Linear and Non-Linear Causality

Sometimes we hear that everything happens for a reason. If something happens for no (apparent) reason, we call it chance. Things that happen for reasons are termed causal. The terms linear and non-linear causality are taken from mathematics, but one or the other applies to every system in the real world. A system, simply, is a group of parts assembled into a coherently functioning whole. The following table gives a breakdown of the two types of causality and where they apply.

  Linear Causality Non-Linear Causality
Applies to: Mechanical systems Complex systems
Characteristics: Whole is sum of parts Whole is more than sum of parts
  Reductionistic Non-reductionistic
  Deterministic Non-deterministic
  Predictable with certainty Only probabilistically predictable

Many (perhaps most) of us operate with a linear worldview that comes from our western scientific culture. Only recently has western science even formulated an approach to non-linear phenomena, though these make up the majority of what we experience. For this reason, most of us need to reassess our linear ways of seeing the world.

Newton’s laws of motion are laws of mechanics that are universally true—they work every time, everywhere. For every action, there will always be an equal and opposite reaction. Let’s say you have a system of a canoe, a pond, a paddle, and you. If you vary the force or direction of your stroke, the path and velocity of the canoe will vary predictably.

Such a system is also reducible. If three components remain constant, but one is changed, the change in the action/reaction will be due to the nature of the change that was made. Substitute a weaker or strong paddler, and the canoe will go slower or faster. Substitute a stick for a paddle and the canoe will hardly move at all. Substitute a rock for the canoe, and good luck! And so forth. Reductionism means that the behavior of the whole can be explained by the qualities and characteristics of the parts. That’s mostly how science works. We explain wholes by studying parts intensively.

But complex systems are non-reductionistic, because the properties of the whole are greater (and different) than the sum of the properties of the parts. If memories were linear phenomena, bits of memory would be stored in this or that neuron. Instead, memories reside in the patterns of interactions amongst neurons (and not necessarily the same neurons), rather than in the neurons per se.

In linear systems, causality is determined. If you apply this amount of force in this direction to an object of this mass, that (and only that) will happen. But, in non-linear systems, behavior is non-deterministic. You have a pretty good idea of what will happen, but then again it may not. When things are deterministic, they are predictable, because they have to happen in a certain way, given the state of the components of the system and the manner of their interaction.

But non-deterministic systems can happen in a number of different ways, and the reasons for this behavior can’t be captured by a reductionistic analysis of the component parts. Therefore the behavior of these systems can only be probabilistically predicted. Consider memory again. Have you ever studied very, very hard for a test and completely blanked when you got there? It’s hard to predict just what you will or won’t remember, or how well. Studying hard generally helps, but sometimes you remember the quirkiest things without even trying . . . and vice versa.

So, the next time somebody says that everything happens for a reason, you can answer, “Yeah, in a mechanical system that follows laws of linear causality.” For the rest of life, things still happen for reasons (usually many more than one), but in a non-linear fashion.

In a linear world, judges could be replaced with sentencing guidelines. A non-linear world is like a courtroom with a judge. The judge’s decision can’t be reduced to an algorithm—each case is different and there are so many factors, often of unknown weight. Experience suggests that, in the more complex (and interesting) world we live in, justice is better served by using judges.

If life were linear, how to live it would be mathematically soluble (at least given enough time, computing power, and knowledge of initial conditions). But it’s mostly not. So it behooves us to become acquainted with the non-linear—but inherently lawful—realities of the world of complex systems.

Why Worldview?

(And why it’s okay that you didn’t know you had one.) You’ve heard the expression about someone seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Well, we all see the world through our own particular lenses—of which we’re generally unaware. How are these lenses crafted? By our interactions with and experiences of the world and of others. By what we’re told and taught and what we read, listen to, or view. By our own digestion of all the above, which takes place where our personalities meet the things that impact and influence us.

So why is worldview important? Simply put, how you deal with the world depends on how you see it. Your worldview shapes your view of right and wrong, good and bad, possible and impossible, desirable or undesirable, worthwhile or worthless. So your own sense of purpose, happiness, and fulfillment arise within the context of your worldview, as does the way you treat others and your environment.

Worldviews may be more or less rigid but they’re not static. They evolve as you (and your experiences) change. Nonetheless, your worldview may contain numerous facets that have passed their “use by” date. Since worldviews tend to be implicit and unquestioned, they can be full of leftovers from times gone by—which might have made sense given your stage of development then, but not so much now.

This course is an opportunity to examine what’s actually in there—what kind of glasses you wear. It’s also an opportunity to consciously question, assess, and—if it seems right—to alter the nature of that lens. In this way you can lay firm foundations on which to build your life (knowing that the edifice you construct will be the work of a lifetime).

Bohmian Dialogue and Decision-Making

Towards the end of his life, the physicist David Bohm became extremely interested in the possibility of tapping into the collective intelligence of small groups of people. He felt that the group as a whole had the possibility to achieve a level of insight or intelligence, not only far greater than that of each separate individual, but even beyond the sum of their individual intelligences. This has since been borne out by research. Bohm saw dialogue as a primary tool for accessing collective intelligence. As such, he thought, it could help us find ways to address the urgent and intricate challenges we face (which have only grown more acute since Bohm’s death). In terms of Bohm’s concept of the implicate order, dialogue is a means of perceiving a level of collective consciousness which is more enfolded or implicate than our ordinary consciousness, which is more directed towards the explicate order.

Bohm contrasted dialogue with discussion. He thought the latter was an ineffective means of arriving at insights and understandings. He noted that the word discussion includes the same root as the word percussion, which involves hitting or striking. We use discussion, Bohm said, as a means of verbal sparring. We listen with a view towards our counter-blow, when it comes our turn to speak. Our goal in discussion is to win, by bringing others around to our point of view. Because each of us is attached to or vested in our opinions and perspectives, we are satisfied by winning and disappointed by losing. Thus, in a discussion, there are always winners and losers. If a compromise position is reached, no one is truly satisfied and everyone is at least vaguely disappointed. More than this, the quality of insight is no better than that of the winning position―that is, of one individual perspective. The collective intelligence has not been engaged.

In dialogue, we do not cling to and seek to substantiate our views, but do the opposite. We suspend our own judgments and conclusions, and instead adopt an open and interested attitude, one that seeks the fullest understanding of what each person is saying and what lies behind their opinions. Thus, we look more at underlying assumptions than at the viewpoints that are built on them. The perceptions and emotions that contribute to a viewpoint are also seen as inherently valid and important. By focusing on what is behind another’s point of view, rather than on advancing our own opinions, we open ourselves to the unfamiliar ideas and experiences that underly another’s perspectives. In the process, we find that our opinions undergo changes and adjustments, as other ways of seeing things—other considerations that we have not previously thought of or felt—enrich our understanding of the issue at hand.

However, achieving an attitude of genuine openness is not easy! Bohm was influenced in his latter years by his personal acquaintance with the philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Bohm felt that a process of inner development, such as that described by Krishnamurti, was helpful in the act of recognizing and suspending one’s own preconceptions and judgments. The quality of awareness achieved in contemplative practice is of great assistance for the practice of Bohmian dialogue. In meditation, one can achieve a more unitary level of consciousness, in which the distinction between self and other dissolves. (In Bohm’s description, this is a perception of, or participation in, the implicate order.) Thus, as the distinction between one’s own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and those of another falls away, both are seen as valid and essential expressions of a greater underlying consciousness and wholeness. The more points of view that we can identify with and appreciate, the fuller our understanding becomes.

In the practice of Bohmian dialogue, participants spend most of their time listening intently. They don’t think ahead to the response they wish to make, but stay completely in the moment, in the flow of the conversation that is taking place within the encompassing whole. At times this conversation calls for a contribution from them, which fits the precise need of that moment, just as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle fits exactly into place. At other times, they are aware that others have asked the question that was on their minds or made the statement that they were considering. On the other hand, they may find that others have brought new ideas, which render the questions or statements they had been considering irrelevant. Thus, Bohmian dialogue can explore territory that is new to every participant, and can give rise to ideas and understandings which no one participant would have reached alone. This is why, no matter how smart or informed we may be, the practice of dialogue is always beneficial.

Bohm did not think that his form of dialogue should be used in decision-making processes, but rather for freely exploring issues, with no onus of an imminent decision hanging over the conversation. In my experience, dialogue of the type Bohm describes often brings to light possible courses of action that seem right and obvious when they emerge, but which have not been thought of (or not in that particular way) hitherto. Thus, I believe Bohmian dialogue can be very helpful to a decision-making process, in which the underlying assumptions of the various options are fully examined, while participants stay open and inwardly uncommitted to any particular outcome. Admittedly this is not easy, and a great deal of practice with such dialogue, without the expectation of agreement on a particular course of action, would be helpful before using dialogue in a decision-making process.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.




Are “Things” “Real”?

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously said, you can’t step into the same river twice. The banks may be the same. The rocks on the bottom may be the same. But the water rushing past you is different. So it is with everything, Heraclitus said. Nothing is fixed. All is flux.

The atomic view of matter certainly challenges our view of fixed things. Not only is the computer I’m writing on mostly empty space (the nuclei of the atoms that compose it being mere specks compared to the capacious orbitals of the electrons around them), the whole thing is a dance. Those electrons are moving at insane speeds—flux indeed!

Einstein’s theory of relativity also makes us question “thingness.” If matter and energy are forms of one another, then the very stuff of existence is just as much process (energy) as solidity.

Quantum physics posits that sub-atomic particles can pop in and out of existence, in an altogether whimsical manner. And string theory claims that the smallest units of stuff are essentially vibration—flux again

So we may well wonder whether all nouns may not be verbs in disguise. Are all “things” really processes, movements, dynamics? Are “things” just frozen motion? If so, we might note that even glaciers flow.

Here are some other “things” to ponder:

Things in Space: If there are things, they must have boundaries. If they don’t stop somewhere, they can’t be distinct from other things. But think about gravity. Every massive body distorts the fabric of space-time. Even our bodies must do so in an infinitesimally small way. But where does gravity’s influence stop? Certainly it becomes negligible at a distance, in accordance with Newton’s inverse square law. But, like Zeno’s paradox, is it always approaching zero but never getting there? If so, it never ends. So can any body be said to be gravitationally distinct from all others? Thingness may be a practical reality, but is it real?

Things in Time: The river we step into is a snapshot of a flowing river. And that flow takes place in time. Complex systems are like that. They exist by being eaters of energy. Our whole planetary ecosystem is almost exclusively dependent on solar radiation as the basis of the food chain. Without photosynthesizers continually “fixing” sunlight (but is it ever really fixed?), life would diminish to a trickle. The rest of us are parasites on plants and cyanobacteria.

All complex systems defy entropy by eating energy. Entropy is the thermodynamic tendency to disorder. But complex systems create order, in a universe that should be running down. As it may well be doing, but complex systems create islands of order in a sea of disorder—so long as the energy keeps coming. So all complex systems are also creatures of time.

Things within Things within Things. . . . Holons are systemic levels. Wholes have holons within them and holons beyond them. For example, holons within you are your bodily systems (digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.). Each of those contains organs as holons; those organs contain organelles, which contain tissues, which contain cells. . . . And you are a holon contained within a family, within a community, within a culture, within global society. . . .

But are there clear-cut boundaries between these holons, or do they bleed together? Now, it may seem obvious that there’s a place where you end and thus a clear distinction between you and any other family member. So you don’t bleed into your family and they don’t bleed into you.

Oh, really? Isn’t that exactly what you do all the time? Don’t the moods of others change, if you’re sad or angry. Don’t your musical tastes change, if a sibling introduces you to something cool?

Self as Nexus: It may be helpful to think of yourself as a nexus—an intersection of influences that also has its own identity (though your identity shifts over time, like Heraclitus’s river). Certainly you don’t look the same as you did ten years ago, or even ten days ago, if you want to get picky. And, as you experience and learn more things, you change psychologically as well.

Are You Real? Heraclitus’s river may change from moment to moment, but it will still cool you off if you go for a swim. Seems real enough. On the other hand, maybe it should have as many names as there are moments that it flows through. We call it the same thing, when it’s really not.

Or is It? This is the question of atma or adatma. In the Hindu view (and the views of many other traditions), your soul (atma) is an immortal drop of the divine. Change belong to this world, of space and time. But this world is also maya, or illusion. Your soul is made of eternal stuff—it’s really real.

In the Buddhist view, it’s a mistake to think of yourself as the same person, from day to day as much as from incarnation to incarnation. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but of a soul that’s always in flux. This is adatma—non-soul.

This is an interesting “thing” to ponder. But, either way, we will do well to recognize that “things” are not always what we think they are. Our ideas about them may be snapshots frozen in time, when they have in fact moved on. And complex systems (which include pretty much everything of importance in our lives) are only alive so long as they are in flux, busily using energy to create order.

Of course, atma is defined as eternal, and so beyond the confines of time, while complex systems are creatures of time. So perhaps there are two levels of self—self unfolding within time (what Aristotle called Becoming) and self transcending time (what Aristotle called Being)—and the two are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. David Bohm’s implicate order also provides a framework for such a possibility.

In any case, science seems to have caught up with Heraclitus. Upon closer inspection, our world of space-time appears to be more process than thing, more verb than noun. Of course, in later life Heraclitus may have changed his mind. . . .

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Chance in a Lawful World?

Causality, Determinism, Reductionism, and Scientific Materialism

The basis for a scientific worldview is that things happen for reasons—they are caused. But can chance be reconciled with such a scheme?

Our western scientific worldview arose within the context of western philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks, so this is where I start this inquiry. Greek philosophers recognized that chance and lawfulness seem to conflict. This issue was also bound up with the ideas of an intelligent, eternal Creator and the immortality of the human soul.

The Epicureans took the pragmatic (and materialistic) view that neither a Creator nor an immortal human soul exists. Their explanation of how the world arose is remarkably Darwinian. It also includes the evolution of human culture. As to the human soul, Epicureans maintained that it is made up of soul atoms—far more rarified than the more massive atoms that make up our bodies. And, just as our bodies disperse into their elemental parts upon death, they said, so do our souls. Stoics and Platonists (and perhaps Aristotelians) disagreed.

In late Roman times, Boethius had little sympathy with Epicureanism. He tried to synthesize the ideas of the giants of Greek philosophy—Plato and Aristotle—in support of a Christian worldview. He took aim at the old, pagan idea of the goddess Fortuna (who just did things, with no rhyme nor reason). No such power could exist, he said, in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent God. Thus he saved causality—that things happen for reasons.

But Boethius stopped short of determinism—that God makes you do whatever you do. Clearly, he said, God knows all, so he knows the future, including everything that you will ever do. And, being omnipotent, God could make you do what he wanted—if He so chose. Instead, he chooses to give humans free will, so they can make their own choices. His seeing your future no more determines your choices than (to use a modern analogy) you watching a football game on TV makes the players score a touchdown. True, you can’t watch a future football game, but that’s beside the point. God’s knowing is neither causal nor deterministic in terms of our actions.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian Aristotelian, got more specific. God made two categories of things, he said: those that must happen just as he chooses and those that he allows to happen in various ways (though still subject to His general laws). For example, God lays down the laws of physics that give rise to weather and storms as well as the laws of biology that grow a forest, but He doesn’t choose which trees in the forest will fall in a given storm. (So don’t blame God if a tree falls on your house. It did so following natural laws, not because He wanted to punish you.)

But, with the protestant Reformation, determinism made a comeback (and free will fell by the way). Our choices are determined, said Martin Luther, by either Satan or God—and God chooses which souls will belong to whom. This doctrine is a form of religious determinism.

It fell to the Enlightenment thinkers Descartes, Newton, and Locke (and later Kant and Laplace) to grapple with causality and determinism in the newly emerging context of modern science. Descartes laid the groundwork by separating spirit and matter. A devout Catholic, he believed in God, but his god was the maker of a clockwork Universe. God made the clock, wound it up, and let it keep ticking on its own. So all natural phenomena are explicable by natural causes.

But Descartes was no materialist. He believed in a human soul, with God-given intelligence. In fact this was his starting place for our ability to know. Descartes famously said, Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. But the mental or spiritual had precious little overlap with the physical. Thus, Descartes’ philosophy is know as Cartesian dualism.

Newton (a deeply religious protestant) expanded and provided proof for the Cartesian framework. Newton’s universal laws were indisputable and invariable. The angle of incidence will always equal the angle of reflection. For every action, there will always be an equal and opposite reaction. The gravitational pull between two massive bodies will always be inversely related to the square of the distance between them, in relation to their masses.

So causality was a pillar of Enlightenment science. By the time of Laplace (in the Industrial Era), so was determinism. Laplace said that—if one were given the details of all the matter and forces at the beginning of the universe (what we now call the Big Bang)—one could, in principle, calculate everything that happened up to the present, and so on into the future.

In this assertion, the assumption of reductionism is also implicit. Things that happen on a large scale are the sum of many more things happening on smaller scales. Therefore all occurrences in the unfolding universe are ultimately reducible to the motions of bodies relative to one another (all following the laws of Newtonian physics).

But scientific determinism hit a significant blip in 1900. French mathematician Henri Poincaré won a competition to solve the “3-body problem”—but he didn’t solve it. The 3-body problem was physicists’ inability to expand Newton’s gravitational equations from accurately describing the gravitational attraction between two bodies to doing the same for more than two bodies (three being the simplest such case). Poincaré demonstrated that the problem was, in fact, mathematically insoluble. The best one could do was to make approximations. Moreover, it was possible that, very occasionally, something wildly unexpected might transpire.

In retrospect, Poincaré was laying the groundwork for complexity theory, which describes highly interrelated systems whose behavior is causal but not deterministic. Newton’s mechanics work splendidly for mechanical systems—but not for complex ones.

1900 was also when Max Planck proposed quantum theory. And, five years later, Albert Einstein described special relativity. Later he introduced general relativity, which improved upon Newton’s laws of gravity. Newton had never been able to explain how gravity’s “action at a distance” worked. Einstein posited that very massive bodies actually warp the fabric of space-time, causing nearby bodies to begin spiraling towards them.

As transformational as Einstein’s findings were, quantum mechanics (as developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others), posed the greater challenge to determinism—and even to causality. The quantum world seemed to be acausal. Sub-atomic particles could pop into and out of existence (coming from and disappearing back into the background quantum field), for no particular reason whatsoever.

Moreover, the boundary between observer and observed became fuzzy. Observers of light could detect it as particles (photons) or waves, depending on the measurement apparatus they employed. Before observation, light was potentially both wave and particle, but only after observation did it manifest as one or the other. This brought into question the ultimate nature of reality—was it “out there” or “in our heads”(or some combination of the two)?

The influence of observer on observed was one of Heisenberg’s explanations for his Uncertainty Principle. If, for example, one wished to very accurately measure the position of a quantum particle, one’s ability to accurately measure its momentum diminished—and vice versa. This was a theoretical limitation; it could not be overcome by devising better measurement devices. With Newton’s calculus, both the position and momentum of a cannonball, anywhere along its trajectory, could be precisely calculated. Not so a quantum particle. There would always be a degree of uncertainty about the totality of its behavior.

Einstein objected strenuously to Bohr and Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum theory—most particularly to its acausal nature. The purpose of science, he said, is to figure out which causes lead to what effects. If effects simply happen for no reason, that’s no longer science. Einstein famously said to Bohr, “God does not play dice.” To Einstein, a random universe was not an intelligent universe, and Einstein believed deeply in a lawful universe, imbued with an intelligence far greater than that possessed by humans. Einstein proposed a series of experiments that he thought would prove Bohr wrong. As each was conducted, it seemed instead to vindicate Bohr’s interpretation. Science had indeed entered an age of uncertainty.

But, even as physics was becoming less deterministic, biological and social sciences were becoming more so. On the one hand, genetic determinism posited that genes are ultimately responsible for behaviors of both organisms and species. This is a highly reductionistic stance (small-scale dynamics dictating large-scale phenomena). At the same time, behaviorism—famously citing studies of rats, trained in various manners—maintained that environmental conditioning was the ultimate determinant of behavior.

This “Nature vs. Nurture” debate was ultimately resolved (in part thanks to twin studies conducted at the University of Minnesota) with a more or less 50/50 split. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental influences) were said to combine about equally to determine behavior. But behavior was still determined.

Reductionistic thinking also flourished. Mental phenomena, for example, were said to be completely reducible to brain chemistry and physical exchanges (electrical and chemical) amongst neurons. In fact, many scientists questioned the very existence of “mind,” since all mental phenomena were explicable in terms of the activities of the physical brain.

This view is also an example of the ascendancy of scientific materialism. For the ancient Greeks, as well as the medieval philosophers, mind or spirit was more primary than physical nature. Even the founders of modern western science (such as Descartes and Newton) upheld the primacy of spirit, though they saw the spiritual as separate from the physical. But, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the physical world came to be regarded as the only world.

However, in the last fifty years or so, the pendulum has begun to swing back a little. The new field of epigenetics has emerged as a sort of middle ground between genes and environmental factors. While environmental stressors don’t directly change the genes themselves, they can cause genes to be “switched on or off.” Moreover, the “settings” of these “switches” can even be passed on, from one generation to the next (as famously demonstrated by a study conducted on Holocaust survivors and their children).

There are two ways to interpret epigenetic findings. One would be to say that behaviors are still determined, but now in a 3-way split amongst genes, the environment, and epigenetic factors. Another way would be to observe that not all the children of Holocaust survivors have the same “switch settings” as their parents. So determination is too strong a word (though causality would still apply).

Complexity theory, however, may represent the strongest challenge to determinism. The dynamics of complex systems do behave causally. Certain inputs tend to produce particular outputs. However, complex behaviors are inherently unpredictable—though they can be probabilistically forecast with accurate models, as in weather forecasts. Note that quantum behaviors can also be probabilistically predicted. The difference is that quantum laws only apply to extremely small phenomena (such as photons/light and electrons/electricity), while complex systems exist at all scales.

Complexity certainly challenges reductionism. The essence of complexity is that, the properties of the whole are more than the sum of the properties of the members. Therefore the dynamics of the whole cannot be reduced to the dynamics of the parts.

The characteristic of emergence in complex systems may also challenge scientific materialism. What emerges in the whole is qualitatively different than what exists in the parts. In applying this view to the mind-brain controversy, one might assert that mind is an emergent property that is based upon brain but is qualitatively different. Simply put, the mental is not reducible to the physical but it exists nonetheless. However, integration is also key to complexity, so a complex view of mental and physical cannot hold them apart, as Cartesian dualism did.

Under any interpretation, complexity is a watershed science. Most of the systems that influence our lives (including all biological systems and all human social systems) are, by definition, complex. So the fact that the dynamics of these systems are casual but non-deterministic is highly pertinent. However, most people are still steeped in a linear, Newtonian view of the world—one that is highly deterministic. The “modern scientific” worldview we tend to see the world through is more than a century out of date. The study of complex systems allows us to develop a new way of thinking—one that is integrated rather than reductionistic—that can better inform our view of and interactions with the world.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Towards a Spirituality of Complexity

Complexity theory has numerous key concepts with spiritual implications. Perhaps none is so important as the relationship between whole and part. As described by Koestler’s concept of holons, molecules are holons within tissues, tissues holons within organs, organs holons within bodily systems, the body within the human self, the self within the family, the family within the culture, the culture within global culture, humanity within the planetary ecosystem, etc. Logically we must reach the point of a universal holon, which alone is not contained by anything wider. In spiritual language this might be called the All or the One (God, Brahma, etc.). But it need not have a name with religious connotations. David Bohm, a physicist, calls it something like the ground of what is.

At each step in the progression, distinctive properties emerge, characteristic of the encompassing holon but not found in the lower ones―at least insofar as these are separate from the greater ones which encompass them. For example, mind is said to be an emergent property of body. Yet, though it can be argued that mind does not arise at the level of molecule, tissue, or organ (presumably arising at the level of neural system), there is no doubt that, within the integrated organism, mind exerts effects on all levels. That is, no part of the (at least properly functioning) human being can be truly independent of mind.

This invites us to ask, what properties might emerge at the level of humanity as a whole, or of global ecosystem (e.g. Gaia), or of universal All or One? Such properties, like mind itself, might not be readily perceptible in a physical manner.

Thus we come to the question of spirit and matter. Complexity, as a western science, tends to take a materialistic view. In this view, matter exists first. Thus, the parts come into being before the whole. When atoms combine into molecules, new properties emerge. (The properties of water are nothing like those of hydrogen or oxygen.) Similarly, tissues carry out more complex functions than molecules, organs than tissues, and so on. The crucial thing is that, as parts combine, wholes come into being, and with those wholes emergent properties arise.

Spirituality tends to view things the other way around. Creation doesn’t arise from nothing, or even from matter, but through the agency of a creator (who is often presumed to be omniscient, etc.). It may be that the higher qualities inherent in the creator emerge in the creation over time, but the creator, after all, transcends time. Time may be seen as merely the vehicle for the unfolding of divine wisdom, which precedes time (if such a notion even makes sense!). Note that Bohm takes a more spiritual view in his description of the implicate order, so that causality tends to emerge from the context of the greater whole, rather than from the more explicate, separate part (though the two are always in intimate relationship, with feedback from the explicate to implicate). This is probably the main reason why most physicists shy away from Bohm’s theory of the implicate order.

It is not clear that a practical understanding of complexity actually needs to choose between the two alternatives. After all, it is one thing to observe that things emerge, and quite another to say exactly how it is that they happen to do so. Describing is not explaining. For example, even those neuro-scientists who most fervently believe that mind emerges from brain are very hard pressed to say exactly how this comes about. Perhaps it is enough (or even better) to say that, in complex systems, parts tend to function within integrated wholes (those parts tends to be influenced by the wholes within which they subsist), and that wholes may arise from the conjoining of parts (and be influenced by the natures of the parts of which they are constituted). Instead of asking, “Do parts create wholes or do wholes create parts?” we might say that parts and wholes are mutually co-creative.

Of course, such an observation has spiritual implications. If we are parts within the universal All, does that mean that we are co-creators with God (or the universe, or whatever)? Perhaps so, especially given that many spiritual beliefs ascribe free will to human beings. Further, free will might be seen as a specific case, peculiar to rational beings, of a more universal characteristic of complex systems known as self-organization, or autopoiesis. In this way, even the lowliest level of entity (extending to the quarks, etc. of the quantum level) might possesses some degree of self-determination (and even of rudimentary consciousness, according to Varela and Maturana, as well as Bohm), or at least lack of total compulsion or determination. (Note that causality and determination are not the same. If a cause produces a probabilistic effect, that is non-deterministic. If a cause produces a necessary effect, that is deterministic.)

Again, we come upon theological implications. How does the above square with ideas of predestination? Thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas have held that predestination does not imply that God makes every choice. Rather, He is said to grant agency to nature to unfold according to its way of being, having created that way of being. And He grants free agency to human beings, even to the extent of allowing them to turn away from the Good. Of course, these thoughts only touch upon the complexities of theological debate, yet they allow us to conjecture that the implications of a spirituality of complexity may be in keeping with some forms of ideas such as predestination which, at first glance, would seem to run counter to them. That is, the idea that things are shaped by God (predestination) and by us (free will) squares well with a complex systems view that the whole shapes the parts and the parts shape the whole.

We could go into similar investigations with regard to all the world’s religions. Suffice it to say, however, that the attributes of the divine amongst most if not all of them would seem to be congruent with those of a spirituality of complexity. The Tao, for example, is said to be undefinable, yet to be the Way of all things. YHWH, God, Allah, Brahma, and Buddha Nature are likewise beyond our capacity to fully grasp, yet we are made in their image, are drops in their ocean, or find that our inmost nature is of their essence. As to how this might relate to complexity, perhaps we can say that, to the molecule, the tissue is a mystery, to the tissue the organ, etc. We cannot fully grasp, by means of the capacities of a lower holon, the emergent properties of a higher one. Yet in some way we can still know these properties because we are also formed by them (and so they are part of our basic nature), just as the influence of the mind extends even to the intracellular level of the organism.

Again, though the spiritual implications of complexity may largely square with the key ideas of most religions, we should be clear that they do not require any religious interpretation (or validation). Certainly Bohm presents his idea of the implicate order in an entirely scientific manner, beginning with an interpretation of quantum theory that differs from the Copenhagen interpretation of Bohr, Heisenberg, and others. Bohm was also a student of Einstein, who had similar misgivings about the Copenhagen interpretation. The root issue, for them (and for others, such as Gödel), was whether science can be ontological (describe what actually is) or only epistemological (that is, our knowing can never extend to the basic nature of things). This is a wonderful question! My point is just that it is a scientific question, which can be pursued entirely as such. Whether or not one wants to bring any religious beliefs to it hardly changes the nature of the scientific debate, and is purely a matter of personal predilection.

In the final analysis, the fundamental lesson of both spirituality and complexity may be that we are all connected―both to one another and within the greater whole. Every religion in some way states the golden rule. We are exhorted to love our neighbors as ourselves because, in a very real sense, our neighbors are ourselves, by virtue of the fact that we all partake of the essence of the same overarching holon(s). Agnostics and atheists also tend to espouse such an ethic, though it may be rooted in neo-Darwinian ideas. Either way, this is also a two-way street. Our responsibility must extend beyond ourselves, so we have a duty to choose the greater good, live in accord with the Tao, follow our Buddha Nature, etc. For, as co-creators, our intentions, choices, and actions are not insignificant within the universal unfolding. On the contrary, since everything is interrelated within the overarching context of the One or All, every action reverberates throughout the entire extent of the All. This brings us to the topic of an ethics of complexity.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Towards an Ethics of Complexity

An ethics of complexity begins with the relationship of holon to surrounding whole. As a self-contained holon, we pursue a good that is particular to ourselves. As a holon amongst many, within an encompassing wholeness, we move to a dance that is orchestrated, so to speak, from above. The emphasis of most spiritual beliefs is on doing God’s will, abandoning ego, following the Tao, etc. Yet it is also held that our inmost self is Buddha Nature, the Tao, or the activating grace of God. Thus, it is presumed that our inmost selves can (and should) be wholly in harmony with the encompassing All or One. From a non-religious perspective, we are still rooted in a wider context, including human society and the natural environment. Thus, we should be responsible to one another and to our common planet.

This squares nicely with the understandings of complexity theory, which would seem to imply a kind of ecological ethic. That is, the shark, by eating smaller fishes, accomplishes two goods. One is “egotistic”―it feeds itself. The other is systemic―it keeps populations of smaller fish under control and even contributes to the survival of the fittest by culling the ones that are easiest to catch. It is important to note that, though populations of organisms within ecosystems undergo cycles of boom and bust, and the make-up of species within ecosystems transitions over time, there tends to be an inherent stability of the whole that is maintained, while at the same time the needs of each species and individual are largely met (or they soon cease to be!).

The lesson for us as human beings is that we don’t, in general, need to make a choice between serving God (or following the Tao, or being responsible social and planetary citizens) or serving our egotistical lower natures. However, it can be a trick to do both, simultaneously and well. And, if we find ourselves in a situation where only one can truly be met, the greater good would seem to lie with the greater whole.

The ideal situation, for example, would be to eat enough to satisfy our bodily needs. Not too much (gluttony), nor too little (starving and harming our body―God’s temple for the soul). We can follow the Middle Way. However, what if there is not enough food to go around? This is a situation humans have often experienced. Laurens van der Post tells of an encounter with the San or Bushmen of the Kalahari. In the midst of a drought, his expedition came across a party nearing the end of their endurance. Far behind them (but within reach of the expedition’s Land Rovers) were an old couple. They had insisted on being left behind, when it became apparent that, by slowing the progress of the whole party to the next waterhole, they were endangering everyone in the group. Such behavior is documented in many cultures. It certainly makes ecological sense.

However, a thorny issue arises. Would it have been ethical for the younger San to force the older ones to stay behind, or even to abandon them to their own fate by simply walking faster? This is where the ecological parallel fails us. To understand why, we need to recall the concept of emergence.

Distinctive properties emerge at higher levels of organization. The property of free will, for example, would seem to belong to beings possessing fully rational natures, but not to those without. This is why the law, for instance, does not penalize those (such as the mentally handicapped or very young children) who do not appreciate the consequences of their crimes. In that an ecosystem lacks reason, it cannot model an ethics that is applicable to reasoning beings. The critical feature here is free will. The old San couple chose to stay behind. They were not forced to, nor were they callously abandoned. On the contrary, they were thanked and revered for their sacrifice. Free will would seem to be a central feature of human ethics, in that we have to be responsible for our own choices, and for the extent to which these balance our egotistical needs with the good of the encompassing whole.

As noted previously, all religions—as well as most agnostic or atheistic belief systems—seem to adhere to some version of the golden rule. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, we are led to a capacity that seems to be more developed in humans than in other animals―empathy. We have the ability to put ourselves in another’s place, to walk a mile in his or her moccasins. Thus, we differ from the shark in two ways. First, we understand when we are doing a systemic good (or ill). Second, we feel the consequences of our actions when we put ourselves in the place of another. Thus, our uniquely human capacity to be exquisitely aware of the whole is made possible by highly developed capacities of thinking and of feeling.

To “stand under” another human being is to see the world as he or she does. To “feel in” (empathy), “suffer with” (compassion), or “feel together” (sympathy), is to feel the world as another does. Only through these activities can we appreciate the systemic goods (or ills) we are doing (or contemplating), and weigh them against our personal goods. Thus, only through understanding and compassion can we make truly free decisions.

Free, in this sense, doesn’t so much mean without compulsion from God or some higher authority. More deeply, it means without compulsion from the tyranny of the ego, whose needs are trumpeted so incessantly and loudly. We have to exert effort (thus, free willing or exertion) to listen to the voices of reason and empathy. Therefore, the cultivation through regular practice of our capacities of understanding and compassion (what the Buddhists call mindfulness, Christians call caritas, etc.) would seem to be an ethical imperative. (Buddhism, by the way, is an atheistic religion.)

What might such a practice entail? The common denominator, across spiritual practices from many traditions, would seem to be attention, but of a deep and peaceful sort. We go through our days giving a great deal of attention to many things, but often in a superficial way. We are pulled in so many directions that we sometimes fail to take in, or make meaning of, what is right before us. Perhaps this is what is meant by needing to become “those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.” Such deeper, richer, fuller attention can be practiced in many types of meditation, contemplation, and prayer. (Again, this need not be theistic, as in the case of Buddhism, or even religious, as in the case of secular mindfulness practices.) Through such inner practice, we become more able to attend to the others we encounter in our daily lives. Given the imperative to cultivate such attention in order to act ethically, some sort of regular inner practice (which would, in turn, support mindfulness in our interactions) seems essential.

Religions, despite their wide variety, tend to be fairly uniform in their ethical injunctions: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t cheat and lie, etc. These all boil down to not harming others, to treating others as we would ourselves be treated. An ethics of complexity, in which the needs of the individual holon must be balanced and harmonized with those of the greater whole, comes to much the same conclusion. It does so by making us aware that our conscious choices must take into account seemingly disparate (and sometimes indeed conflicting) goods, on the levels of self and whole, in the same way that the shark’s unconscious choices harmonize self-interest with ecological benefit.

However, while sharks are ecologically ethical through unconscious instinct, our acts are only ethical when informed by the highest capacities of our consciousness. An ethics of complexity calls us to be fully awake to and aware of ourselves, of others, and of the interlinked complexities within every situation we face.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Communication, Information & Learning

Some of the best ways to influence systemic integration and harmonization involve communication (based on perception), information, and learning. One might say that, with communication, we are looking at how signals get sent (speaking) while, with perception, we are looking at how they are received (listening).


Think of the way our sense perceptions help us function. As we move, we continually receive feedback from our visual system, informing us of our position relative to where we are going. Are we getting close, or further? We do the same thing with things coming toward us. Will they hit us, or miss us? Bats and dolphins use sound in the same way. But we also perceive with more than our five senses. We have organs of balance, and our proprioception brings us awareness of our bodily movements—not relative to outer things but from within. We also have drives or impulses, such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, fear, anger, and love. Such things seem very deeply rooted and instinctive.

Other perceptions, on the emotional level, are not quite so deeply rooted but are nonetheless highly influential. Emotional responses are generally either sympathetic or antipathetic. We either like something or dislike it. We are attracted or put off. Therefore emotions are critical to how we respond and behave. Such responses can be triggered by sense perceptions, such as smells, and are also associated with our deeper impulses. Finally, when we conceptualize, we may be said to be perceiving our own thoughts. The way in which thoughts arise is mysterious; perhaps the closest we get to directly experiencing this process is in meditation.

Many of our experiences of perception can be generalized to other complex systems. All such systems “perceive” in some manner(s). Since perception is so basic to the way complex systems function (the processes they engage in and the feedback involved in those processes), developing increased sensitivity can powerfully influence the way these systems work, and therefore their wellbeing.


Communication is the indispensable means of spreading information within the system. In human societies, we are continually giving one another negative feedback in accord with accepted social mores. If you walk down the street naked, you’ll get some stares and some shocked expressions. Much of the feedback we give is not even conscious, either to the giver or receiver. We communicate this feedback through pheromones, body language, facial expression, gesture, and tone of voice as well as the meaning of our words. Communication is also essential to positive or amplifying feedback. Teachers know that the class clown thrives off the laughter of his peers. The more they laugh, the more he’ll clown, and the more he clowns the more they’ll laugh.

We communicate on every level on which individuals perceive their wider environment. For people, this means at least through sense perception, impulse, emotion, and idea. Since communication is so key to all manner of processes and feedback, it’s extremely helpful to identify the types of communication your system uses, both internally and with the wider environment. Strengthening and improving the quality of communication can greatly assist the integration and harmonization of a complex system.

Flows of Information, Idea, Impulse, and Emotion in Human Systems

Flows in human systems are not limited to physical matter and energy. Flows of seeming intangibles such as information, impulse, emotion, and idea are no less real, and perhaps even more critical. Like the flows of energy and matter, these flows can be both helpful and destructive, so understanding (and sometimes regulating) them is essential for cultivating systemic wellbeing.

Information as facts or data is extremely important. Without enough (and accurate enough) information, we can’t choose those courses of action that will be most effective and beneficial. Within certain social contexts (and perhaps particularly in crowds), people make different―and sometimes morally inferior―choices than they otherwise would. The influence of peer pressure is widely appreciated.

For many, the hallmark of humanity is our capacity for abstract reasoning. In human systems, the slow change of biological evolution has been superseded by the rapid spread of discoveries and ideas. New ideas can lead to revolutionary changes in any area of human endeavor. However, the consequences of such change are usually not anticipated. Less than three centuries ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, few would have imagined that our use of fossil fuels would have altered the climate of the planet and imperiled our collective future. Attempting to dam the flow of ideas seems both hopeless and counterproductive. Therefore some means of optimizing the flow of ideas within human systems―with a view towards potential impacts―would appear to be essential.

While we tend to equate information with thinking, impulse and emotion are also conveyors of information. The word impulse can characterize a broad range of aspects of will, such as desire, urge, duty, or aspiration. In human social systems, these are regularly communicated and can spread infectiously, with either positive or negative effects. Flows of human impulses may be sluggish, chaotic, or toxic, so means of regulating them are essential for systemic health.

Emotions are also highly communicable, and can be helpful or destructive; sluggish (repressed) or chaotic and turbulent. Emotions are also important in decision-making. It is widely assumed that emotions cloud judgment and interfere with good decision-making. However, where the emotional center in the brain is damaged, decision-making becomes extremely arduous. With no good reason to prefer a blue pen to a black one, a person can remain paralyzed while trying to decide which one to use. The ramifications of any particular path of action may carry so many unknowns―even in apparently simple situations―that no best choice emerges from reason alone. Intuitions or hunches step in to guide our actions. Emotions are also extremely communicable, with either positive or negative effects. Thus, the healthy regulation of emotional flows in human systems is important.


What do we mean by learning? Complex systems “learn” (and adapt and evolve) in many ways. A micro-organism that is exposed to a toxic substance “learns” to avoid it. The explanation may be purely (or mostly) chemical, but clearly some type of learning has taken place. Our immune system “learns” to recognize and respond to invaders. This is a trial and error process—no understanding is involved.

Such learning is an aid to adaptation and evolution. A system in distress may grow more turbulent and start to explore diverse possibilities. Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock exposed corn plants to environmental stressors, such as drought. The plants started to “shuffle” their genetic material, as we would a deck of cards. Gene segments (which McClintock called “jumping genes”) literally moved from one place to another on the chromosome. This produced all sorts of new combinations, a few of which might help the plants to weather a drought. One or more of these beneficial adaptations could then spread through natural selection.

As people (and in the human social systems we inhabit) we do our own share of trial and error learning—“throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall to see what sticks.” Thomas Edison’s methodical experimentation with hundreds of types of light bulb filaments is perhaps a case in point. But, even in this example, Edison had no doubt ruled out thousands of highly unlikely substances beforehand. Just so, as human beings, we use our information and intelligence to make informed guesses that, in turn, help us learn and adapt more quickly and effectively.

But, for that matter, what do we mean by intelligence? Certainly we have become much more aware that people with high levels of social and emotional intelligence can be more effective leaders and decision-makers. Similarly, human organizations can be more or less “intelligent,” in a variety of ways. Access to quantifiable data is a good thing. The ability to evaluate it without bias is even better.

On the other hand, qualitative “data” (or information) is extremely useful. New office furniture may be affordable and durable. But, if it’s aesthetically unpleasing to employees and customers, is it really a good investment? As people—and as organizations—we must become adept at utilizing all the types of learning at our disposal, in order to adapt to changing conditions and continually grow and evolve. Complexity theory helps us to do so by understanding the importance of sensitive perception, effective communication amongst various parts of the system, the gathering of all types of information, and the employment of all modes of learning.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.



Parts, Wholes & Feedback


When you were a child, did you ever play the game of “Pooh Sticks,” where players drop a stick into a stream from the upstream side of a bridge, then race to the other side to see which stick has come out ahead? If so, you might remember that you can never tell for sure who’s going to win. What you wouldn’t have known are the reasons: that the sticks are interacting with the complex system of the river and that complex systems are inherently unpredictable.

Now let’s alter the game a little bit, so it illustrates what a complex system is. Imagine a bridge over a waterfall. Now imagine that you have 100 identical sticks, which you drop from the exact same position on the bridge, from the exact same height, with no wind blowing, and no other factors that would influence the outcome. Given that the currents in the stream go over the same rocks and drop down at the same angles, you might think that the sticks will all come out at exactly the same place below the waterfall, and that they’ll take the same amount of time to get there. In fact, they’ll come out in any number of places, taking more or less time to emerge. Furthermore, even under such strictly controlled conditions, it’s impossible to predict just where or when any particular stick will come out. What you can find, however, is probability: a 32% chance that a given stick will come out here, a 17% chance that it will come out over there; a 26% chance that it will take under 12 seconds to emerge on the other side of the bridge, a 29% chance that it will emerge between 12 and 18 seconds; and so on.

The game of Pooh Sticks takes place within a complex physical system. Though not all physical systems are complex, many are, such as the way a flag ripples in the breeze, or the rate at which drops of water drip from a leaky faucet. Each of these systems seems simple, yet involves numerous interacting objects and forces. And, though these are entirely physical, the behavior of the whole is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Furthermore, all living systems―all organisms and ecosystems―are complex. And the vast majority of human social systems are complex. Thus, complex systems are extremely important in our lives.

Every complex system, from a whirlpool to a bacterium to “you as an individual” or “the planet we all call home” follows certain laws. But, as with Pooh Sticks, the exact behavior of these systems (as we all experience in our daily lives; think about weather forecasts) can’t be known in advance. Such systems are constantly adapting and evolving in response to changing conditions both without and within. Complexity theory is the new science that describes the way complex systems work and the laws they follow.

As we begin to understand the complex systems in our lives more fully, the kinds of choices we make within those systems become more creative, effective, and beneficial.


A complex system is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

A machine may be complicated, but it is not complex. The way it functions is simply the manner in which the assembled parts work together in a prescribed and relatively invariant way (at least until something breaks, in which case you simply repair or replace the defective part). Complex systems don’t work that way.

Think of an ecosystem. Each organism, as well as the matter (rocks, water, air, etc.) and energy (sunlight, heat, chemical reactions, etc.) in the system, may be described as a part. But these parts are continually interacting with one another, their populations or amounts are fluctuating, and they are adapting and evolving. Each part of the system, as well as the system as a whole, is engaged in creative and transformative change. This change proceeds in two directions: The activities of the parts contribute to the nature of the whole, and the whole contributes to the development of the parts.

Take yourself as an example. As an individual, together with others, you contribute to your family, the social groups you’re a part of, and society as a whole. In turn, you are influenced and shaped by the groups (complex systems) around you.

Let’s look closely at an ecosystem as an example. Barrier reefs are built by coral polyps—tiny colonial animals that live symbiotically with one-celled marine algae. The algae, which grow through photosynthesis, live inside the corals, which draw nutrients from the algae. Coral polyps also capture tiny shrimp, plankton, and other small organisms in their tentacles. When the polyps die, they leave behind hard limestone structures. These structures separate open ocean from a sheltered lagoon, within which a wide variety of creatures—fish, sponges, jellyfish, anemones, crustaceans, turtles, sea snakes, snails, mollusks, and many others—make their homes. Some organisms, such as crabs and moray eels, live in crevices of the reef itself. For barrier reefs to form, numerous conditions (such as water depth, temperature, clarity, and purity) must be met. Growing over the course of many years, barrier reefs help to create complex, abundant, and highly diverse ecosystems.

In a barrier reef and its accompanying lagoon, what is (a) an example of the part contributing to the nature of the whole? What is (b) an example of the whole contributing to the parts? (Sometimes the two are difficult to distinguish!)

  • Top predators such as rays, eels, and small or juvenile sharks help keep the populations of many species of fish and other prey in check. (a)
  • Because of the richness of the ecosystem, the coral polyps benefit from the abundance of shrimp, plankton, and other small creatures. (b)
  • The waters of the lagoon are much calmer than those of nearby beaches with no coral barriers, providing a sheltered habitat for many species. (b)
  • Photosynthesizers such as algae, plankton, and anemones form the basis of a rich and complex food web. (a)
  • Because of the complex diversity of the ecosystem, populations of all species are less likely to experience cycles of extreme boom and bust. (b)
  • Crevices and narrow passageways within the reef provide safe refuge for myriad members of smaller species. (a and/or b!)

Wholes and Fragments

What looks like a whole system may really be a collection of fragments. Fragmented wholes come in two varieties:

  • A whole may split into parts, in such a way that the parts cease to function fruitfully together. Long before a divorce is finalized, even while the partners are still living in the same house, they may be living separate lives.
  • Parts that really don’t belong together may be artificially joined. We’ve all been the outsider at times, flung into a social group that has its own deep history and intricate web of unspoken understandings. In time we may become a true part of that group, but in the beginning it is painfully obvious that we don’t belong in the same way that the others do.

Members and Relationships

All systems are comprised of various parts, components, or members but complex systems are distinguished by the relationships amongst their members, which adapt and change over time. Even the members themselves tend to change over time. Generally speaking, relationships can be characterized according to three criteria:

  • Strength (stronger or weaker)
  • Equality (more or less equal)
  • Benefit (mutually beneficial or harmful, beneficial or harmful to one but not the other, or neutral to one or both)

Natural systems may exhibit all sorts of relationships, but even apparently adversarial ones (as between predator and prey) tend to be mutually beneficial and supportive to the balance and well-being of the whole.

Negative Feedback

Complex systems invariably exhibit feedback, whereby the effects of the system or one of its elements are communicated back, thereby altering the system or element itself. Both negative (damping or limiting) and positive (amplifying or encouraging) feedback are characteristic of complex systems.

The primary way in which complex systems maintain dynamic stability is through various types of negative feedback. Despite how it sounds, then, negative feedback is usually a good thing! The word negative just means that tendencies of the system to become extreme are held in check.

A thermostat is a mechanical system that employs negative feedback. It kicks the furnace on when the temperature gets too low, then shuts it off when the temperature rises too high, keeping the house within a zone of optimal comfort.

The key to this system of regulation is the thermostat’s ability to detect fluctuations in temperature. We find such sensitivity to both internal and external conditions in all complex systems. We also find that diversity in a system helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback to maintain the stability of the system.

Negative feedback is based on relationship. Our planet works to maintain the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is dependent on the interrelated activities of plants and animals. Through complex systems of negative feedback loops, it recycles minerals and nutrients, maintains diversity, and enhances stability within ecosystems

An adequate level of diversity in turn helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback within the system to maintain a healthy balance. In ecosystems with low diversity, a comparatively few species are present or dominant. Their interrelationships may be very strong but, because they are few in number, the health of one species can be inordinately affected by a disease or event that significantly reduces the numbers of another. This means that the system as a whole is more prone to instability or even collapse.

In human communities it is also true that an adequate level of diversity helps assure sufficient constructive feedback within the system. As a general rule, adequate levels of diversity stimulate redundant feedback mechanisms, which in turn stabilize human cultures.

On the other hand, some exceptionally strong relationships such as marriages are quite limited in the number of their members. The stability of such a relational system derives from the strength of the relationships and the intensity of feedback between the members. It is also true that, as spouses come to know each other more and more deeply, the types of feedback they can offer one another become increasingly diverse. Thus, increased intimacy yields more diverse knowledge, which tends to contribute to systemic stability.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback amplifies (rather than limits) systemic behaviors. Global warming is example of positive feedback. Higher temperatures melt icecaps, which lowers the earth’s albedo (the ability of white surfaces to reflect heat rather than absorb it, thereby keeping the planet cooler) and leads to higher temperatures, and so on in an escalating loop.

In human systems, positive feedback loops are sometimes termed vicious cycles. The sensitivity and listening that is characteristic of negative feedback is sadly missing in escalating arguments. I hurt your feelings, you hurt mine back, and soon we’re not speaking for days.

In human social systems, positive feedback loops also feed strife along racial, ethnic, and religious fault lines. These cycles of hurtful and inflammatory behavior are often characterized by a hostile and adversarial tone rather than respectful dialogue (sensitivity and listening) as the basis for mutual collaboration.

Thus, positive feedback (despite the name) often leads toward chaos and instability. However, positive feedback is not always bad. Virtuous cycles also exist. For example, a child takes its first wobbly steps into the arms of a smiling mother and is encouraged to try some more. Sometimes old systems must die or be destroyed so that new ones can take root.

Moreover, periods of turbulence can give complex systems the means to change and adapt. For example, a worsening drought causes corn plants to “shuffle” their genes, which helps them come up with drought-resistant combinations. Thus, positive feedback can be essential for survival.

Positive feedback can also be built into a system’s normal course of development. Adolescence, with its extensive physiological, hormonal, psychological, and neurological changes, is a time of positive feedback, full of turmoil and struggle. Yet adolescence is not an illness. It is a time of vast brain “re-wiring,” a necessary period of transformation on the path to maturity.

When systems have alternating periods of stability (usually longer) and chaos (usually more brief), they are displaying intermittence. We tend to be afraid of chaos; we try to avoid it. Yet, remembering nature’s frequent use of intermittence can help us see chaotic periods as opportunities for growth and change.

Sometimes such change can be dramatic. The butterfly effect, which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can theoretically lead to a tornado in Texas, is no myth. Positive feedback is the mechanism that allows the butterfly effect to happen, allowing changes to ripple out incrementally, until they reach a tipping point and start to snowball.

The changes that spread in this fashion may be hurricanes or other disasters. But they may also bring about renewal and rejuvenation. By helping new innovations spread rapidly, positive feedback becomes the agent of creative, transformative change.

Qualitative Aspects of Feedback in Human Systems

In human systems the effects of feedback may depend as much on the way it is given as the fact that it is given. For instance, a mother will naturally want to provide negative feedback by curbing her young child’s impulse to run blindly into the street. She might grab the child roughly, slap him, and berate him for being so stupid. Or she might firmly but gently restrain him, pointing to the cars and explaining that he could be hurt if they hit him. Technically, either course of action qualifies as negative feedback that aims to accomplish a systemic good. It may even be that the first way elicits more compliant behavior. (Machiavelli certainly made a persuasive case for the use of fear, cruelty, and deception.) But the qualities of the two methods make all the difference in the world to the child, and to the nature of the child’s continuing relationship with his mother.

People’s interactions are almost always qualitative, whether in terms of information, impulse, emotion, or idea. We commonly speak of the quality of information. The better it is, the better able we are to achieve a good outcome. Flow of information is a component of both negative and positive feedback.

Our desires, urges, and other impulses vary widely in quality. If you hit me, my first desire may be to strike back. Alternatively, I may understand why you did it, experience forgiveness, and desire to heal the rift between us. These two courses of negative feedback (attempting to address your egregious behavior) allow for starkly differing possibilities to unfold. Impulses such as hopes and aspirations are also key to many instances of positive feedback. Our achievements lead us closer to our goals, which in turn spurs us to redouble our efforts.

Our communication is almost always laden with emotional content. Consider the example of correcting the child running into the street (negative feedback). In the first case he experiences a tidal wave of anger, in the second a gentle swell of caring and concern. A leader can use our instinctive fear of the “Other” to keep us from seeing “aliens” as people who are much like ourselves. In a worst-case scenario, this may engender a spiraling cycle of positive feedback culminating in a campaign of genocide. Or she can appeal to our innate sense of generosity by encouraging us to welcome immigrants as valuable additions to our communities, which kindles a more beneficent cycle, in which the immigrants respond in kind. This in turn leads to increasing levels of mutual appreciation amongst diverse fellow citizens. Of course, it is possible that we will arrive at technically similar immigration policies through appeals to either fear or generosity. However, the way we get there makes a huge difference, because it feeds different emotional qualities that continue to resonate within our communities.

In the realm of ideas, we often experience “aha” moments. It’s not hard, then, to see the difference between a plausible concept and the ideal solution. When we come up with the latter, we can use positive feedback loops to spread helpful innovations. New ideas can also function as correctives (negative feedback) to previous conceptions that were incomplete or erroneous.

Feedback in human systems is always imbued with the qualitative aspects of our nature. Which aspects we choose to engender and communicate will play a critical role in the utility of the feedback we engage in.

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