CODA: Complexity and Integral Theory

Russ Volckmann

Reframing Complexity imageReflections on Reframing Complexity: Perspectives from the North and South, Fritjof Capra, Alicia Juarrero, Pedro Softolong and Jacco van Uden, eds. Mansfield, M A: ISCE Publishing, 2007.

The relationship between integral theory and concepts and those found in complexity theory or other more recent applications of ideas from the quantum world is not readily apparent. A key concept from that world is the idea of complexity, an idea with at least 40 different definitions. In the world of integral theory, as represented in the pages of AQAL, the first four issues mention the term complexity many times, primarily to indicate level of development of individuals and systems. I could find no reference of chaos theory or quantum theory.

It is not that Ken Wilber has ignored this important relationship. In fact, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists (Boston, M A: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1984, 2001) acknowledges this world, but primarily from the point of view of Wilber’s contention (supported with evidence) that the physicists he reviews, while providing no positive support for a mystical worldview, nevertheless find no contradiction between physics and a metaphysical worldview. His last chapter, “A Defense of Mysticism” makes very clear the intent of this exploration, namely to show that a mystical approach cannot be contradicted by the hard realities of science. InMarriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, Inc., 1998) there is no mention of chaos or complexity theory and he dismisses physics as the study of matter.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a criticism of Wilber’s work, but rather a recognition that the world of integral theory has not addressed the connection between integral theory and contemporary science, complexity theory in particular. I suspect that this is an important consideration because relationship could illuminate some concerns about the static quality of integral approaches and potentially offer some elements that would be highly useful to the evolution of integral theory.

Recently, I completed reading Reframing Complexity, a report from the First Biennial Epistemological and Methodological Implications of Complexity Theory first international seminar held in Cuba by Havana’s Instituto de Filosofia. To be fair, there were no references to Ken Wilber or any other integral theorists, except for references to some common roots such as Gregory Bateson or Fritjof Capra, the latter having the lead essay and first named editor in this publication.

Being a bit of a dabbler in both worlds, I couldn’t help but wonder why there is this lack of overt connection between these two conceptual worlds. Rather than seek to report on the content of this book in some traditional, linear fashion, I would rather share some of the concepts and ideas that seemed to have immediate relevance for the continuing development of integral theory. To my mind, these ideas are like arrows pointing the direction toward growing the utility of integral approaches.

Complexity is not the end of a race but the main characteristic of a cognitive style that does not rely on standards or a priori models. (p. 92)

Denise Najmanovich”s discussion of paradigms and figures of thought was one of many interesting essays in this volume. And I found myself wondering if there is not a lesson here for us integrally informed (sometimes misinformed?) folk. Would it be useful to consider integral theory from this perspective? She states:

…the complexity approach is far more than a paradigm shift and…complexity metaphors go far beyond the file of science itself. Here we find a beautiful paradox: The simplicity approach usually tries to present a unified or syncretic worldview while reducing the scope of our view. The complexity approach cannot provide such a Weltanschauung but, on the other hand, can enlarge, refine and sophisticate our scope.

To what degree is an integral approach able to address this paradox? I believe we need to embrace both simplicity and complexity to comprehend anything we are trying to understand, to use as a guide and to aid in our own development, cognitively, physically, emotionally and/or spiritually. Complexity theory is also concerned with the limitations of methodology in modernity and its restrictions in what is considered real or real data. And complexity theory seems to go beyond integral theory in its concern for process by addressing issues such as nonlinearity. Najmanovich is calling for approaches that shake off “the tyranny of method” while integral is looking for ways to include the value of all methods. Integral theory offers one approach that responds to her statement, “we need to…build up new ways of making maps: We need new ways of figuration and new figures of thought.”

Integral mapping may be a step in this direction, but does it deal adequately with dynamic, chaotic phenomena? Does it adequately deal with the aspect of life that falls in the realm of the unpredictable? Like integral theory, Nahmanovich recognizes,”It is the collective that enables us to think and legitimizes knowledge. A collective which not only includes human beings, but also technologies, active spaces which shape and transform it….From this perspective, to think is a form of interaction, a poietic activity (productive and poetic) which leaves a wake as it sails: knowledge.” (104)

..complex dynamical systems are “structures of process” existing over time. (p. 109)

Alicia Juarrero examines the question of identity through the lens of complexity. She notes that defining the identity of complex adaptive systems (including you and me) is difficult because they have these properties:

  • They are open to their environment and, therefore, it is difficult to draw sharp boundaries, except for the purpose of analysis using traditional scientific approaches. It may be impossible because of the criticality of external relations for internal relations and because both environment and history share critical roles in the intrinsic attributes of the system.
  • “Because CDS’s adapt and evolve, the concept of essence as a nucleus of intrinsic and immutable qualities cannot handle CDS’s dynamical characteristic, particularly is embeddedness in time and space.” (111) Things keep changing.

One implication of this is that with dependence on initial conditions there is only one individual and, over time, increasingly individualized phenomenon. This requires that we think of identity in dynamic terms. Using network analysis and modeling might be one way that would help us build our knowledge.

I challenge the assumptions that change is linear and that it is discrete, and allude to the emergent nature of change and the potential applicability of patterns in understanding, abstracting, and contextualizing emergent properties. (136)

James Falconer offers another approach in his highly relevant essay: “Emergence Happens! Misguided Peradigms Regarding Organizational Change and the Role of Complexity and Patterns in the Change Landscape.” His key point is we need an alternative notion to the ones that suggest that we can manage change. “…change exists; not only that, bit it will exist regardless of what you do to it. Change exists independently of the attention that is paid to it. Observations about change change.” Nonlinearity characterizes the relationships in any system and is, itself, a complex system. Lifecycle models are misleading since change is recursive (although it is fair to say that the way Adizes approaches change involves some recursive elements). Change is an open system and, since it is adaptive, resists formal definition.

What Falconer is saying about change applies to how we think about development. It is a reminder to remember that our individual and collective development is not a linear process and that we are challenged to comprehend to recursive quality involved. He offers a consider of emergence and thinking in terms of patterns as a path for us to consider.

A pattern is a knowledge metaphor. “A business pattern essentially lays out a matephorical device for the capture and reuse of explicit organizational knowledge, in essence a pattern which lies in the domain of circumstance and behavior that characterize and define a general business milieu.” (pp, 146-147). To use this metaphorical device would require development of a pattern language—“a means of organizing patterns symbiotically, and weaving granularities of patterns together in a fabric, so that they may not only form the basis for discussion, but also for creative ideation and development.” They can be combined into pattern sets—“analogous to concepts, schools of thought, or universes of discourse…[they] can be thematic, reflective of an exemplar, or highly abstract; and are highly volatile, resist revealing any inherent structure, and can only self-express a fleeting, tentative sense of their own existence.” (p. 147) A pattern might be something like watching cloud formations during the passing of a day.

Falconer offers the following characteristics of a solution using patterns as an operational metaphor for observing, understand, and expressing change, that is, as an alternative to change management:

  • Open, holistic continuous, nonlinear, flexible, and adaptable;
  • Having no implication of ‘management’, structuredness, prescription, or methodology;
  • Not modellable or describable in its essence, and;
  • Driven by emergent phenomena with the change landscape. (148)

This is language we don’t find much in integral theory and its applications, particularly to the development of the self as a system. How would integral theory be impacted by the inclusion of such a dynamic way of comprehending development and change?

The remainder of this book applies complexity theory to economies, social systems, and governance. Items that intrigued me included the following:

The Postulate of the Predictable and the Unpredictable: For social organizations, the behavior of the environment is only partially predicable and, at eh same time, it is in part also unpredictable. (161)

  • Parellada’s treatment of that which is predictable and that which is not in management and organizations while offering several conclusions—
  • Social systems are the most complex of systems and must be explained by the social without being reduced to biology or any motion.
  • “Social motion is the most complex type of motion.”
  • It is essential to characterize the environment in order to identify the social organization. Still it is only partially predictable and partially unpredictable.
  • A model of social organization would include the predictable and unpredictable.
  • Our search is for “specific laws of motion for the evolutionary dynamics of social organizations.” (p. 167)

Complexity is the property of a system of the real work that is characterized by the inability of any formal system to adequately capture all of the real world’s properties, lacking complete behavior, even if complete information on the system‘s components and interrelationships is available. (176)

  • Fernandes, Mateo and Jaramillo indicate the need for complex seeing, thinking, feeling, knowing, acting, trusting and being. We need to think in creative ways, focus on generating positive emotions, that we include intuition and meditation in ways of knowing, that we act not just for the individual but also for the whole, that leaders trust in natural processes and tht we have “the ability to be open to a process of continuous learning based on relationships, keeping in mind that all relationshipsrepresent and opportunity to learn.” (p. 186)

Whenever mind and body, subject and object, intentions and matter, and nature and culture mix more profoundly, such as in psychology and in the social sciences, research becomes incredibly more difficult. (203)

Strand asks us to consider some fictions of our modern world:
Objectivist and Mechanist-Materialist Metaphysics
Simple Physics
Simple Methodology
Simple Epistomology
Simple Philosophical Anthropology
Simple Relexivity

He includes consideration of the difficulty of separating subject and object and offers these alternatives when practicing democratic governance:

  • Not Rules, But Elements of Judgment
  • Quality and Lay Participation
  • Reflexivity: Creating Fewer Problems
  • New Taboos
  • More talk and Less Action

At long last we have another chance, hopefully not the last one, to allow us to accept the world, the societies we build and live in, and ourselves as unrepeatable human subjectivities, as a world of heterogeneities. Let us understand that we should not try to homogenize it artificially in our idea of comprehending it. (xii)

  • The editors, in introducing this volume, lay out its structure from sources of complexity, through philosophical, epistemological and methodological considerations, into organizational questions and application to global and ethical implications. The conference was successful, bringing together considerable diversity across disciplines and backgrounds.

…the existence of multiple pathways is an essential property of all networks; it may even be seen as the defining characteristic of a network. It is therefore not surprising that complexity theory, which is eminently suited to the analysis of networks, should contribute important insights into the nature of developmental stability.

  • Fritjof Capra leads off the volume with an exploration of complexity in relation to life. From biology he points out that
  • A living system is materially and energetically open,
  • It operates far from equilibrium with a continual flow of energy and matter,
  • It is organizationally closed with a network bounded by a membrane, and
  • It is sel-generating with ongoing replacement of its components.

Capra’s review of the science includes a discussion of the role of redundancy, which “ensures not only the remarkable stability…but also great flexibility and adaptability.” This process is essential in human systems, as well as the biology he is referencing.

It is so important that we foster looking at how complexity theory, contemporary biology and other science can inform the transdisciplinary, developmental and integral approaches to mapping and generating knowledge and action in creating our life on the planet and in the universe.

> Russ Volckmann