Complexity, metaphor, and radical change – Wolfgang Wopperer (2019)


Complexity, metaphor, and radical change

Complexity, Metaphor, and Radical Change


05 September 2019

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PhilosophyComplexityRadical change

Science and society deal with complexity – but, judging from the current state of our social and natural world, they don’t seem to be very good at it. Why? And how can we change their behaviour in ways that keep the worst – collapse, catastrophe, and extinction – from happening?

The Double Challenge of Complexity

The social and ecological systems that surround us are complex. Beyond the common sense understanding of the term, this means they have the following properties:

  1. They consist of large networks of individual components.
  2. These components interact without central control, but following comparatively simple rules.
  3. From these interactions, complex collective behaviour emerges that can change non-linearly through reinforcing feedback loops.

Such behaviour is hard to explain and often impossible to predict. Nonetheless, dealing with complex systems has always been a vital task for humans and other animals trying to survive in their social and ecological environment. Before the arrival of language, natural selection and the biological adaptation it enabled took care of this challenge: It created what might be called implicit, evolutionary knowledge1 about coping with complexity, embodied at species level – adapted automatic behaviour, inherited instincts, and innate mechanisms for individual learning.

Language2 changed all of that. It allowed intersubjectivity and the cultural – as opposed to biological – transmission of information, enabling collective learning and the accumulation of explicit knowledge. This led to an explosion of social complexity and to a constant acceleration of cultural, technological, and economic development. As an effect, biological, social, and technological adaptation have become decoupled, because they operate on different timescales – technology changes faster than social norms, and both change faster than biological design.3 Thus humans created an environment to which they are in many ways biologically and socially maladapted.

This situation poses a double challenge: On the one hand, our capacity to understand the complexity we created is severely limited – we cannot fully and explicitly describe, explain and predict the behaviour of complex systems, and our instincts and intuitions as well as our norms and values produce inappropriate and counterproductive reactions to the systems we have created or changed. On the other hand, the rapidly accumulating negative effects of these changes and our reactions, from social fragmentation and political polarisation to runaway climate change and ecological breakdown, require a more radical change in behaviour to avoid societal collapse and civilisational catastrophe than the slow and evolutionary change of social norms and biological design is able to produce.

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Complexity, metaphor, and radical change