Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Models Learning Change: Connecting Theoretical Models to the Natural World of Complex Systems

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Models Learning Change: Connecting Theoretical Models to the Natural World of Complex Systems

Article excerpt


Because natural environmental systems can reorganize and change their behavior over time we need to watch them to see when to respond and update our expectations, but is problematic. The internal workings of a complex natural systems, like organisms or cultures, reveal a complexity quite impossible to understand. The key to studying them is noticing that nature clearly also gives complexity of systems some remarkably simple behaviors, somehow. Finding simple features of how they change as a whole is a simple starting point for understanding their organization and change. It provides solid clues to their regularities, how they work, approaching limits and changes in form.

The basic scientific issues of how our models of change can adapt to real change are discussed here in a conversational style, both for general audiences and the wider community of the systems sciences (Henshaw 2010). The real subject is a new scientific method for raising good original questions, a hypothesis generator, for responding to the local complex systems interacting in our environment. The method is not initially about producing equations, but rather about raising good questions. The basic object is recognizing when nature would soon develop different regularities, and so anticipate that models once relied on will need to change. Discussion of the main conceptual problems, features of natural systems, and an outline of the method, concludes with a conceptual application, defining timely response for approaching natural limits of economic growth.

Our natural problem is that our typical awareness of complex systems includes rather little of how they actually work. We mostly know them only by a name and some cultural metaphors attached to the name. It's not just the problems discussed by J. Sterman (2002) in All models are wrong', mostly concerning data collection and interpretation problems of modeling. There's also a more basic problem. How complex physical systems are organized is quite different from how information can be organized. Natural environmental systems are complex changing energy transfer processes between parts with variable connections, and not a set of controlled variables joined by self-consistent rules.

We recognize other people by name and reputation, and may even know them well, but it's not the lack of information that makes what's inside them a void in our minds and impossible to represent. The real problem is that what's going on inside them IS inside them, and not made of information at all, but made of physical processes animated by temporary interactions between distributed parts. It's the same for what is occurring inside the weather, ecologies, economies, businesses, social movements, cultures and even personal relationships. Complex systems have the simple behavior of taking care of themselves and working on their own to responding to their environments, using independent parts that somehow distribute their separate reactions throughout to then act as a whole.

The whole environmental fabric of our world that matters most to us in our daily lives is composed of things working on their own like that, with parts dizzyingly scattered all over the place, working smoothly most often. Still, it means what we can capture of how they work in our minds is not much. We can only know them by name and represent them with our own internal language and cultural metaphors. Where we err, it seems though, is in treating our information, ideas and values for them as being their physical processes, causes and effects. The two are different but we have not studied how to tell them apart.

One useful evidence of how nature makes complex systems work simply as a whole can be seen in the most common story of change, starting from small beginnings to lead to small ends, involving growth and decay. Things that use energy take time to assemble and operate the internal processes that do it, but thoughts don't. …

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