I have written much about complexity in this blog, but find it remains perplexing and arcane to many. It is perplexing to me as well, but that’s no excuse from working to understand this concept and its critical importance to our future. The most direct way to state that importance is to say we live in a complex world, but don’t have the mental and conceptual tools to deal with it. Our culture is firmly grounded in understanding the world through a mesh of fixed rules and relationships revealed by cutting up the world in separate, distinct little pieces. The rules may be complicated, say the theories of quantum mechanics, but they only apply to a small part of our real, material universe. And we call what they say to us–the truth.
Ironically, the most important phenomena we encounter cannot be described by any of these rules. This means we cannot count on the prescriptions, policies, and remedial acts we take to resolve the problems we face. Maybe they do something positive for a while, but the messes that threaten our worlds and ways of life always reappear, often at just the wrong moments. That’s because complex system are not amenable to be reduced to finite sets of rules. We can find domains where the behavior is more or less predictable, at least for some time. But then from one moment to the next, the system falls apart or jumps into another completely behavior pattern.
The financial system is an example of complexity. Economists and financial whizzes believed they could program the whole system such that it could create vast wealth for those who understand and ran the programs. And they were right for some time. Enormous amounts of wealth ran to the owners of the programs until in a literal flash, the whole system collapsed. Complexity works that way. Everything seems hunky dory until some lever gets pushed a little too hard, and the system doesn’t just respond proportionately, it jumps unpredictably into a whole new state.
Obviously, this can and does produce catastrophic outcomes for those that depend on the system for their livelihood, health, or well-being in general terms. Their is no escape from this possibility, hard as those in charge or affected would like to believe. Unfortunately for all of us, this fundamental truth has been ignored at virtually every opportunity to come to terms with reality. Why? There are a couple of reasons. One is that we still believe we can find the right answer to every problem, large or small. The other is the obverse—our society won’t tolerate our leaders at any level, from the White House to the school house, to admit or infer that they do not have a positive answer. All of our models used to strategize or plan for the future incorporate this infallibility. All of our institutional decision-making systems assume we know the right answer.
There is a way around this dilemma–pragmatism in one form or another. Pragmatism is a formal philosophical concept, but it has a fairly simple meaning to me. Most simply put, pragmatism argues that the truth can only emerge out of action in the world, not via theories and isolated experiments. Truth is contingent on achieving the end result being sought, say economic equality. Successful applications of practice that end up with the desired results are pragmatically true. The actors involved cannot predict the outcomes of their efforts in advance, but they can learn from their experience how to modify the next act to move closer to the target. You might even say that great artists are pragmatists at heart. They keep perfecting their techniques until beauty emerges. There’s no theory to explain the outcomes, even though they may have started with technical teachings in a school of fine arts.
A political system of governance that is built around an oppositional structure cannot cope with complexity, especially through the proffering of simplistic solutions to the problems that have been refractory to such solutions, whether coming from the left or the right. This is true of all sorts of problems and normative programs. Economic growth, as THE solution, has produced benefits for many in the past, but today it is failing to create well-being to many in spite of quantitative increases in wealth, and has created a huge loss in a critical social norm, that of economic equality. Those who argue that the solutions to these and many other big problems, like climate change, is only a matter of doing it my way are all wrong. Complexity demands that arguments are limited only to the next step to take, admitting out loud that we will have to watch and learn and repeat the process over and over. The answers certainly do not lie in the loudness of the arguments.
More to come.