Complexity Science and Chinese Philosophy

I’m currently involved in a project that is attempting to bridge Complexity Science with Chinese Philosophy. I’m really excited about it!

When I first heard about “Complexity Science”, I was quite puzzled. What on earth is that? Well, complexity science is a relatively new field in the sciences that attempts to study complex systems and phenomena from a non-reductionist manner. It acknowledges that many things are not as simple as a linear, one-cause to one-effect, kind of picture, and attempts to study phenomena in its complexity, as something that is embedded and therefore, related to many other complex processes.

The standard reductionist approach in the sciences are incapable of allowing us to really understand what is going on because such an approach abstracts – takes the subject out of its context – and studies the subject in isolation. This is a huge problem. Certain phenomena arise only because a variety of conditions happen to be in a particular way at that point in time. If you were to tweak just one of these conditions, another type of phenomenon would arise (or maybe even nothing at all). And to complicate matters further, some of these conditions are inter-dependent on each other and on other complex conditions as well.

It is therefore not so easy as to simply change one or two conditions in order to get the desired effect.

Thus far, much of science has been studying such complexities from a reductionist approach. But the linear casual findings are strictly limited to the subject (and experimenters) operating under a fixed set of conditions. Such theories are incapable of saying (or for that matter, predicting) anything more about the subject in a different set of conditions. And hence the need for the study of complexity to try to resolve these issues.

Though this field is still relatively new, attempts have already been made at trying to study complex systems and their phenomena in the fields of physics, engineering, life science, economics, sociology and psychology.

So… How does Chinese Philosophy come into play here?

The problem that science encounters with the study of complexity is this: as a discipline that is deeply rooted in a Western philosophical framework, which is too firmly grounded in the concepts of linear causality and truth as an abstract universal, research in complexity cannot help but tend towards the very problems of reductionism that it is trying very hard to stay away from.

The Chinese philosophical framework, on the other hand, has been comfortable with complexity. In fact, the kind of proto-science that the Chinese has had for thousands of years, has been operating on the very model of complexity itself, with minimal reduction required (or even none at all). The concept of how everything is contextual, inter-dependent and inter-related to everything else has been present even before Confucius, and it has been the very framework by which ancient Chinese thinkers, both the philosophers and naturalists, have been operating on for a long time. It is certainly not essential or primary for such philosophers and naturalists to study phenomena in an abstracted manner. No, rather, their approach has been to study phenomena as they are: embedded within larger complex systems.

But perhaps what allows the Chinese to engage in complexity well is that since the earliest of times, they have acknowledged their proto-scientific abilities as a craft – an art that must be cultivated over a long period of time. For example, in Chinese medicine, the medical theories are many, complex, and inter-related. But what allows the physician to properly diagnose and treat his patients is the fact that the physician has mastered the art of dealing with complexity, of understanding how each factor is related to every other factor, how changing one factor affects many others, and how to counter-balance the unintended effects that arise when doing just one thing, while at the same time seeing the patient and his/her illness in the context of his/her environment. And for that matter, how to deal with one or many factors in order to get results in one or many other areas.

The physician regards the patient as a patient in the context of his environment, family, work, life, etc. Illness is a phenomenon that arises due to a combination of several factors, and thus treatment is not simply in terms of administering A to cure B. Rather, because every action results in several other effects (that also have an effect on other aspects of the body), the physician prescribes several remedies – each ingredient or method with its own effects, some of which are meant to counter-act the unintended effects due to other ingredients/methods, some of which are meant to counter-act with the external environment in which the patient is embedded in, and the rest of which are meant to deal directly with the problem.

The ability to understand and manage such a level of complexity is itself, an art/craft/skill.

Of course, science as an art/craft/skill has always been present in the Western tradition of science. But, perhaps because of the primacy of truth and reason above other things in the Western tradition, science as a craft is rarely talked about in modern science. The focus has been on scientific principles, theories, laws, and methods: as if the ability to diagnose problems, hypothesize or perform successful experiments would fall nicely into place once the scientist understands these things well. But if we were to take all things being equal, what makes one scientist better than another would really fall upon the scientist’s art/craft to hypothesize, craft the experiment, and even to do it. It takes years of laboratory experience to slowly and silently acquire such skills, but little is said about it, as if these skills were unimportant. But at the heart of these skills is the ability to balance complex situations in such a way as to acquire a fixed and constant environment for which the subject operates. This is the focus that is often forgotten.

There are two primary objectives to this project to bridge complexity science with Chinese Philosophy:

(1) To develop a lexicon (based, hopefully on the language of existing complexity theory) that can bridge modern (complexity) science with other cultures (perhaps Chinese thought as the initial starting point). When I say, “home,” for example, people from different cultures may have different conceptions of what counts as a home, and yet there is still a basic understanding common to all these various conceptions that allow these people to still effectively communicate with one another. This is the kind of lexicon that we are looking to develop – a common language that can bridge East and West, as well as to bridge modern science and other philosophical/cultural frameworks so as to shed new light on potentially new approaches to the study of complexity.

More importantly, this lexicon is meant to be action-guiding. It is meant to prescribe how research in complexity should be undertaken: its methods, assumptions, goals, ideals, etc., but in a way broad enough to give researchers the room to freely explore and proceed as they deem fit. Yet, just specific enough to guide and instruct researchers on new means and practices (inspired/borrowed from other philosophical/cultural frameworks, starting with Chinese philosophy) to study and manage complexity and complex phenomena in a non-reductionist manner.

(2) To document practices/exercises/methods useful for developing the very art/craft/skill necessary for dealing with complexity from a modern scientific approach, drawing ideas and inspiration from a Chinese perspective (philosophical/medicinal/proto-scientific). The art/craft/skill of dealing with complexity is one that will probably be taught and cultivated in ways similar to martial arts or even the training of physicians of Chinese medicine. It is a kind of training that will teach the researcher, first of all, how to think and perceive phenomena in a non-reductionist manner, and how to weigh several inter-related, inter-dependent factors at the same time when attempting to analyse or theorise on complex systems.

On the surface, this objective may sound like an attempt at developing a martial arts school for complexity researchers. But really, what this objective aims to do is to draw light on the importance of cultivating a high degree of ability in scientific research/experimentation as an art/craft/skill, as this aspect is often neglected. In addition to drawing inspiration from a Chinese perspective, we should also aim at collecting the best practices from complexity researchers, who from their own experience have already developed some kind of art/craft/skill at handling such complexities. These practices (from both East and West) should then be promoted among other complexity researchers as means for forming in them the ability to perceive and analyse complex systems from a non-reductionist manner.

In this way, the second objective links us back to the first objective. For in the end, the practices/exercises/methods that are documented should use the common lexicon that will be able to best guide researchers from across cultures.

This is a really exciting project. I wonder how far we can go with this.