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Complexity: Between ignorance and knowledge

Let’s get started with a platitude: we live in complex times. There are probably not many people who wish to deny this: complexity galore. Wars, pandemics, climate change, loss of biodiversity, the erosion of democracy, the obsolete governance techniques that we still use to cope with all these problems, the blurring of truth and falsehood and, on top of it, the sense that we all live in edgy times – yes, the complexity seems to befuddle or overwhelm us. But what is it? Can we define it? Can we somehow make sense of it?

The word 'complex' – it is clear that we are not talking here about a cluster of buildings or about a particular neurotic disorder – has synonyms like 'complicated', 'difficult' or 'composite'. If you look at the Latin origin of the word, the word means "twined together" (com + plectere). If we consider things complex, then this mainly means that things belong together, fall into each other, are merged, or intertwined. Complexity seems, given this etymology, to deny the possibility of isolation or separation.

However, we must beware of a confusion of meaning that can arise here. Complex is not the same as complicated. Computers or I-Phones are rather complicated devices. There are all kinds of parts in both of them that many people do not understand. Yet, in a very specific sense they are not complex. Why would that be the case? In principle, anyone can understand the complexity of a computer very well by analyzing it in terms of its constituent parts. This, of course, does assume that he or she has the time, the willpower and the technical talent to undertake such an analysis.

Such conditions are never met in complex systems. The connection of element that ‘make up’ such a system cannot be understood in terms of the parts. The interaction between these parts is erratic and unpredictable in principle. The same also applies to the interaction between the system as such and the environment in which it is located. No matter how hard one tries how much time one puts into it, he or she will, in spite of all available skills and talents, never fully penetrate complexity. It seems to be the other way around: the more the researcher (an investigative journalist, a scientist, a citizen browsing the internet in the attic …) seems to know about complexity, the less he or she knows about it. With respect to complexity, it is as if ignorance and knowledge have entered into some kind of mysterious alliance. It is precisely this relationship that we will address during the course.

Hence, some of the questions that we will be highlighted during the course:

How can we make sense of complexity?

  • What is precisely the (non-)relation between ignorance and knowledge?
  • How does complexity challenge our ideas about rationality?
  • What remains of truth in times of complexity?
  • What does complexity mean for politics or managements?
  • Is there an ethics of complexity?
  • How can we represent complexity?
  • What are proper attitudes with respect to complexity?

So, the idea is that the course does not only address theoretical or academic issues circling around complexity, but also allows students to ponder more practical problems.

Prof. dr. René ten Bos, Philosophy of Management Sciences