planet.

To conclude, let me re-iterate why I have mentioned all of this.  I wanted to note many of the legitimate explicit or implicit critiques aired last Thursday and to emphasise that I agreed with their thrust.  Complexity theorists should not sell complexity theory and networks as a toolbox that will move us to a heavenly world of understanding.  These are better tools, they are not perfect.

From my own (subjective) point of view, a complexity perspective helps me in two ways.  One, it teaches me humility because I note all of the above, especially the inherent sources of uncertainty, and it causes me to pause, and to be acutely conscious of how much I don’t know.  This is an irony Steve Broome, Director of Research at the RSA, noted in his presentation on Thursday – the more he became familiar with complexity and network approaches, the more he realised how little he knew.  Second, despite this, I am as confident as I can be that such a complexity perspective is an improvement in how we understand ourselves, our own societies, and the universe more widely.  I am confident because older, reductionist approaches (like orthodox economics) can be reached by constraining a complex system.  This tells me we are not only going through a change in our understanding but we are also experiencing a “meta-revolution” because our older approaches are a sub-set of the new.  At 21CPD, Jeff Johnson emphasised that we are going through a scientific revolution that spans both the natural and social sciences.  The network and complexity approaches emphasised at that event are, I believe, a step in the right direction.

One Response to “A step in the right direction”

  1. Hi Greg, excellent summary of a very broad and tangled mess. I think you are spot on about complexity being a step in the right direction, and giving us new ways to engage with the muddle, while not offering ‘answers’ in the conventional sense.

    I also liked your three forms of uncertainty. Readers may enjoy my recent blog on this site where I argue that narratives, as well as being reflexive, are also emergent. http://www.synthesisips.net/blog/working-with-complexity-not-against-it-emergence-in-real-life-and-everyday-conversations/

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