Complexity Science and Chinese Philosophy

I’m currently involved in a project that is attempting to bridge Complexity Science with Chinese Philosophy. I’m really excited about it!

When I first heard about “Complexity Science”, I was quite puzzled. What on earth is that? Well, complexity science is a relatively new field in the sciences that attempts to study complex systems and phenomena from a non-reductionist manner. It acknowledges that many things are not as simple as a linear, one-cause to one-effect, kind of picture, and attempts to study phenomena in its complexity, as something that is embedded and therefore, related to many other complex processes.

The standard reductionist approach in the sciences are incapable of allowing us to really understand what is going on because such an approach abstracts – takes the subject out of its context – and studies the subject in isolation. This is a huge problem. Certain phenomena arise only because a variety of conditions happen to be in a particular way at that point in time. If you were to tweak just one of these conditions, another type of phenomenon would arise (or maybe even nothing at all). And to complicate matters further, some of these conditions are inter-dependent on each other and on other complex conditions as well.

It is therefore not so easy as to simply change one or two conditions in order to get the desired effect.

Thus far, much of science has been studying such complexities from a reductionist approach. But the linear casual findings are strictly limited to the subject (and experimenters) operating under a fixed set of conditions. Such theories are incapable of saying (or for that matter, predicting) anything more about the subject in a different set of conditions. And hence the need for the study of complexity to try to resolve these issues.

Though this field is still relatively new, attempts have already been made at trying to study complex systems and their phenomena in the fields of physics, engineering, life science, economics, sociology and psychology.

So… How does Chinese Philosophy come into play here?

The problem that science encounters with the study of complexity is this: as a discipline that is deeply rooted in a Western philosophical framework, which is too firmly grounded in the concepts of linear causality and truth as an abstract universal, research in complexity cannot help but tend towards the very problems of reductionism that it is trying very hard to stay away from.

The Chinese philosophical framework, on the other hand, has been comfortable with complexity. In fact, the kind of proto-science that the Chinese has had for thousands of years, has been operating on the very model of complexity itself, with minimal reduction required (or even none at all). The concept of how everything is contextual, inter-dependent and inter-related to everything else has been present even before Confucius, and it has been the very framework by which ancient Chinese thinkers, both the philosophers and naturalists, have been operating on for a long time. It is certainly not essential or primary for such philosophers and naturalists to study phenomena in an abstracted manner. No, rather, their approach has been to study phenomena as they are: embedded within larger complex systems.

But perhaps what allows the Chinese to engage in complexity well is that since the earliest of times, they have acknowledged their proto-scientific abilities as a craft – an art that must be cultivated over a long period of time. For example, in Chinese medicine, the medical theories are many, complex, and inter-related. But what allows the physician to properly diagnose and treat his patients is the fact that the physician has mastered the art of dealing with complexity, of understanding how each factor is related to every other factor, how changing one factor affects many others, and how to counter-balance the unintended effects that arise when doing just one thing, while at the same time seeing the patient and his/her illness in the context of his/her environment. And for that matter, how to deal with one or many factors in order to get results in one or many other areas.

The physician regards the patient as a patient in the context of his environment, family, work, life, etc. Illness is a phenomenon that arises due to a combination of several factors, and thus treatment is not simply in terms of administering A to cure B. Rather, because every action results in several other effects (that also have an effect on other aspects of the body), the physician prescribes several remedies – each ingredient or method with its own effects, some of which are meant to counter-act the unintended effects due to other ingredients/methods, some of which are meant to counter-act with the external environment in which the patient is embedded in, and the rest of which are meant to deal directly with the problem.

The ability to understand and manage such a level of complexity is itself, an art/craft/skill.

Of course, science as an art/craft/skill has always been present in the Western tradition of science. But, perhaps because of the primacy of truth and reason above other things in the Western tradition, science as a craft is rarely talked about in modern science. The focus has been on scientific principles, theories, laws, and methods: as if the ability to diagnose problems, hypothesize or perform successful experiments would fall nicely into place once the scientist understands these things well. But if we were to take all things being equal, what makes one scientist better than another would really fall upon the scientist’s art/craft to hypothesize, craft the experiment, and even to do it. It takes years of laboratory experience to slowly and silently acquire such skills, but little is said about it, as if these skills were unimportant. But at the heart of these skills is the ability to balance complex situations in such a way as to acquire a fixed and constant environment for which the subject operates. This is the focus that is often forgotten.

There are two primary objectives to this project to bridge complexity science with Chinese Philosophy:

(1) To develop a lexicon (based, hopefully on the language of existing complexity theory) that can bridge modern (complexity) science with other cultures (perhaps Chinese thought as the initial starting point). When I say, “home,” for example, people from different cultures may have different conceptions of what counts as a home, and yet there is still a basic understanding common to all these various conceptions that allow these people to still effectively communicate with one another. This is the kind of lexicon that we are looking to develop – a common language that can bridge East and West, as well as to bridge modern science and other philosophical/cultural frameworks so as to shed new light on potentially new approaches to the study of complexity.

More importantly, this lexicon is meant to be action-guiding. It is meant to prescribe how research in complexity should be undertaken: its methods, assumptions, goals, ideals, etc., but in a way broad enough to give researchers the room to freely explore and proceed as they deem fit. Yet, just specific enough to guide and instruct researchers on new means and practices (inspired/borrowed from other philosophical/cultural frameworks, starting with Chinese philosophy) to study and manage complexity and complex phenomena in a non-reductionist manner.

(2) To document practices/exercises/methods useful for developing the very art/craft/skill necessary for dealing with complexity from a modern scientific approach, drawing ideas and inspiration from a Chinese perspective (philosophical/medicinal/proto-scientific). The art/craft/skill of dealing with complexity is one that will probably be taught and cultivated in ways similar to martial arts or even the training of physicians of Chinese medicine. It is a kind of training that will teach the researcher, first of all, how to think and perceive phenomena in a non-reductionist manner, and how to weigh several inter-related, inter-dependent factors at the same time when attempting to analyse or theorise on complex systems.

On the surface, this objective may sound like an attempt at developing a martial arts school for complexity researchers. But really, what this objective aims to do is to draw light on the importance of cultivating a high degree of ability in scientific research/experimentation as an art/craft/skill, as this aspect is often neglected. In addition to drawing inspiration from a Chinese perspective, we should also aim at collecting the best practices from complexity researchers, who from their own experience have already developed some kind of art/craft/skill at handling such complexities. These practices (from both East and West) should then be promoted among other complexity researchers as means for forming in them the ability to perceive and analyse complex systems from a non-reductionist manner.

In this way, the second objective links us back to the first objective. For in the end, the practices/exercises/methods that are documented should use the common lexicon that will be able to best guide researchers from across cultures.

This is a really exciting project. I wonder how far we can go with this.

Are Things Really Black and White, or are they Grey?

At some point in our life, we have probably heard or said something like this: life (or some other matter) is not simply a case of black and white, it is grey. And for that matter, many different shades of grey!

However, there is one question that is worth asking so as to get a better understanding of the issue’s complexity.

What makes it grey?

There are many ways in which a thing can appear grey. A dim white light can look grey when compared to a brighter white light. A wall is grey in colour because grey paint was used. Grey appears in newspapers because of a mixture of black and white dots.

In like manner, it’s not sufficient to say that so-and-so is very complicated. To resolve the issue, one must know how it is that the situation becomes complex. Just as how one can derive grey in many ways, an issue can be complex because of so many factors.

But thus far, I’ve never heard anyone explain why so-and-so issue is grey/complex. Instead, what I do get is usually a look of resignation as if the issue is unresolvable.

This is perhaps the reason why everything nowadays seems grey to everyone (How boring! We need more colour!). The ancient Greeks and Chinese never had such problems. It’s not that they didn’t ask the tough questions. They did! Moreover, they made it a point to consider what made the issue complicated. That formed the first stepping stone to resolve such complexities.

Personally, I strongly believe that things are grey not because there is no black and white. Instead, things appear grey because of the mixture of black and white dots like those greyscale images on a newspaper. Some appear as darker greys because there are more black dots on white. Some appear as lighter greys due to fewer black dots on white.

The T’ai Chi Diagram. Image Source:

The ancient Chinese understood this very well. In the t’ai chi diagram (the yin and yang symbol), there is no grey. Rather, there is a black half and a white half, and in each is a seed of the opposite colour. The line which seperates the black half from the white half is curved to show its dynamism – the black can and does move into the white, and vice versa. The complexity of grey consists of a mixture of black and white in each other. To further emphasize its complexity, they went further with the diagram by showing how black can become white in certain situations and vice versa.

As humans, we have a funny habit of wanting to classify things. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, liberal or conservative, traditional or modern, etc. Whenever we come across something new, we immediately try to slot it into one of these categories. Why? Because this process of categorisation makes it easier for us to understand things – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand things better.

When we come to that realisation that things are grey, what’s happening is that we discover that there are things that cannot be easily slotted into those categories. It’s not that the thing needs a whole new category called “grey” to be slotted into. Rather, it is the realisation that parts of the thing belong to one category, while other parts belong to another. We can’t fit it so nicely into one category. This dilemma therefore wakes us up to the discovery of the thing’s “greyness” – that its complexity is due to the mixture of two opposing categories, due to the mixture of black and white dots. Hence the surprise.

But why should we be surprised?

Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. As members of the human species, we should know better that even our bodies are very complex. Natural cycles and systems are complex. Everything is complicated!

The reason why science doesn’t seem so complicated despite the many complexities of this world is because in science, we reduce things into simpler models so that it’s easier to understand them.

However, not everything can be properly understood when we simplify things. And the reason why we are so surprised is that in this age of technology, the scientific way of simplifying things to understand better has been so pervasive in our culture that, without realising it, we try to use that way on everything!

Some of these complex issues can only be better understood without such simplifications, but as it is and through its complex relations with other things/issues.

This is what the humanities does, and it is an art because it is a skill that must be cultivated over time. It is a skill that enables one to understand the complexities of things as they are in relation to other complex things.

But this is not to say that the sciences are useless. No! Both are just as important. There are things where we need the scientific approach of simplifying things for better understanding, and there are also things where we need the humanities approach of understanding things in its broader context and relations.

The point is that our technological culture has influenced us to such an extent that we try to simplify everything and attempt to categorise everything. And so we become very surprised (and even resigned at its complexity) when we discover things that cannot be simply fitted into one category. As I have said earlier, we categorise things for an easier understanding, but it does not necessarily lead to a better understanding. Besides, we do not need to categorise things to understand them. We can – and should – understand the thing in its entirety, in its mixture of blacks and whites, and then proceed to see it in its relation with other things.

I believe that this will give us a better way of working with the issue instead of simply shrugging our shoulders saying that things are grey, and then not doing anything about it. I will admit that the solution proposed above is not detailed. It is difficult to give details on how one could achieve this. It is, afterall, an art which requires some training in the humanities. This doesn’t mean that everybody needs to take a course in the humanities (though I think that would be ideal). The least one could (and should do) is to read widely on works in philosophy, literature, and history. Regular exposure to such works will at least make us familiar with the way these people think and it will teach us how to handle the “grey” issues.

So the next time we realise the complexity of an issue that we want to declare it a grey issue, perhaps it would be productive to consider what makes it so grey in the first place. And instead of trying to categorise it, it might be better for us to try to understand it as it is and its relationship with other things (i.e. the big picture). That should make the situation less grey, as we begin to zoom in on the blacks and whites in it.