Monday, November 8, 2010

Celebrating Complexity .....

We humans have always lived with complexity. Indeed, religion, science, philosophy, law and ethics can all be seen as human attempts to deal with the complexity of the world around us. Our greatest works of art illuminate this complexity by making unexpected connections and discovering mysterious relationships between things. All of us have an instinctive understanding of - and respect for - complexity. And yet there is an equally powerful urge that drives us towards simple explanations, pat answers and easy solutions. This desire for simplification has served us well, and human society has generally been content to leave the task of dealing with complexity to a designated few - priests and scientists, shamans and statesmen, artists and poets, and - when all else fails - lawyers. For the rest, it has been assumed that "honest common sense" suffices well enough. We try to live by simple creeds and follow simple rules, punishing deviation from these by social and legal sanctions. Indeed, most of us believe in eternal truths, unchanging values and immutable facts, seldom acknowledging that the "truths", "values" and "facts" we hold to be self-evident may trap us in rigid mindsets that are inconsistent with success in a complex world. Never has this been more true than today, as we discover much more of the world's complexity and also make it more complex by our own actions. Unlike our ancestors even a few generations ago, we live in environments whose complexity cannot be ignored or obviated by following a few simple tropes. Some among us find this disconcerting, and hanker for that simpler world of our forebears. The terrible consequences of this delusional hankering are all around us - wrought in the name of patriotism, faith, tradition or a "way of life". Life, in fact, has only one way, and it is the way of change! We may value stability as a sign of strength, but the strength of life arises from flexibility, adaptivity and mutability. Life - the most complex of all complex things - persists through movement, and if we are to deal with our complex world, we must learn from its success.

The science of complex systems has begun to explain many aspects of complexity in physical, biological and artificial systems. However, thinking in terms of complexity has not penetrated either our discourse or our worldview to the degree that it must if we are to cope with the challenges we face. Our environment still encourages us to think in "common sense" ways, and to mistrust complex ideas. Our political system, our media, and our societal norms, all reinforce the lethal message of faith and country even as the reality we inhabit no longer recognizes the boundaries of either one. We are still trapped in a discourse of simple causality, traditional ways and fixed meanings. This needs to change. We must move on to a style of thinking that acknowledges complexity and seeks to work with it, a style that is nonlinear, a style that has room for counter-intuitive ideas and complicated explanations.

The time has come to move past just common sense to a more complex sensibility.

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