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Complexity, Chaos and Creativity:

A Journey beyond System Thinking


Vladimir Dimitrov


Introduction

1. System Thinking versus Complexity Thinking in Exploring Reality

1.1 System Thinking: World Made of Systems and Parts

1.2 System Thinking: Obsession with Goals and the Future

1.3 Complexity Thinking: Centering in the Present


2. Danger of System Thinking when Applied for Managing Social Complexity

2.1 Socially Dangerous Attributes of System Thinking

2.2 System Thinking at Service to Orwellian Type of Social Order

2.3 The Phenomenal Brainwash in Society


3. Complexity, Chaos and Creativity in Action: The Maieutic Inquiry

3.1 Socratic Method of Inquiry

3.2 Example 1

3.3 Conditions Facilitating Emergence of New Insights

3.4 Example 2

Conclusion

Refereneces
 
 
 

Introduction


The innovative breakthrough of Complexity and Chaos theory has illuminated a new way of thinking - complexity thinking, with much greater capacity for understanding complex phenomena and processes than systems thinking.

With complexity thinking, seemingly chaotic unfolding of life in nature and society is seen as a manifestation of creativity inherent in the all-embracing wholeness of existence. The way creativity 'speaks' is through the spontaneity of emergence, through the power of self-organization and evolution. Every single embryo, nay, every single germ emerges out of complex dynamic interaction of substances, forces and energies of different nature and with different degrees of interwovenness and intensity.  Once emerged, the germ evolves in a unique rhythm that reflects the rhythm of the whole universe.

Mathematical discoveries of Complexity and Chaos relate to the field of nonlinear dynamics where the study and computer modeling of emergent dynamic patterns, of self-organizing and co-evolving coherent structures play a central role. The same phenomena are of vital significance when trying to grasp the ups and downs of human life and the rhythm of changes in nature and society.

The key mathematical concepts of Complexity and Chaos, such as strange attractors, fractals, fitness landscapes, bifurcation diagram, self-organizing criticality, simulated annealing and edge of chaos, are holistic; they are used to describe and understand nonlinear behaviour, i.e. a behavior that makes sense only when studied as a whole. Such is the behavior of nature and humans. That is why, the mathematics of Complexity and Chaos evokes powerful insights for holistic understanding of the intricate interplay of factors, almost infinite in number, that permanently influence people's co-existence with nature and with one another.

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1. System Thinking versus Complexity Thinking in Exploring Reality

 

1.1 System Thinking: World Made of Systems and Parts


Unlike the holistic standpoint of complexity thinking, systems thinking, be it 'hard' or 'soft', deterministic or probabilistic, exploratory or intervention-oriented, is always focussed on some pre-selected part; this part is called a system. The system inevitably has its own boundary that makes it distinguishable from the rest of the world. The functioning of the system is according to a specific partial truth (provable in a strictly limited, pre-defined area of operation); the system thinker strongly believes in this partial truth, works on it, explores it deeper and deeper.

While working with partial truths, system thinkers see the world made of parts (systems, sub-systems, components, elements, particles) that can be separated and analysed independently from one another. The underlying assumption is that the whole is more than the parts, where 'more' usually relates to 'more complicated' or 'more difficult to study and understand'; consequently, the parts are simpler and therefore easier for studying and understanding. For artificial (human-made) systems, such an assumption can be accepted. In nature and society, this assumption fails.

The microcosm is not simpler than the macrocosm; the same inseparably connected dynamics ? energies and forces that make the spiral of our galaxy fold and stretch pulsate in a similar way through any living cell of our organism. The life of a single individual is not simpler that the life of society considered as a whole.  In the fractal structure of nature, revealed by Mandelbrot [1], the whole consists of wholes, only the scale changes. The scale of an atom's nucleus is different than the scale of the sun, but the 'whole' consisting of atom's nucleus and the orbits of the electrons that this nucleus attracts is similar to the 'whole' consisting of the sun and the orbits of the heavenly bodies that the sun attracts.

While seeing existence as a holistic manifestation of inseparably interwoven dynamics, complexity thinking deals with concepts like strange attractors, fractals, self-organizing criticality, edge of chaos, etc. These concepts are not in the vocabulary of the system thinkers.
 

1.2 System Thinking: Obsession with Goals and the Future


System thinking is goal-oriented: there are always pre-defined goals and objectives, which system must achieve, and there are always prescribed requirements and criteria, which system must satisfy. As the achievement of any goal happens always in the future, system thinking is obsessed with prediction and generating plans, blueprints, time-schedules and scenarios. The obsession with future tends to grow up to a such degree that system thinkers start to lose the ability to distinguish between the present and the future; by looking at any present situation with an intent to shape it according to goals and objectives anchored in future, they often find themselves substituting their plans, expectations, promises, dreams and illusions for reality. This kind of substitutions is typical for the political and economic system thinking.

With complexity thinking, one can easily see the reason why system thinkers are so preoccupied with the future. The swirling dynamics of life hardly tolerate pre-defined goals and objectives, pre-set requirements and criteria, long-term predictions, plans, blueprints and scenarios - most of them turn to be meaningless or illusory when the future becomes present; so, the only way to meaningfully discuss their 'realness' is by keeping them attached to a 'tomorrow', which, unfortunately, never comes.
 

1.3 Complexity Thinking: Centering in the Present


Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impact on the further development of this process. It is an impossible task to make the 'butterfly effect' follow any goal-oriented strategy and any targets' setting anchored in the future.

While centered in the present, complexity thinking has a capacity not only to see the emergent phenomena at the moments when they happen, but also to capture signals related to their potential occurrence beforethese moments. And this is of crucial importance, if the emergent phenomena could affect negatively the unfolding of life. In contrast, being constantly centered at various goals and targets attached to the future, system thinking can see the emergence only after it has occurred, that is, when it is too late to undertake anything for preventing its occurrence. This explains today's impotence of system thinking to cope with the ecological complexity. Being mostly preoccupied with all kinds of 'ecologically sustainable' goals and dreams for 'clean technologies', with a great deal of local projects for tomorrow's 'environmentally-friendly developments' and noisy preparation of world-wide forums about how to make the planet a 'better place to live' for the future generations, ecological system thinking is unable to stop the ever-accelerating tempo of environmental destruction that happens today.

Another important advantage of complexity thinking is its awareness of the self-organizing capacity of the present. This awareness helps complexity thinkers to seed new emergent phenomena and to facilitate initiation of new processes that are coherent with the self-organization and therefore realizable.

Complexity thinking does not try to fight with chaotic attractors that emerge out of the turbulent flow of human life, does not consider application of any intervention aimed at 'improving' them. Attempts to improve chaotic attractors are similar to attempts to 'improve' the whirlpools in a mountain river - an entirely senseless task! Chaotic attractors reveal the self-organizing nature of complex dynamics, and to fight with self-organization means to lose: nature is always stronger than the individuals who fight with it. But what complexity thinking is able to do (and successfully does!) is to seed the emergence of new attractors.

As all the attractors pulsating in the 'phase space' of life have a common supply of energy, when the energy flow directed for nourishing newly planted attractors grows in volume and intensity, the energy supply to the other attractors automatically decreases and, if not supported any further, the other attractors simply 'shrink' and dissolve. There is no need to use any specially designed strategy to intervene or fight with the attractors.

In the creative acts of seeding and nourishing new attractors in harmony with the self-organizing power of complexity and in removing the obstacles that prevent this power from realization, as full as possible, of its creative potential, lie the secrets of 'improvement' of chaotic dynamics.
 

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2. Danger of System Thinking when Applied for Managing Social Complexity

2.1 Socially Dangerous Attributes of System Thinking


Prediction, target setting and goal achievements are essential attributes of system thinking; they work effectively in a linearly ordered environment, where the changes in system's inputs are proportional to the changes in system's outputs and the cause-effect relationships are transparent enough to be discerned.  Because of this, whenever system thinkers (system analysts, system designers, system developers) explore real life situations, they automatically turn to models that allow prediction, target setting and goal achievement.  As far as any non-trivial life situation represents a realization of some chaotic process, which is difficult to predict or orientate towards pre-defined goals and targets, system thinkers intensely try to invent ways to 'improve' chaos, that is, to substitute it with models of order. (Trivial situations in life are habitual ones; they are characterised by repetition and monotony. People are usually involved in such kind of situations without being aware of them, in a robot-like manner.)

In society, the 'improvements' of chaotic behaviour, based on system thinking, gravitate to establishment of hierarchical models of order. When put into operation, such models of order serve to assert power and control. So, almost in an invisible way, the application of system thinking to social reality contributes in strengthening the power-oriented aspirations and ambitions in society. The sphere of economics and politics is saturated with such kind of aspirations and ambitions; L. Victor [2] refers to them as a "Global Free Market Capitalist Religion" , which he calls a "metastasizing cancer on humankind".

For those who think systemically, chaos has been always considered as a synonym of disorder, and disorder means collapse of any optimally adjusted regime of a system's functioning. That is why, chaos is anathema for the system interventionists obsessed with the idea of "improvement" of systems' behaviour, where "to improve" means simply "to impose a pre-designed model of order" or "to make system follow a prescribed set of rules".

For complexity thinking, chaos involves all the spectrum of potential dynamic orders that might emerge; therefore, it is opposite to disorder. Chaotic dynamics of life's manifestation are impregnated with creativity. To 'improve' or 'fix' chaos, with an absurd intent to turn it into order, means to eradicate its creative potential and thus to kill the life.

Chaos is anathema for everyone who yearns to exercise control in nature or society, and never stops to dream about continuous exploitation of natural resources (publicly referring to such an exploitation as "sustainable" and "clean") or about a society that is easy to be manipulated and controlled - a society consisting of robot-like individuals with predictable behavior. To such kind of society, system thinking is perfectly applicable. Goal-oriented systems of various kinds can be easily built, well-trained individuals can be attached to each system with a simple instruction to follow the prescribed rules. Those who resist following the rules will be punished or 'educated' or persistently brainwashed and manipulated until they 'voluntarily' turn into smoothly moving parts of an easy-to-manage system mechanism. In this type of orwellian social order, demonstrated in any totalitarian state, what matters are not individuals but The System, Its Boundaries, and Its Rules.
 

2.2 System Thinking at Service to Orwellian Type of Social Order


The application of system thinking to social complexity contributes to establishment of Orwellian type of social order.

The first major reasons this to happen is deeply rooted in the system philosophy: according to the main premise of system thinking, the 'whole is more than the parts', and therefore the relationships and interaction between the constituents matter much more than the constituents themselves. If the whole is more than the part, and this is what system thinkers used to persistently underline, then why to bother so much about the parts? It is enough for the parts to have their specified positions in the hierarchy of the system, to have their interrelated boxes in the overall map of the system's organization, their constraints and boundaries (social, economic, religious, etc.). Let the parts function 'freely' inside their boundaries; but watch carefully for their relationships and the sets of rules that underpin these relationships!

Once the relationships between the parts are established so that to guarantee optimal functioning of The System (which for today's global free market economy means simply to guarantee an ever-increasing flow of money going to a strictly limited network of people and organizations with greatest economical power, and hence with greatest ability for political influence in the world), the rules underpinning the web of relationships must be followed without demur. Marionettes-like governments and corrupted police, various institutions of military, technocratic and educational type, an army of bureaucrats and commissioners with controlling, legal and financial functions, a great number of experts, consultants, preachers, and entertainers - all they contribute The System to function properly, that is, according to the Establishment. If they do this, The System grants them Its support.

2.3 The Phenomenal Brainwash in Society


The politicians and the mass media must take care for a continuous brainwash to go with an ever-accelerating tempo in The System. Without well-designed socio-political manipulations and charismatic political speeches and promises (cleverly designed to hide actions often undertaken in directions entirely opposite to what the manipulative speeches and promises indicate), and without an endless flow of 'creative' advertisements to keep consumption-oriented desires of people at the highest possible level (and thus to keep their ability to understand and unmask the manipulations, with which they are unceasingly bombarded, at the lowest possible level), The System cannot survive.  The phenomenal brainwash in society serves to suppress any spontaneous and hence difficult to control expression of self-organizing ability of complex social dynamics. If released, this ability could be a threat to the  functioning of The System.

Formally, system thinking acknowledges the power of self-organization hidden in complex social dynamics, but considers it as something that needs to be harnessed and put under control in order to serve the system's goals, as far as these goals (objectives, aims, targets, purposes) have the highest priority in system thinking. And this is the second major reasonwhy system thinking, when applied to social complexity, contributes to the establishment of orwellian type of social order. In today's "global free market capitalist" world, economically powerful forces acting through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve Bank, etc., generously support the process of establishment of such type of social order.
 

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3. Complexity, Chaos and Creativity in Action: The Maieutic Inquiry


The challenge for complexity thinking is to understand the process of self-organization in society and to assist in eliminating the obstacles preventing its unfolding.
 

3.1 Socratic Method of Inquiry


The method of inquiry, which is in harmony with the way complexity thinking sees the world, is the ancient method of Socrates (470 - 399 BC) and known as maieutic inquiry (from the Greek word maieutikos, which means 'midwifery', as Socrates used to call himself a midwife who would bring about the birth of new ideas in people). With maieutic inquiry, many questions are asked so that to draw out of people knowledge that, according to Socrates, they already have [3].

Maieutic inquiry is based on the famous Socratic axiom that the unexamined life is not worth living, the meaning of which is straightforward: the knowing has a personal and a social dimension. Therefore, the practical application of maieutic inquiry lies in the symbiosis of personal with social, of 'subjective' with 'objective', of 'internal' with 'external', etc.

There are three 'wholes', which simultaneously participate in any round of the maieutic inquiry:
 

These three 'wholes' permanently interact while remaining in a dynamic unity propelled by the 'burning' desire of the inquirers to grasp, as full as possible, the object of inquiry in its ever-changing appearance, through a process of continuous learning about the object of inquiry and about themselves in relation to this object. The process of learning includes intensive questioning, contemplating and meditating, about what constitutes the common essence of I, O and P.

Out of dynamic interaction of the wholes in the triad I-P-O, creative insights may emerge; their validity is tested directly in the life experience of those who participate in the maieutic inquiry.
 

3.2 Example 1


For example, if we are the inquirers (I), the object of our inquiry is social self-organization (O), and the process of inquiry (P) represents a process of learning that includes intensive questioning, contemplation and meditation, the inseparability of the three wholes of maieutic inquiry is easily detected. We are both 'products' of social self-organization and active actors affecting it, that is, the process of self-organization shapes our behaviors, and at the same time this process is extremely susceptible to our actions. So, I and O are inseparably connected.

Both our identities and the process of social self-organization depend on our mental and emotional constructs about ourselves and society; these constructs become dynamic, that is, able to be changed and to evolve, only if we are involved in a process of continuous learning about ourselves and about the society. So, the process of learning (P) is organically connected with us (I) and with the society, whose self-organization is the object (O) of our inquiry, and in which we play the roles of both actors and products.
 

3.3 Conditions Facilitating Emergence of New Insights


The conditions facilitating creativity of the inquirers, and hence the emergence of new insights, are the conditions used earlier in the famous Pythagorean school (c520 BC):
 

The first condition relates to the proverbial ability of Socrates to aflame his students, to afire them with such a great desire for knowing that nothing would ever become more important for them than the search for truth - a long-life search undertaken together with their Master.

The second condition relates to Socrates' expression that the only thing we know for sure, is how little we know. And this is not only an expression of Socrates' humility, modesty and humbleness. According to him, in the ability to prevent the mind from formation of hardening patterns of knowledge that are difficult to change, and so to keep the process of knowing in a receptive and open state of creative chaos, out of which the emergence of new insights can be facilitated, lies the secret of a wise person. (In Greek mythology, Chaos was considered a personification of the infinity of space impregnated with creativity; from this space the universe was born.)

Wisdom is authentic: it can be awaken only through personal experience, through realization of the creative potential that is unique for each individual, and not through a parrot-like repetition of what other people (however clever they might appear) say, believe in, and accept as true.

The way to authenticity is through questioning (the third condition), because it is the questions that make the process of
knowing move further and not crystallize in frozen patterns in the mind of the inquirer.  "Never stop questioning!" is the message of Socrates. Answers live only for a short time, the questioning goes forever. The questions help to zoom deeper into the subtleties of any object of inquiry (O), while never letting its relationship with the inquirer (I) and the process of inquiry (P) drop out of the focus of the inquirer.
 

3.4 Example 2


The following questions help to understand the process of self-organization of human life, when using maieutic inquiry:
 

The above list can be continued. The answer of each question may lead to other questions, and their answers may fire another inquiry. The maieutic way of studying complexity never ends. Neither ends the emergence of new insights about the truth of the existence to those who, like Socrates, see the mission of their lives in revealing it.
 

Conclusion


Complexity and Chaos explore the world as it appears to us: complex and chaotic - a wondrous manifestation of self-propelling creativity inherent in the wholeness of existence. The way creativity 'speaks' is through spontaneity of the emergence. And it is the emergence that is at the focus of complexity thinking, together with what makes this emergence happen: the intricate interplay of dynamics - forces and energies, which constantly stretch or fold, evolve or involve, self-organize into dynamic structures or dissolve into chaos impregnated with creativity. Complexity thinking nourishes and masters creativity, never trying to lock it into systems, subsystems and parts. And this is the greatest advantage of complexity thinking.
 

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References


1. Mandelbrot, B 1982 The fractal geometry of nature, NY: Freeman and Co.

2. Victor, L 1999 Creativity and Chaos  (Internet publication).

3. Washburn, M 1998 Socrates: Mission and Method of Inquiry (Internet publication).
 
 
 
 

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