June 18, 2006

Managing complexity

Natural and social systems are complex -- that is, not entirely knowable, unpredictable, resistant to cause-and-effect analysis, in a word, mysterious. For our first three million years on Earth we humans, like every other species on the planet, accepted that mystery. We adapted rather than trying to change our environment. We evolved by learning to accommodate ourselves to our environment. Those unable to accommodate perished.
But with the invention of civilization, we stopped accommodating change and started imposing it on our environment so we wouldn't have to change. Burn wood (and when it runs out, oil, and when that runs out, ah...oops) and you can change an intolerably cold climate into a comfortable one. No need to grow thick fur when you have technology that allows you to appropriate the fur of other animals.The problem is, our brains are severely limited in what they are capable of understanding. The need for a more sophisticated brain is only as old as civilization -- ten to thirty millennia. Not nearly enough time for biological evolution to occur. Our cultural evolution is therefore constrained by our biological evolution -- our outmoded, rudimentary brains. We've tried to develop artificial intelligence to evolve faster, but we can only imagine intelligence of the kinds we see every day, so AI is really just a copy of our own inadequate intelligence.
Once we invented civilization, and started to need to change our environment a lot, we needed to invent science. Science is nothing more than models of the real world, some of them quite interesting, a few of them useful. None of the models is perfect, but most of them function well enough to have a superficial understanding of how things work, and therefore provide us with a means to change or exploit how things work, to material advantage.Even scientists loathe the imperfections in their models. They desperately want to believe that there was a single event that created the universe, that the universe is infinite, that there is some fundamental particle that is not made up of anything even more fundamental, and mostly that there is a single unifying theory of everything. They would have us believe that it is just a matter of time before we find these things, prove them with certainty. But whenever we seem to get close, a new discovery reveals that the quark/gluon model doesn't quite explain everything, that relativity and quantum theory and even string theory have some annoying inconsistencies and flaws in them, and so the search goes on. The mystery is destined to outlast us.
One of the principles that stresses scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and theologists the most is the concept of infinity. Scientific models do a dreadful job of handling and representing infinity. Even our languages struggle with the concept.The reason for this is that, to survive very well in a healthy ecosystem, there is no need to worry about infinity. The fact that everything is more complex than what we perceive, that a butterfly wing in Chile can be the tipping point that produces a tsunami in Indonesia, the fact that infinity is everywhere and everywhen and everywhat, doesn't prevent us from doing very well in the small, apparently and functionally finite speck of time and place in which we 'live'.
It is only when our human systems get larger (beyond the tribal level), or when we attempt to change or understand things outside our speck of time and place (like dealing with global poverty or global warming) that we fail, utterly and abjectly. We fail because our brains aren't up to the task of understanding complexity. And why should they be? Until thirty millennia ago, a mere flash in time, we had no need for such brain-power.
So today we are changing things, using simple and complicated technologies, that give rise to intractable, 'wicked', complex problems, far beyond our capacity to comprehend let alone control. Managing complexity has always been nature's job, and always will. By the time we develop the mental power to manage what we are now doing, we will have rendered most of life on the planet extinct, including our own horribly technology-dependent and interdependent species. 3:58:07 PM trackback [trackbackCounter (1560) 0] comment [ commentCounter (1560) 4]

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