Complexity and You
Published: 2020-12-04 . Back to ≈

The world is complex.

Even systems governed by a simple collection of rules, readily internalized by a human mind,  give rise to chaotic behaviors which resist human prediction or description.

But the rules which govern the physical universe are not simple–not even as understood at the level of severe scientific reductionism, which seeks to decompose events into their simplest possible explanations. Instead, complexity pervades every corner of our world. As we bore down to the laws that define our world at the most basic level, we find not simplicity but its opposite: multifarious diversity of entities and “rules of play” which are intrinsically ill-determined and befuddling to human intuition.

Fortunately–for the sake of our everyday intuitions–as these low-level rules compose across scales, much of the complexity at one scale is hidden from the next. We are saved, mercifully, from a cascading explosion of complexity. The average person’s day is little concerned with the goings on of anything labeled quantum, molecular, cellular, ecological, climatic, or astronomical. It is okay that these things are beyond our comprehension and outside of the scope of our intuition, because they don’t strongly affect us. That is, until they do.

And, as the bursting and bungling force of human progress would have it, they do. Homo sapiens has been a shock to the “natural” world almost since day one. Unleashed from the grounds of our slow evolutionary path toward oversized brains, we quickly brought about the extinction of a staggering number of other species, including all other human species. (If I lost you there, please keep reading: this is for you.) Racing through successive revolutions in the nature of our thought, institutions, and ways of life (many of which have clearly taken place within the past two centuries), we have come a time spanned even by living memory, in which humans living in societies of scales never before seen must worry about atomic warfare, worldwide pandemics, massive extinctions, and climate catastrophes–all brought about by the human hand. We also live in a world dominated by technologies built upon innovations at the molecular level and below. By mastering the atom, unlocking the secrets of DNA, pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse gasses, and filling the world with 7 billion polluting humans, we have in a very real way drawn out the chaotic complexities of these other scales–from the quantum on up–and made them critical to our future as a species.

Who can grapple with all of this complexity? The answer is no single person. Indeed, most people don’t try very hard to grapple with complexity in any of its facets. They find easier solutions. Long before “modern” complexities broke upon the scene, human society involved a source of complexity far beyond individual human comprehension: society itself. Since agricultural times, humans have existed in congregations of scales beyond that which interpersonal relationships alone can achieve stability. In response, time and time again, cultural adaptations in the form of civic and religious institutions have arisen to provide the necessary structure for cooperation. An individual need not confront the complexity of society on her own, and infer what he should do. Rather, most of her questions have an immediate answer via religious/cultural norms/dogmas.

In today’s world, most people continue to navigate life by taking guidance from various institutions or groups. This cannot be otherwise. But not all sources of answers are equal.

Cultural norms, as an example, are a default solution to one single type of complexity. Needless to say, they are not a solution to problems like climate change, nuclear détente, ecological collapse, or over-pollution. To think that they are commits a fundamental error of assuming that human history is somehow static: the same structures and mindsets that have solved human problems in the past should still apply today, because there is nothing new under the sun. But there is.

If your answers come from a political source, then you must come to terms with the obvious structural fact that these answers have an unpredictable relationship to the truth, but a very predictable relationship to the machinations of a particular group to obtain more power. Their motivation is right there on their sleeve. Pay attention to it.

Finally, if your answers come from your faith in a particular religion, then perhaps you discount everything above. You believe that the events of the world are all pre-ordained by some higher power and that it is the height of arrogance for mere humans to assume that they can influence the greater tides of change: this is God’s domain. The scientists who claim that, indeed, humans already have and are having such impacts–they are arrogant too, because they employ fallible human reason to reach conclusions which in some cases contradict canonical teachings. If this is you, then you must come to see that you may be the arrogant one. Unless you have compelling evidence for your beliefs, you are being immoral. And by letting your mere act of faith in a thing serve as the basis for whether you hold it to be true, you set yourself, personally, on a pedestal higher than that of the most haughty scientist.

Having ruled out the three major sources by which most Americans make sense of the world, what is left? I have three suggestions:

1.) Acknowledge the complexity of the world. Stop acting like any situation in life can be summed up, all of its complexity and essential character laid bare, my a meme with a single picture and a five words. Harden yourself against easy manipulation. Recognize that the complexity of the world entails a myriad of motivations for which individuals and organizations at all levels carry out their actions. Don’t fail to evaluate the motivations of sources of information, or at least recognize that they are not fully known.

2.) Acknowledge that the world is not static. Look at the big picture. Recorded human history is but a blip on the map of life’s history on earth. No one knows how long that blip will last. Acknowledge that there are non-trivial open questions about what the future looks like on this earth for all of its inhabitants. No one knows all of the answers; anyone who says differently is selling something.

3.) Seek to become well-informed about a single issue. This requires avoiding any of the sources of information outlined above. Do some first-hand research, or, keeping in mind items #1 and #2, find and read someone who is had made it their life’s work to confront the complexity of an issue head-on from a position of academic freedom. Finally, if you are not willing to do this, take your own opinions and impressions with a grain of salt.