Complexity and The Tao of Fully Becoming


“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
― Lao TzuTao Te Ching


To quote myself from this Medium post:

The problem with the sciences of Complexity is that to truly understand what they entail one must either 1) Disavow oneself entirely of one’s own human agency and transcend fully into Observer mode (much as the nebulous Psychohistorians of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation), or the exact opposite: 2) Become fully immersed with the Zeitgeist of the time and dive head-on into the fiercely quantum game of social life. Both perspectives are replete with their own kinds of biases, but the trouble is that just dabbling once in one or the other necessarily excludes one’s self from switching back between methodologies at a later date.

Anthropologists, for example — Napoleon Chagnon chief among them — have come under incredible scrutiny for portraying indigenous tribes such as the Yamomami in a light that imparts perhaps more about themselves than their subjects. Should Anthropologists get their hands dirty and engage fully with their subjects at a personal level or should they observe carefully from the auspicious silence of a remote laboratory? To be an Observer is to forsake agency and the deep personal connection that entails, but to disengage from neutral Observation is to adopt wholesale the myopia of Solipsism, to see the tree for the forest rather than the forest as an emergent property of many different, interwoven trees.

I wrote this a few months ago. There is one sentence in particular I now disagree with:

…but the trouble is that just dabbling once in one or the other necessarily excludes one’s self from switching back between methodologies at a later date.

I wrote this under the impression that only personal bias mattered. Better said (and in the spirit of the Fundamental Attribution Error):

…the trouble is that just dabbling once in one experimental methodology or the other excludes one’s self, at least in the eyes of others, from credibly switching back at a later date.

Would you really believe that somebody who has written an article entitled “Going Gay is Not D’Way” is not also capable of genuinely extolling the value of demographic diversity and social inclusion?

In At Least Bias Is Bipartisan: A Meta-Analytic Comparison of Partisan Bias in Liberals and Conservativespublished at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), evidence shows that liberals, as much as conservatives, are prone to partisan bias – that is, showing rapid, easy acceptance of evidence that supports their existing beliefs – and that they are just as motivated to avoid hearing viewpoints that differ from their own. Unfortunately, if I write something that I don’t necessarily strongly believe in, and if I provide a very convincing case for it, I’m likely to be seen as fraternizing with one side or the other.

Complexity theorists should avoid polarized thinking. This is because while Complex systems are unpredictable, even in principle, they are ultimately constrained by order-generating rules that under-gird a number of wildly different social, biological and economic systems in the same way. Power laws, for example, a hallmark of Complexity science, emerge in everything from the metabolic rate of mammals to the scaling of urban centers. Is a city just a “great big whale?”. Possibly, according to Geoffrey West. Valuable insights such as these are simply not possible without a proclivity toward interdisciplinary thinking.

This is not to say that somehow Complexity theorists are more objective than pundits on either side of the political power spectrum (Melanie Mitchell, highly regarded Complexity theorist, who has worked at the Santa Fe Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratory, is clearly a Liberal), but that because of the nature of the systems they study—Complex systems are characterized by components which interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions—they must be much more familiar with opposing view points than do scientists studying in more isolated fields.

That being said, I personally believe that Complexity theorists must fully become everything they criticize. They must attempt to understand all sides, and can only do so by vigorously defending positions for which they are not personally inclined. As such, some of the writing on this blog will appear to be extreme. This is only because it must.

Steelmanning refers to arguing with the best possible version of someone’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented. Complexity theorists have a similar tool in their arsenal. Simulated annealing is a computational method used to approximate the global optimum of a complex problem dealing in a large search space of possible answers. In Complex systems, sometimes you reach what appears to be an optimum and it turns out only to be a local maximum. What you really want is the global maximum. Likewise, what contenders in a debate really want is the best answer to a complex philosophic question. Simulated annealing, unlike Steelmanning, however, attempts to get to this answer not by embracing your opponent’s best argument, but by progressively chipping away at your own, or that of the group’s.

The word annealing comes from annealing in metallurgy, a technique involving heating and controlled cooling of a material to increase the size of its crystals and reduce their defects:

In a debate, as in simulated annealing, you are constrained by time, or the attention span of your viewers, and you want to get to the best possible answer. You might think you have a good answer, but group-think, confirmation bias, bandwagoning, and all hell else have convinced you that you’ve cured cancer, even as you and everyone around you approach the sheer cliff of your ultimate demise. The key to traversing such uncertainty is to move the group in new directions only incrementally, deciding at each step whether the new answer is of higher or lower quality than the previous one. Understanding this, in fact, is what makes a good debate moderator.

When discussing in a group, or theorizing on your own, you will invariably come to either consensus or disagreement. Whenever you do, disregard half of what you’ve just concluded. Flip a coin. If heads, redirect your energy toward arguing for the losing side. If tails, argue for the winning side. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, you’ll find your Tao.

Unfortunately for us, and as is the case for any truly Complex system, there are no “perfect” answers to hard problems. On the other hand, there is nothing stopping us from knowing that we are at least moving in the right direction.


“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”
― Lao TzuTao Te Ching


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