Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Two Complexities: The Need to Link Complex Thinking and Complex Adaptive Systems Science

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Two Complexities: The Need to Link Complex Thinking and Complex Adaptive Systems Science

Article excerpt


This article reflects the division in the field of the study of complexity, between a mainly philosophical and epistemological approach (Edgar Morin called it "general complexity") and a mainly scientific and methodological approach (called by Morin as "restricted complexity"). The first perspective would be well represented by Morin's "complex thinking," while the second by the new "science of complex adaptive systems." We show the potential and limits of each perspective, and conclude by claiming the need to relink both the perspectives into a comprehensive "paradigm of complexity" that is capable of providing, and following the original definition of Thomas Kuhn, at the same time a worldview ("general complexity") and examples of scientific achievements ("restricted complexity").


According to Edgar Morin 21, we can distinguish between the two approaches to the phenomenon of complexity: "general complexity" and "restricted complexity."

On the one hand, a "general complexity," is a fundamentally epistemological approach developed by scientists and philosophers such as Edgar Morin, Ilya Prigogine, Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, among others. It was developed primarily between the 70s and 80s from new disciplines such as cybernetics, systems theory, dissipative structures theory, catastrophe theory or autopoiesis theory. Morin's complex thinking would be one of its best syntheses.

On the other hand, a "restricted complexity," is a primarily methodological approach developed by scientists such as Murray Gell-Mann, John Holland, Stephen Wolfram, Stuart Kauffman, and Robert Axelrod since the creation in 1984 of the Santa Fe Institute in the United States and the improvement and sophistication of computational technologies. Complex Adaptive Systems Science is currently its dominant trend.

"General complexity" approaches the phenomenon of complexity from a natural language. It draws its epistemological implications from the point of view of the subject who knows: complexity would compose a "new paradigm" 21 or "new alliance" 23 which is potentially transdisciplinary. Therefore it gives a theoretical account of the properties of self-organization and autonomy of the physical, biological, and social systems from the perspective of the process of their observation. Complexity would express the extent of ignorance of an observer who is unaware of the information of the observed system itself 2 and the process of "construction" 9 of an external object that is unattainable by the cognitive system of a subject. It is characterized more by their own "operational closure" and "internal consistency" 24 than by the faithful representation of the external reality. This approach, going back to the historic Macy Conferences (1946-1953) on Cybernetics7, was widely developed in the 70s since the transition from a "first-order cybernetics" or cybernetics of observed systems27 to a "second-order cybernetics" or "cybernetics of observing systems"9.

Complexity, at the same time, expresses the self-organized and systemic nature of the world and the cognitive limits of human observers and it would call into question the deterministic, reductionist, and positivist principles of classical science. This approach has even included ethical proposals through authors such as Edgar Morin or Fritjof Capra. For these authors, the "paradigm shift" would not only have epistemological implications and imply the change of view of science or reality, but it would have ethical implications that tend toward a more harmonious relationship with nature, other people, and cultures from a "holistic" or "systemic" capability. Such a capability, integrating several complementary elements, makes up the biosphere and the entire humanity into a harmonious whole.

"Restricted complexity," instead, approaches the phenomenon of complexity from a formal language by trying to model using new computational techniques. …

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