Embracing the ‘new science’ of complexity – Fellows’ seminar by Jean Boulton

6 May 2019

“Complexity theory is positioned as a ‘new science’, a post-modern science with a strong focus on process and pattern,” said Jean Boulton of the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. “It provides an important challenge to the dominance of worldviews informed by classical science, to what we see as science, and to what being ‘scientific’ means.”

“If the challenge of science is to address ‘how things are’, and ‘how things change’, then the positivist ontologies of classical science cannot capture the rich, organic, context-sensitive, emergent and systemic nature of the interdependent societies and ecologies of which we are a part,” she continued. “Complexity theory allows for the possibility of returning to a more integrative, holistic ‘natural philosophy’, in which what is considered science and what is considered outwith science (intuitions, pre-science, body wisdom, ‘spiritual’ experiences, deep connections to nature and, indeed, what is unknowable to the human body and mind) can be brought together.”

“I discovered complexity theory in the late 1990s,” she added. “It has remained a personal passion not just an academic interest. I believe if we embrace complexity we would do a much better job of handling some of the big global issues like climate change.”

Boulton - 1
STIAS fellow Jean Boulton during her seminar presentation on 2 May 2019

Boulton presented a wide-ranging talk aimed at positioning complexity theory within the realm of science, considering the trends in the field, and focusing on its ontology. She provided examples of its applicability for the social and natural world, and considered what it means for understanding and acting in complex contexts. She also presented some ideas on the reframing of science in light of complexity, and what it would mean for science to embrace experiences that go beyond the objective and the real.

She traced the timeline of scientific theories from Newtonian mechanical science and equilibrium thermodynamics. “The first of these, adopted as a mainstream idea by management, worked on the premise that things operate like a machine – a closed system, predictable, unchanging, based on linear cause and effect. In contrast, the notion of equilibrium was adopted by classical economics in particular and the idea that social and economic systems will naturally return to balance and harmony underpins many frameworks and methods. But both theories apply to closed systems, and neither have a place for learning, surprise and adaptation.”

Boulton asked: “Can we be sure that these theories, adopted from physics, are really a good fit for the social and natural world?”

“In contrast,” she said, “Evolutionary science contains the idea that the future cannot be known and yet builds on what is already there. That things evolve to suit local conditions and that diversity and messiness lead to change in co-operative synergy. These ideas had a significant impact in many fields in the following decades – anthropology, psychology, literature and, through the central notion of indeterminacy, physics.”

“Complexity science, following Ilya Prigogine, is where physics is in tune with evolution. It’s a science of open systems where new patterns are shaped by the particularites of the past and the context; where variation and messiness are necessary; where not everything is knowable; where there is more than one future.”

“It’s about challenging accepted wisdom and asking new questions. It asks us to challenge the dominant scientific assumptions that are often hidden and to move beyond evidence to knowledge.”

“It encourages us to stop seeking the right way – there isn’t one.”

“But, as many people say, so what?” she asked. “Is it just a helpful description or does it give us ideas of what to do?”

“I believe strongly that complexity theory has a role to play in the world of practice by rattling the cage of certainty and providing critique and explanation about the way the world works.”

Jean introduced a model of how she works with complexity thinking with organisations to analyse complex contexts. She explained a specific example centred on the Syrian crisis.

“Syrian was not seen as a particularly fragile state before the crisis, yet the social safety nets had been dismantled, there was severe drought and many economic and environmental refugees started to migrate towards the cities, giving a sense of threat and malaise to the government. Measures of fragile states tend to look at current factors such as infrastructure, economy, education – and through these measures Syria seemed robust. But when you pay more attention to the dynamics of change, to the way socio-econo-environmental patterns were changing, you would have put it much further up a list of fragile states.”

“We have to take a dynamical view in analysing complex contexts. We have to explore the past – the historical development, the pattern development. We also have to explore the present systemically, taking both a wider perspective around any issue and a more granular perspective. Equally we need to foresight into the future, to anticipate what might happen which might affect what we should do now. And we need to look for qualitative change, for ‘emerging shoots of change’ and not wait until things are settled and quantifiable before we pay them attention.”

Boulton said that, as well as the adoption of complexity thinking within business and in the not-for-profit sector in particular, there is increasing interest in academia. She pointed to areas within her own academic environment in which complexity theory is having a substantial influence including public health, education, social policies and international development.

Boulton went on to outline her developing interests in taking complexity theory further ‘beyond the real’. “Complexity theory,” she said, “is viewed as a realist project, situated with an emergent form of critical realism. But it can also be extended to include the numinous, intuition, dreams, tacit knowledge, that which is hard to know and even that which is unknowable. These things have agency in the world, so to ignore them gives only a partial view of what is creating change.”

She is particular drawn to the strong resonance between complexity and Daoist thinking, and views complexity as processual, “from being to becoming” as Prigogine called it. She quoted a commentary on the Dao de Jing:

“In this processual worldview, our experience is composed of fluid, porous events that entail both persistence and the spontaneous emergence of novelty, both continuity and disjunction.”

She went on to quote process theologian, Catherine Keller:

“The way of this mystery, the wonder of its process, is not justified by its endpoint. It wanders ahead in time and space. Yet each step matters. The mystery draws us on …”

Boulton pointed out that this process view of theology, yet again is very much in resonance with complexity thinking.

She then touched on how ideas on time and space from quantum gravity as discussed by Carlo Rovelli, capture the idea that there is no underlying absolute substratum; that “the path is created by walking it”. She mentioned that cosmologist Lee Smolin and complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman both posit whether the central energising factor of the universe is, in fact, evolution.

“This resonance between ancient philosophies, complexity theory and the latest thinking on quantum gravity have a surprising similarity, which, starts to engage with metaphysical considerations,” she said.

She ended by asking, “Is there a sense of ‘mind’ within matter? Is that immanence what process theologians are pointing to?” This integration of science and spirituality is the direction of her current thinking.

“But I feel humble as I think into these grand ideas,” she added. “I am only just starting to tread in this territory. My ideas have already been much enriched since being at STIAS and interacting with people from other disciplines and I welcome continuing to deepen those connections.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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