Archive for the ‘complexity’ Category


June 19, 2017

Alchemy was an art of all kinds of transmutation and ‘perfection’: of metals, human bodies, souls, agriculture, pottery, politics and so on.

Those alchemists working on metals, usually attempted to transform Mercury, rather than lead, into gold. The lead is a popular story and I’m not sure when it originated. However, the mercury may not be what we call mercury, it is the ‘Mercury of the Philosophers’ which is something completely different but like mercury…. alchemy is confusing in that way.

As many people are aware, Isaac Newton was an alchemist and spent far more effort on alchemy and biblical interpretation than on physics which was simply a sideline. Some have argued that alchemy was important in supporting Newton with the otherwise unpopular idea of action at a distance. Robert Boyle and lots of other members of the original Royal Society were also alchemists, although Newton was the most traditional of all of them and incredibly secretive about what he was doing – as he was with everything. The others tended to exchange notes and procedures.

I have read of people using nuclear reactors to do transmutation of the elements but ,as everyone notes, that is way too expensive at the moment – although it can be taken as demonstrating that alchemy is possible 🙂

There are alchemists operating today doing the work on metals, although they seem to be more interested in medical alchemy than gold making. There are also those who see alchemy as more of a psychological or spiritual procedure.

This psychologizing has a surprisingly long history but, while it simplifies, it basically arises because alchemists generally did not see a difference between interior work and exterior work. Everything was connected, the change in the alchemist was as important as the change in the material, and the two were linked. Everything was mutable. Psychologising also serves the function of explaining why any particular alchemist did not make the transmutation, and further explained and justified the altered states of consciousness that arise through inhaling and tasting various substances and concentrating on being a human thermostat for weeks on end. It may also be true of course 🙂

However, separating the spirit work into its own domain becomes more usual during and after the 17th century. By the late 19th century it was often considered that work on the spirit was the secret of alchemy, probably because it became increasingly difficult to see spirit and matter as related.

More interestingly, Carl Jung argued that Western alchemical symbols arose as a kind of collective dream, acting as compensations for the kind of psyche produced by official Christianity. If that is the case, then alchemy can, even today, act as a map of psychological transformation – what he called individuation. James Hillman expanded on this, pointing out that alchemical symbols actually give us a very concrete embodied way of seeing, feeling and engaging with psyche.

I personally think that alchemical symbols can give us a way of thinking about transformations of all kinds, and that they are particularly useful for thinking about chaotic, complex and messy processes. But that is a subject for another blog post sometime.

How many people might die from climate change?

June 2, 2017

Sorry that is the sort of question which cannot be answered accurately.

Social systems, environmental systems and climate systems are complex systems which means they cannot be predicted in detail. All these systems will be interacting with different forms of landscape – such as low lying areas, loss of glaciers and water and so on. We need all of them to remain stable to make valid detailed predictions. All we can predict is the general trends, and these can be disrupted by rapid changes of state into new systems which may not be human friendly.

The trends are likely to be extreme. People will try and move from parts of the earth which become difficult to live in, because of temperature (heat stroke, heart failure, dehydration), lack of drinking water and sea level rise, and that will likely cause wars – in which people will die as well. The massive storms we have seen will cause deaths as well, as well as disrupt the balance and interconnection of social functioning which will produce more deaths. Destruction of agricultural stability will produce problems with food supply, which is likely to produce malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to the other effects. Tropical diseases will move into what have been temperate climates, as well as be carried by people movement. It is likely that those of us who live in temperate environments will have little resistance to these diseases. We may see some parts of the world which have previously been uninhabitable become open to human life and the great powers will compete over those areas, which is also likely to produce war and death.

We also keep polluting the oceans which will disrupt the climate and ecological systems. Many biologists think that ocean death is possible, this will mean we will lose most of our fish stocks, we may also lose oxygen supplies if the plankton die and we keep cutting down forests, although it is unlikely we will kill ourselves, this will also lessen resilience.

With pro-corporate policies which help corporations release chemicals pollution without much in the way of check we will also poison ourselves and the other creatures and plants we need to live. The results of these chemicals on bio-system evolution cannot be predicted at all…

Basically there are a whole heap of endangering ecological processes going on, of which climate change is only one. What the results of multiple chaotic disruptions will be is absolutely unpredictable. However, it can be predicted that normality is going and that many people will die as a result.

A Defence of PoMo in Politics

April 19, 2017

I’ve seen a few articles recently in which people seem to be blaming Postmodernism for ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump, and for a departure from Enlightenment principles into ‘darkness’. This seems rather a stretch to me.

One of the problems with this position, is that it sees both the enlightenment and post-modernism, as single movements, when they are quite pluralistic: Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault for example, do not have a common project, other than in the sense that people writing at the same time in a similar tradition have commonalities.

I would further suggest that many apparent tenets of post-modernism actually share similarities with people in the enlightenment, and come out of other recognisable modernist sources such as anthropology, linguistics, physics and so on. Cynically, post-modernism as a whole has little interest in the British Enlightenment, because it makes it seem less original as a movement.

Many of the movers of the British enlightenment, which is the Enlightenment I am most familiar with, after a lot of arguing came to what I would claim is the entirely justifiable conclusion that ‘Reason’ was not enough, and that reason without reference to the real world could lead to complete fantasy. If your axioms/assumptions and obvious statements where wrong your conclusions would be wrong. Hence ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘alchemy’ moved into what we call science, in which, as far as possible, statements had to be checked against reality in front of trustworthy, knowledgeable and critical witnesses.

It’s position is we cannot assume things to be true in advance. That will mislead us.

Now, let’s move to a patch of Foucault arguing with Chomsky:

“… you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should — and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. ”

Foucault’s remark is entirely within keeping with these mainstream British Enlightenment Principles – where are these ‘rights’ that people keep talking about? Are they not enshrined in, and derived from, particular political structures – which as Adam Smith, no less, pointed out are there to defend the propertied and the powerful? It may be that the discourse is not entirely consistent, and can be turned against itself. But that does not mean ‘rights’ exist. You would need to show Foucault a historical example of this in action before he might agree to the process working. We are all familiar with the remark attributed to Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – this is more concise and more general than Foucault, but the meaning is similar. We need to change our reason to solve problems.

Likewise Foucault insists that knowledge is intertwined with power. Who is going to argue that Religion has not been intertwined with power and challenges to power and the same seems true of science and economics? We know that commercial science is not always as accurate as independent science. That is why some of us fight for academic funding to be determined by academics rather than corporations, and why others want funding and work conditions to be determined by corporations or corporate principles. To deny this relationship between power and knowledge, seems to be to deny a basic political truth, of which Voltaire and Diderot were not unaware.

I’d also argue that power is intertwined with ignorance, but that is another argument, but it should lead us to caution. Burke’s ‘conservative’ defense of British Tradition against revolution and ‘free markets’ is based upon a distrust in reason, and a trust in the empirical complexity of reality. We may not perceive everything which is going on, or how it all interacts and hence the system needs tending carefully not disrupting ‘reasonably’ according to our fancies. The same kind of proposition is found in functionalist anthropology acting as a defense of ‘native’ societies against colonial disorganization – it foreshadows systems theory, which is vital for understanding ecologies and social interactions with ecologies.

Now as it happens, both Hume and Berkeley disrupted this empiricist stand by showing from empiricist principles that we have no direct access to reality, only to our imagining and habits, or to the imagining done by God in Berkeley’s case. Of course there was the ‘common sense’ reaction to these positions, but it was always within this wider framework as discussed. Reason is not supreme. And a belief in the supremacy of reason leads you to serious misunderstanding of human social functioning.

Derrida further illustrates how this failure of reason and understanding can occur through language. One of his main claims to fame is the infamous argument that there is nothing outside the text. For me, this seems to be saying that humans give things meaning immediately – we treat things as ‘texts’. I don’t know why people get upset with this proposition. To some extent, science is about trying to remove the meanings we give things immediately and giving them meanings which are more in accord with their nature. But we are always prone to bend them to our inner psycho-cultural meanings. And the more obscure, or threatening, the science the more this bending will occur.

Derrida also takes the ‘context dependence’ of meaning seriously. Meaning is delimited by context. That is a fairly standard linguistic understanding. Context is unstable. Different people bring different contexts to the same ‘texts’, consequently meaning is unstable. Add difficulties of cross cultural understanding, historical shifts in the meanings of words and so on, then this becomes even more of an issue. We may be reasoning from assumptions which are mistaken interpretations of some previous work. This is fairly obvious to literary critics. Any relatively complex text will have an almost infinite number of interpretations; although it may not have every possible interpretation – as I commonly say the number of people who seriously argue that Hamlet is about the mating habits of African elephants is remarkably small. However, no valuable text is exhausted of meaning by any particular reading. I also don’t know why this proposition often seems to be considered a terrible thing, as it seems necessary to any kind of understanding.

Indeed one of the problems with understanding Trump and the Trump movement, is that the contexts brought to bear on understanding it’s statements are extremely different; they are so different that people in the same cultural group cannot understand each other. Refusal to accept context dependence, means that much commentary is framed in terms of the stupidity of others, and such statements help to further the separation and lack of understanding and communication.

These positions seem, to me, to be fundamental starting places for political analysis, along with understanding how economic and political ‘truths’ get propagated through organs of power, and they are not hindered by post-modern thought.

Is ‘sustainability’ impossible?

March 27, 2017

1) Human social systems and ecological systems are complex systems.

2) Complex systems are surprising and cannot be predicted in detail, especially over time, only by trend.

3) This means that the systems vary considerably over time. They are not always stable. Quite small actions, accidents or external events can affect the system significantly.

4) The ‘excess’ produced normally in a complex system is part of its resilience to accidents and internal or external variation.

5) If that excess is removed, then the system may become less resilient. There may be times when the excess is needed to make up a ‘natural’ loss of certain participants.

6) We tend to think of systems as sustainable with a fixed excess which can be removed for us to use.

7) Removing this excess in a fixed form renders the system less resilient and more prone to crash. If people keep extracting the same amounts without observing the system, then the system can be completely destroyed.

8) Maintaining ‘sustainability’ of this type, varies from impossible to extremely difficult.

Science and uncertainty….

March 3, 2017

Most forms of human knowledge are fallible.

Despite this, it may need to be recalled, that everything we know about the global despoliation of nature comes from scientific work.

It is scientific work that shows us that ‘nature’ is a vast set of interactive systems, essentially powered by the sun and, occasionally, by global thermal energy.

It is science which shows us that we are dependent upon other people, that we share as part of our nature, and that we compete as part of our nature. The individual only exists because of the group. We are shaped by, and shape cultures (collective ideas, feelings and habits). We emerge from the collective interaction.

It is science that shows we are related to many other Terran life forms, and depend on the interactions of other life forms. It is science that shows us our bodies and minds are fractious colonies.

Science shows us that natural systems are inherently complex and unpredictable in detail. Natural systems are unstable and subject to contingency and accident. They eventually escape human ordering, although we can disrupt them.

Science shows us that eventually, at particular times, there are natural limits. It is capitalism and developmentalism which insist these limits can always be overcome, and hence are prone to lead to lead to disaster

Intelligence as Obstacle

January 3, 2017
Given evolutionary theory, then all intelligence must have developed to deal with ‘real world situations’ and problems, and that these situations and problems include the exploratory capacities of bodies, the effects of interaction with other bodies and the range of sensory inputs available.

Such a position does not mean that intelligence is transparent or accurately perceives the world, just that it has been good enough to get its holders through previous evolutionary paths. It may not be good enough for current and future problem solving.

Some evolved intelligences may have built in ‘pitfalls’ which were useful in dealing with previous problems, but generate significant problems later on, which the intelligence is vulnerable to and incapable of recognising. The intelligence may not perceive the consequences until they accumulate and it is too late, or path dependence is too established for easy change.

I’m going to suggest that ‘intelligence’ is not primarily an essence or an ability, but a set of embodied tools, models and filters of information. The first step in any intelligence is to filter out the relevant features of the situation, out of the infinite things it is possible to notice.

The tools an organism can use, make up its capacity for intelligence, and may influence the ease with which the intelligence is used.

My argument is that established tools can get in the way of ‘functional intelligence’, and as a further obstacle for humans and probably for other creatures as well, tools are often cultural and bound into power relations, so certain tools can be hard to use, or communicate.

Tools, also, generally have bodily material results – which include things like wealth and power/status/respect – they become part of social conflicts and so on, and thus difficult to use effectively.

I suspect something like this is happening with ‘technological’ development/climate change at the moment. Perhaps, we were roughly competent up until steam engine time, but since then we have multiplied our destructiveness, and not improved our basic tool set/intelligence.

That plenty of people do see the problems, yet nothing effective is done, is one good reason for questioning our cultural intelligence. After all life is at stake here. If we know that a series of events spells ‘doom’ (of some sort) and we cannot do anything effective, then our intelligence, for dealing with the situation (in this case produced by our intelligence) seems limited.

Yes reality will hit people in the head eventually and disrupt them, but that still does not mean anything will be done, or anything effective will be done – or perhaps even noticed. The official intelligence may well prevent it.

It could be said that reality is hitting us back already, and its not having much effect. Feedback is still not entering the intelligence tool system…..

We can hope that the incompetency is cultural and organizational, and can be overcome, simply by fighting against current modes of organization and reward – but as powerful people benefit from the incompetence’s of those organisations, it will be hard.

The ideas of complexity and symbiosis, as described in previous posts, may provide some elements of that new set of tools.

Souls, Cyborgs and Symbiotes

January 3, 2017
I’ve been reading Donna Haraway again and that leads to certain reflectionsThe three terms – ‘souls’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘symbiotes’ seem to summarise different approaches towards the body and the world, and I suggest that the idea of ‘symbiotes’ suggests a fruitful way of acting towards the ourselves and the world, which could provide a better framework for problem solving and general understanding

‘Soul’, as the term is usually used, implies that everything important (or eternal) about the human is separated from, and independent of, the material world. Usually with this theory the world and the body are obstacles to the perfection of the soul, distractions at best, to be dominated or despised in any case. The body and nature tend to be seen in terms of ‘their’ unholy demands and needs, even as inherently hostile. They must be shut up, shut down or disciplined. Death opens the way to freedom, as the world is a prison and punishment

In this theory, the soul seems usually to be assumed to be what I’ll call ‘the ego’, clear conscious thought untroubled by the world, independent of all physics. The “I am”. Things that disrupt the imagined perfection and singularity of the soul are usually held to stem from the flesh… sex, hunger, pain, disease and so on.

Oddly, there is plenty of Christian theology which suggests that humans are trinities (soul, spirit and flesh) not binaries. However these variants easily get lost despite the importance of their writers (St Paul, Augustine etc). Furthermore, the idea of the resurrection of the dead implies that God wants us to be a body, so bodies could be holy. Other religions are equally flesh despising: *some* forms of Hinduism and Buddhism for example. Christianity is not altogether to blame for this situation.

Some post Jungians (Hillman, Moore etc) use the term ‘soul’ to emphasise the mystery of the psyche, its messiness, and the importance of image and feeling; but it is probably never a good idea to use a familiar term for an unfamiliar meaning, as the old meanings can come through implicitly. I’d prefer to stay with Jung’s ‘psyche’, as that is much now a rarer word and can be given precisely these connotations and does not have to make claims to immortality or purity of some sort or other.

The cyborg idea seems to derive from soul tradition. In it, the human, is independent of any particular body. It can be downloaded into machinic immortality. The body becomes a tool to be engineered or altered to have new capacities, subject to the demands of the ego. Nature has no independent rights. “Pave the earth” seems a cyborg slogan.

Cyborg theory like soul theory, implies that intelligence can be disembodied (‘light’) or unaffected by embodiment. Yet, it seems reasonably obvious (assuming evolutionary theory) that all intelligence must have developed to deal with ‘real world situations’, and these include the exploratory capacities of bodies, interaction between bodies, and the range of sensory inputs available.

This does not mean that intelligence is transparent and accurately perceives the world, just that it has been good enough to solve the problems of previous evolutionary paths (not necessarily the problems of future or current paths).

Haraway, as I’ve argued elsewhere, used the cyborg manifesto to argue against a ‘goddess feminism’ that stripped women of technology and idealised nature, but she got caught in the soul trap of cyborgism. She has over the last 10 or so years, revised her metaphor to talk of companion species, or of symbiotes.

Her point is, that in a ‘natural’ world people depend on other creatures and ecologies, they exist along with other beings/events. We have relationships with pets and other animals. Sometimes deep relationships, relationships of unknown complexity and mutuality, even with predators. Bodily, we are composed of cellular and sub cellular life forms existing in colonies. Our mind is multiple, composed of many functions acting together and apart. There is no clear point of ego; mind exists in the circumstances, or contexts, of its existence; it is not separate but dependent. We are part of greater social intelligences as well. Everything is diffuse with strange boundaries. This does not mean that we, and others, cannot try and enforce boundaries to protect ourselves, that too is ‘natural’, but it is hard, sometimes self-destructive, and not always necessary.

This realisation is important for the way we relate to our bodies and nature. In soul theory bodies are only slaves, obstructions, or illusions. The normal mode of response in this framework, is to despise them, and drive them to labour under the dominance of someone’s ego.

In cyborg theory, nature, the self and the body is a tool to be exploited, and abandoned when it fails the utilitarian demands of the ego – again labour is the metaphor and relationship.

In symbiote theory, we depend on our body and the world. That body and world has its own multiple intelligences and imperatives. It does not always do what we want (what we want may be incorrect, we may need to talk with and learn from our obstacles. ‘The body’ may have its own paths to healing, it may rebel intelligently against our slave-driving or our enforced refusal of relationship).

At worst our body is like a pet; we can love it and pet it, relate to it, look after it (as it looks after us). We can treat it with respect as a symbiote, a fellow creature, and we open ourselves to relationships of many kinds, not just labour.

Most pet owners will probably treat their pets better than they treat their bodies. Perhaps they should extend that affection, love and care to ‘their’ bodies and the world, and see what happens?

It will be hard and will take time, but this might be an idea which transforms everything.

Disorder is expected

November 20, 2016

Disorder is expected. We all ‘know’ this but it rarely seems that we factor it into our lives, or into the life of the planet – we expect order and smooth transition. We even pretend that our messes are ordered, and condemn the messes of others.

What we label as ‘disorder’ arises because of the complexity and unpredictability which is embedded in the interactive processes of the cosmos. Biology increases the complexity effects. We might say “the more something is alive, the more unpredictable its behaviour will be”.

This again we know, but we still act as if we expect people and events will be predictable.

I would suggest that in the West this arises because of propositions which appear theological, but can be held in a slightly different form by atheists as well:

1) As there is one God, there is only one fixed order, and that is right and good.

2) If God only makes order, then the devil and disobedient or ignorant humans, make the chaos we observe.

Neither of these propositions seems correct. If there is a God, then that God appears to make complexity (complex systems), and that complexity ensures unpredictability in detail. If so, then God is not a dictator, enables free will, almost guarantees that events will escape human control, and welcomes surprise (within limits).

The idea that God makes order and the devil makes chaos reinforces the false dichotomy between order and chaos, and the idea that what we perceive as order is good and what we perceive as chaos is bad. It also implies that if you think you know what the correct order, or correct good, is, then you are entitled to impose that order and goodness upon reality. It ignores the probability that your orders may have unintended consequences because complex reality escapes your understanding and control, when that is normal.

In this view, the normal disorders of the natural world, or the disorderly results of well intentioned actions, are evidence of ungodly threat and hostility to virtue, rather than something which must be taken into account. People in this mindset frequently seem to argue that as the order they want is good, then if their actions do not produce the results they want there must a conspiracy against them, and the order must be imposed with even more thoroughness and the conspirators suppressed or scapegoated.

To exaggerate slightly, for such people, the only safe nature seems to be one that is concreted over, dead, or heavily polluted, marked by fences and neat rows, as that is nature with human order imposed as rigorously as possible.

The contrary view implies that human knowledge is limited and that we cannot live in complete control or complete certainty; unintended consequences and disruptions are normal. This means our actions have to be experimental; that is we perform them and see what happens and then adjust. We have to attend to reality.

In the old view failure is punishment or the active work of evil beings, in the newer view, failure and correcting that failure – as best as we can – is how we learn.

Ecology and Disorder

November 12, 2016
  1. When a complex system such as an ecology, or an economy (and both are linked) is disrupted, so that it begins to move outside of an equilibrium, the results are unpredictable.
  2. The behavior of the system is fundamentally uncertain, and cannot be dealt with by ideas of risk, which suggest numeric and often constant probabilities for events. In these kinds of disrupted systems both events and probabilities are unknown.
  3. We can, however, assume trends. Weather events will almost certainly become more uncertain and more extreme. The anthropologist Hans Baer, has suggested using the term ‘Climate Turmoil’ rather than ‘climate change’ for the simple reason that it is more accurate of what we can expect. Climate change suggests a smooth linear change, not the tumultuous, disorderly change which is likely, and which we need to prepare for and lessen.
  4. Unfortunately, it would appear that socially, we are resistant to accepting fundamental uncertainty. We try and trap reality in our visions of order, and that leads to further chaos. Businesses and governments like to pretend that they can predict the future, so that they can keep their power relations intact and their success coming. Scientists sometimes do the same when they predict that particular places will have particular weather patterns in 20 years.
  5. But unfortunately it is what we have been doing to produce what we have defined as ‘success’ that seems to have caused the problem. Burning coal, for example, has been one factor responsible for the success and dominance of Western civilization and its modes of organisation. It now threatens that civilization’s success. In reality, burning coal threatens nearly everyone on the planet.
  6. We need to radically accept disorder and uncertainty as part of life, and act as if fundamental change is both happening and is being produced by what has produced success in the past. That way we can try something new, and hope to conserve some of what we have.