Complex Life

Written January 25, 2004

I've been learning about complexity -- the sort of complexity they dwell on at the Santa Fe Instittue, the realm of John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Murray Gell-Mann, and their pals.

This isn't the first time my mind has rebelled at the Newtonian worldview. No, everything doesn't tick like a giant watch. While I continually fight self-denial about this, my mind is not a digital computer. There's no stored program inside executing if-then-else statements.

Logic alone will never describe the redwood outside my window, the color blue in the poster above my desk, or the pleasure I get from patting my dog Smoky's head in the morning. Lockstep logic? Cue Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is? Is that all there is?"

My mind was busy learning from 2:00 am to 8:30 am this morning. Not that I was awake. It was knitting neural connections, making patterns, and simplifying concepts on its own. It was trying to make sense of the big dose of philosophy and cultural criticism carried by M.C. Taylor's The Moment of Complexity, which I finished reading only last night.

Taylor's book has sparked some memories that had been under wraps for some time. It took me back to a college classroom where Professor Walter Kaufman is engaging us in his views of "Hegel, Nietsche, and Existentialism." Professor Kaufman told us about scholars who surmised that humankind had taken a fork in the road of philosophy some time during the Golden Age of Greece. They poured over artefacts like the last remaining fragments of Heraclitus in hopes of seeing what was along the road not travelled.

Complexity is the answer. It's an alternative worldview. It coexists with Newtonian mechanics. It's also a place to put things we don't yet understand.

The mind always tries to take things too far. Neither complexity nor our conventional views are "all that there is." It's a both/and situation. Just as Taylor himself commits the fundamental error of eLearning -- that computers alone can be the teachers -- there's a temptation to postulate that complexity underlies everything. That flies in the face of our cultural tradition and lots of useful stuff that works in stable conditions. Acting as if everything were a complex system would probably land you in a straight-jacket in a padded room. No one else would "get it."

Last night I was criticizing Taylor's "automatic writing" as a cop-out, and here I am doing it myself. I have no outline. This is stream of consciousness, modified only a sentence in advance by my drive to share my findings, entertain you with my quirkiness, and retain some sense of grammar.

My apologies to Taylor for making fun of his book in my blog last night. I was missing the message. It worked for me. Might it work for you? That depends. I doubt that my mind could have wrapped itself around The Moment of Complexity without help from Walter Kaufman, Hazel Henderson, and The User Illusion.

The metaphor of complex adaptive systems helps me assilimilate some of the thoughts that have popped up on my internal radar this last year, among them:

  • Everything is connected to everything else. It's all one interconnected network.
  • Interactions matter; independent actions don't. Knowledge, learning, conversation...are co-creations.
  • Causality is overrated. Shit happens. Often, no amount of looking will ever show you why.
  • The world is speeding up. That's a result of more interconnections. It's easier than ever before for memes to mate.

Posted by Jay Cross at January 30, 2004 09:30 PM | TrackBack

Peter Checkland might be a good reading about systems thinking. Peter Senge did a lot of work about that too in organizational contexts. "The Fifth Discipline" is probably his best book.

Posted by: Ytsejamer at February 1, 2004 06:05 AM

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