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stance in science, as I consider quest for singular concepts to explain all kinds of things to be somewhat outdated.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.
- Patterns, Objectivity and Truth
- Patterns and Processes
- Complexity and Randomness
- Complexity and Postmodernism
The Pattern Library:
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'.