Chinese Thinking and Complexity

By Greg Fisher

Last week I attended an excellent conference in Singapore, which had the intriguing title of “A Crude Look at the Whole”.  The title was attributable to Murray Gell-Man who was one of the founding fathers of the Santa Fe Institute and also the winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Gell-Man is famous for a few things, including being the first to postulate the existence of quarks.  Another is the idea of coarse-grained cognition.  This is the (to me sensible) idea that reality is extremely fine-grained in terms of detail, like a ultra-high definition movie, whereas human cognition is very crude (or coarse) by comparison, like a blurry still picture.  Gell-Man was at the conference as were two other giants of the complexity community, John Holland and Brian Arthur.

It was an excellent and wide-ranging conference, organised by Jan Vasbinder of the Complexity Programme of the Nanyang Technological Universoty (NTU).  A thought occurred to me during the last session, which I thought warranted a blog article.  Or, rather, it was more of a question: is the Chinese mind-set more conducive to understanding Complexity theory than the Western mind-set?  There are good arguments to say that it is.

Don’t worry, my question is not based on some flimsy notion of Confucian group-think.  In fact it emerges from some serious academic studies which show fascinating and important differences in how Westerners and Chinese think.  Some of this material was presented at the conference by Professor Ying-Yi Hong of NTU’s business school but interested readers might look at the excellent book The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbet.

Let me summarise this research very briefly.  It says that if Westerners and Chinese are shown a picture of (say) a horse with (say) a background of mountains and rivers, then Westerns are more inclined to notice and remember the horse only; whereas Chinese people will notice and remember both the horse in the foreground and some of the detail in the background.

Now, I am not for one moment saying that being aware of both foreground and background means Chinese people have superior thought processes.  I make now value judgments here.  It may be, for example, that Westerners can remember the horse in finer detail, which in many situations might be more useful.

But this ability to appreciate both the foreground and background did make me wonder if this means the Chinese can appreciate and understand whole systems better, and therefore whether their mind-set is likely to be fertile soil for Complexity thinking.  Only seeing and remembering the horse seems to run parallel with an atomistic and reductionist strategy for making sense of wholes, which has been at the heart of Western science for centuries.  In understanding a complex system it helps to be able to understand a subject and its wider context, and the relationship between the two.

This also fits neatly with the Chinese philosophy of Daoism, which has a great deal in common with Complexity theory.  I will leave this particular thought hanging for now (my philosopher friend and colleague, Rhett Gayle, has been leading the thinking in this area: more later).  For now, Daoism has been around for thousands of years and it lies under the skin of a lot of Chinese values and cognitive framing.  This link between Daoism and Complexity theory adds credence to the idea that the Chinese mind is conducive to a Complexity approach to whole systems.

I asked my question of the last speaker in the conference (Peter Ho) who broadly agreed with my premise.  Anecdotally, as I explained in my question to Peter, when I talk about Complexity theory with fellow Westerners who are unaware of complex systems, I sometimes feel they think me insane because my framing sits uncomfortably with their view of the world.  Equivalently, when I have the same conversation with Chinese people, they often think me insane because what I am saying is blindingly obvious.  That’s an impression and an over-generalisation but it fits with the research.

At this point I can hear one of my colleagues’ voices in my head – if the Chinese are so clever, why are they lagging the West in terms of standard of living?  A fair question but I would restate my point about value – it might be that economic progress in recent decades has been, metaphorically, more about the horse.  In any case, clearly this cognitive difference is a part of a much larger story that includes many differences between East and West.  It is not the only factor in explaining differences in standards of living (assuming such explanations are possible anyway).

All of this makes me think of a quote which one of my other colleagues shared with me a few months ago, which originated from the US defense establishment (specifically it was from Heinz Pagels, cited as the epigraph to the volume “Coping with the bounds: Speculation on nonlinearity in Military Affairs” (1998) National Defence University):

“I am convinced that the nation and people who master the new sciences of complexity will become the economic, cultural and political superpowers of the next century.”

I will conclude by coming firmly off the fence: if the Chinese (as a nation and as a race) master Complexity theory in their business, economic and political lives then they will make a true “great leap forward”.  It is tempting to paint a picture of China as communist, autocratic, non-democratic, etc.  This is not necessarily wrong but as a civilisation, communism has been just a recent blip.  How people cognitively frame things is very deeply rooted and Complexity theory looks like a technical and intellectual counterpart to how they think already, broadly speaking.

For those people who worry about national differences (this does not include me – I hide under a warm blanket of optimism), this all means the West had better dig deep and re-think its philosophical roots in light of the Complexity revolution.  Otherwise it might find itself lagging behind in the decades and centuries to come.

2 Responses to “Chinese Thinking and Complexity”

  1. Peter Richmond says:

    Some time ago I had a Deputy who was Chinese. He always used to say, one of the interesting differences in thinking between those from East and west related to perceptions of time. Perhaps out of Judaic and Christian philosophy we think of time having a beginning and end. As a result things in the past are exactly that. We always then look for the new. However Eastern philosophy leads to a perception of circularity in life. People are reborn? Perhaps, but more interestingly events and opportunities that are not seized at the time they arise can come again. So think about the circumstances which gave arise to particular events and one could be better disposed to seize them next time round.

  2. carl allen says:

    Few westerners plan and implement a lifestyle that gives the time to reflect, as a norm.

    Perhaps worse, we disparage boredom and manage to so effectively drive it away from our children lives.

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