Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Relational Bodies and Houses

Preiser says that complex systems must be understood as a nexus of nonlinear, dynamic relationships. In a previous post, I explained this second of Preiser's five characteristics of complexity this way:  

Complex systems are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations between internal components and the environment are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear, which means that output is not directly proportional to input. The behavior of interactions is to some degree unpredictable and uncertain and functions in a state of asymmetrical non-equilibrium. The survival of complex systems depends on this nonlinear relationality.

So what does this mean for thinking about myself or my home?

It means first that the typical definitions of myself are limited — not necessarily wrong, but not exhaustive, either. The usual way of knowing a thing such as myself is to look for defining characteristics — features that I have that distinguish me from you, for instance, or from them. We have numerous labels for those characteristics such as weight, height, race, voting preferences, gender, occupation, family, location, age, and so on. We can assign values to each of those labels: pounds or kilograms (the particular scale employed matters little here), inches, colors, political parties, years, and various types. If we aggregate those characteristics, then we identify and define Keith Hamon.

This is the classical scientific approach to knowing Keith Hamon: break him down into whatever characteristics are relevant to the current discussion (health, commerce, politics), assign appropriate values to these characteristics, look for the patterns of cause and effect in those characteristics, and then, if you are clever and focused, manage Keith Hamon better: correct his illnesses and insure he buys certain things and votes for certain candidates.

This is an extremely powerful approach to knowledge about the world in order to control the world. We record the tokens of an individual. For instance, I got the brown hair color token -- at least until a few years ago, when I had to exchange it for the gray hair color token. Either way, I had a specific token, a thing, a chunk of knowledge that in the correct conversation could be used to manage me better. If something was wrong with my health or economic status, I or some employed expert could examine my tokens, determine what is amiss, and recommend a course of corrective action.

This stuff works. The problem, Preiser says, is that because of its efficacy, people assume that this is the only approach to knowledge. They become blind to other knowledge and to the limits of their own knowledge, especially when confronting complex systems such as Keith Hamon, or even his house.

First, my characteristics are not discrete chunks of something, tokens, that I possess and can exchange; rather, they are the results of dynamic relationships among multiple entities. Even something as apparently simple as my hair color is the result of dynamic relationships. I don't have a brown hair token — not really. Rather, I have the interplay of a range of hair follicles of different shades and colors, the ambient light (my hair is black at night and has auburn highlights when I've been in the Bahamas for a month — I have the photos to prove it), the age of the rest of my body, the quality of the measuring devices (your eyes, a camera, mirrors), and the distance from me at the time of recording or viewing. My hair color, then, is a result of the interplay of all these entities and relationships which are constantly changing. Thus, the color of my hair is constantly changing. Perhaps not by much day to day, but it is changing.

Fortunately, my hair color is trivial to most discussions, and I can glibly answer brown when asked about it, as I did at my last driver's license examination. The license clerk accepted the brown token just as glibly, even though I could have legitimately answered gray, or better yet, salt and pepper. Still, salt and pepper was not one of her available designations, and since brown was still about as appropriate as gray, she recorded brown. I'm confident that when I use my license in the future, most people will accept the brown token, even if they notice that it's no longer quite accurate. It fits well enough.

And that is the problem for Preiser: understanding anything as a collection of characteristic tokens works well enough in the common light of day. Heck, it even works well enough to send astronauts to the Moon and back. Still, as we peer farther into the Universe and deeper into the atom, we find that this reductionist token approach works less and less well. There are no tokens. There are only dynamic relationships. What's worse, our ability to manage — to predict and to determine — those relationships becomes more and more uncertain. For instance, the color of my hair is a property — in however small a part — of the relationship between my hair follicles and the beating of my heart and flow of my blood and my current exposure to Sun flares. I don't know how it is related, but complexity thinking tells me it is. If I had powerful enough monitoring devices and the correct mathematics, I could perhaps trace those relationships and win a Nobel prize, but ... I don't.

We humans intuitively know this. We know that the reduction of knowledge to a handful of tokens is limited and limiting, but we've also learned that it is useful and powerful. It works. Mostly. It's the "mostly" that bothers Preiser and other complexity thinkers.

PenubagVector: Victor Blacus, CC BY-SA 3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons

It bothers me, too, especially when I encounter people who insist that reductionist science is the only way to knowledge. It's a bit like insisting that only the electromagnetic radiation that we can see, visible light, really counts, when it has become clear to us that visible light is a really small slice of what's available and that reducing reality to visible light is nonsensical — even though focusing on the common light of day works very well for me most of the time. I must keep in mind that reductionist science is in great part responsible for my awareness of the wider spectrum of light.

But I'm also excited to think about how open complexity thinking is. Understanding something so specific as Keith Hamon or a chrysanthemum means exploring all the dynamic relationships and interactions between all the infinite parts starting with the human scale and moving inward toward the quantum scale and outward to the cosmic scale and mapping all those pathways and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. It's an endless task, which means learning has no end. Well, that should occupy my time. And if I throw in trying to understand you as well, then it should keep me busy until I'm gone.

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