Complexity Revolution

There’s something happening here.

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

from “For What It’s Worth” by Stephen Stills

Link to Portuguese version

I Googled “complexity revolution” a few times over the past few weeks. During that period, the number of hits went from 9,000 some to 12,500. Clearly something is stirring here. Another testimony to this is the fact that my first choice for a Google blogspot domain name –“ComplexityRevolution” — is already taken. So I inserted a hyphen, making the full URL (I have purchased a custom domain,, but have been unsuccessful so far in pointing this blog to it.)

Whatever “complexity revolution”means, I am, with this blog, jumping into the dialogue – and the debate.

“Complexity” is a big umbrella. Instead of trying to come up with a definition — something which eludes leading thinkers in the field [1] – I will simply say that complexity is a characteristic, to some degree, of all known phenomena and scientific investigators are making progress in understanding its underlying, often surprising patterns. As a political scientist, my special hope is that the complexity approach to science – both in spite of and because of its physical origins — can help social scientists,political scientists in particular, build stronger claims to be scientists.

Social scientists have been sharply divided on whether or not to use physical science concepts and methodologies. As Immanuel Wallersteinhas described this situation, social science has been like “someone tied to two horses galloping in opposite directions.” [2] Exerting a strong pull in one direction has been social science envy of Newtonian physicists’ ability to pronounce mathematically precise, universal laws of nature. But such an approach has repelled other social scientists who oppose the deterministic implications of making human behavior as predictable as the tides.

As a partisan of the latter group, I find complexity science enormously exciting. It is part of a current of indeterminism that has sprung from the physical sciences for well over a century now – the rise of the improbable through biological evolution, the use of probability in closed system thermodynamics, the uncertainty principle in quantum physics and the notion of self-organization in open thermodynamic systems. Physical indeterminists not only offer tools which can be fashioned to criticize “Newtonian social science” but a view of the material world which can accommodate human free will and its intrinsic unpredictability. This makes them people with whom social scientists not only can but need to do business. Why need to?   Because each and every human social system is a physical system. But neither physical scientists nor social scientists can explain, in their own terms, how this is so. This constitutes a gaping hole in ascientific perspective on reality. As Edgar Morin puts it,

“…natural science has no way to conceive of itself as a social reality; human social science has no means of conceiving its biophysical roots; science has no means to conceive of its social role and its own special nature in society.” [3]

To fill this chasm between the“two cultures”, we need to develop physically-integrated views of human socialsystems. This requires communication between physical and social scientists. It requires the development of a common language to enable such communication. In the mid-twentieth century, cybernetics and general system theory took up this challenge but fell short. Complexity theory now seems poised to pick up their fallen banners. Various conceptual ingredients to make this possible seem to be available but the heavy lifting still needs to be done.

My own entry into this dialogue is a combination of political power theory and complexity theory, what I call a complexity theory of power. Aside from a presentation I gave at a conference earlier this year [4], I have not gone public with these ideas. This blog is a way of thinking out loud, hopefully getting feedback and, at the same time, developing something for publication.

The theory, in a nutshell, goes like this: Thermodynamics is the core science of complexity.   Disorganized complexity and organized complexity [5] correspond, respectively, to disorganization or disorder in closed thermodynamic systems and organization (or self-organization) in opens ystem thermodynamics. We can identify thermodynamic complexity in the exercise of power, when we distinguish between “power over” (power exercised as the choice of one person or group imposed on another) and “power with” (power exercised as mutual choice not ultimately imposed on others). Power exercised over others has a disorganizing function; it increases disorganized complexity in human social systems. Likewise, power exercised with others has a self-organizing function; it increases human self-organized complexity.

In this view we are not only great organizers but great disorganizers. We are, as Edgar Morin has long argued, not only Homo Sapiens but Homo Demens. “The reign of Sapiens”, wrote Morin, “corresponds to a massive introduction of disorder into the world” [6]. When we exercise power to dominate others,whether through the currently alarming levels of slavery [7] or dictatorship or far subtler forms of oppression and exploitation, we introduce disorder, we are disorganizing ourselves. When we subjugate nature rather than “dialogue with nature” (as Ilya Prigogine called for [8]), we are disorganizing ourselves. When, however, we exercise power with not over others, when we collaborate with others for the benefit of the whole commnity, when we deal with nature as an equal partner, we achieve greater degrees of self-organization.   With such extraordinary powers we may be described, for better or worse, as Homo Potens.

Are such comparisons between the physical and human realms mere metaphors or do they point toward the elusive physical dimension of human political systems? On the basis of what I have been able to say so far, it is understandable if you assume the former. But, in this blog, I shall try to build a plausible case for the latter.

I realize that, by associating thermodynamics and human social systems, I go out on a limb for most scientists, be they social or physical. And, I know that many, perhaps most,complexity theorists would contest the notion that thermodynamics is the core science of complexity. And, tossing a combustible like politics into the mix in no way simplifies matters.

All I can say in this space is that I have a picture to communicate but it is a mosaic. And the pieces of the mosaic are empirically-based analogies drawn between the physical and political realms. The case will rise or fall on the strength or resonance of these analogies as a group. If they prove to be just that – mere analogies — the theory can be banished to the dust bin of scientific speculation. If, in the face of rigorous testing, the analogies resonate, the theory may stand, always subject, of course, to further review and testing.Wherever this may lead, your comments and criticism will be greatly appreciated.


[1] Melanie Mitchell recounts how complexity theorists in a Santa Fe Institute symposium, when posed with the question of defining “complexity”, were unable to reach any consensus (Kindle location 1620). She suggests that, even though a single science or theory of complexity does not yet exist, it may be in a formative stage — “…an essential feature of forming a new science is a struggle to define its central terms” (Kindle location 334). Complexity: A Guided Tour, 2009, NewYork: Oxford University Press.

[2] TheUncertainties of Knowledge, 2004:19. Philadelphia:Temple University Press.

[3] Translated from Ciência com Consciência (2001:20, Rio de Janeiro: Editora Bertrand Brasil). This in turn was translated from Science avec conscience. Unfortunately, Edgar Morin’s pioneering work in critical complexity theory is largely unavailable in English. I will refer to his ideas regularly in this blog.

[4] “A Complexity Theory of Politics”, 20th Winter Chaos Theory Conference,Montpelier, VT, March 24, 2012.

[5] Warren Weaver’s seminal essay “Science and Complexity” (American Scientist, No. 36, 1948: 536-544) distinguished between organized and disorganized complexity.   He did not make an explicit association between disorganized complexity and thermodynamics but implied as much when he related the study of disorganized complexity withWillard Gibbs and statistical mechanics.

[6] Translated from Le paradigme perdu:la nature humaine (1973:122. Paris: Éditions de Seuil).

[7] There are currently up to 100,000 slaves in the United States and possibly 27 million worldwide (New YorkTimes editorial, “Slavery in the Modern Age”, July 1, 2011,

[8] “Science is a dialogue between man and nature…” (The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature, 1997:153, New York: The Free Press).   Prigogine elaborated on this theme in Chapter 7 “Our Dialogue with Nature” (153-162).

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