Every discerning observer must conclude that virtually all institutions and societies are far away from commanding the necessary skills to cope with the complexity of our world. We see within a very short period of technological and industrial development the physical survival of the human race in danger. We observe that instead of embracing and managing the whole of our complex reality, we reduce our perception, consideration and management to an extremely limited subset of our reality – which is, no coincidence, what our materialist culture allows us to see. Consequently, resulting from this reductionist approach, we too often do not predict and control the outcome of economic and technological endeavors, as well as the outcome of ecological interventions. Still – society treats these lesser and larger catastrophes as if they were unforeseeable and have come upon us as a surprise.
The fact that our complete world is a complex system of interrelated parts – and thus is ONE – needs to be the most important factor in our analysis for the reasons of the human condition, and needs to be key in our quest for solutions to a viable humankind. Only when we incorporate this in our thinking we can hope to see interdependences, to foresee the consequences of potential actions – and plan our acting accordingly. When we do not take this into account, we cause countless unforeseen, uncontrolled, and potentially harmful alterations – the so-called side-effects. Historically we have developed a culture that turns a blind eye to the interdependencies in our world, a culture that is not able to manage complexity.
Our world is a system – a structure consisting of multiple parts that are linked by multiple relations that are governed by specific rules, allowing for multiple different interaction types, and together emerging a system’s behavior. Since each part is a system in itself, this structural definition is recursively applicable to the most atomic as to the most comprehensive part of a system – the overall system. This applies to all aspects and all levels of our world.
Complexity characterizes the structure and behavior of systems. The higher the number of parts, relations, and different interaction types, the higher the complexity of a system’s behavior. We consider a system complex when its behavior is non-linear, counter-intuitive, and therefore unpredictable. From that derives that the assertion “something is / is not complex” depends on the observed system as well as on the observer. Whereas we feel that complexity is determined by objective features like number of involved parts and relations, we also have to be aware that the impression “something is complex” also is determined by the capability of the observer. No matter who or how capable the observer is, there are limitations to its processing capacity. Therefore, faced with a given situation or system, one observer will eventually surrender to the “too complex” situation, while the other observer is able to understand the situation and foresee how it will evolve.
To be a system is a very fundamental feature of our world. Within the scope of what we as human beings can observe, the most fundamental feature is that the world is – i.e. consists of things that are. On the next level we can observe that all these things are linked by multiple relations that are governed by specific and constant rules, allowing for multiple different interaction types. This is where the systemic feature of our world is located – and from which everything in our world emerges: on the next level we observe that from these structures and their interactions emerge higher order-structures as well as higher-order interactions – in a recursive fashion where higher-level structures emerge from lower-level structures. This is where we observe recursively emerging phenomena from physics to chemistry to biology, and to sociology. These are the levels that we are most familiar with – and where we find increasing complexity with each level of emergence.
Since complex behavior can be found in very different areas, there are very different scientific approaches to describe complexity, for example systems theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, and others – while scientific disciplines like cybernetics, network theory, and game theory describe how life forms in general (cybernetics), and human beings specifically deal with complexity in our world.