How do we understand the difference between the behaviour of an individual and that of a society, between a small group of like-minded people and a political movement or between the ecosystem of a few acres and that of a whole planet?
Clearly these are differences of scale, but some of the properties of the larger more complex systems can’t simply be explained as scaled-up versions of the properties of the smaller constituent parts. Those properties of the whole which can’t easily be explained at the level of the parts are emergent properties. These properties operate at a different level and require different explanations which is why social and political phenomena can’t be explained by psychology alone and biological processes can’t simply be explained by physics or chemistry. Reductionist explanations which involve understanding how the parts work can be very useful in helping us to understand the whole, but they never tell the whole story.
The most interesting questions are often about the translation between what is happening at one level and the next one ‘up’ or ‘down’. It’s by studying this interface that we begin to understand how chemical changes could have life or death effects on a whole organism, how individual human behaviours could influence a whole society or how human activity could have a planetary impact. To do these translations between levels we need to be confident with the rules and explanations governing both the levels we’re interested in, in other words to understand the properties of both the parts and the whole. This can put the overspecialised expert on just one level at a disadvantage.
In his brilliant book ‘Thinking Global’ (‘Penser Global’, Flammarion, 2015) the distinguished French sociologist Edgar Morin aims to help us get our heads around the overwhelming complexity of a modern world where so much is at stake, including human survival itself. Like Morin, holists reject the idea of breaking knowledge up into subject areas and fields of study but Morin suggests that this can itself be a form of reductionism – seeing only the whole and failing to take account of the constant dynamic interaction and feedback between the different levels. Morin is neither a reductionist nor a holist; going beyond the distinction between parts and wholes to see the key issue as the complexity of the system itself.
The first task, according to Morin, is to contextualise. Things only make sense if they are seen in their context; like a word in a sentence or human action within a human culture. In looking at humans in our world he sees both unity and diversity; a striking genetic, physiological and emotional unity – we all smile and cry, experience pain and joy, but this commonality translates itself into a great diversity of cultures and behaviours. Morin says that at a time when we all share a common planetary destiny:
We have to recognise others as both different to us and the same as us. If we see others as entirely different we cannot understand them. If we see them as entirely the same we cannot see what makes them original and different.
In order to start thinking about a global human society we need to understand the relationships between the parts and the whole and the emergent properties of a complex social system. Individuals and groups interacting with each other have produced languages, cultures and structures of power and regulation such as states with laws and institutions all of which can endure beyond any individual lifetime. The whole both releases and limits the potential of the parts but amounts to much more than the mere sum of those parts.
Social changes can be seen as disruptions at the social level which eventually transform the whole system, like capitalism growing from within feudalism or a new technology revolutionising the way people live. But historical evolution should not be seen as linear; the smooth flow of a majestic river. Instead, we need to understand that it is often triggered by apparently marginal events or accidents which set off deeper systemic change.
The more complex human society becomes, the more interdependent we become; relying on a web of connections, interactions and tensions which we barely understand. At the global level, this leads to greater uncertainty and risk. Emerging global challenges require some perspective to be properly understood and addressed and we need time to come to terms with these; time which we can’t always afford. Morin reminds us that during his youth in the 1930’s, European society seemed to be sleepwalking towards disaster and he quotes Hegel: “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk”. Given the colossal challenges we face today, we need to seek to understand the human condition a little better if we are to spread our wings a little faster. The parlous state of our human condition demands urgent action.
However, as Morin says, all action is a gamble full of uncertainty and success can never be guaranteed. No sooner do we make what we think is a wise and enlightened decision, it is released into a social, economic and political context outside of our control and may have all sorts of unintended consequences. This is not a counsel of despair, simply a reminder that our current understanding is always partial and that we need to combine the desire to deal with urgent problems with some humility about our abilities. We only need to reflect on the genuinely held fallacies and misconceptions of the past to recognise that we are probable just as prone to error and illusion today.
Morin makes the case for a new paradigm to replace a reductionist and atomised view of knowledge with a more ‘connected’ paradigm of complexity. We are in a period which Morin describes as the ‘prehistory of human thought’. Early Homo Sapiens had essentially the same brains and capacities as we do but we now have to operate at a new level and face new threats; fear, fanaticism, murderous conflict and political regression. We also have more powerful tools – both real and conceptual – at our disposal. But human society is a constant ‘work in progress’ and we need improved tools for global thinking.
Faced with all these dangers we need to seek a more open way of thinking, one which is both more global and more complex. We need to reject dogmatism; the hardening of our ideas and the refusal to test them against reality. We need to abandon a closed rationalism which cannot grasp what might be beyond conventional thinking and instead commit to an open rationalism which knows its limitations. We have to struggle constantly to avoid believing in those illusions which could acquire the solidity of a belief system. In this global world we are faced with the challenge of global thinking, which is the challenge of complex thinking. We are living through the beginning of a beginning.
Based on the final chapter ‘Pensée complexe et pensée globale’
See also :
Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere (May 2017)
The social origins of human thinking (March 2016)
Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)
Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)