Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A New Way of Thinking

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A New Way of Thinking

Article excerpt

Complexity represents a shift away from the simplifying, reductionist approach that has traditionally shaped scientific enquiry

Until the mid-twentieth century, most sciences based their method on specialization and abstraction, i.e. reducing knowledge of a whole to knowledge of its constituent parts (as though the organization of a whole did not generate new properties in relation to those of its separate parts). Their key concept was determinism, in other words the denial of random factors and new factors and the application of the mechanical logic of artificial machines to the problems of living beings and social life.

Knowledge must make use of abstraction, but it must also be constructed by reference to context and hence must mobilize what the enquirer knows about the world. Individual facts can only be fully understood by those who maintain and cultivate their general intelligence and mobilize their overall knowledge. Admittedly, it is impossible to know everything about the world or to grasp its many and varied transformations. But no matter how difficult this may be, an attempt must be made to understand the key problems of the world, for otherwise we would be cognitive idiots. This is particularly true today because the context of all political, economic, anthropological and ecological knowledge has become global. As a result of globalization, everything must be situated in the planetary context. Knowledge of the world as such is necessary both for intellectual satisfaction and for life itself. Every citizen faces the problem of gaining access to information about the world, and then of piecing it together and organizing it. To do this, a new form of thinking is needed.

In the first place, the kind of thinking that separates must be supplemented with a kind of thinking that makes connections. Complexus means "that which is woven together". Complex thought is a kind of thought that unites distinction with conjunction. Secondly, it is necessary to come to grips with uncertainty. The dogma of universal determinism has collapsed. The universe is not subject to the absolute sovereignty of order; it is the outcome of a "dialogical" relationship (a relationship that is both antagonistic, concurrent and complementary) between order, disorder and organization.

Complexity thus connects (contextualizes and globalizes) and also comes to grips with the challenge of uncertainty. How does it do this?

The three theories

One approach to complexity is provided by three theories - information theory, cybernetics and systems theory. These theories, which are closely related and indeed inseparable, emerged in the early 1940s and have had a far-reaching cross-fertilizing effect on one another.

* Information theory gives access to a universe where there are both order (redundancy) and disorder (noise) and derives something new from it, i.e. information itself, which then becomes the organizing (programming) instrument of a cybernetic machine. For example, information that gives the name of the victor of a battle resolves an uncertainty. Information that announces the sudden death of a tyrant introduces an unexpected new element into a situation.

* Cybernetics is a theory of self-controlling machines. The idea of feedback, introduced by the U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener, breaks with the idea of linear causality and introduces that of the causal loop. The cause acts on the effect and the effect on the cause, as in a heating system where a thermostat controls the operation of a boiler. This regulatory mechanism makes the system autonomous, in this case ensuring that an apartment has thermic autonomy from the colder temperature outside. The feed-back loop may act as an amplifying mechanism, e.g. in a situation where an armed conflict reaches a critical stage. The violence of one adversary triggers off a violent reaction which in turn triggers off another, even more violent reaction. …

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