January 29, 2005

Complex Reality Part 2 

One practical consequence of the occurrence of complex systems is that engineers and scientists have sometimes to work like mad to analyze and understand these systems and build something useful based on that knowledge.

But there are other consequences. In my opinion, a very important one is that if we try to describe a system with the wrong model, we will obtain incorrect predictions. And one mistake I see being made very often is oversemplification. This often appears as thinking that there is one or a few "root causes" that can explain almost everything.

I have a different point of view. I think that every society-wide behaviour can be explained only recurring to a number of causes and factors each with different importance. There are main causes, and secondary ones. There are factors almost universal for any man in the world, and others which are local and particular. Thus, when someone says "If we do X, the consequence will be Y", I tend to distrust. Probably the reaction will be Y, but exactly to what degree it's hard to say. Or together with Y, also and undesidered Z may occur. And so on.

That also explains why I do not easily label people or societies as evil: sometimes, a behaviour causing horrible consequences is the result of mistakes (incorrect system analysis), not of evil intentions. But evil people and evil ideologies do exist, I'm sure of that.

These considerations are not an argument for moral relativism as expressed by the old saying "The world is not black and white, but rather a greyscale". Instead, reality is complex, a different concept. I drew my conclusions from this realization; feel free to draw yours.

Update 31/01/05: Wretchard himself has similar views.

[...]I might be wrong, but large scale, historical phenomena are rarely explicable by little formulas of the sort Hersh was talking about, because complex systems are often nonlinear, emergent, etc. For that reason, these 'secret of the universe' confidences often sound a little odd, i.e. the 'Philadelpha Experiment really happened', 'the US Government secretly has the Ark of the Covenant', etc. That's not to say they are never true. Occasionally there is a simple explanation for everything and they are out to get you.[...]

No, he wasn't engaged in a discussion with me, if you ask.


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