August 13, 1998
Edward O. Wilson's article on 'Consilience and Complexity' in the May/June issue of *Complexity* is symptomatic of the scientific and cultural proclivity for emphasizing the solution of the most 'solvable' of problems, regardless of overall human need or impact. For example, Wilson sees the quest for scientific understanding of complexity in the traditional terms of generalization-based predictive rules.
The complexity which the man-on-the-street is having to navigate, meanwhile, seems to be of a more pathological variety which is scarcely addressed by the 'bottom-up' strain of scientific investigation advocated by Wilson. To the man-on-the-street, the issue of uniqueness is paramount, since he is very aware of the fact that the evolving space-time, matter-and-energy flow we call 'life' is giving rise to unique geometries and unlikely-to-be-repeated emergent behaviors, such as an earth populated by the likes of us here and now. His preference would be to emphasize those solutions that solve big problems approximately over those which solve micro-problems precisely. The man-on-the-street, therefore, is more likely to side with Geoffrey Chew's stated view, that "the greatest breakthrough in science" would be "the acceptance of the fact that all our concepts are approximations."
Who said precise prediction was the 'be-all' and 'end-all' anyhow? On the field of human play, most of us are willing to accept qualitative predictions even if they are a bit fuzzy and occasionally wrong. We live (are embedded) in a space-time continuum where we know full well we can trade off a bit of space against a bit of time, as we do when we ride a bicycle. That is, we can live with deterministic chaos if all it does is put a space-time wobble onto our trajectory and doesn't inhibit us from pursuing our 'path of purpose'. In other words, the 'man-on-the-street' is more interested in 'top-down' solutions which cater to purpose than 'bottom-up' solutions which cater to determinism.
The price we pay in pursuing an understanding of large-scale complexity in terms of predictable rules is 'generalization', since the overall geometry of whole-and-part is, at least over man's ontogenetic cycle, unique or non-recurring. Poincare put a 'caveat emptor' flag on all generalization-prediction rule formulations, noting that scientific generalizations normally include "homogeneity, relative independence of remote parts, simplicity of the elementary fact", none of which can be legitimately applied to the non-euclidian, relativistic, evolving, quantum mechanical flow --- the twentieth century scientific characterization of our containing vessel-medium, aka 'nature'. Poincare did not imply that one should avoid generalization-based predictive rules, which can have immense value in spite of their problem-approximating weakness, but that one should validate, in the case of each application, that the use of the approximated (generalized) problem in place of the space-time embedded experiential reality, does not compromise the intended use of the results. Scientific inquiry into complexity would not appear to give much latitude for such problem-approximating shortcuts.
The development of generalized deterministic-predictive mathematical models involves the surgical excision of the particular possibility space from its encompassing space-time embedded context, and the transposition of that space into euclidian spatial coordinates and 'linear time'. This gives the model the necessary portability so that it can be invoked at arbitrary space AND (linear) time coordinates. The discarding of the space-time embedding geometry in this process, however, nullifies any chance of accounting for the effects of (a) sensitive dependence on initial conditions, (b) instability-producing resonances, and (c) coherent interdependencies which transgress multiple possibility spaces. The type of generalization needed for deterministic prediction then, irreversibly substitutes a 'linear-time' based, 'de-butterflied' model for the originally perceived reality.
So, given the limitations of the 'bottom-up' method, what exactly do Professor Wilson's 'great challenges of science' promise to deliver to the man-on-the-street? At this point in time, in spite of the wondrous discoveries associated with the scientist-selected, micro-level challenges of biology which Wilson refers to, there seems to be rising chaos on the scale of 'whole' human beings. For example, according to a Harvard source cited by USA Today (8/13/98), suicide rates quadrupled for US children and teens over the past 45 years, and the incidence of serious depression before age 20 has risen tenfold from 2% to 23% over the past 30 years, a condition which associates, in turn, with three to four times the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse. On the economic front, in a broadly acclaimed book ('The Ownership Solution'), Jeff Gates reviews the out-of-control intensification of separation between 'haves' and 'have-nots', observing that we appear to be fulfilling the two conditions; "concentrated ownership and inflexibility in light of changing conditions", cited by historian Arnold Toynbee as having led to the failure of twenty-one past civilizations (not to mention countless communities of digital organisms).
The macro problems of our culture seem to be characterized by the emergence of attractors which transgress disparate possibility spaces. Thus the solutions we hope to discover from an "accurate and complete description of complex systems" as applied deterministically within a particular field or possibility space, such as organismic reconstruction, are not guaranteed to 'port' to the type of complexity we are experiencing in our multi-possibility-space experiential reality.
It seems that the 'grand challenges' of science have only rarely been in response to the macro needs of society, and instead, science has proudly embraced the philosophy of 'the art of the solvable', a term coined by the late Sir Peter Medawar. Many of science's piecemeal 'solutions' at the fundamentals level have ended up as problems at the macro level because of unpredicted emergent effects in the multi-possibility space realm of sociosphere or biosphere. The message seems clear; ... solving complex problems within single strands of the web of life does not necessarily induce harmony across the web as a whole. This appears to be a critical shortfall of the 'bottom-up', multi-cellular-organism-upwards type of problem-solving approach advocated by Wilson; i.e. like a child who lacks a holistic sense of purpose, deterministic solutions have no 'sense of direction' and where they end up and what kind of relationships they get into as they weave their way out of the lab into the unbounded complexity of real life, can be anyone's guess, particularly if their path takes them through a few zones of deterministic chaos and instability-provoking resonances. Qualitative understandings based on simulations which respect the full ontogenetic experience, even though they lack quantitative precision, may shed more light on our non-euclidian, relativistic, quantum mechanical 'real world' problems.
There is an implied 'euclidian-classical' / 'non-euclidian-quantum' choice which faces us here, relative to how science views complexity --- as a problem which confronts us on a particular 'web-strand', or, as some kind of trouble we are immersed in as inhabitants of the web (for which we need to develop better methods of navigation). While the pathway to solutions seen in the former context is 'bottom-up', 'euclidian' and purely objective, the pathway to solutions seen in the latter context is 'top-down', 'non-euclidian' and inclusive of the observer effect. It would appear that science has, to this point, carefully avoided the 'navigating complexity' class of problem/solution, with the result that the field is wide open to mystics, astrologers, cultists and psychics, who are currently having a heyday as complexity of the immersion-navigation strain continues to engulf the man-on-the-street. Science, meanwhile, is keeping its eyeball glued to the electron microscope, playing shepherd to digital gene pool cultures, and generally dissociating from the ontogenetic space-time experience, aka 'real life'.
The problem with straying from the tradition of generalization-based predictive rules which lean on euclidian space and 'linear time' structures, is that one then has to set aside classical deterministic notions and deal directly with such stuff as deterministic chaos and non-euclidian space-time embedding. This runs radically counter to scientific and cultural traditions in two respects. As Prigogine says, with respect to deterministic chaos; "We need a 'divine' point of view to retain the idea of determinism. But no human measurements, no theoretical predictions, can give us initial conditions with infinite precision." There is also the problem (or opportunity) of dynamical resonances, as noted by Poincare, which can give rise to unpredictable instabilities. How then to account for the missing details which give rise to emergent behaviors "when passing from general to more specific levels of organization."?
On the non-euclidian front, Minkowski, in 1908, and Einstein, in 1921, implied that everyone would be 'soon' thinking and working in terms of non-euclidian space-time continuums. But such a schema involves 'top-down' rather than 'bottom-up' perception and inquiry; i.e., as Einstein put it, in his 1921 lecture to the Prussian Academy of Sciences; "First of all, an observation of an epistemological nature. A geometrical-physical theory as such is incapable of being directly pictured, being merely a system of concepts. But these concepts serve the purpose of bringing a multiplicity of real or imaginary sensory experiences into connection in the mind. To 'visualize' a theory, or bring it home to one's mind, therefore means to give a representation to that abundance of experiences for which the theory supplies the schematic arrangement." And to add a touch of optimism and encouragement, he added; "My only aim today, has been to show that the human faculty of visualization is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidian geometry."
Meanwhile, scientific perspectives such as expressed by Wilson, that "An organism is a machine" perpetuate the euclidian view which involves the unquestioned transposition of observations from their 'ontogenetic context' or 'space-time embeddedness', into euclidian space and 'linear time'. The 'detail' which gives unique complexity to the problem; i.e. its space-time embedding geometry, is thus summarily stripped out and discarded. Apparently, when Wilson argues for an 'accurate and complete description', he is referring exclusively to euclidian structure and not to non-euclidian space-time embedding geometry. The result of this euclidian transposition is that the complex problem is implicitly referenced to an artificial euclidian vessel rather than to the ontogenetic space-time vessel in which we and our human complex issues live. By this process, the scientific 'facts' upon which we base our analysis become 'theory-laden' facts.
Talk of 'the greatest challenge' in science is likely to raise imagery in the mind of the man-on-the-street of the ultimate 'hot blade of theory' which can slice through the most complex of man-sized 'social systems' problems as if they were made of butter. Such an optimistic vision, unfortunately, seems not to be in the cards for traditional 'bottom-up' science. As David Weinberg cautions in 'Dreams of a Final Theory', the end of the trail in conventional scientific investigation (i.e. investigation analogous to the approach advocated by Wilson), doesn't come anywhere near covering the waterfront with respect to the most relevant problems in our everyday lives. Weinberg notes that; "Wonderful phenomena from turbulence to thought, will still need explanation whatever final theory is discovered. The discovery of a final theory in physics will not necessarily even help very much in making progress in understanding these phenomena (though it may with some)."
If the 'greatest challenge ... in all of science ... today', ... 'the greatest challenge in scientific holism', has little relevance to the complex systems issues which engulf us, and our planet, then where exactly is science taking us?
Wilson appears to answer this question when he says; "Scientists have been charged with conquering cancer, genetic disease, and viral infections, all of which are cellular disorders, and they are massively funded to accomplish these tasks. They know roughly the way to reach the goals demanded by the public, and they will not fail. Science like art, and as always through history, follows patronage."
The massive and intensifying concentration of ownership of wealth which is underway today, and science's aversion to tackling man-sized problems in complexity navigation, would seem to represent two possibility spaces with latent interdependencies upon which some nasty emergent behaviors are likely to spring forth. Wilson's 'grand challenge' strategy for attacking complexity, against this backdrop, looks more and more like Nero fiddling as Rome burns.
As for the youth in our society, it seems that they will be faced for some time to come, with continuing indoctrination in 'incomplete' and hopelessly inadequate 'complexity navigation' methods. Today's youth is in no way blind to the blatant dysfunction in our economic and social systems, yet they have few alternatives to hunkering down and climbing on board. The indifference and failure of science to equip them for navigating the rising tide of science-induced complexity, is contributing to their state of depression.
It seems time to take a more holistic look at 'scientific holism' than has been done in Professor Wilson's "Consilience and Complexity" commentary.
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