I came upon this free ebook, Complexity and Postmodernism by Paul Cilliers (Routledge 1998). From the introduction:

“Complexity and Postmodernism explores the notion of complexity in the light of contemporary perspectives from philosophy and science. Paul Cilliers contributes to our general understanding of complex systems, and explores the implications of complexity theory for our understanding of biological and social systems. Postmodern theory is reinterpreted in order to argue that a postmodern perspective does not necessarily imply relativism, but that it could also be viewed as a manifestation of an inherent sensitivity to complexity.

As Cilliers explains, the characterisation of complexity revolves around analyses of the process of self-organisation and a rejection of traditional notions of representation. The model of language developed by Saussure—and expanded by Derrida—is used to develop the notion of distributed representation, which in turn is linked with distributed modelling techniques. Connectionism (implemented in neural networks) serves as an example of these techniques. Cilliers points out that this approach to complexity leads to models of complex systems that avoid the oversimplification that results from rulebased models.

Complexity and Postmodernism integrates insights from complexity and computational theory with the philosophical position of thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard. Cilliers takes a critical stance towards the use of the analytical method as a tool to cope with complexity, and he rejects Searle’s superficial contribution to the debate.

Complexity and Postmodernism is an exciting and an original book that should be read by anyone interested in gaining a fresh understanding of complexity, postmodernism and connectionism.”

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And this from p. ix is indicative:

“It is necessary to say something about the relationship between complexity and chaos theory. The hype created by chaos theory has abated somewhat, but the perception that it has an important role to play in the study of complex systems is still widespread. Although I would not deny that chaos theory could contribute to the study of complexity, I do feel that its contribution would be extremely limited. When analysing complex systems, a sensitivity to initial conditions, for example, is not such an important issue. As a matter of fact, it is exactly the robust nature of complex systems, i.e. their capability to perform in the same way under different conditions, that ensures their survival. Although the metaphor of the butterfly’s flapping wings causing a tornado on the other side of the globe is a good one for describing a sensitivity to initial conditions, it has caused so much confusion that I feel it should not be used at all. Chaotic behaviour—in the technical sense of ‘deterministic chaos’—results from the non-linear interaction of a relatively small number of equations. In complex systems, however, there are always a huge number of interacting components. Despite the claims made about aspects of the functioning of the olfactory system, or of the heart in fibrillation, I am unsure whether any behaviour found in nature could be described as truly chaotic in the technical sense. Where sharp transitions between different states of a system are required, I find the notion of self-organised criticality (see Chapter 6) more appropriate than metaphors drawn from chaos. This might sound too dismissive, and I certainly do not want to claim that aspects of chaos theory (or fractal mathematics) cannot be used effectively in the process of modelling nature. My claim is rather that chaos theory, and especially the notions of deterministic chaos and universality, does not really help us to understand the dynamics of complex systems. That showpiece of fractal mathematics, the Mandelbrot set—sometimes referred to as the most complex mathematical object we know—is in the final analysis complicated, not complex. Within the framework of the present study, chaos theory is still part of the modern paradigm, and will not receive detailed attention.” (My emphasis.)

Note: This book admittedly explores the connectionist model. As I noted here in the Varela thread it pre-dates and does not include the enactivist model, which I prefer. Still, it has some important tales to tell.

This is interesting.  I have been thinking for the past few weeks to start a thread on Edgar Morin, a French "complexity" philosopher, so maybe it is time to do so.  I first became interested in his work through an essay in The Participatory Turn.  Although Wilber largely dismissed him (interestingly, in the context of this thread) as a "modernist" in the infamous Take-Down section of Integral Spirituality, Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and others in the Integral community have been more receptive to, and appreciative of, his work -- to the extent that he will play a significant role, it seems, in the emerging organization, Meta Integral (which will bring Wilber, Bhaskar, and Morin together).

Cilliers references Morin in this article, where he says:

"In the first place one has to acknowledge that the 'discipline' of Complexity is a house divided. There are serious differences between different approaches to complexity. After about two or three decades of work explicitly dedicated to the understanding of complex systems, it has become crucial to reflect critically on the value of these different approaches. One way of distinguishing between these approaches is provided by Edgar Morin (2007) who distinguishes between 'general' and 'restricted' complexity. Restricted complexity refers mainly to the mathematical and computational approaches to complexity, often strongly informed by chaos theory. This approach, Morin argues, acknowledges the non-linear, relational nature of complex systems, but seeks to tame it in ways which reintroduces positivism and reductionism. General complexity on the other hand, argues for the limits of all approaches to complex systems and urges that we acknowledge these limits and recognise that we need a new language in which to do this, a language which moves beyond Enlightenment ideals of neutrality and objectivity."

I also noted this about the "science wars" referenced elsewhere, where Prigogine was on the more general, philosophical side of the debate. One main issue is the idea of math being a Platonic ideal or not explored in depth in the "real and false reason" thread.

Cilliars' article "Complexity, deconstruction and relativism" is instructive is confronting the ill-informed arguments of relativism and performative contradaction within a complexity frame. This passage reveals the hidden positivist and objectivist (i.e., formal) assumption of the argument, one I examined in the real/false reason thread above.

"The performative contradiction is predicated on the assumption that one can adequately distinguish between the performative and the locutionary levels, and, in the terms Habermas uses to criticize Derrida, between logic and rhetoric. However, in order to make this distinction clearly, one would need to take in a position that can characterize what is being said from an external vantage point. In the language of complexity, that would mean that one has access to a framework that is not the result of a strategic choice, i.e. some objective meta-framework. This is exactly what the view from complexity is sceptical about."

We see the same formal assumptions underlying the mathematical model of hierarchical complexity as well as the "restricted" chaos theorists. Again, see the referenced thread.

Recall how Varela similarly answered the same charge in this post.

No, this is Sean Esbjorn-Hargens' baby.

That's funny!  But Sean is cool, IMO -- idealistic, yes, but not in a neo-con way.

In describing the characteristics of a complex system I found this interesting, the implications of which are self evident:

"Each element in the system is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole, it responds only to information that is available to it locally. This point is vitally important. If each element ‘knew’ what was happening to the system as a whole, all of the complexity would have to be present in that element. This would either entail a physical impossibility in the sense that a single element does not have the necessary capacity, or constitute a metaphysical move in the sense that ‘consciousness’ of the whole is contained in one particular unit. Complexity is the result of a rich interaction of simple elements that only respond to the limited information each of them are presented with. When we look at the behaviour of a complex system as a whole, our focus shifts from the individual element in the system to the complex structure of the system. The complexity emerges as a result of the patterns of interaction between the elements" (5).

Another point, returned to later and consistent with OOO, is that any element can be part of several other systems and is not subsumed (transcended in included) into any one system or Whole whole (assholon).

Further reading shows the issue of where to draw boundaries in determining a “system.” This reminds me of the boundaries of Bryant's “objects.” Cilliars makes clear that dynamics emerge at a system level and is not in the parts nor some meta-entity like it environment, let alone some assholon. Granted any system depends on its relations with other systems and its environment but must itself have its own “individuality,” its own (w)holistic boundary and integrity, again reminiscent of Bryant's objects. I'm also reminded of Bryant's contention that not all parts are objects, and it seems this is consistent with Cilliars that all parts of the system are do not display system properties or characteristics. So perhaps while we might say there are epistemological holons all the way up and down depending on where we chose to draw boundaries, ontologically this is not the case when it comes to holistic systems.


I'm enjoying Chapter 3 on language, where I see a lot of similarity to Bryant's discussion of the sign (recall this article, for example, referenced in the OOO thread). A sample:

"There are always more possibilities than can be actualised (Luhmann 1985:25). The meaning of a sign is the result of the ‘play’ in the space between signs. Signs in a complex system always have an excess of meaning, with only some of the potential meaning realised in specific situations" (42).

He also gets at, as does Bryant, the function of time in language. This is highlighted by Prigogine, for example, in irreversibility, another characteristic of complex systems. More later.

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