An overview of complexity theory as it applies to the trouble we’re in
I’ve just finished a ridiculously lengthy project – I’ll add a picture of it when I can, a three-legged, shallow dish of padauk and ebony, thoroughly weird and strange; five months of work and I can’t see what the point of it is, though the legs are so thin and supple that it quivers pleasingly – and thought I’d add another shout into the wind. We have some wonderful storms in the Spring here on the Upper Left Coast, so there’s no shortage of wind to shout uselessly into.
I can’t expect many views, as the biggest reason people read junk on line is for a chance to call the writer names – people mostly read for an opportunity to react and not for comprehension. I don’t give people that opportunity, as I have Comments turned off, even though I know that isn’t really playing the game, isn’t really fair. Everything I do is first about sleep, a failing in myself. I just can’t take the risk of encountering the nastiness so predominant in on-line discussion. I admit it: in this, at the very least, I’m a wuss.
If I’m right about this, the application of complexity theory as the first consideration in thinking about societies of sentient beings, then the world will work out that way. These ideas will prevail only if they’re useful to people, not because they are popular or because some better explainer than I am has convinced others of their correctness. The idea of a politics made healthy by an abandonment of the delusion that Law creates Order needs no champion if it reflects reality.
We The People can fool some of ourselves all of the time, and we can fool all of ourselves some of the time – but we can’t all fool ourselves all of the time. Cultures of sentient beings are shaped by what those beings believe, even though their worlds are shaped by what really is. Reality has a stubborn way of remaining reality, waiting for enough of us to wake up. So far, that’s worked out – eventually, after we’ve avoided it as long as possible.
Will it always? Will Thornton Wilder’s belief that we are a species that constantly saves itself but only just at the very last nick, by “The Skin of their Teeth”?
That choice is always yours, individually, to make. It doesn’t matter at all what I might think about it.
We see our nation as something we design by the laws we pass, a complicated yet deterministic system that our choices control, a top-down ordering wherein the ‘unarguably evil’ nature of human beings is held down out of the fear we impose on others of Implacable Justice, humanity as a Frankenstein monster we must keep chained – oh, but never in the first person. I must keep you chained; we must keep them chained. This catastrophically wrong-headed view is entirely understandable; such intelligence as we possess arises naturally from the highly complex system that is the brain, but the demands of our ego structures strongly predisposes us to see ‘I’ as a hierarchy, the Will in charge of the Mind in charge of the Brain in charge of the Body. This isn’t true; but to perceive the true animal-ness of our human existence, to see that most of what appears to us as Free Will is actually driven by subconscious emotional impulse, is simply too stressful.
Because of the critical importance of maintaining this false view of an interior command structure, we are powerfully driven to see the world around us as just this kind of heirarchy. We tend to see Society as a centrally-controlled, top-down ordering. We look upon highly complex systems and see simple, linear, deterministic systems; intricate, perhaps, but always in which some particular action – a law or regulation passed – has a predictable outcome, and if that outcome does not result, then the only possible answer is to make that law more Draconian. We are hypnotized – sorry, Mr Letterman; HYP-mo-tized – by our certainty that the entire point of politics is to control the choices of others while demanding nobody try to control ours; we are seduced by the comforting delusion that the whole world is no more than a complicated nesting of simple mechanisms which will function only if we find the right set of controls on (other’s) actions lest they make what is clearly (to us) a mistake. Gosh, if we don’t control other people, they could do anything! We are choking ourselves with Law and Regulation, an orgy of top-down ordering, a mesh of control mechanisms that have become so fine-grained that only the very rich have freedom of action.
We are blind to this – in fact, we blind ourselves. But we do this self-blinding only about our own approved-of attempts to control others. The Left clearly sees that the Right has become entirely focused on controlling the actions of others, driven into madness by their own Received Wisdom that of course we need to control women’s reproductive organs and the clearly criminal impulses of minorities, of course – because Jehovah!, because if we don’t, people may make choices that aren’t informed by Bronze Age superstitions and ethnocentric prejudices. (See The Myth of White Culture.) In their turn, the Left is as blind to the constant application of junk science, to the hopelessness – in fact, the cultural corrosiveness – of their own control attempts; of course we must outlaw the prejudices of the Right, of course we must make them wear seat belts, we must tell them how to flush.
And thus both sides are blind, willingly blind, to the other side’s Right to be Wrong. Here’s an unwelcome message to both sides: If you don’t think abortion is permissible, don’t have one or cause some unfortunate woman to have that terrible choice to make. If you think we’re running out of clean water, don’t use so much of it yourself. If you’re worried about humanity’s interference in the planet’s carbon cycle, as well you should be, look to your own choices and how wasteful they might be.
The entirety of the modern Republican Party, now unarguably fascist, is about forcing all of us to confirm the Right’s tremendous cowardice – they’re terrified of everything, and the sillier and more delusional their fears, the more they cling to them. First Generation Americans, documented or not, are, and always have been, a huge productive benefit to our nation, harder working, less likely than the rest of us to commit crimes or use communal resources. And – Sharia Law? Are you kidding me? Do you have any clue at all how stupid that is, how foolish, how delusional? It would be less so to stand in the middle of a Kansas wheat-field cringing in fear of shark attack.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is being taken over by Progressives. Some day soon, I suspect I will go ravening through our local Safeway, furiously tearing ‘Gluten Free!’ signs off crackers, pasta, rice – are you kidding me? – ice cream – are you kidding me? -hot dogs – are you kidding me??? – all the things you couldn’t introduce gluten into on a bet or to please your sainted mother.
And so our modern, corrosive politics – two opposite extremes, one with its little-girl panties constantly in a wad, out of their minds with craven fear, the other sneering and contemptuous of any thought but their own, both angry at the other side’s dictatorial impulses and blind to their own, because of course! That’s the choice we’re left with: We All Must, because Jehovah! or We Have To, because Think Of the Children!
Let me go on record herein, by saying ‘Screw you both!’
At least modern Democrats are, at least to some degree, resisting the Siren call of their own extremists. Fascism has succeeded in chasing Conservatism out of the GOP; the Reagan Republican Party is thoroughly dead and rots in the ground. At least the Democratic Party is trying to push back against their own extremists, the Progressives, though as a practical political matter, I’m not so sure they should be – and most certainly they are fools for using the corrupt methods they automatically reach for.
And yet I would ask you to consider that all this extremism, what has been called the tribalism of modern politics, may be inevitable, may be a sickness we must suffer, a lesson we must learn. Our tendency to see linearity where it so clearly does not exist may always be with us, curbed only when we are forced to admit that the world doesn’t react well to our consistent attempts to control events and personalities.
It would be good, perhaps, if it didn’t have to be that way, if Science and Learning could inform us. It would be well that logic and insight guide our actions, not emotion.
Not on this planet. Not in this solar system. Sorry. It is in the nature of human beings – I suspect it is in the nature of sentience – that we race full-speed toward the cliff, swerving only at the last possible moment when we change course and speed on to the next precipice.
The lesson of complexity is clear. The rules by which highly complex systems behave are odd, very odd to us humans so used to seeing simple machines, systems we can control and whose behavior is predictable. If your cuckoo clock isn’t working, the mechanism may bewilder those not used to repairing clockworks, but any reasonably competent technician can see, by examination and testing, what each part does and how it is connected to other parts, what the sequence of events is that will make it tick. The cuckoo may have lost feathers and the paint may be chipped, but it’s obvious that feathers and paint chips don’t matter to its workings – it is a linear, predictable, deterministic system. You see springs, gears, and cogs, and though its mechanism may seem complex, it isn’t. One part effects another in a linear way; put it back in order, and inputs – the winding of the mainspring – will beget fixed outputs – the hands of the clock moving.
Not so with highly complex systems. If the cuckoo clock were a highly complex system, examination would tell you little. Your human prejudice would still be to look for a linear event chain, but that gets you nowhere. For all you know, were the clock non-linear, it might be the paint chips or the lack of feathers; or it might be something you can’t see at all.
And here is where our strong tendency to see linearity where it isn’t gets us in trouble – like the trouble we’re in now, where we’re going to lose our nation and its primacy for the sake of the fascist yearnings of the filthy rich. To treat a complex system as a simple one is to collapse that system. To correct a simple system gone wrong, you take large, global steps to fix the central mechanisms. Do that to a complex one and you will destroy it; both the tremendous order and the great productivity of the highly complex system that is a modern democracy are reduced by each and every attempt we make to force order upon it. It’s inevitable, unavoidable.
The societies of sentient beings are more complex than the Universe that contains them. Highly complex systems can, over time, become both highly orderly and highly productive for their constituent parts if, and only if, those parts are free to relate to their neighboring parts constrained by their natures. All attempts to impose order on such systems from the outside – all attempts, even good-hearted ones, even objectively correct ones – must reduce order and diminish productivity. This is always true, in all places, at all times.
That, then, is the real danger of our time, the true cause of Trumpist Fascism – that this particular highly complex system is being Law-and-Ordered to death. There has been, for more than half a century, a continuous lessening of The Voluntary Society, an abandonment of Jefferson’s inailienable rights, for the sake of each side’s ever-more-strident ‘of course we all must’; the Bronze Age delusion of godhood brought down to Earth or the demands of the Enlightened Ones that the rest of us must do the things they themselves can’t be bothered to do.
Thus ends the American Century; not, I hope, with a bang, but at the very least with a pathetic whimper.