In today’s post, I am looking at the ambiguities in complexity. I am inspired by the brilliant French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. She was a proponent of existentialism, the school of philosophy that puts emphasis on human existence first and foremost. Their motto, as noted by Jean Paul Sartre, is “existence precedes essence.” This basically means that we create the meaning of our lives. There is no authority outside of us dictating what our essence must be. We are responsible for our construction of what we become.
The ideas of existentialism have many similarities with the philosophical school of constructivism in Cybernetics. I have written about this before. Similar to existentialism, constructivism says that we construct a version of reality and that we are responsible for our construction. In the social realm, constructivists believe that we aim for consistency through our continuous interactions with the other constructors. If I am constructing a version of reality, this means that others are doing the same. The language and culture act as external frames of references to provide a stable version of reality. The emphasis is not for correctness but consistency.
De Beauvoir realized that the ambiguity of our existence is part of us. We are subjects who engage in ongoing construction of a reality, at the same time we are objects in the construction of others in the social realm. In other words, we are creators while at the same time creations in someone else’s construction. What we identify as selves is in relation to others. We aim to have autonomy in our actions, and this often comes at the cost of others autonomy. The choices we make influences the choices others make and vice versa. There are no moral authorities dictating what everyone’s role is or what everyone should be doing. These ideas resonate strongly with Cybernetics. The ideas of constructivism are at the core of second order cybernetics.
De Beauvoir advised us to identify and withstand the pressures of the constraints that the contingencies of our times such as societal norms and expectations throw at us. We are to use our freedom to maximize our potentialities and shape our own lives. We can do this only when we acknowledge the ambiguities. We find freedom when we recognize the freedom of others.
With these ideas we will look at complexity. Loosely put, complexity is the interconnectedness that we identify or experience. When we pull on a thread here, something else moves in another location. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. Complexity in cybernetics is observer dependent. This means that the magnitude and “quality” of complexity can vary depending on the observer. This is also dynamic. This means that depending on when you are asking, the “what” of complexity can change. This also means that there are no clear demarcations or domains in complexity. There are certain portions that are less “complex” and some that are more “complex”. Cybernetics is not interested in the “what” but in all of the possible behaviors seen by the observer. The observer is able to make certain states occur more often than the others by playing with the constraints. Ernst von Glasersfeld wonderfully defined cybernetics as the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints.
What does this mean if there are multiple observers? There are so many dimensions and so many possibilities. Cybernetics talks about the constructive dance between the observers. Every interaction is an invitation to understand each other. We need to talk about what we see and what think we see through others eyes. We face complexity as part of facing situations. We seek to obtain a stable state that covers certain desired attributes of the situation. In order to know this, we have to have a good understanding of the possibilities and the available constraints that can be used to achieve some of the possibilities. The constraints can be used to generate attractor states that the dynamic “system” latches onto and those attractor states will cover the desired states. There is a lot of literature about leaders with respect to complexity. Leaders are people who take up the responsibility to create conditions so that attractor states containing certain desired states are generated.
The discussion of complexity demonstrates the presence of ambiguity through and through. Who chooses what the desired outcomes should be? Who decides who should do what? Who decides to utilize the constraints for which some people may have to pay more? As noted, there are no moral authorities in these situations. Taking heed to de Beauvoir’s words, we should not run away from the ambiguities. Instead, we should embrace them. We should understand that there are always others in the social realm. We become a self through the others.
To say that there are rules for complexity would be a terrible idea. However, there are several heuristics that we can use to embrace the ambiguities. We should engage in the cybernetic dance and encourage being openminded to others’ viewpoints. We should practice empathy and try to understand the different perspectives. We should engage in dialogue more with the intent of actively listening. We should understand the power structure that is predominant and work with the marginalized groups so that their voices are also heard. We should celebrate the differences. We should look for similarities in differences and differences in similarities. We should cherish each other’s autonomy.
I will finish with some strong words from Simone de Beauvoir:
Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics: