Complexity theory, challenges standard Western philosophy, which is possibly why so many people seem to find understanding it difficult. This is a place where I will put those challenges as they occur to me.

1) Interdependence and interaction

  • Everything that exists, seems to exist in interactive ecologies.
  • ‘Being’ seems connected.
  • All ‘individual beings’ depend on others for their particular existence. Lone individuals, as far as we know, do not exist as ‘lone’ for their entire lives/existences.
  • Buddhist ideas of ‘dependent causation,’ ‘dependent arising’, or ‘dependent origination’ seem to be reasonable approximate descriptions of what actually happens (although we do not have to accept their usual statements about reincarnation).
  • As a consequence of this idea of interdependence, it appears that humans are not separate from ‘nature’. They depend on ‘nature’.

2) Flux and process

  • Everything which exists is constantly in flux along with everything else. Life flows.
  • Some processes are much slower than others, and so they might seem static from a human point of view, but they are still processes.
  • There may be no eternal, or static, units of being.
  • ‘Archetypes’ and ideas are probably local and temporal.
  • We assume that ‘regularities in process’, or the laws of nature, can be unchanging, but we don’t know for sure – certainly everything else changes. Stars do not seem constant over billions of years.
  • Small events can produce large scale change in certain circumstances (which we may not be able to define in advance).
  • Taoism seems to be useful beginning for reflection

3) A degree of unpredictability and uncertainty are normal

  • Humans cannot predict exactly what will happen in the future, but we can often make good guesses. We can also make very bad guesses.
  • This is just a fact of life.
  • Unpredictability does not mean pure randomness. Evolved complex systems generally oscillate around a stable point – this is called homeostasis and produces a degree of regularity in the flux, at any moment.
  • This degree of regularity means that while we may not know exactly what will happen next we may have some idea. We can expect that people will fall downwards towards the Earth. Our house will not disappear, even if it could collapse. We do not expect that, without some major intervention, pigs will grow wings and fly under their own power.
  • The system does not appear completely random, but it is not completely predictable. A word which has been coined for this state of affairs is “impredictability”; it aims to recognise the normal reality of ‘regularity within limits’ together with the apparent lack of complete certainty in anticipation.

4) Problems of models and understanding

  • In complexity, the only true models of the systems are, generally, the systems themselves.
  • As humans generally do not have a complete understanding of all the complex systems involved in a situation, they cannot completely control complex systems, although they can affect them.
  • As a result unintended consequences are a normal feature of human life.
  • We have to live amidst this uncertainty, regularity and unexpectedness. We should expect unintended consequences.
  • Dogma is almost certainly going to prove incorrect and inadequate as a guide to the future.
  • A statement about what is true at one moment, may not be as effective or accurate at another moment.
  • Being aware of what we don’t know is probably useful to survival, but it is also useful not to simply hope that events will not go badly despite our expectations. We don’t normally hope we can jump out of an aeroplane in full flight without any other technology and survive all the time.
  • Uncertainty about the absolute truth of any statement is probably more prevalent than real clear certainty.
  • Statements have degrees of approximation to reality.
  • We learn by doing, and by attending to unexpected, or discomforting, events, and fixing them as best we can.
  • If we develop policies we should probably regard those policies as experiments, and be prepared to modify them as the results come in.
  • Recognising degrees of failure is important to living within complexity.
  • That statements may be ‘true’, does not mean there is a thing we can call ‘truth’.

5) Boundaries, are not always clear

  • The boundaries between living and dead are not always precise.
  • ‘Matter’ interactively organises, or self-organises, as well as dissolves.
  • As we are constantly in interaction the boundaries between beings are not always precise. We breathe each others’ air, we absorb and transform language, ideas and food. We share continually with other beings.
  • The boundaries between human and non-human are not clear. Mitochondria may be parasites. Most of your weight may come from organisms which are not genetically related to you, but which affect, or even drive, human process.
  • It does not always appear easy, appropriate or entirely accurate to separate a system from its ‘environment’ for purposes of study. This is especially so, if we then proceed to try and render the environment inert, without ongoing interactive effect on the system.

6) Minds and Systems

  • Interdependence and boundary vagueness imply there are no lone or purely bounded ‘minds’.
  • Minds are interactive, they grow and learn in interaction with each other and the world. They learn together.
  • Minds do not appear to end with the individual’s skin, or with the individual.
  • Thinking occurs not only with others, but through learnt language, technology, cultural tools, and ‘natural phenomena’ (trees, objects, creatures, rooms), and the responses and resistances felt, used and observed.
  • Minds are possibly distributed through ecological systems; we learn amidst minds, encouragements and resistances.
  • Human minds (and possibly others) are not born intact or complete – we all have childhoods and learn as we develop.
  • Using our adult mind as a guide to minds or awareness in general, is likely to be fallacious.
  • Not all minds have to be the same, and mind of some sort seems dependent on, and distributed through, the world.
  • That humans seem to have relatively good minds, does not mean that other beings are without minds.

7) Non-Harmony in Holism

  • That everything depends on the presence of others, and interaction with others, implies holism. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the whole influences the parts. The individual is born into, or thrust into, the whole. The individual does not exist without the whole. Yet the whole is not necessarily harmonious.
  • Evolution occurs because of imbalance and failure. Failure to replicate completely perfectly, failure to survive, failure to meet competition, failure to adapt to change in the rest of the system.
  • Competition is real. Co-operation is equally real.
  • As has already been proposed, if a system has been stable for a long time, it is probably relatively harmonious and homeostatic. It is likely to be robust and resilient within limits, but should anything significant change (weather, a new creature arrives, a normal creature has an abnormal reproductive burst, a geological event occurs) then harmony may be disrupted, and change may occur quite rapidly. We may not know precisely what events are ‘significant’ in this sense, until afterwards.
  • Systems can heal, if we stop disrupting them, but not always.
  • Complex systems are adaptive; that is they work towards balance and homeostasis, but that balance and stability need not be beneficial for all members of the system. Complex systems can appear to be maladaptive from the perspective of those they are eliminating. There is no guarantee that humans and ecological systems will always be able to live together. There is even less guarantee that all social systems can exist in interaction with all other complex systems.
  • While we humans are part of a whole, we are not One in the sense that we are all the same, or all similar, or all working harmoniously together all the time. Complexity implies variety.
  • Attempts to enforce ‘oneness’ will almost certainly have harmful consequences for everyone.

8) Hierarchy?

  • Complex systems may have hierarchies, in that some systems (for example planetary) include or overlap with many lower level systems (such as a stream or a lake).
  • However, those more general systems ‘higher’ in the hierarchy may not fully determine what happens at a lower level, although they may influence events.
  • Complex hierarchies are not ideal human hierarchies in which those people at the top command those below, or have a better life than those below, because they supposedly deserve it.
  • What happens below has a large degree of independence, and can eventually influence the top level systems, as has occurred when bacteria started producing oxygen billions of years ago, or when humans started to destroy planetary boundaries.
  • Complex hierarchies involve transmission of influence, in both directions.
  • Real human hierarchies are often like this as well.

9) Order and Chaos are intertwined

  • What we might call order and chaos are co-existent, not different realms.
  • Human attempts to produce order, often produce what the orderers call chaos or disorder. Especially if the ideas of order are dogmatic or ideal, rather than attentive to reality, flux and unintended consequences.
  • Complete order approximates death.
  • Life is disorderly. The more alive something is, the less predictable it is.
  • ‘Sustainability’, in the sense of maintaining a particular order forever, is impossible. However the only alternative is not just destruction, as it can be possible to work within the flux, and help maintain a beneficial homeostasis.
  • Ethics can never be about establishing complete order, but it could be about making temporary homeostatic ‘islands of beneficial order’ for all or most beings.

10) Ethics is situational and uncertain

  • As ecologies flux, no situations are ever completely the same. Relationships change.
  • What is right, just, or ethical in one situation may not be in another, no matter how similar they appear (they will differ).
  • Ethics is a form of decision making with regard to a probably uncertain and imagined future. Ethics cannot be abstracted from the other systems present; political, religious, technological, ‘natural’ or whatever.
  • Ethics becomes visible when there is ethical dispute. Dispute is central to ethics. Ethics will probably never guarantee harmony.
  • Most, perhaps all, ideas and actions have ethical consequences, as they play out through the system.
  • The consequences are likely to be unintended.
  • Ethical ethics may involve care and attention to unintended consequences, after the act of deciding, to make sure the results are ethically acceptable.
  • Insisting a decision is ethical without attending to results will probably lead to disastrous, or cruel, behaviour.
  • Ethics is probably part of our understanding of the cosmos and how it works.
  • Because of uncertainty, ethics involves imagining what we need to do, and what the consequences of those acts will be.
  • Ethics involves imagining the reactions of others, and the level to which we can identify with those others.
  • That is ethics may be built upon imagination, empathy and sympathy.
  • If we imagine a complete difference between ourselves and others, then our ethics towards those beings will probably be different and harsher.
  • As events are interconnected, and boundaries are uncertain it is not easy to say where ethical ‘ethical responsibility’ ends.
  • As ecologies promote life, we probably should not abstain from ethical responsibility towards ecologies, should we wish to survive.
  • David Hume’s point still stands, that because human ethics is based on the way humans behave, does not mean that such behaviour is necessarily ethical. A descriptive statement is not necessarily a proscriptive statement. There may be an unbridgeable gap between an ‘is’ statement and an ‘ought’ statement.
  • There may be no basis for ethics independent of ethics. Ethical relativism is not immoral (as often claimed), it could be an ethical position, which involves a hesitation to condemn.
  • Ideas of God may not not provide a basis for ethics. However, the ethics associated with God, can provide a ethical basis for judging the reports of that God’s behaviour. Is it consistent? Is it good? Or do we have to excuse God from behaviour we would judge as bad if performed by someone else? Can any supposedly all-powerful and all-intelligent God who punishes people with eternal torture be described as purely good?

11) God

  • If God created, or engineered, a world of variety, complexity and uncertainty (for us), what does that tell us about God?