The Truths of Complexity:

The Covid 19 pandemic has given me an opportunity to observe, meditate and learn about complexity in action. In today’s post, I am looking at “truths” in complexity. Humans, more than any other species, have the ability to change their environment at a faster pace. They are also able to maintain belief systems over time and act on them autonomously. These are good reasons to call all “human systems” complex systems.

The Theories of Truth:

Generally, there are three theories of truth in philosophy. They are as follows:

  1. Correspondence theory of truth – very simply put, this means that what you have internally in your mind corresponds one-to-one with the external world. The statement you might make such as – “the cat is on the mat” is true, if there are truly a cat and a mat, and if that cat is on that mat. The main objection to this theory is that we don’t have access to have an objective reality. What we have is a sensemaking organ, our brain, that is trying to make sense based on the data provided by the various sensory organs. The brain over time generates stable correlations which allows it to abstract meanings from the filtered information from the sensory data. The correspondence theory is viewed as a “static” picture of truth, and fails to explain the dynamic and complex nature of reality.
  2. Coherence theory of truth – In this approach, a statement is true if it is coherent with the different specified set of beliefs and propositions. Here the idea is more about a fit and harmony with existing beliefs. The coherence theory is about consistency. An objection to this theory is that the subjective nature of a statement can “bend” to match the existing strong belief systems. Perhaps, a good example of this is the recent poll that found that the majority of democrats fear that the worst is yet to come for the Covid 19 pandemic, while the majority of republicans believe that the worst is over. Another criticism against this is that we can be inconsistent in our beliefs as indicated by cognitive dissonance.
  3. Pragmatic Theory of truth – The pragmatic theory of truth was put forth as an alternative to the static correspondence theory of truth. In this theory, the value of truth is dependent on the utility it brings. Pragmatic theories of truth have the effect of shifting attention away from what makes a statement true and toward what people mean or do in describing a statement as true. As one of the proponents of Pragmatic theory, William James, put it – True beliefs are useful and dependable in ways that false beliefs are not:‘You can say of it then either that “it is useful because it is true” or that “it is true because it is useful”. Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing.’ One of my favorite explanations of pragmatic theory comes from Richard Rorty, who viewed it as coping with reality, rather than copying reality. One of the criticisms against the pragmatic theory of truth is how it explains truth in terms of utility. As John Capps notes, utility, long-term durability, and assertibility (etc.) should be viewed not as definitions but rather as criteria of truth, as yardsticks for distinguishing true beliefs from false ones.

Sensemaking Complexity:

From the discussion of truth, we can see that seeking truth is not an easy task, especially when we deal with complexity of human systems. Our natural tendency is to find order as pleasing and reassuring. We try to find order in all we can, and we try our best to maintain order as long as we can. In this attempt, we often neglect the actual complexity we are dealing with. A common way to distinguish complexity of a phenomenon is – ordered, complicated or complex. We can say a square peg in a square hole is an ordered phenomenon. The correspondence theory of truth is quite apt here because we have a one to one relationship. We have a very good working knowledge of cause and effect. As complexity increases, we get to complicated phenomenon where there is still somewhat a good cause and effect relationship. A car can be viewed as a complicated phenomenon. The correspondence theory is still apt here. Once we add a human to the mix, we get to complexity. Imagine the driver of a car. Now imagine thousands of drivers all at once. The correspondence theory of truth falls apart fast here.

The main source of complexity in the example discussed above comes from humans. We are autonomous, and we are able to justify our own actions. We may go faster than the speed limit because we are already late for the appointment. We may overtake on the wrong side because the other driver is driving slowly. We assign meanings and we also assign purposes for others. We do not always realize that other humans also have the same power.

We have seen varying responses and behavior in this pandemic. We have seen the different justifications and hypotheses. We agree with some of them and strongly disagree with others depending on how they cohere with our own belief systems. The actual transmission of the virus is fairly constrained. It transmits mainly from person to person. The transmission occurs mainly through respiratory droplets. Every human interaction carries some risk of becoming infected if the other person is a carrier of the virus. However, the actual course of the pandemic has been complex.

Philosophical Insights to Sensemaking Complexity:

I will use the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and William. V.O. Quine to further look at truth and how we come to know about truth. Nietzsche had a multidimensional view of truth. He viewed truth as:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

He emphasized on the abstract nature of truth. One comes to view the abstractions/metaphors as stand in for reality, and eventually falsely equate them to reality.

Every word immediately becomes a concept, in as much as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal.

Nietzsche advised us against using a cause-effect, correspondence type viewpoint in sensemaking complexity:

It is we alone who have devised cause, sequence, for-each-other, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we project and mix this symbol world into things as if it existed ‘in itself’, we act once more as we have always acted—mythologically. 

As Maureen Finnigan notes in her wonderful essay, Nietzsche’s Perspective: Beyond Truth as an Ideal:

As truth is not objective, in like manner, it is not subjective. Since thinking is not wholly rational, disconnected from the body, or independent of the world, the subjective perception, or conception, of truth through the intellect alone is impossible. “The ‘pure spirit’ is pure stupidity: if we subtract the nervous system and the senses—the ‘mortal shroud’—then we miscalculate—that is all!” Inasmuch as the individual is not independent from the world, one can neither subjectively nor objectively explain the world as if detached, but must interpret the world from within. Subjective and objective, like True and apparent, soul and body, thinking thing and material thing, intellect and sense, noumena and phenomena, are dualities that Nietzsche aspires to overcome. Thus, although Nietzsche is not a rationalist, this does not mean he falls into the irrationalist camp. He does not abolish reason but instead situates it within life, as an instrument, not as an absolute.

With complexity, we should not look for correspondence but coherence. Correspondence forces categorization while coherence forces connections. This follows nicely into Quine’s Web of Belief idea. Quine’s idea is a holistic approach. We make meanings in a holistic fashion. When we observe a phenomenon, our sensory experience and the belief it generates do not standalone in our entire belief system. Instead, Quine postulates that we make sense holistically with a web of belief. Every belief is connected to other beliefs like a web.

For example, we can say Experience1(E1) led to Belief1(B1), and Experience2(E2) led to Belief2(B2) etc. This has the correspondence nature we discussed earlier. This view prefers the ordered static approach to sensemaking. However, in Quine’s view, it is more dynamic, interconnected and complex. This has the coherence nature we discussed earlier. The schematic below, inspired by a lecture note from Bryan. Van. W. Norden, shows this in detail.

The idea of Web of Belief is clearly explained by Thomas Kelly:

Quine famously suggests that we can picture everything that we take to be true as constituting a single, seamless “web of belief.” The nodes of the web represent individual beliefs, and the connections between nodes represent the logical relations between beliefs. Although there are important epistemic differences among the beliefs in the web, these differences are matters of degree as opposed to kind. From the perspective of the epistemologist, the most important dimension along which beliefs can vary is their centrality within the web: the centrality of a belief corresponds to how fundamental it is to our overall view of the world, or how deeply implicated it is with the rest of what we think. The metaphor of the web of belief thus represents the relevant kind of fundamentality in spatial terms: the more a particular belief is implicated in our overall view of the world, the nearer it is to the center, while less fundamental beliefs are located nearer the periphery of the web. Experience first impinges upon the web at the periphery, but no belief within the web is wholly cut off from experience, inasmuch as even those beliefs at the very center stand in logical relations to beliefs nearer the periphery.

The idea of degrees rather than a concrete distinction between beliefs is very important to note here. Additionally, Quine proposes that when we counter an experience contradicting our belief, we seek to restore consistency/coherence in the web by giving up beliefs that are located near the periphery rather than the ones near the center.

Final Words:

The dynamic nature of complexity is not just applicable to a pandemic but also to scientific paradigms. This is beautifully explained in the quote from Jacob Bronowski below:

“There is no permanence to scientific concepts because they are only our interpretations of natural phenomena … We merely make a temporary invention which covers that part of the world accessible to us at the moment”

Our beliefs shape our experience as much as our experiences shape our beliefs in a recursive manner. The web gets more complex as time goes on, where some of the nodes become more distinct and some others get hazier. We are prone to getting perpetually frustrated if we try to apply a static framework to the dynamic everchanging domain of complexity. It gets more frustrating because patterns emerge on a continuous basis providing an illusion of order. The static and rigid frameworks break because of their rigidity and inflexibility to tackle the variety thrown upon them.

With this in mind, we should come to realize that we do not have a means to know the external world as-is. All we can know is how it appears to us based on our web of belief. The pragmatic tradition of truth advises us to keep going on our search for truth, and that this search is self-corrective. The correspondence theory fails us because the meaning we create is not independent of us, but very much a product of our web of belief. At the same time, if we don’t seek to understand others, coherence theory will fail us because we would lack the requisite variety needed to make sense of a complex phenomenon. I will finish with an excellent quote from Maureen Finnigan:

Human beings impose their own truth on life instead of seeking truth within life.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Korzybski at the Gemba: