Respect for Complexity Makes Democracy Possible

We’ve all had conversations where someone has fallen into the temptation to argue that simplicity is the most necessary quality for anything that can stand the test of time. But the natural world builds resilience into systems of all kinds by fostering unrelenting complexity; the key feature that makes complexity work is the intelligence with which diverse and competing interests fit together to achieve the wider aim of standing up against external threats, decay and decline.

In the landscape of public policy, this means rethinking our attitude about the problematic complexity inherent in dealing independently with a wide variety of diverse and competing stakeholder interests. It is, of course, easier for those who have to decide what adjustments to make, regarding any policy or practice, to exclude most stakeholders and only answer the needs of those whose interests fit simply and comfortably with their own. But then, that is not democracy.

If we are to live up to the noble and grandiose expectations democracy presents us with, we need to be prepared to grapple with the human complexity of the human social landscape. One-size-fits-all fixes for social and economic problems are rarely effective in all cases, just as one-size-fits-all clothing cannot possibly fit every size person equally well. So people and institutions need flexibility, but the resulting complexity needs to manifest an intelligent approach to enabling and encouraging constructive complexity.

What does that mean in practice?

It means first of all taking stock: unrelenting complexity is the way of the universe in which we live. Every action, every phenomenon, every interaction, pursuit, success or failure, of any kind, feeds into a future of diverging complex interactions and represents a past convergence of complex interactions, spanning the widest scope imaginable, and beyond. Complexity is not an outlandish tendency of troubled souls and pretentious intellects; it is the basic state of nature as we know it.

The more we discover, the more certain we can be of this: even elemental particles are less solid than they seem, behaving like tightly bound arrangements of spherical bodies —irreducible monads—, they apparently achieve this physics by behaving like something they are not (now widely accepted in particle physics, “string theory” proposes that elemental particles are actually 2-dimensional vibrating “strings” whose vibration causes them to interact as if they were not strings at all).

The human body is an astonishingly complex organism, programming with viral code (DNA) the arrangement, development and physical or chemical task assigned to each cell, organ and extremity. The brain is so complex, we can only begin to grasp it as “circuitry”, though it processes information through chemical processes that allow it to achieve many millions of times more computational capacity than even the most advanced neural networks.

Consciousness is part of this, or is the result of this, but we can say almost nothing with certainty about how consciousness itself arises. We know there is a complexity too vast for us to define or contain in the space of one theory, one sentence, one idea. Complexity is everywhere, and all that we treasure and long to protect has its roots in that natural privileging of complexity.

If we first admit this, we can work with complexity, instead of fearing it.

  For many, the mystical or spiritual approach still yields the best explanation: a force more powerful than the sum of all things, a conscious creator, a God, an energy field that pervades and unites all other phenomena. Jean-Luc Marion calls it the saturated phenomenon: that reality so vast it could never be approached by human understanding, which is quickly saturated and overwhelmed by all the lesser component phenomena, and which —as limited by time and mortality, by the laws of physics, which prevent simultane multifocal presence, being in two places at once— cannot possibly acquire enough information to even initiate a viable definition of what lies beyond saturation.

But, we now understand that simple complexities abound, even within reach of our limited phenomenological potential: five senses feed into one consciousness, which also in optimal conditions absorbs information through language, through text, by way of human gestures, settings, emotions, by fearing and desiring, by approaching or getting distance from an object of its attention, by creating, by dissecting, by appreciating or by competing with other realities.

The depth of that “other reality”, the reality of the vast multiplicity of otherness, existing “out there”, but also deep within the basic structure of our body, our physical existence, our chemical awareness of self, that complexity is the lifeblood of what makes being human more interesting to us than being a mass of granite.

We have a right to complexity.

In this light, complexity is really a fundamental truth for us all, and as such is increasingly a right of every conscious individual. We are entitled to experience, to seek to know, to indulge in and to express complexity, entitled because complexity is what the human life is made of.

Simplicity, living a “simple life” as it is often called, a life away from the chaos of big cities, even the aesthetics of “clean edges” or a so-called minimalist style, are all complexities designed by the individual or by human surroundings, to indulge an aspect of our humanity that we prize above others. In the complex and intertwined human relationships that comprise today’s global village, in friendships that exist across far borders, as with diplomatic negotiations, we can find there is something deeper and more true, more accurately applicable to the human element in that connection, in the contradictions, in the vast terrain of “gray area”, in the relational vortex that is neither black-and-white nor non-negotiable.

We find that one moment’s staple truth is another moment’s straightjacket, that we evolve, not just as a species, but as individual spirits, to consume and to make contact with an ever-broader range of information —not so we can be corrupted and post-modernized, but rather—, so we can better adapt to environmental factors, and carry out the natural imperative of survival and procreation.

We need to understand the practical functioning of natural complexity.

  Natural ecosystems depend upon a bewildering degree of complexity to remain dynamic, adaptable, resilient. The degree of elasticity in an ecosystem —its ability to absorb harmful interactions or infusions of matter or energy— determines its “fitness” for survival in the wilds of geological changes over time.

Climate variations and intrusive organisms can up-end a seemingly balanced and harmonious ecosystem suddenly, leading to disaster for its most habitat-dependent species; the degree of biodiversity, of food-web complexity, of climate-elastic characteristics, determines the long-term viability of an ecosystem, and by extension the possibility for relative homeostasis in surrounding ecosystems or the broader natural environment. This elasticity issue also affects directly how human civilization is able to interact with the natural environment.

Where monoculture cropping exists, meaning only one variety of a given species of plant is cultivated, an entire agricultural economy can be in danger of sudden collapse, as happened in Ireland in the 19th century, due to its dependence on a single variety of potato. All human activities depend on the persistence of natural “services” that emerge from complex webs of relational phenomena — basically, for example: what happens to rainwater after it hits the ground, how much is absorbed into the soil? or runs to the sea? what force does this give to river currents across a given region?

We cannot say that poverty is caused by ignorance or by negligence or by laziness. We cannot say that wealth is caused by knowledge or by perseverance or by merit. There is no clear answer to such questions, because the relational data is so multifaceted, so layered, so many-threaded and intertwined, it is effectively impossible to make singular declarative statements of universal truth that ably define all related circumstances.

So we must travel to the frontiers of our awareness, and seek out the best and newest information, the closest thing we can get to the actual experience of another point of view, and we must shape composite ideas, that play well in our own and in others’ narratives. And if we understand how fundamentally human this process is, we can better understand why democracy is necessary for instituting a legitimate government among human beings.

Respect for complexity makes democracy possible.

Complexity means you can be part of more than one world, and remain free and whole at the same time, even worthy of the trust and good will of others. This is the universal aspiration of people everywhere who long to be citizens of a free society: that they not be narrowly defined by only one characteristic, perceived or real: not by ethnicity, religion, nationality, place of birth, family connections, socio-economic standing, education, ideology, tastes or talents, not by any one alone, but as the whole person each of us imagines ourselves to be.

Without this ability to work through the complexities of plural-interest relationships, we cannot ably locate or respect the freedom of the other, which means in a world now globally interconnected, we cannot guarantee our own. Science is demonstrating that, while elegant theories can be crafted to make universal statements of fact —E=mc2, for instance, or the idea that all matter is really just impossibly minuscule vibrating strings—, complexity is better able to explain what really is the truth of the physical universe than is simplicity.

Elegant theories do not eliminate complexity; they harmonize with it.

Our choice, then, is either to understand that we must never stop inquiring, we must never claim there is nothing more to learn, and embrace complexity and the work of living within it, or ignore it, build up superstitious complaints against its effects, and hope for the best.

Technology has reached a level of complexity such that most people could not fashion from scratch most of the basic tools they use to get through their everyday existence: this is a demonstration of complexity, a trust in complexity, in the virtue of its vast efficacy and in the possibility that we can work with its relentless and ever-present insistence.

The thing we need to be pursuing is the right approach to working with complexity, not the means by which to erase it from our consciousness. It is by recognizing the complexity in and around us that we will be better able to deal with complex challenges, and also provide for the protection and elevation of the complexities that make each citizen of our world worthy and unique.

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Originally published February 20, 2011, at 


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