William Butler Yeats famous line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” is just one piece of his poem that has been used by others in the context of questions about the stability of the times. I find it extraordinarily relevant today, just about 100 years after it was published in 1920. Here’s the first verse.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The second verse continues in the images of the first. Its title, “The Second Coming,” is portrayed as an ironic possibility in the last two lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Written in the aftermath of WWI, his poem reflects the shattering of belief in the basic goodness and perfectibility of modernity. In virtually every line, one can read some headline from the daily news. You can continue to look for political relevance, but I want to use this poem as further illustration of my theme of complexity.
Yeats, whether intentionally or not (probably not), has portrayed the world as a complex system in his poem. His idea of a “center” is close in meaning to the word, attractor, I used in my last post. I wrote about “attractor” as a metaphor for a kind of well that encloses a complex system and holds it together while enabling it to keep exhibiting a more or less stable set of behaviors. In his metaphor, if the center fails to hold the system in its grasp, it will fall apart, losing whatever desirable properties it had been producing.
It’s important to keep the idea of a metaphor in mind as a helpful way to talk and think about complexity (or any immaterial concept). There is no material container (well) that keeps a system together in some sort of orderly state over time. The order comes from a myriad of interconnections among all the parts, and the way the parts, themselves, work. It is easy to find other metaphors that are similar to this, such as “the ties that bind,” or Robert Putnam’s “social capital.”
It is very important to keep very clear that the “the center” is a metaphor, not some mysterious knot that ties all the strings (also a metaphor) between the parts together. One serious consequence of holding the metaphor as real leads to the search for unitary causes for every thing that has gone wrong in a system. The first two lines of the poem are suggestive of the polarized nature of political debate in the US. No one can hear what the other is saying because they believe they are absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong. After the financial traumas of 2008-9, many in Washington started teaching for “the cause” so that they could fix it.
The ominous closing lines of the poem portray a second aspect of complexity, emergence, which Yeats points to in the possibility of the birth of a beast. Birth is a nearly perfect metaphor for the concept of emergence: the sudden appearance of something coming from a system that has otherwise not exhibited it. The “something” can be a material object such as the very first living organism or, much later in the evolution of the Universe, a fully devoted creature. It can be the sudden ordering of a chaotic body of birds or fishes to form a flock or school. It can also be the similar ordering of the molecules that form the Earth’s atmosphere to cease their random movements and emerge as all too focused hurricane that devastates the Caribbean and Southeastern US.
Emergence can also show itself in the sudden appearance of immaterial qualities. I mentioned many such emergent qualities in the previous post. They include a wide variety that come forth in physical systems, like fluidity or flexibility. Others, like flourishing or trustworthiness, show up when human beings are part of the system. All of these depend on how the system is functioning as a whole.
Yeats’s poem illustrates how very relevant metaphors are to complexity. One important constitutive characteristic of complexity is the inability or extraordinary difficulty to describe such systems analytically. The usual symbols that science uses, for example, numbers, equations, or pictorial representations of atoms and molecules, are insufficient to describe complexity. Only words can do it. Computers, using numbers, can simulate complexity and produce outcomes like weather prediction, but never with certainty. Economists, using computers, can, similarly, simulate economic systems but, with even less certainty. The Nobel economist, Paul Samuelson is quoted as saying, “The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions.”
There is no arguing that the real world is not complex. Even if one believes that there is some entity pulling all the strings, that belief also includes a second corollary that we cannot know what that entity is going to do or why what has happened did happen. The great advances of science that are at the roots of modernity have enabled us to reduce so much of the universe to abstractions that we tend to overlook the fact of complexity. The social sciences, especially with the emergence of great computing power, are doing the same thing to complex systems that contain human beings, albeit with far less precision.
A second obstacle to acknowledging and working with complexity is the lack of a vocabulary to describe them and, thus, interact with them. That shortcoming is behind these last two posts. Without words like attractor or emergence, we cannot coordinate any efforts to deal with the kinds of ominous possibilities Yeats writes about. Scientific approximations become the default, leading to the possibility of emergence that we failed to foresee and are very unhappy about. The great Anglo-American philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, was fond of referring to such outcomes as the result of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Without acknowledging the completely unpredictable context of “possibility,” we are stuck with the assumption of some knowledge of the future whenever we use “degree of certainty.”
A third issue that beclouds complexity is inherent in the great social systems that hold the human societies of the Earth System together—the centers” that Yeats points to. John Searle, the American philosopher, likes to talk about the powers that humans bestow, mercy by saying so, on ordinary objects (status functions) as the “glue that holds human civilization together.” Such powers, like that of a judge (an ordinary human being when viewed out of the context of the courtroom) can declare the guilt of someone and thereby, change his or her reality forever. These powers, when assembled into packages, constitute all of the institutions inside of which social life takes place.
Modernity, itself, is a general description, of a constellation of institutions, but built on a foundation that runs counter to the acceptance of complexity as the right way to introduce the real world into our normal behaviors. We have many fewer ways to introduce the concepts of complexity, such as emergence, possibility, or attractor. Our ways of describing (knowing) the world are all based on a reductionist, mechanistic model, based on taking individual pieces of a system out of their worldly context. Pragmatism, whose methods are much more closely adapted to probe complexity, has been relegated to the closet of forgotten philosophical ideas. Speed, rather than the patience required to understand complexity, is itself a feature of modern system.
The last impediment to elevating complexity to the rank it should have guiding our daily lives is the human brain. Iain McGilchrist’s model of the divided brain, which I have discussed in a series of posts during the summer and fall of 2017 (in the archives), suggests that the left hemisphere of the brain has become dominant during the evolution of modernity and that the dominance is responsible for diminishing human capability to deal with complexity. (This is my, not his way, of speaking). The processes by which the left brain has become the master are reversible, but only if steps are taken to redesign the institutions and technologies that embody the abstractions of modernity. The critical property of flourishing that I hold as central to the realization of our human potential as a biological and existential being cannot emerge until the major institutions of modernity—business/industry, government, and education—are reshaped upon a foundation of a complex world view.