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Breaking Our Mental Chains

Chris Lucas

"Untwisting all the chains that tie the hidden soul of harmony."

John Milton, L'Allegro 1631, l. 143

"One principle must make the universe a single complex living creature, one from all."

Plotinus, 205-270 CE, Enneads, bk. II, treatise iii, sec. 8


The study of complex systems can proceed in two ways. Firstly we can regard this in a traditional manner, as a new subject area within science and life and set up new specialist disciplines to study it. Most complexity groups operate on this premise, and the various specialisms such as artificial life, cellular automata, genetic algorithms and neural networks are examples of this approach to our subject. These aspects are already covered in our introductions.

Such an approach however tends to fragment our subject matter, and loses the considerable commonality between all these systemic approaches and similar historical attempts to holistically understand life, humanity and spirit. In our essays we will take a much broader interdisciplinary view of complexity, and try to bring out its wider implications for our behaviour as scientific humans and the way we organise our societies and our lives.

Complexity as Zen

Many people new to complexity thinking find it incomprehensible. In lots of ways our old methods of thinking must be reversed, and this means escaping several centuries of educational bias and static teaching. Complexity is a dynamic subject, it relates to change and to evolution, not only in the world about us but in ourselves also. This contrasts with the usual views of the world in that we look into how structure actually arises, rather than taking 'objects' for granted and then analysing or using them. Thus it is prior to our usual academic and social tradition, a metaview or foundational approach to our world. But going beyond tradition is never very easy and is rarely popular with our peers, it takes social courage and a willingness to question what historically has been taught as unchallengable fact. There are actually no such 'facts' in science, despite the often found ego-tripping of 'blinkered' scientists, textbooks and vested interests, all results are provisional and probabilistic - as good (philosophically aware) scientists know only too well.

Escaping from the dualist world of absolute truth, the yes/no unforgiving logic of the ancient Greeks, actually has much in common with the Zen approach to spiritual enlightenment. In that tradition we enhance the true OR false approach common to Western philosophy and science with the twin possibilities that a question can be both true AND false and that it can be neither true NOR false. This replaces the dogmatic assertions of the self-righteous with a mode of thought that embraces fuzziness, and brings context back into play as relevant to measures of truth. Complexity thinking is a scientific form of such enlightenment and uses such local contexts to escape the paradoxes inherent in these apparently illogical possibilities.

Contextual Simplifications

The space of possibilities in any complex system is vast, so much so as to overwhelm our mental faculties. As a method of self-protection we have developed over many aeons selective ways of viewing our world. It is these faculties we employ when we abstract out from the wider world around us single dimensions or aspects for our study and amusement. In this way we have created the various sciences and arts, our religions and hobbies, our different jobs and viewpoints.

What we must not do however is to imagine that these all exist in isolation, as independent variables, instead they are all simply different snapshots of a unified and very inter-dependent multidimensional whole and can only be properly understood in a full systems context. It is one role of complex systems studies to supply that contextual framework, so that we can better understand how our simplifications (our maps or models) can lead to prejudices and bias, to dogmas that fail to correctly classify the world (the wider territory or 'reality') and force us into short-sighted actions that are detrimental to our fitness as a species and to the earth as a whole.

Mind Traps

Our mental state or psychological profile is itself a complex system. In such systems complex feedback processes force the structure into one of a number of possible semi-stable states or attractors. These comprise our world views and when a number of people come together and share such views we create our social systems or cultures. Disturbances or perturbations to such systems tend to be opposed, leading back eventually to the initial state, the 'status-quo' - self-sustaining beliefs. Thus our societies and personal states have inherent constraints or oppositions to new viewpoints, resistance to possible improvement.

The potential for conflict here is clear, two people or cultures with different views will tend to avoid compromise, they often cannot even comprehend the worldview of the other party. Resolution of such conflicting philosophies, without the destruction of one or both of them, requires us to escape the attractors into which we are locked and to find a new synthesis state that transcends the limits of our previous behaviour and knowledge. This means, in complex system terms, that we must explore state space, we must look to incorporate new information, new options, new possibilities into the equation. We must become creative, we must innovate.

Understanding the Understander

Before we can properly understand the world around us we first need to understand ourselves, a looking-inwards that (at least in Western culture) has been neglected and marginalised since ancient Greek times. Contrary to the view still far too common in traditional human science - that the world is objective and that we passively acquire knowledge of it (the tabula rasa or 'blank-slate' assumption) - we find from studies of complex biological systems, including humans, that these actively create their world, our views dynamically shape what it is we perceive and it is in this coevolution between inside and outside, between nature, nurture and culture (biology, psychology and sociology), that our values and beliefs come into being.

The urgent need to understand ourselves is a common theme in spiritual studies, and reoccurs in the wisdom traditions of many cultures. Building on this historical knowledge and similar humanistic insights can compensate for the subject's neglect in traditional science. But, if we are to benefit from this, we must discard the dogma that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge. Many forms of non-intellectual knowledge exist and these are often difficult to express in traditional reductionist scientific terms (which assumes a physical 'instrument' can be used to measure everything that exists).

The Three-Cornered Path

Teaching by words, a serial mode of communication, is almost a definition of our educational systems. This concentration on linguistic knowledge however ignores several forms of intelligence only now becoming recognised as of equal importance to our behaviour. Emotional and Body (sensual plus kinaesthetic) intelligences complement our Intellectual skills, and form an essentially parallel or multi-dimensional communication system, interfacing on many levels to the world around us and actively defining our values. In contrast our language is a highly one-dimensional serial mode which leaves out far more valid knowledge than it ever conveys. Words deceive us on many levels, even assuming the best intentions !

In complex systems many internal communication paths are active at any one time, so if we are to understand such systems we need to become aware of the full extent and effects of these interactions. Studying humanity as a complex system requires us to take into account the interplay (or feedback) between these intellectual, emotional and bodily sub-systems and to understand how these all coevolve and balance in the complex environmental context in which we exist.

Quality of a Complex Life

Complex systems exist on many levels also (e.g. molecule, cell, body, mind, culture, ecosystem). Whilst it is easy to abstract out and over-emphasise single values and concentrate our efforts on improving these (e.g. animal rights), we must also recognise that such blinkered activities often unbalance the whole, actually leading to a worst quality of life overall when the negative effects of such prejudicial biases on the other neglected levels and values are taken into account. Complex balances between variables requires a form of science that takes such interactions and feedback processes into account, a mode sadly missing from our schools and ignored politically by all major parties.

Bringing complex systems philosophy to bear upon science however permits us to generate a metascience that can help to avoid the blinkered thinking so common in our world of specialisms and pressure groups. Adopting such a synergic mode of thinking then allows us to criticise the narrow viewpoints common to all of today's economic, ethical and biological specialisms.

Society at Large

What is normal in our societies proves to be largely an historical accident. Social behaviour is an evolutionary phenomenon and will constantly adapt to changes in our environment and in the technology of the day (consider childrens 'fads' for example - which later become adult ones !). Often this process follows paths that are counter-productive to the overall fitness of the group (e.g. our obsession with 'competition' or individual 'rights' today) and here complex systems thinking can help illuminate what has gone wrong and suggest better ways to organise ourselves.

Creating a new form of society, based upon the insights from complex systems research, will involve a recognition that the fitness of the whole depends upon the parts working together. The emphasis upon 'self' in our world can be proved to be destructive to the whole in an holistic view (although this insight is slow to make headway academically), since it fails to take into account the synergistic fitness enhancements resulting from cooperation (division-of-labour - the bedrock of our modern business world, is actually a cooperative venture, not a competitive one, and has nothing intrinsically to do with economic trade !).

Reclaiming Freedom

Our world of today creates many barriers, walls built of prejudice, of monetary difference, of national boundaries, of belief systems. All these self-created divisions are arbitrary and abstract ideas which often act to avoid growth, to prevent humanity exploring those areas of state space so far not understood. What is possible in our world is unknown by anyone, despite the arrogant assurances with which pronouncements (e.g. "there are no other options") are made by leaders in all fields. No leader, of any type, can possibly deal with all the available information on any subject, so the centralised (undemocratic!) decision making so beloved of corporate, political and bureaucratic systems alike is fundamentally flawed, and increasingly is becoming destructively unsustainable in both social and planetary terms. Every scientific (or political) assumed certainty is now questionable however within our new science. We need not fear to question, only by so doing can we go beyond the errors of the past, those dogmas of static truth and conformity.

It is far too easy to assume that what we already know is all there is to know. This delusion of perfection, the 'authority knows best' syndrome, is endemic to many of our political leaders, academics and experts. Yet throughout history the bullying 'conform or die' certainty of one time or group has been overturned by the discoveries of the next. Today's reality will become tomorrow's stupidity. Transcending what we believe today may be the essential step in taking humanity onwards into a new millenium based upon a better understanding of complex systems. Our essays and papers further explore these themes.

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Page Version 4.83 April 2006 (paper V1.1 July 2004, original February 2001)