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The Philosophy of Complexity: Are Complex Systems Inherently Tyrannical?
Melanie Swan   Jan 4, 2015   Broader Perspective  

The philosophy of complexity is developing as a field of philosophical inquiry to accompany, support, and question advances in the science of complex systems. This is warranted given that the issues surfaced by science findings signal a full slate of philosophical questions in the three main areas of ontology (existence), epistemology (knowledge), and axiology (valorization and ethics).

The fast pace of technological innovation has been substantiating the need for various new philosophies explicitly examining these issues in technology, information, cognition, cognitive enhancement, big data, and complexity.

How much total Liberty is in the System?
A philosophy of complexity would operate both internally and externally to the practice of complexity science, at the level of the theory of the practice, and at the abstraction of the impact and meaning of the practice more broadly in society. One issue for investigation is a philosophical characterization of complex systems themselves, including parameterizing different features such as range-boundedness.

For example, in French politics, there was the revolution and the subsequent process of republics starting, failing, and enduring. The question is measuring the total liberty available in the system, how has this changed over time, and what predictions can be made, or, more importantly, what improved changes might be catalyzed for the future?

​Persistent Mathematical Behavior across Complex Systems
Fifteen or so criteria that are mathematically persistent across complex systems (fat tails, power laws, high coefficients, degrees of correlation, fractal behavior, etc.) have been identified. However, it seems that even while expanding and contracting over time, complex systems may be displaying cyclic and range-bound behavior. This could be inherently mean-regressing, and potentially tyrannizing or at least limiting to system participants, and this should be measured and evaluated. Is there a fixes amount of liberty available in the French political system?

To what degree do complex systems as a format have limitations, and is this a block to progress? Both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of complex systems need to be measured, with an identification of where and how these limits can be and have been broken (beyond traditional symmetry-breaking).

Bergsonian Information, Illiberty, and Rethinking Thinking
The philosophical questions concern the ontology, epistemology, and axiology of complex systems. For example, does complexity have a qualitative side? There is a need to investigate the idea of ‘Bergsonian information,’ the extension of duration-as-time and duration-as-consciousness/self to the internal doubled experience of information, in the context of complexity.

Likewise, liberty, illiberty (the absence of liberty), and potentiality in complex systems should be explored, especially in cognition, neuroscience, and connectome-mapping, areas which are just starting to be accessible to the complexity discipline. There can be an examination of how we can rethink thinking and intelligence (biological and artificial) per deep learning, symbolic systems methods, and the philosophy of complexity.  

Melanie Swan, MBA, is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. Ms. Swan, principal of the MS Futures Group, is a philosopher, science and technology futurist, and options trader.


This interesting article raises many open-ended questions on the subject of complexity, to which I would like to add one. If the circle of discourse is to include philosophical and subjective considerations, shouldn’t we also allow conceptual frameworks that are intelligible to those unversed in higher mathematics?

Regarding the specific topic of tyranny within complex systems, is the author conflating tyranny with lack of liberty of the system participants? These participants have given up some liberty to join the system and will experience its vacillations, but the system itself does not necessarily have a tyrant in the traditional definition, that is, pertaining to central authority.

Regarding general complexity theory, as the author points out, there are criteria common to all complex systems, but perhaps more important is the radical openness in their emergence that defies causation and outpaces characterization.

It’s difficult to conceptualize tyranny in non-teleological terms. Political terms are usually ingrained with anthropomorphized reasoning. The self-organization of complex systems includes conflicting goals without a static equilibrium and some of the adaptive properties are not clearly goal-directed. As far as adaptation goes, some systems can develop self-preservation mechanisms by decreasing the degrees of freedom of individual components or other agents, when cooperation is optimal and the costs are reasonable. Eons of cycles of competition and interations between unicellular–multicellular entities during the prokaryotic–eukaryotic transitions did not create entities that tend to converge optimally on drives like resource acquisition and self-preservation. The consolidation of freedom as a drive doesn’t seem reasonable. For example,  the near-optimal approximate cooperative equilibria between multicellular and unicelullar organisms: humans and our microbiome. Both the microbiome and metagenome probably have important functions in health and disease ( These cooperative interactions for defense, metabolism and reproduction sometimes result in cancer and reduced fitness. Does our microbiome feels oppressed? Does mitochondria feels oppressed? Humans, implemented as Homo sapiens, do feel oppressed by a lot of random and non-random processes to the point of creating measures of value and the subjective experience of being free. Our very existence presupposes the obliteration of the degrees of freedom of many individual entities or agents, the whole biosphere, humanity itself, is a ladder of dead tribes and destruction, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation and incremental cooperation. Yet, we claim that as humans, we live in one of the freest periods, with high amounts of freedom. In my view, complex adaptive systems can maximize degrees of freedom for both the collective and the individuals, but not effectively and not as a drive or fixed point set of a certain freedom valuing map. The future collective systems of political organizations will have tyrannic values, if adaptive. You can see this already happening even in ‘freedom loving systems’.

Thank you! The article points to the core problem;  A “Mathematical Behavior” modeling has become the key for explaining the complex systems and this very bias is becoming a “flocking” tyranny! One of the best example of this “flocking” tyranny is a reverse engineering attempt; a great research and knowledge accumulation, a great contribute to the neurology medical studies, but the project itself results in a dangerous “standardization” of the brain “neural connection associations” that are, and will always be, absolutely “personalized.”  A “Mathematical Behavior” modeling cannot explain subtle changes within nature or explain any act of free will that may trigger the “mathematical behavior” like consequences for the system observed or better to say” range-boundedness” of the system. By the way what is the complex system? Is it a bounded system that is based on the “axiology” of the academic research departments and funded by the flawed socio-economic –political-military system or is it the complex system of all things, like “cosmos”? Is the complex system made of particular things that are observable? If so, does the observability denote the limits of our conceptual systems? Or is the system the universe in which our “human” system exists? The Bergsonian philosophical “lilting” has a great potential, but the true question is how much have we progressed from the world of the Marcusian “One-Dimensional Man,” a man from the past to this, new, a future man, “Homo-Complexes”?  What is the mathematical modeling methodology in its essence?  Liberation or control? It seems more like a control; a new type of an invisible “positivism” which goal is the institutionally reinforced standardization of something that cannot be ever standardized. Can one’s existence ever be co-equal to a system that functions as a mathematical perfect machine? No. It’s absurd. Please, read the quote from the book I read “The Future of the Brain,” the collection of essays by the leading neuroscientists who are pioneers of the Human Brain Project based on the science of reverse engineering: “...This Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas uses a combination of normal and genetically modified mice together with genetic tracing approaches and a high-throughput serial 2-photon tomography system to image the labeled axons throughout the entire brain. High-resolution coronal images are sampled every 100 (0.1mm), resulting a large 750-GB dataset per brain. At the end of 2013, approximately 1, 500 terabytes of data (or 1.5 petabytes) will have been generated, all mapped onto a common 3 D reference space of high spatial fidelity that allows for identification of the neural circuitry that governs behavior and brain function.” This article was written when predicting research agenda and results for 2013. Happy New Year, we are now in 2015! We are living in the age of the exponential computing, where research moves fast; one day we speak about neural rat connections, the next day about the ability to read human thoughts.  Are we ought to be or are we ought to become?  Are we ought to become a new evolution rat-race or a new evolution homo-complexes? What is your “great refusal” when comes to the humanity future?

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