The historic circumstance raised by COVID-19 and the realization that it’s a circumstance affecting the entire human race puts a lot in perspective about our place in the natural world. We tend to live under the myth that this, the wisest-of-all human civilizations has risen above and transcended nature — only to be reminded that nature ultimately sets the rules on what we can or cannot do. The freedom to infect is no freedom. It is taking license on matters that nature places off bounds. Now to ponder — this crisis is just a small dress rehearsal for the far more radical demands nature will make of us as our failure to avert global warming looms ever larger.
“What does political science have to say about evolution?” In many years of teaching political science, a student never asked me this question. I imagine that many political scientists responding to such a query would simply say “That’s not my department.” But situating political science within an evolutionary framework is not merely a good question. Political science’s claim to be a science, already on shaky grounds, will become untenable if it cannot provide a systematic way to undertake the challenge posed by this question. As long as political scientists have to defer to some other body of knowledge when confronted with the issue of situating humanity within evolutionary time, it will be trapped in an anthropocentric perspective unable to conceive of politics immersed in the world of nature.
Anthropocentric political science is a view of politics blind to humanity in the natural world. There are at least two respects in which this view has been challenged in relatively recent times, one pioneered by environmental advocates like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, which has forced political science to make ecological issues a core focus and the other, more fundamentally, by an epistemological crisis that highlights the need for the integration of physical and human sciences, or more to the point here, a physically integrated political science.
Social and political scientists used to have good reason not to involve physical science in their analyses of human society. The mechanistic paradigm of nature, the so-called clockwork universe that ruled science from the times of Isaac Newton, when applied beyond relatively simple physical realms to analysis of human affairs, could only reduce people to cogs in a machine. The notion that humans could, like physical objects in the Newtonian universe, be subject to mathematically precise, absolutely certain laws lent itself to scientistic and positivist rationales for domination and control. This was and is naturally repugnant to champions of human freedom whether in theory or practice. In this context, principled opposition to “hard science” interpretations of human affairs has not only been understandable but necessary to defend against dehumanizing theories of politics. But this traditional justification for keeping physical science at bay from politics needs to be reassessed in the light of developments that go far beyond the science of simple interactions of material objects to the science of emergent complexity. In this still blossoming view, nature is no longer modeled as a clockwork but as phenomena with both self-organizing and disorganizing, liberating and oppressive potential. In this new light, theorists of politics can no longer depict attempts to integrate the physical and the political as scientistic incursions into politics. Now is the time for political science to take up the challenge, however complex and monumental it may be, of situating politics squarely within physical reality – and making anthropocentric political science history.
Never heard of anthropocentric political science? Neither has Google. Do a search for the exact phrase and Google returns this answer (at least as of today June 13, 2019):
No results found for “anthropocentric political science”.
If you’re reading this after a Google bot has had time to sweep through here, then a Google search of “anthropocentric political science” should land you right back here — and I welcome you to the noosphere’s very first mention of the term.
I just stumbled across this absence while working on another blog entry I hope to post soon dealing with (Google are you listening?) anthropocentric political science.
I have translated the following passage from Edgar Morin’s La Methode: La Nature de la Nature (1977, 112-114). Morin, the pioneer of critical complexity theory, notes that “A system is not only enriching, it is also impoverishing, and the impoverishment can be greater than the enrichment” (p. 114). To account for the latter, we need to acknowledge circumstances under which “The whole is less than the sum of its parts” (p. 112), something “very rarely formulated” (p. 112). Now, more than four decades later, this fundamental characteristic of systems continues to be ignored in much of the discourse on complex systems.
B. The constraints: the whole is less than the sum of its parts
As soon as we conceive of a system, the notion of global unity is so strong that it blinds us; the blindness of reductionism (which sees only the constituent elements) gives way to the blindness of “holism”(which sees only the whole). Thus, while it has often been noted that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, the contrary notion — the whole is less than the sum of its parts– is very rarely formulated…
1. The constraints
The whole is less than the sum of its parts: this means that some qualities, some properties belonging to the parts, when considered in isolation, vanish within the system. Such an idea is rarely recognized. Yet, it can be deduced from the idea of organization, and can be conceived much more logically than emergence. Continue reading
Here is “A Complexity Theory of Power” as it appears in the Fall 2018 issue of the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems. It took a little while to discover how to display the PDF of the article here without having to upgrade to a WordPress Business Plan but, when I asked, WordPress informed me about the free Scribd option deployed here. While there doesn’t appear to be a way to download the PDF below, it is possible to download it directly from the journal or through ResearchGate here.
This is a provocative piece in a variety of ways I intend to make more explicit in coming blog entries.
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.
I have not been giving this blog the attention it deserves. One basic oversight: I’ve never explained “In the Eye of the Hurricane”, the blog’s subtitle. This is a term Immanuel Wallerstein uses to describe the precarious situation we are in due to the effective divorce between the physical and social sciences. That physical and social scientists tend to have no intellectual reasons to communicate with one another has produced an epistemological crisis that he likens to a hurricane. He writes:
“The modern structures of knowledge, the division of knowledge into two competing epistemological spheres of the sciences and the humanities, is in crisis. We can no longer use them as adequate ways in which to gain knowledge of the world…We are living in the eye of the hurricane” (2004:49-50).
In other words, the division of knowledge between the physical and social sciences is compromising the very process of scientific enquiry. It obscures for researchers fundamental aspects of reality, a point stressed by Edgar Morin when he noted that “The great disconnect between the natural sciences and the human sciences hides at once the physical reality of the latter and the social reality of the former” (1977:11). The challenge this poses to political scientists is the following: we need to illuminate both the physical reality of politics and the political reality in which the natural sciences are embedded.
Morin, Edgar. 1977. La Méthode : La Nature de la Nature. Paris: Éditions de Seuil.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
I will soon turn this blog in a new direction. What I’ve been doing so far is using current events to try to show how a complexity theory of power can help bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences. No theory worth its salt can evade such empirical grounding. While I will continue to use current events this way on occasion, I’d like to make a case for how complexity theory needs the progressive left and how the progressive left needs complexity theory. I’m also keeping an eye out for ways that Donald Trump’s far-right, authoritarian impulses could exacerbate “disorganized complexity” nationally and internationally.
But, first, here’s one more “complexity event in the news”. The event that popped out at me from today’s New York Times (“Salon Workers in Illinois to Train on Signs of Abuse”, December 18, 2016, Page A4) is a new first-of-its kind law in Illinois that adds to the licensing requirement for hairdressers training on how to spot domestic abuse symptoms among their customers. Continue reading
I presented my most complete statement to date on a complexity theory of power at the 2014 International Political Science Association meeting in Montreal. It is entitled “Grounding Political Science in the Physical World.” Following is the final paragraph of the paper. To view the entire paper, click here.
A British website called Non-Equilibrium Social Science (2014) is a good indicator of what we can expect to hear more of as complexity science makes inroads into social and political science. But a nonequilibrium approach will do little good if it does not also get to the roots of how power imposed presses individuals, groups and sometimes entire nations toward a stifling and asphyxiating equilibrium. If in this century we succeed in building a nonequilibrium political science that illuminates these debilitating effects of power, then I think we will look back and see that 20th century political science was insufficiently grounded in physical reality, that it did not help us understand that the virtual mechanization of human relationships is not only an abuse of power but a physical disorder. A physically-integrated political science that aligns the human passion for freedom with the indeterminism at the heart of matter can hopefully set us on the path to building genuinely self-organizing social, political and economic structures. In learning how to exercise power with not over others, we can integrate ourselves with the self-organizing pulse of nature.
In the presidential debate on Sunday, Donald Trump charged that Bernie Sanders had sold out to “the devil.” The devil?! Oh, yes, of course. Hillary. “She’s the devil.” That’s how the aspiring exorcist-in-chief put it in a Mechanicsburg, PA rally in August. And he has reportedly repeated this rant once again on the campaign trail this week.
Trump’s Manichean disposition – his tendency to demonize or dehumanize opponents – has been on such stark display over the past year there’s no need to offer further documentation. That may be found among the 36,600 hits that a “Manichean Donald Trump” search calls up on Google today.
What is of interest from the complexity perspective advanced by this blog is the reality disconnect in which political Manicheanism is rooted. It is a phenomenon that Norbert Wiener, writing at the height of McCarthyism, devoted attention to in his still timely and exciting work The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954). Continue reading