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.
This loathing for complexity is evident everywhere:
In my recent visit to the US this abhorrence of complexity really hit home. I saw everywhere a cult of leadership, a longing for authority and decisiveness. Most Americans seem to be aching for some super-human to take all the complex and difficult problems of the world and make them simple, and then fix them, quickly and painlessly. They believe this is possible, and that failure to do so is somehow an admission of the failure of the whole American belief system — the “we can do anything if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard” belief system. It appears unthinkable, unimaginable, unforgivable to admit that we don’t have any answers for these problems. There must be a simple answer, they seem to be saying. Just try something, anything, until you hit on it. Even false bravado is better than humility.
I listened to some flacks on a sports network talk about the US’s 3-0 loss to the Czechs in the World Cup. They were offended by the loss, but more offended at the businesslike way the underdog Americans played. One commentator said that at the end of the game they should have “taken out” a couple of the Czech players, even if that involved a red card. “At least then we could say they played like men,” he said. The US losing in a sport they are inexperienced in was to them simply a problem that required an immediate answer, and anything was better than doing nothing. The commentators went on to say: “Now they’re psyched, and when they’re psyched, they can do anything they’ve made up their minds to do.” They were therefore “50-50” to beat Italy in their next game, they predicted, and hence advance to the next round.
These guys were living in absolute denial of reality. Everything was simple — American ingenuity and heart could and would accomplish anything. It reminded me of all those ridiculous Hollywood movies where Americans stop mile-wide invulnerable aliens, intercept comets, and restart the spin of the Earth’s core.
It’s perhaps unfair to pick on Americans, but that’s where, to me, this obsession with illusory simple solutions seems most obvious and ubiquitous. I saw security people everywhere, but they all struck me as completely clueless. They were being vigilant and diligent and going through the procedures that someone told them to go through, but they clearly provided no substantial security at all. It was just the appearance, the illusion of security that they provided, in their emblem-covered uniforms. Just do something, anything to make us feel more secure. Even if it’s completely ineffective, expensive and dysfunctional. Just do something. Pretend you have the solution.
Why? Why do we hate complexity, and refuse to acknowledge that there are no silver-bullet answers and that there is nothing we can do that will ‘solve’ most problems, just things that will help us cope with them, adapt to them, maybe mitigate their effect?
I think the reason is that the acknowledgement of complexity, of a system’s being beyond our understanding and analysis
Complexity is therefore an affront to our “we can do anything if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard” belief system. It is one thing to acknowledge that we, individually, are not in control of our own destiny, It is another thing again, and far more frightening, to acknowledge that no one is in control. It is difficult for us to take dangerous actions, like quitting our jobs or invading another country, when we have to admit we can’t predict the outcome, that there are just too many unforeseeable variables. Better not to admit it, then, and blame the ultimate failures not on our failure to predict but on “faulty intelligence” or poor implementation of what was certainly a fine plan, even in retrospect.
And if the news of the day is going to make us feel more helpless and insecure, please don’t tell us. We don’t want to know.
We want everything to be simple, and we want to go on believing that if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard, we can accomplishanything, with absolute certainty. Don’t you dare tell us anything different.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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