Homo Potens: A Species Most Complex and Powerful (my “poster”)

A few months ago, I learned about the Cambridge, Mass 9th International Conference on Complex Systems literally just a few hours before the deadline to submit presentation proposals.  I quickly found their site and sent in the opening paragraphs of a piece I’ve been preparing to submit to a particular journal.  For whatever reason, it was accepted as a poster and not as a presentation. Regrettably, I was unable to attend. But “my poster” is included in the conference abstracts at http://www.necsi.edu/events/iccs2018/index.html.  Here it is:

Homo Potens: A Species Most Complex and Powerful

We are a species whose astounding powers of creativity and innovation are matched by destructive powers so enormous we could easily subvert — for ourselves and all other species — the very conditions of life on Earth. We are, as Edgar Morin says, Homo Sapiens-Homo Demens, a whirling mix of the wise and the foolish, the rational and the irrational. In a word, we are “potens”, the Latin for powerful. As Homo Potens, we are a species whose extraordinary potential for better or worse is realized through the exercise of power. To avert the perils that lurk in our Demens and to nurture the immense promise of our Sapiens will depend to a large extent on how well we understand ourselves as Potens.

There is yet another essential respect in which humans far surpass other species that we would do well to try to understand: our complexity. As with power, we partake in complexity for better or worse. Failure to deal with complexity tends to transform small problems into larger ones. Complexity can overwhelm. But it also poses challenges that, once mastered, make it possible to explore complex problems in greater depth. Advances in recent decades in understanding the nature of complex dynamical systems raise hopes that, over the long term, novel approaches to science itself can help us navigate the promise and perils of complexity.

As a means to cast light on Homo Potens as a most complex and powerful species, this essay proposes a complexity theory of power, a combination of power theory and complexity theory. The proposed theory correlates the ability of one party to exercise power over another (A.Allen; R. Dahl; S. Lukes) with disorganized complexity (W. Weaver) and the power to collaborate (A. Allen; H. Arendt; T. Parsons) with self-organized complexity (I. Prigogine). In this view, power exercised by one party to dominate another is a disorganizing process and power exercised by different parties to collaborate with one another is a self-organizing process. These processes can occur across scale in human systems. Whether at the level of interpersonal, national or global politics, self-organizing is a democratizing process through which the disorganizing effects of domination and authoritarianism can be countered and overcome. While complexity perspectives teach us that there nothing is inexorable or guaranteed about the future generally and the advance of self-organization more specifically, they also offer the hope we can better diagnose the debilitating effects of power imposed and learn how to exercise power with not over others.

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