Understanding Complexity

Throughout the ages humanity’s belief in the power of science is related to its ability to reveal to us the truths of nature and to explain the secrets of the world in which we live. Since Isaac Newton’s discovery that the natural world is regulated by universal laws, a science was born that aimed to explain reality by simplifying it in terms of essential laws and elements. In light of all the technology and advanced methods that are available to science today, one would think that by now all the questions of how nature works should have been answered in principle. A glance through any newspaper easily contradicts this expectation we have from science. In fact, more unsolved problems emerge daily in this search of truth.

New discoveries in various scientific fields of study since the twentieth century showed that the true nature of reality is not knowable by explaining the mysteries of nature by means of simplifying it to its essential elements. An acknowledgement of the complexity of nature and the various ways in which nature and humans interact with one another led to what is now generally known as complexity theory. Understanding that the world is constituted by complex phenomena introduces a new way of looking at and thinking about the natural and social world.

Achieving a sufficient understanding of complex phenomena remains a scientific task that requires innovative ways of doing research. Internationally, complexity theory has established itself over the last two decades as a discipline of central importance, engaging in groundbreaking ways with problems of paramount importance in the human and natural sciences. Complexity theory is recognised worldwide as a theoretical framework with crucial implications for the way we understand the world and how we act in it, specifically in the light of the failure of traditional scientific theories that aim to explain complex phenomena with methods that deny their complexity.

Research done in the field of complexity theory concerns itself with phenomena such as, for example, ecosystems, social and economic systems, the cellular organization that constitute a living organism, the way in which neurons interact in the brain, how meaning arises in language, business management, political tolerance and health systems. From these examples it becomes clear that complexity research challenges scientists to embark on inter-disciplinary journeys in their search for the truth. As another example, Millennium Development Goals such as ensuring environmental sustainability, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and combating HIV/Aids and other diseases can only be approached if the deeply complex nature of these problems is understood.

Complexity is a slippery notion; the term is used in a myriad of contexts. In the natural sciences it is closely associated with what are now called the complexity sciences that model systems with the tools of chaos theory, fractals, cellular automata, artificial life, etc. However, this can be classified under the umbrella of restricted complexity, a term coined by complexity philosopher Edgar Morin. The complex problems that we as world society are confronted with are part of what Morin would call general complexity, a vastly more difficult concept involving self-reflection, emergence, multiple non-linear feedback, circular causality, impredicativity, even contradictions. General complexity can therefore not be captured in a formal language – as a matter of fact, we do not really have a language which can deal with general complexity. As the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen said, we can only approximate an understanding of such complexity by employing a plurality of descriptions or models.

The theme of complexity, which has already produced three multi-author volumes, has been a continuing interest of STIAS. Originally entitled “A critical assessment of new developments in Complexity Theory”, it was initiated by the late complexity philosopher Paul Cilliers and continued by Jannie Hofmeyr, who currently directs the Centre for Studies in Complexity.

Aspects of complexity that could form the basis for projects under this theme are:

  • New approaches to modelling complexity
  • Anticipation and complexity
  • A study of the underlying drivers of complexity in systems
  • How to understand and manage “wicked” problems in socio-ecological systems
  • Regime shifts and tipping points in socio-ecological systems
  • The implication of complexity for ethics

Back to Themes or Application to the STIAS Programme.