Complexity, context dependency and the (difficult) ascent of man

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?

One reason I think is that the low hanging fruit of democracy is all conceptually simple – or relatively simple. It may be politically impossible (and the politics of emerging democracy may be very conceptually difficult), but conceptually the building blocks of moving from autocracy to greater liberality and democracy are straightforward. One needs to build the rule of law and strengthen people’s rights to expression and political power.

So if you’re in a highly corrupt autocracy it’s pretty easy to figure out what needs to be done. And the new technologies help you express your need and, with luck, meet it through political action of various kinds.

In the West we’ve got all that. There would be plenty of ways for the new technologies to help us figure out what to do in various situations, but all the simple (liberalising) rules are already well represented in the debate.  Indeed one might argue that the our preoccupation with the ‘free market’ v ‘intervention’ dichotomy is that the former pole is one of the only simple and general principles we know about government, and we’re not so confident of our ability to successfully know what to do when we intervene with policy.

In any event one response to this dilemma is Hayek’s which is to set out some set of rules intended to define an end state – which is implicitly good for all time in politics. Another (more empirical, conservative and less ‘rationalist’ and what a Marxist would call a less ‘idealist’) approach is to accept the existing political settlements and the principles that emerge from them – which will contain their share of the same kinds of principles (like “don’t interfere with people’s liberty without good reason”). But then one would expect that over time one can build institutions (I meant this word in its broadest sense) to finesse the way those principles are applied in different circumstances.

But for that to happen, you need some system of aggregating experience and learning from people with good judgement and knowledge on the scene. That’s difficult enough at the best of times, but a lot more difficult when one’s system of deliberation like ours which is oriented towards entertainment, the expression of grievance and the cultivation of a sense of entitlement from all and sundry. I’m not, by the way suggesting I have any bright ideas as to how one might reconstruct our culture of deliberation. I’m just trying to articulate a problem. I’m grizzling :)

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Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

I have long struggled with this question and come to the conclusion that simplicity IS our way of dealing with complexity. Like a market can be seen as a search for what it is that people want, social science can be seen as the search for simple stories that help people who have limited time to learn quick heuristics about the world that keep them successful.

This is why you need various tiers of analysis catered for individuals with different roles: as a non-biologist, I can make do with a very silly view of biology. Someone who allocates money to biologists needs to be more informed and a biologist at the forefront of his science needs to be very well informed.

What you are thus basically arguing for is delegation in the political sphere. The thing you want that you cannot get is that politicians and others become honest about their own limitations.

The hubris that whatever we know is the truth is what is in the way and hard to swallow by those who know better. Yet, its an inevitable aspect of our need for self-esteem. Advisers like yourself simply have to live with that constraint. Healthy people cannot live with the truth and those that do are called manic depressives.

conrad
conrad
9 years ago

“So if you’re in a highly corrupt autocracy it’s pretty easy to figure out what needs to be done. And the new technologies help you express your need and, with luck, meet it through political action of various kinds.”

I think this is often a two way street — perhaps some people in governments can use it to their advantage, but in places like China, a lot of what is happening now is that new technology forces the government to act upon something that they wouldn’t have in the past. So unless you have a North Korean style government to the people and not vice-versa style system, the new technologies are a serious problem for corrupt governments.

Antonios
9 years ago

Simplicity is the guide because the opposite, complexity, means pretty much all theories are valid.

For instance, I could argue that this text that I’m writing right now is ostensibly in English but is actually in German. All you need to do is apply the right code, which is ridiculously convoluted, and you’ll see the secret message that’s in German, not English.

Now, the only thing stopping anyone from believing there’s a secret message in German in this text is recourse to simplicity — i.e., it’s surely too convoluted to have actually happened, and so the simplest theory, that this text is indeed in English and there’s no secret German message, seems the most plausible and, as far as I’m aware, correct.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

“but conceptually the building blocks of moving from autocracy to greater liberality and democracy are straightforward. One needs to build the rule of law and strengthen people’s rights to expression and political power.”

Yes, but does that ever happen other than through the slow evolution of habits in the general population. What is amazing about the modern period is that the technology is there to quickly move people from subsistence agriculture to relatively high industrial and service productivity. However, only some places seem culturally capable of making the jump fairly quickly and others apparently require generations.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

What’s wrong with pragmatism as justification for Occam’s Razor?

There is such a huge boon to be had finding a simple approach that even mostly works; difficult to comprehend why people would feel that somehow this isn’t “truth” enough for them. I mean, there’s probably a perfectly good way to get to the corner shop via Paris, but why? How difficult it would be if I had to first prove there was no invisible pink elephant hiding in the fridge behind the butter, and then prove no invisible purple elephant, and then the green… Hopeless! Just grab that butter out of the fridge and if nothing bites your hand, that’s the problem solved.

Is it “truth”? No, it’s butter.

I have long struggled with this question and come to the conclusion that simplicity IS our way of dealing with complexity.

I’d say that structure is our way to deal with complexity, and there’s a whole information science behind that (if you are into old things then call it library science). Some ways of building structure can shake out a simplifying process (e.g. sorting, taxonomy, hierarchy, recursion, parameterisation) and just sometimes you discover that a very simple algorithm can replace a whole lot of complexity, when you adopt the right way of seeing things. Sure, it’s handy when that happens, no guarantee that it will.

Of course, getting predictions right, and making things work is where it’s at. As an engineer I’ve seen some decidedly inelegant designs that do actually work… I’d love to see them obliterated by a better design.

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.

Hmmm, we already have a good idea of what makes some things red and some things other colours. We don’t have a real good idea of why simplicity tends to turn up in some places (like Newtonian physics for example) but other places are stubbornly highly complex, regardless of how you go about restructuring. Consider a steam turbine that has mind bogglingly large numbers of degrees of freedom (every atom has velocity, spin, etc) but we can model that reasonably well because it turns out that only certain aggregates actually matter. Keynesians believe the same things about economies (only aggregate demand matters, perhaps split into a handful of sectors), and yet our modelling of national economies is comparatively poor. A lot of mathematical and physical examples tend to point towards the theory that there are indeed reasonably simple ways to recognise systems that are chaotic, as against systems that are not chaotic, and where the mysterious “edge of chaos” approximately sits.

Given that the mathematical basis for chaos is less than 50 years old, it’s still a lot more exciting than the “Science of Non-Red Things” but perhaps future generations will see it differently.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Antonios, sounds like you would have got on well with Claude Shannon. There’s a surprising number of applications for the problem you are describing, in electronic communications, etc.

Nicholas Gruen
9 years ago

Thx Paul, nice comment, even if it’s a bit more unequivocal than I’d hv put it ;)

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I too like Paul’s comment but I too would certainly have put it more optimistically!

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Didn’t Hobbes end his life ‘universally loved as a man and universally derided as a philosopher’? (I’m quoting from memory here…)