What is complexity? The context in which complexity arises is the human search for order, which means a satisfactory arrangement of things in space, time and cause. Since the beginning, humans have searched for order in the natural world, and created order in the human-made world. Many of us believe that the creation of life itself was a search for order.
The modern use of the word complexity began concurrent with the Enlightenment, describing a whole comprised of parts arranged in an intricate and entwined fashion. Later, complex began to be used to mean “not easily analyzed”. We can also explore the meaning of complex by considering the word’s main synonyms, which include complicated and convoluted, and its antonyms, which include simple, clear, and obvious.
It is also fascinating to plug the word in Google Translate and see how other cultures use the concept, such as insolubility and subtlety (Hindi), enigmatic (Thai), puzzling (Japanese), intricate (Chinese and others), pluralism (Korean), turmoil (Filipino), perplexity (Arabic) and my favorite – hubbub (Turkish).
Contemporary dictionaries tend to define complexity as a quality of being complicated or not simple – which is how it has been traditionally conceived – and slightly better, as the features of something that make it difficult to understand – which is now more characteristic of its popular use. On the other hand, the definitions of complexity in academic literature tend to leave most ordinary folks gasping. We will set scientific descriptions of complexity aside until later. Nevertheless, although many scientific theories involving complexity require advanced mathematics and sometimes appear to be discipline or situation specific, there are common threads quite easily understood, and we will try to bring these core ideas together. Having said that, a fully unified and concise definition of complexity is and will likely remain a work in progress.
So, let’s start with consideration of complexity as something that’s hard to understand, and explore this idea further. Is something hard to understand because of its very nature (objective complexity) or because of some limitation in our human abilities (subjective complexity)? Is something hard to understand because is intricate (with many details and interconnections beyond our grasp) or because its behavior his hard to predict (the rules of the game are not certain or even known)? The answer is yes, but we cannot just leave it at that.