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.

In the Eye of the Hurricane

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.

The Complexity Revolution at the Hairdresser’s

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

Political Science is Insufficiently Grounded in Physical Reality

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.

The Devil and the Demagogue

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

North Korea: Clashing Orders, Clashing Reasons

A New York Times column asks in this morning’s paper “Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?” Its answer is that, far from crazy, it is all too rational  (“North Korea Crazy? Worse. It’s Calculating” by Max Fisher, September 11, 2016, page A6).

The problem with this approach is that it assumes a single rationality shared by North Koreans and everyone else.  In my presentation at the 2014 International Political Science Association conference in Montreal, I called North Korea “exhibit A of currently persisting political closure.”  More to the present point, I argued that political conflicts within authoritarian regimes (like the one I got to know while living in Brazil at the height of its military dictatorship) reflect a clash of orders – or a clash of distinctly different types of rationality.  Authoritarian order is a very real type of order but it is mechanistic.  It tries to mechanize human behavior.  It is based on the absolutist assumption that disorder and uncertainty can be eliminated.  Those who actually acknowledge the existence of uncertainty defy the “reality” of absolute certainty; they must be repressed.  The dissenters also effectively acknowledge a radically different view of reality, one affirmed by 20th century science, namely that disorder and uncertainty can never be eliminated.  They can only be reduced.   Political conflict within North Korea reflects these clashing orders, these diametrically opposed views of rationality.  In its dealings with the world, the North Korean regime is hypersensitive to real or perceived threats and tends to be irrational.  Much of the challenge in dealing with it on the world stage is psychological.  Is it possible that cracks in the absolutism of the regime can develop and that it might pursue more reasonable policies (notably, backing off of capacities for nuclear warfare)?  I know too little to even speculate.  But, for starters, I think we need to acknowledge that a mechanistic vision of order guides the North Korean regime and this also shapes its view of what is and is not rational.

Big Sugar and the FDA: a Glimpse of Self-organization at the Edge of Disorganization

Ok, let’s try another exercise in putting a complexity theory of power through its paces. (Or, to put it in terms of the broader purpose of this blog, let’s view one more power conflict through a complexity lens to see if it can cast light on how to bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.)

Some fodder for this purpose can be found in a May 22, 2016 New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernese entitled “F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now”. It reports on new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that food producers must follow when labeling their products with nutritional information. When the FDA announced the proposals in 2014, “… consumer advocates worried that many of the major elements would not survive lobbying by the powerful food industry.” The stiffest opposition came from the D.C.-based Sugar Association over a new line requiring disclosure of the amount of added sugars contained in a product, information that helps consumers identify how much sugar above and beyond the naturally occurring sugars has been added to a product. Public health advocates pressed for the new line as one way to help combat an obesity epidemic affecting more than one-third of adults in the United States that has, in turn, “caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke”. NYU public health professor Marion Nestle, calling the FDA ruling “a huge win”, echoed the feelings of many health advocates. The Sugar Association, on the other contrary, stated “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America”. Food producers must include the new labels on their products by July 2018 (New York Times, May 22, 2016: A3).

As the sugar industry’s key lobby group in Washington, the Sugar Association represents what many health advocates refer to as “Big Sugar”, intentionally alluding to “Big Tobacco”. Like the tobacco industry, Big Sugar has a long history of obfuscating the growing body of scientific evidence linking products high in sugar with a host of illnesses. For an excellent job documenting this history, check out “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies”, a Mother Jones investigative piece by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign).

The tug of war over the added sugars line is just one of the components of the conflict over the new nutritional labels but it shall be the exclusive focus here because it maps particularly well to the complexity/power model I wish to demo. In terms of that model, the key actors in the conflict – Big Sugar, public health advocates (including, in this instance, the FDA) and the sugar consuming public — constitute a complex political system, or a system whose analysis can call upon assorted concepts in the complexity theory toolset like self-organization and disorganization or entropy, openness and closure etc. Because these concepts originate in pre-biotic physical science, their application to something as mundane as K Street politics is a good way to test their relevance to human affairs and ultimately to the challenge of bridging the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.

Applied to this conflict, the general picture that emerges is a struggle between opening, self-organizing forces and closing, disorganizing forces. Health advocates are trying to pry open a relatively closed system and to make available potentially empowering information, information that, by helping consumers make healthier choices, advances consumer autonomy and self-organizing capacities. Big Sugar, on the other hand, by trying to keep the public in the dark, favors a consuming public that is disempowered and disorganized in terms of its ability both to understand potential consequences of its purchasing decisions and to make informed decisions.

One of the essential dynamics of a closed system is its entropic movement toward the probable or the predictable, toward equilibrium.   For marketing purposes (i.e., for the purpose of exerting power over consumer purchases), Big Sugar needs a sufficiently passive and predictable consuming public, a public that is amenable and receptive to mass media advertising campaigns for sugar products. The last thing sugar marketers wish to have to deal with when mounting such campaigns is a consuming public questioning whether a certain amount of sugar consumption is healthy or not and making purchasing decisions on those grounds.

The goal of health advocates in pushing for the added sugars line, however, is precisely to stir things up, to get the public to start asking questions about its sugar-related purchases. They seek to break consumer population’s mold of passivity, to move consumers away from an equilibrium-oriented passivity toward a creative nonequilibrium, to advance active, questioning, autonomous consumer behavior.

A closed system, a system intolerant of questioning, typically possesses an ideology that guides its intolerance. The Sugar Association’s “mission of educating health professionals, media, government officials and the public about sugar’s goodness” (https://www.sugar.org/about-us/) offers the seeds of such an ideology. Closure to uncertainty about the “sugar’s goodness” breeds an absolutely certain, not-to-be-questioned doctrine of Sugar Goodness. Such a doctrine would certainly help explain how public disclosure of added sugars becomes “a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science”. In the complexity approach adopted here, any system closed to questioning or the recognition of uncertainty fails to incorporate one of the great reality breakthroughs of 20th century science – namely, uncertainty can never be eliminated; it can only be reduced. To believe blindly in Sugar Goodness is to be on a collision course with reality, specifically with realities exposed by medical science linking sugar consumption to a host of illnesses.

To look at the interactions of actors in this ‘added sugars’ conflict is to look at a tiny slice of a complex dynamic political system. My claims that the sugar lobby is, vis a vis the sugar consuming public, a disorganizing, passivity-inducing force and public health advocates are a self-organizing, activity-inducing force only apply to this narrow snapshot, the tug of war over inclusion or inclusion of this particular bit of information on food labels. I suspect, however, from bits and pieces I have glimpsed while looking into this topic, that the conflict depicted here is part of a larger pattern in which Big Sugar is indeed a disorganizing force and that health advocates whose work in the trenches has given them a good deal of expertise on this matter would be fully capable of making the broader case. I’ll gladly engage in dialogue with anyone who would like to look further into or undertake this type of analysis.