Sunday, October 26, 2008

Further Considerations of the Complexity Ethic.

Thinking back on the time when my friend first announced the complexity ethic to me, I know he was reading a number of books on subjects such as ecology, sustainability, energy policy, peak oil and general history. I’ve asked him if he recalls any particular material which influenced him to consider complexity from an ethical perspective. The following is the list which he came up with:

Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software.
Steven Johnson, Touchstone Press, 2001.

The Hidden Connections: A science for sustainable living.
Fritjof Kapra, Harper-Collins, 2002

Sync: The emerging science of spontaneous order.
Steven Strogatz, Theia, 2003.

Ubiquity: The science of history… or why the world is simpler than we think.
Mark Buchanan, Crown Publishers, 2000.

Our discussions on these and other topics formed a kind of loose dialogue (occasionally broken off for long periods) which my friend and I have been having on the prospects for humanity for many years now.

Academia’s interest in the topic of complexity goes back much further than the turn of the century, of course. Consider the following:

“Organized complexity here means that the character of the structures showing it depends not only on the properties of the individual elements of which they are composed, but also on the manner in which the individual elements are connected with each other. In the explanation of the working of such structures we can for this reason not replace the information about the individual elements by statistical information, but require full information about each element if from our theory we are to derive specific predictions about individual events. Without such specific information about the individual elements we shall be confined to what on another occasion I have called mere pattern predictions- predictions of some of the general attributes of the structures that will form themselves, but not containing specific statements about the individual elements of which the structures will be made up.

This is particularly true of our theories accounting for the determination of the systems of relative prices and wages that will form themselves on a well-functioning market. Into the determination of these prices and wages there will enter the effects of particular information possessed by every one of the participants in the market process- a sum of facts which in their totality cannot be known to the scientific observer, or to any other single brain. It is indeed the source of the superiority of the market order, and the reason why, when it is not suppressed by the powers of government, it regularly displaces other types of order, that in the resulting allocation of resources more of the knowledge of particular facts will be utilized which exists only dispersed among uncounted persons, than any one person can possess.”

-F.A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge’ (1974 Nobel Lecture).

And this:

“…we have both observational and theoretical reasons to believe that the general principle holds: Complexity is an important factor in producing stability. Complex communities, such as the deciduous forests that cover much of the eastern United States, persist year after year if man does not interfere with them… a cornfield, which is a man-made stand of a single kind of grass, has little natural stability and is subject to instant ruin if it is not constantly managed by man.”

-P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich, Population, Resources and environment. (Freeman, San Francisco, 1970) p.159.

Friedrich Hayek and Paul Ehrlich seem to be saying very similar things here, although in different contexts. Having those two individuals in agreement with each other is surely remarkable enough to flag that something interesting and unusual is going on with this topic.

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