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.

Impending Deadline

I’ve not been updating this blog for a while. I’ve been quite busy writing my Honours dissertation.

I’m just happy to say that it’s almost done. All it needs is several rounds of editing before I can declare it as the greatest accomplishment of my life.

Anyway, there’s four days left before the submission deadline. I hope to get over and done with this as soon as possible because I still have exams to study for.

Here are the books that are currently stacked up next to me:

This is only half of my final bibliography. The rest of the books are in the library. I don’t drive, so it’s very difficult to carry huge heaps of books in my bag pack.

The dissertation is currently 45 pages long. My current word count is 13,147 words. I need to keep everything below 12,000 words. That’s the word limit. It’s a strict limit, so I don’t have the luxury of exceeding it a little. I’ll need to find some ways to shave off those excess words without affecting the presentation of the paper.

Yup! That’s how life has been thus far. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping that I can finish this by tonight.

Wish me luck!

Research, research, research…

The second week of school has just ended, but it has already been quite an intensive week for me.

I’ll be officially starting on my honours thesis next semester. However, my supervising professor will be away for a while during that time, and it would be quite inconvenient to attempt a thesis under such conditions. So, I figured it’s better that I begin my research now while the hell of assignments hasn’t yet been unleashed onto me. I hope to finish as much research now, so that I have the luxury of time to write and do more stuff when I begin my thesis officially.

This was how my table at the library looked over the past few days:

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Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One of these books has Chinese words! I’m researching on an ancient Chinese text known as the Chung-yung (中庸, famously known as the “Doctrine of the Mean” or more accurately as “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony”). It’s written in classical Chinese.

What I’ve been doing the past week, was simply reading through the entire book in its original text, and comparing the various translations that I could get my hands on. Classical Chinese is a unique language in that it has a lot of ambiguities (it’s a unique feature of the language that allows the author to do a lot of amazing things, e.g. embed several different meanings onto the one same phrase). The problem with translations is that authors will have their own subjective biases, which affect the interpretation and thus, the translation of the text. In each translation, you’ll have different things missing while the translator focuses on one interpretive key. Hence, the importance of comparing translations along with the original text.

I’m glad I’ve made quite an effort over the holidays to work on my Chinese. I used to fail Chinese (or just barely pass it) back in secondary school and junior college. Now – I’m quite surprised at myself – I am able to read the entire text in Classical Chinese. That’s quite a marked improvement.

Well, with the week over, I’m more or less done with one little portion of research. Reading the original text and its translations is just the first step. More books and journals to read in the coming days. I expect my usual table at the library to be stacked with even more books.

READ ALL THE BOOKS!!!

Accomplished Day

I feel that I have accomplished a lot today.

Armed with a book stand, a laptop, and a cup of tea, I managed to go through more than FIFTY books on Chinese culture, language and philosophy! (It’s all part of the job)

It started off with just a few books around me (as seen in the photo above). But eventually, I ended up raisinng a “Great Wall” of Books, since I didn’t want to move around too much once comfortably seated.

It turns out that journals are really fun to read because of the many gems that are hidden in them. For about every five issues, there will be a really interesting article, sometimes packed with humour too!

Right now, I’m just exhausted. There’s about another 20-30 more books left to cover tomorrow. And by then, I should be done with the current task that I’ve been assigned to do.

GAMBATTE!!!