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    Complexity And Postmodernism
    By Kees Pieters | June 9th 2011 07:03 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Kees

    With a Ph.D.from the University for Humanistics on complexity, complex systems and technology and society, Kees holds degrees in electrotechnics...

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    In my previous post, I defended a 'post-modern' stance in science, as I consider quest for singular concepts to explain all kinds of things to be somewhat outdated. Or, to be more precise, it is rather stupid to consider oneself a 'complexity thinker' and then believe that singular concepts can explain everything. This tie between post-modernism and complexity has been elucidated in a much better way than I can, by philosopher of complexity Paul Cilliers in his ground-breaking book, so I will not delve into this issue further.

    Methodological Stuff:

    1. Introduction
    2. Patterns
    3. Patterns, Objectivity and Truth
    4. Patterns and Processes
    5. Complexity and Randomness
    6. Complexity and Postmodernism

    The Pattern Library:

    1. A Pattern of Difference
    2. A Pattern of Feedback
    3. The Hourglass Pattern
    4. The Pattern of Contextual Diminution

    I would like to defend why complexity thinking as-a-paradigm is NOT post-modern, even though they share the same premises of non-absolute truths. For this, I want to call in mind that the manner of complexity that I have describing here has a strong epistemological focus, and do it would be better to say that complexity thinking can never prove absolute truths. In order to demonstrate this (and accommodate scientists with religious beliefs while we're at it), Karl Popper may offer some assistance. The premise of the particular epistemological system of PAC assumes the following statement of 'fundamental limited knowing':

    There are no observers in our universe with all-encompassing knowledge of everything

    According to Popper, this is a scientific statement, because it can be disproven. Hence, complexity is disproven if there is a God (or gods). So, in order to respect PAC as a scientific dialect, we have to respect religious ideas, even though we may not use, or pursue, these ideas in our particular scientific endeavours.

    But this does not form the base of the main distinction with post-modern ideas. In order to understand this -and I will be honest in saying that I not an expert on post-modernism, far from it- the problem I see with many post-modern philosophies and methodologies that I have read so far, is that they tend to apply a normatively charged layer over their argumentation. It is 'just' your opinion, it is merely a social construction, and so on. From what I understand, post-modernism started out as a critique on the idea of absolute truths, such was championed by the neo-positivist movement of the first decades of the twentieth century. Especially the Enlightenment ideas, that morality and ethics could be cut in stone as Universal Good, were challenged, for relativism (not to be confused with relativity) could never acknowledge such absolute concepts.

    However, the problem with critiques in general, is that they are often versed in the same grammar as the subject of their critique, and so post-modernism tends to be a negatively versed dialect of absolute truths ( also see the pattern of difference). This can best be exemplified by Dostoevsky outcry:

    If there is no God, then everything is permitted!

    Which he considered to be a BIG problem!

    Complexity thinkers Smith&Jenks have criticised this manner of reasoning in post-modern thought as follows:

    Like Nietzsche, the death of a fictional God has profoundly strange consequences, none of them necessary; all of them drawing on an ancient and oppressive past.”


    Post-modernism’s lament, if not for God, is for a Laplacian substitute. So, if we still belong to God so far as our epistemology is derived from His death. Complexity theory, of which Darwin is one exemplar, offers a completely different account of the origins of organisation. It is truly strange that we still have to point this out to ourselves. If Nietzsche and Foucault accept that God is dead, complexity insists that philosophy is immeasurably different if He never was alive.”

    I interpret this critique as that we now have to understand ethics and morality as emergent properties of our evolution. Apparently ethics and morality are 'formed' in social species, and (may) serve a certain purpose. Why else would one particular branch of evolution favour a species that uses one-third of its energy to fuel a brain that is capable of, amongst others, moral and ethical thought?

    This strange, implicit normative bias is also often found in evolutionary theories on certain aspects of our human 'being'. Sometimes we are 'merely' dressed-up apes, with a brain that is an outgrowth of a 'primitive' reptilian brain, and (therefore) is subject to all kinds of 'lower' instincts. It is very strange to see how this passes as 'objective' science, for instance by many neo-Darwinians. I would expect them to be very wary of these kinds of normatively charged explanations, and try to be very neutral in their evolutionary theories.

    Complexity thinking understands that limited knowledge implies bias. Observers make selections of their life-world, and have to discard other aspects of that life-world in order to create meaningful models. So 'objectivity' is not a matter of collecting 'facts', but rather the active process of understanding observer-bias and either trying make this bias explicit, or to counter this bias by including other, opposing viewpoints on a certain topic. Relativism therefore does not equate with 'inferior to absolute truths' in a normative sense, just like more ancient aspects of our evolutionary past should not be considered inferior to our current being, unless of course this bias is explicitly made for some reason. The 'objective' point of view, would be to consider evolution theory to be a narrative that tells a coherent story of forms that have proven to be successful -in terms of stability, reproductive success, and so on- in a certain environment. These forms are the base of novel forms that are constructed from other forms. Complexity thinking therefore does not equate relativism with a denial of objectivity and facts, rather it considers these ideals to be a matter of very, very hard work!

    The second major difference between complexity thinking as-a-paradigm and (some strands of) post-modernism, is a bit more fundamental, and concerns the issue of absolute and relative truths itself. I argued earlier, that this particular complexity dialect of PAC cannot prove absolute truths, and so, in PAC, the acceptance of relative truths does not equate with the denial of absolute truths. That would be a very classical dichotomy. PAC tries to make transformations between epistemological systems, and one of the problems of relativism in an epistemological system is that it does not account for the strength in, say, Newtonian mechanics. Is the fact that a plane flies the result of the theory of physics, a 'social construction', or 'a relativistic narrative of the power domination of white Western males'? Likewise, how does the fact that astronomers can make sound predictions about processes that occur ten billion or so light-years from earth equate with relativistic epistemologies?

    In PAC, we can circumvent this problem by understanding the 'building block' aspect of patterns. Forms are the result of assemblies of patterns (contextualisation of patterns), and this means that complex patterns can form from simpler ones (even with all the self-referential network dynamics that complexity introduces). It is also probable that relatively simple patterns form relatively easy, and that more complex patterns are (therefore) more localised. In other words, the relatively simple patterns that are the focus of mathematics (lines, exponential functions, etc.), are manifest in a much larger space than relatively complex patterns of human social interactions. So the 'truths' of (human) morality and ethics are more confined (or relativistic) than, say, the Laws of physics. This 'growth' of complexity is best exemplified with the formation of chemical compounds in our Universe; relatively simple chemicals like hydrogen and helium are more abundant than lead, radon or uranium, as the latter have more recently been formed (and build on the formation of other, simpler chemicals). Besides this, on average heavier chemicals become less stable. This 'evolution' of chemicals demonstrates a 'universal' process (as in: occurring throughout our known universe), as well as that it describes a bounded process, as it occurs within the boundaries described by the periodic table. It also is a good example of objective science, as hydrogen and helium are not considered inferior or superior to lead or uranium; there is just a list of elements and that's it!

    Conversely, post-modern ideas can thus elucidate many aspects of our human 'being', including the all too human processes of scientific research and discovery. These epistemologies will, however, have some serious explaining to do when they try to elucidate why an aeroplane can actually fly. PAC, being an inclusive methodology, can simply delegate this task to physics, as physics is much better equipped to elucidate the processes of aerodynamics and jet propulsion. But complexity thinking will also be very aware of what certain scientists are doing when they claim that evolution theory states, as-a-fact, that we are the result of our 'primitive' ancestry, and subject to our 'lower instincts'.

    I have no problem understanding, with social constructivism, that such explanations are normatively charged narratives in the guise of 'objective science'.


    I think the reasons you outline for the utility and need of complexity thinking are the reasons it is not post-modernism.  Post-modernism has no utility and served no useful function.  Over time it became a vanity exercise for the humanities.

    Complexity thinking, however, wants to make some sense of chaos.   Just because post-modernism has something in common with complexity is no reason to associate with it.   Post-modernism is a quaint anachronism of a naive period - like drilling holes in peoples' skulls was in medicine - but no one who wants to be taken seriously in science would voluntarily associate themselves with either.   
    PM has gotten a pretty bad rap, but "no utility and served no useful function"? PM means being more mature than the naive, over enthusiastic modernists that think everything will succumb to whatever method has recently become fashionable. This M then PM thingy happens every once in a while. Not all PM agrees with the BS from Derrida or Latour. Kees associates carefully enough with PM so that I can take him especially seriously, certainly more seriously than if he were to talk about the same issues while categorically refusing social construction and all that.

    I like the point about that PM calls it "only a social construction" because it is a critique, while complexity thinking agrees but removes the "only".

    We insist on that we are "merely apes" in order to critique while being aware of that the "merely" is misleading to those who do not need to be criticized, as it seems as if there is some form above the ape that is waiting for us to develop into. PM had its use as a critique and critique was and is appropriate. If we can never associate with anything just because there are always those who overdo it and people naturally look especially at those, there will be nothing one can ever associate with. PM guys published a lot of brown semi solids - so do most famous physicists.
    You make fine points but the fact that it takes three paragraphs to rationalize anything meaningful in PM means their proponents have done too much harm - to themselves and science.  It's better not to get too complex in arguing their similarities.  There is a reason post-modernism is used by young earth creationists (and all religious people, I suppose) and that should make science suspicious of it.   If we let it be established that there is no evidence, only acceptance of assumptions, there is basically no science - and that makes it impossible to ever have a reasonable science policy.
    I have pointed out that I am far fgrom being an expert on post-modernism (I started out with Richard Dawkins critique, and that was a great read, but not a not a good introduction). My viewponits became milder when I got to know more on Jacques Derrida's theory of language, in which he basically -as I understand it- promoted the importance of ambiguity (which is very manifest in his ideas of 'traces') in language. I think postmodernity has probably suffered most from the second wave of theorists that jumped on the bandwagon of PM, and started taking the good-natured anarchism of the original thinkers too seriously, or even as a sort of haughtines. This is often the problem with critics from outside, that they think their criticism makes then superior to what they criticise, but do not bother to ask themselves the question if their alternatives are really better. Of course, my association between social constructivism and postmodernism is also quite quick-'n-dirty...there are quite a number of different strains there as well (see Ian Hacking), and I personally am quite impressed with Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, and I to some extent can follow some of the 'difference-philosophies', although I personally do not think that a philosophy of differences is much different than a philosophy of identity . I also see how SC has pointed out that many (neo-)Darwinian 'theories' on gender, race, and so on have been higly normative, and therefore are examples tremendously bad science, if one claims to be working 'objectively'. 'Man is a hunter, woman nurtures' keepes popping up, even though antroplogists, primatologists and other scientific areas tell a much more differentiated story. Scientists such as Jared Diamond, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Frans de Waal tell a different story.  
    In the end, the main point I want to draw attention to, is the fact that if one works from the premise of limited knowledge, and one does not accept the classical scientific ideal of an all-knowing, universal observer (position), you end up with bounded epistemological systems, and the question changes from which systems are right and wrong, to questions of epistemological boundaries and scales of framworks, schools and so on. The big problem becomes the concept of 'everything', because strictly speaking, one cannot make statements of matters outside the epistemological boundaries, and 'everything' by its nature tends to transcend such boundaries.