I am still awaiting a go-ahead to publish my new book. In the meantime, I will start posting little dribs and drabs, hoping got keep you interesting. I have already posted a number of entries about the divided brain, one of the central concepts on which this work is based. I continue to belief that this model of how we think is terribly important in understanding how we have gotten into the present messes and, more importantly, how we can get back on the road to flourishing. A second element is that flourishing is the correct vision for human societies to aim at.

Today, I come back to a third theme, complexity. I have written many posts on the importance of thinking about the world we live in as complex, not as some complicated machine. I won’t go into all the details here, as I have written on this subject many times. Just take my word for it today. Many, if not most, of our big, persistent problems can be traced back to a failure to design both institutional structures and technological systems and tools in the context of the real, complex world in which they actually work. Problems (financial collapses) or failures to achieve our goals (poverty) can be attributed to the unintended consequences of the misfit between the designs and the real world.

Complex systems exhibit emergence, that is, the appearance of some orderly or characteristic systemic quality. Aristotle gave us another way of describing such systems: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Almost any word ending with “ity” is such an emergent quality: solidity, flexibility, liquidity, stability, even quality, itself. Others like beauty, pornographicness, trustworthiness, resiliency, and, most importantly, flourishing are also emergent. None of these can be described analytically by relationships with the parts of the system. All rely on the observation and declaration by some observer that the property or condition is present. The “ities” generally refer to some inanimate entity; others in the list generally to living beings or anthropomophized forms of machines. We speak of computers as trustworthy on occasion. Some, like resiliency, can refer to both.

All such emergent properties are either present or not. One can talk about them, but not measure them. When the properties we are seeking are absent, the standard way to act in our modern way of being is to try to fix the system. We use our analytic and scientific skills to isolate a part or parts of the system and modify it or them. Sometimes this does work, but mostly it fails to eliminate the problem or to permanently sustain whatever we were looking for. To get to the place we want, we have to stop thinking in terms of fixing; it is truly a trap.

We need to use a new vocabulary, specific to complexity, if we are to make any real headway against the tide of error and disappointment. With new words, we can begin to think in terms of complexity, itself. The key word I have in mind is attractor. It means pretty much what it sounds like, something that pulls other things toward it, but an attractor is not material like a magnet; it is only a metaphor. An attractor is a set of systemic conditions that maintain a system in a stable state over time, where stability is defined as continuously reproducing the same general conditions, producing some output or exhibiting emergence. As a metaphor, attractor can be visualized as a kind of well closed at the bottom. I often use this diagram to illustrate the concept.


If you can, try to visualize these in 3-dimensions as wells, not just 2-D valleys. In the first diagram, the system, represented by the sphere (or ball), is being held in a condition that is stable and producing whatever it is supposed to. Human beings and all life forms are complex systems. Life is just another emergent property, like solidity or trustworthiness. All such emergents appear to be miraculous because we cannot explain them in terms of their relation to the system from which they emerge. Our bodies and the processes going on internally keep us in an attractor we might name “alive.”

The system in part (a) is not resting on the bottom in a complete stasis or equilibrium; that would mean something like death. It is being maintained by its internal structure and inputs to the systems in a state away from the bottom. Our intake of food and the metabolic process provide us with the energy needed to keep out of the bottom. Plant life stays alive because its photosynthetic ability can convert sunlight to energy; they also needs nutrients and water to survive.

The political economy of a nation is also a complex system, composed of smaller, nested complex systems, say, the financial system or a legislative body. It needs energy to power the material transformation processes (the industrial ecology) and the needs of all the life contained in it. It is held (intact) in the attractor by the myriad of interconnections among the material components and life forms. The character of human interrelations is a critical factor. The only proper use of sustainability should refer to the ability of some complex system to remain within its attractor without falling to the bottom or moving out into another attractor (c). Given that we know that our present system is not producing what we want and is also experiencing increasingly large natural perturbations that frighten us, the last thing we should want to do is try to sustain the present system.

The nature of complex systems is such that we cannot predict what conditions will arise if the system moves into another attractor, as illustrated in part (c) of the diagram. If a system is perturbed by some external force or internal change, it may shift its position in the attractor and some conditions will change, but the system may remain essentially the same. If we get the flu, our temperature will go up, other symptoms will show up, but we will remain alive, the primary and most important emergent property for all living beings. Death occurs when the system structure cannot keep the system away from the bottom of the well.

Cultures and the political institutions that house them can behave in this way. Archaeological evidence indicated that many prehistoric cultures simply died out by losing the ability to keep away from the bottom of the well. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, contains many such examples and postulates a set of possible causal factors. Natural changes, sickness, or warfare are some of the factors he proposes. Societies can also move over the cusp between one attractor and another as in (c). The common name for this kind of transformation is revolution and can come when new structures and processes replace those that have become rooted in the culture. The French or American Revolutions are familiar example among a host of others.

Nobody, even those behind such revolutions, can predict where the system will settle. In complexity lingo, the conditions of the new attractor cannot be known in advance. The more highly interconnected, the more difficult it is to predict the outcome with any degree of certainty. Conservatism, as a political construct, owes its existence to this phenomenon. Edmund Burke, the so-called father of conservatism, was appalled by the way the French Revolution turned out, failing to accomplish what its proponents thought and wreaking havoc on the society. He turned this observation into a critique of all change based on theoretical grounds, that is, some abstract claim to know how the system works. He understood that some things have to change in order to maintain the system more or less intact because the world was always changing. In complexity terms, he figured out that small, “prudent” (his word) changes based on “tradition” could keep the system largely intact, captured in the same attractor. Tradition in this sense meant to maintain the basic societal structure and do only what had been done for long periods without causing upsets.

Critics of Burke and of conservatism, in general, point out that the concept assumes that the present system is the right one because it has evolved over time by making prudent changes. This stance completely overlooks issues related to the fairness, equity, or morality of the status quo. Burke did assume that the unequal class structure of his time was just fine. Burkean conservatism begs the question of how to act when the condition of a polity strays too far from what is considered to be acceptable on moral grounds. I will not delve, today, into the sticky question of who and what standards should guide such a conclusion. But what are the choices, if that condition should arise?

The Burkean choice is to move slowly, drawing on tradition and prudence. From a complex system perspective, this would satisfy the risk averse because it is less likely to push the system into a new attractor with unknown outcomes or cause it to die. The opposite choice would be to take some bolder action, based on some theory, perhaps from economics, psychology, or political science, or, in this age of anti-science, from some non-disciplinarian. In the US, neither party, currently, is Burkean; both are playing with abstractions. The recent tax cut is a very good example; it is based on a largely untested theory. This observation is central to Patrick Deneen’s very thoughtful, recent book, Why Liberalism Failed. But this second kind of choice is always going to be dangerous because that’s the very nature of complexity.

There is a third way—sort of a compromise. It’s called pragmatism. Pragmatism is a method to acquire understanding of how a complex system works by observing it in action, perhaps by making small changes and seeing how it behaves—in a metaphorical sense—trying to draw a map of the attractor. Whatever actions, based on the interpretation of the ensuing behaviors, are taken might be also called prudent, but not a form of prudence based on the past, as in the Burkean framework. Pragmatic inquiry takes lots of patience, more when the system is as complex as a whole social system, but patience is in very short supply, given the short half-life of technology and political debate of today. It is essential, however, if we are to find the sweet spot in this present modern, capitalistic attractor, if one exists.

I have my doubts. I think we are more poised at a cusp, like that depicted in part (b) of the figure. Geological epochs are a representation of attractors. Moving from one epoch to another corresponds to a jump from one attractor to another, with a different set of normal behaviors. If we have, as some suspect, moved from the Holocene era, which has supported life as we know it for thousands of years, to the Anthropocene, we must acknowledge and be prepared for unknown consequences, big or small. If we haven’t gone too far already, we might sneak back, but given the fact that we can’t seem to make this one work for all humanity and the natural world, as well, it might be time to put on our pragmatic clothes and try to find our way into an attractor we might wish to sustain. As I have written, the presence of flourishing would be a signal that we have gotten there.

ps. A few words about bigness. The Fed has just relaxed the so-called Volcker Rule that controls the size of banking institutions, allowing them to become bigger. Bigness and monotony are contributors to instabilities in complex systems, pushing them closer to cusps separating the present attractor from others, including, perhaps, one where the present system collapses. The Great Depression is a good example, as is the recession of 2008-9. Conversely diversity tends to make complex systems more resilient. Monoculture in agriculture leads to instabilities in crop health and yield. The assumption that any systemic, untoward consequences can be easily fixed ignores everything we already know about complexity. Growth, itself, requires economic systems that have, all but certainly, grown too big for the Earth System to accommodate and stay in the same attractor that has maintain the conditions that have allowed life to evolve. More on this subject to follow over the summer.

pps. By the way, one of the best examples of pragmatism in action can be found in the Toyota Production System (TPS). You can learn about it by going to the website of the Lean Enterprise Institute (disclosure, my son, Tom, is affiliated with the LEI). Toyota is arguably the most successful auto company in the world. Other have tried to emulate Toyota, but generally fall short because they do not understand that the TPS is all about a different way of seeing the world, thinking about it, and acting prudently. Ford recently announced that they cannot make sedans profitably in the US any longer and are discontinuing making and selling them. I find it very telling that Ford is justifying this move on the grounds of higher efficiency and profits. In the way Toyota thinks about the system, profit is an emergent outcome. It’s all about finding the right attractor and staying there. Efficiency will not get you there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *