I read an article with an attractive title recently. “Complexity and Context-Dependency“. It’s not very good, but it raises an important point that is important to what I call the psycho-pathology of disciplines and it puts me in mind of something I’ve thought for a long time about policy and politics. I don’t have time to do this subject justice in this post, but thought I’d try to put down a marker.
The paper argues this.
We may look down on other animals, perceiving that they have a biased and limited understanding of the world, but somehow assume that we don’t have analogous biases or limitations that we cannot somehow overcome. Surely this is merely another example of anthropocentric arrogance. That we have had some notable successes at understanding our world and even a systematic set of approaches that has been shown to be useful is not sufficient evidence to assume a lack of limitations and biases.
This astonishing assumption takes many forms in philosophy and discussions about the scientific method. One such is that somehow simplicity is a guide to truth. That is, that simplicity in a model or theory has advantages other than the obvious pragmatic ones (pragmatic virtues are such as: being able to analyze/solve it; being able to have good analogies with which to think about it; needing less data in order to parameterize it; and being able to compute it).
Another version is that everything somehow must be simple if only we can find the right way of looking at it, or formalizing it. It is true that frameworks such as Newtonian Physics are relatively simple (though I doubt many in Newton’s time would have thought so), and using this, many useful models and reliable predictions can be obtained. . . .
I am not going to spend time arguing the above points here. Rather I will consider the case under the anti-anthropocentric assumption, that much of the world around us is organized in a way that is beyond adequate modeling in a sufficiently simple and general manner for us to cope with. . . . Under this, admittedly pessimistic, view the phenomena that are simple enough for us to understand in a scientific manner are the exception – the exception to be sought and struggled for. Under this view, we should make the greatest use of the strengths we have, and seek to acknowledge and mitigate our limitations. Under this view a “Science of Complexity” makes no more sense than a “Science of Non-Red Things”, since both red objects and simple systems are the exception rather than the rule.
Why is it that we can see political benefits from the hyper-connected world produced by Web 2.0 in undemocratic countries but no big apparent improvements in democratic countries? Continue reading