"Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation" (Hayek).
Thus, before there was even an explicit science of complexity, Hayek had an implicit grasp of it:
"economists are increasingly apt to forget about the small changes which make up the whole economic picture" because of "their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail" (ibid.).
A complex system is one in which "many simple parts are irreducibly entwined," such that "relatively simple components with only limited communication among themselves collectively give rise to complicated and sophisticated system-wide ('global') behavior" (Mitchell). Thus, you can't reasonably hope to change a complex system by attempting to manipulate the aggregate from the top down; to be precise, you can surely change it, but you cannot predict how the system will behave.
When politicians talk about high-level abstract aggregates such as "the middle class," it is not as if you can push a button that will result in a larger middle class in some linear manner. Remember, no one ever planned this "middle class," and if it had been planned, it would have never happened. Similarly, no one "plans" science. Rather, scientific progress is a result of the automatic coordination of thousands of independent scientific actors.
Think of global warming, which is beset by two major problems. First, it has never produced a model that can accurately retrodict the past, let alone predict the future. Second, the field itself is controlled from the top down by various state and transnational actors and interests. The science is not being permitted to evolve in the usual way, from the bottom up, but is constantly distorted by the interests of organizations such as the the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
My own racket, psychology, has been ruined by activists who seek to control it from the top down. I've been licensed since 1991, but today it is impossible to pass the verbal exam without making it past the Thought Police, who force one to accept certain Truths of psychology such as multiculturalism. Nor can you even think that any homosexual has ever become heterosexual as a result of psychotherapy. Vice versa is fine, but some things are absolute and Not to Be Wondered About. Curiosity is permitted only so far and no farther.
This book about complexity proved disappointing. It started off well, but bogged down in excessive detail. The most interesting thing about complexity itself is how the details become the system, i.e., how the trees become the forest. I hadn't read a book on the subject for about a decade, but it turns out that nothing has changed in the interim: no one has a clue. There are many theories, but they all have obvious holes.
A big part of the problem -- ironically -- is that they try to reduce complexity to some scientistic explanation, when that is the whole point of complexity -- that it transcends material science itself. No mundane type of scientist is comfortable with this realization, so they are barred from using the everyday tools of the Raccoon such as teleology, AKA future or top-down organization -- let alone the strangest attractor of them all, God.
In a way, complexity is the most astonishing fact of existence, for it is the necessary condition for every other astonishing fact, including astonishment itself. A complex system is one "in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution" (ibid) -- for example, in the brain.
Perhaps the problem is in the definition itself: it is assumed at the outset that there is "no central control," when in fact the cosmos may be filled with nonlocal attractors that draw the system from "above." Not only do I believe we live in such a cosmos, nothing and no one could ever convince me otherwise. In the absence of this principle, not only does nothing make sense, it is not possible for anything to make sense. In other words, the ultimate meaning of things transcends us. Any meaning we superimpose on the parts "from below" is just a local projection.
It is as if Mitchell searches for the meaning of complexity in something less than what the complexity points toward; she looks backward instead of forward, down instead of up. Which is fine for scientists, but not philosophers. It is what scientists do.
But again, we know in principle that there are strict boundaries around what science may know. If we pretend that science is epistemologically unbounded, then we either inflate science to a godlike status or reduce God to math and chemistry. Consider: "It was the understanding of chaos that eventually laid to rest the hope of perfect prediction of all complex systems, quantum or otherwise" (Mitchell). Not only are there more variables than anyone could ever know, the possible interactions between them are as close to infinite as we can get this side of creation.
Imagine trying to model something as complex as history. One measure of complexity is the amount of information necessary to describe the system. As it pertains to history, nothing less than the totality of history can describe itself. Indeed, think of the impossibility of describing the life of a single person, let alone the totality! You quickly find yourself lost in infinitude.
But this does't stop the left. Think of Marx's crude reduction of history to a clash of class interests. It reminds one of an aphorism: A vocabulary of ten words is enough for a Marxist to explain history.
Come to think of it, a unifying principle that emerges from Levin's previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, is the idea that conservatives respect cultural and economic complexity, whereas the left imagines it can produce better systems by the imposition of top-down control.
And now that I think about it, like Burke, this may be one of the unifying themes of Don Colacho's aphorisms, i.e., respect for complexity and skepticism toward the linear psycho-political schemes of the left and their unintended consequences:
The difference between "organic" and "mechanical," in social facts, is a moral one: the "organic" is the result of innumerable humble acts; the "mechanical" is the result of a decisive act of pride.
The error lies not in dreaming that secret gardens exist, but in dreaming they have doors.
The left's theses are trains of thought that are carefully stopped before they reach the argument that demolishes them.
Revolutions have as their function the destruction of the illusions that cause them.
The modern state is the transformation of the apparatus which society developed for its defense into an autonomous organism which exploits it.
Propose solutions? As if the world were not drowning in solutions!
Legal freedom of expression has grown up alongside the sociological enslavement of thought.
Social problems cannot be solved. But we can ameliorate them by preventing our determination to alleviate just one of them from aggravating all.
A man is called a liberal if he does not understand that he is sacrificing liberty except when it is too late
Liberty is indispensable not because man knows what he wants and who he is, but so that he can find out who he is and what he wants.
Human warmth in a society diminishes by the same measure that its legislation is perfected.
The devil can achieve nothing great without the careful collaboration of the virtues.
Society's most serious ailments usually come from the imprudence with which they are treated.
Reason, truth, justice, tend not to be man's goals, but the names he gives to his goals.
Hell is the place where man finds his plans realized.
The cause of the modern disease is the conviction that man can cure himself.
One could go on and on...