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Philosophy of Complex Systems

Hooker, Cliff, ed. 2011. Philosophy of Complex Systems. Oxford; Waltham: North Holland. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/book/9780444520760.

The domain of nonlinear dynamical systems and its mathematical underpinnings has been developing exponentially for a century, the last 35 years seeing an outpouring of new ideas and applications and a concomitant confluence with ideas of complex systems and their applications from irreversible thermodynamics. A few examples are in meteorology, ecological dynamics, and social and economic dynamics. These new ideas have profound implications for our understanding and practice in domains involving complexity, predictability and determinism, equilibrium, control, planning, individuality, responsibility and so on. Our intention is to draw together in this volume, we believe for the first time, a comprehensive picture of the manifold philosophically interesting impacts of recent developments in understanding nonlinear systems and the unique aspects of their complexity. The book will focus specifically on the philosophical concepts, principles, judgments and problems distinctly raised by work in the domain of complex nonlinear dynamical systems, especially in recent years.

Reading level: Advanced

Cliff Hooker, is the director of the Complex Adaptive Systems Research Group  at the University of Newcastle, where he is a professor of philosophy. He has put together a wonderful collection of essays about complexity in a diverse group of disciplines including biology, economics, ecology, medicine and public policy.

About this book, Hooker says he has “sired a cross-border bastard, properly belonging to neither philosophy or science but an inheritor, and supporter, of both.” While conceding there is not a unified science of complex systems, in the first part of Philosophy of Complex Systems he sets about describing its general foundations.

Preparations for the emergence of complex systems in science — both their study and use — have been over 150 years in the making. Even so, the explicit recognition of complex systems concepts, principles and models in science is a recent phenomenon. For the roughly 260 years from the publication of Newton’s Principia to the 1945 close of the Second World War, the defining characteristic of fundamental advance in physics was the understanding of dynamical symmetry and conservation… The philosophy of science evolved compatibly, focusing on determinism, universal a-temporal (hence condition-independent) causal laws, analysis into fundamental constituents then yielding bottom-up mechanical synthesis. To this was added a simple deductive model of explanation and prediction — deduction from theory plus initial conditions gives explanation after the event and prediction before it. Nonetheless, by the late 1970’s it is clear in retrospect that science had begun to pull together many of the major ideas and principles that would undermine the hegemony of the simple symmetry/ equilibrium orthodoxy. Instabilities were seen to play crucial roles in many real-life systems — they even conferred sometimes valuable properties on those systems, such as sensitivity to initial conditions and structural liability in response. These instabilities broke symmetries and in doing so produced the only way to achieve more complex dynamical conditions. The phenomenon of deterministic chaos was not only surprising to many, to some extent it pulled apart determinism from analytic solutions, and so also from prediction, and hence also pulled explanation apart from prediction. It also emphasized a principled, as opposed to a merely pragmatic, role for human finitude in understanding the world.

Many books describe what is meant by complexity theory in its many forms. Hooker takes this volume a step further to explore the mutual implications arising with complexity-philosophy considered together. This is especially so in the final chapter discussing “the consequences of the cognitive apparatus of complex systems for methodology, epistemology and metaphysics”. In particular, the discussion helped me down the path of recognizing the importance of a personal philosophy to support my view about complexity itself.