Review: On Complexity

Amazon Page

Amazon Page

Edgar Morin

5.0 out of 5 stars 6 Star Foundation Work for Everything Else, August 19, 2013

This is a remarkably coherent book about the most important topic for all of us, the matter of complexity and more to the point, thinking about complexity. I certainly recommend it most strongly, along with two other books by the same author that I have reviewed:

Homeland Earth : A Manifesto for the New Millennium (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity and the Human Sciences)
Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (Education on the Move)

The Foreword by Alfonso Montuori is easily the equal of the main body by Edgar Morin, and I am totally awed by the mastery demonstrated in Montuori’s synthesis and framing of Morin’s work. I venture to say that I would not have gotten as much from the main body without the structure of the Foreword.

Montuori, always drawing on Morin, emphasizes a number of core concepts that I note down:

01 We must abandon the architectural or machine metaphor that assumes a foundation or base for what is actually a complex complete whole that can be viewed from any point.

02 Morin is alone in attempting to fully integrate the sciences and philosophy, to which I would add he also provides a foundation for more deeply integrating the sciences, the humanities, and religion as well as philosophy.

Two other books I would recommend are:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
God and Science: Coming Full Circle?

03 Complex thought does not reduce and polarize; it rejects the dualisms of good versus evil, we versus them, observer versus the observed.

04 FORGIVENESS MATTERS. Forgiveness (or truth and reconciliation) breaks the cycle of violence and retribution and makes possible new beginnings. Below is a quote from the Foreword (published in 2008) that applies directly to the USA today (2013):

“The unquestioned belief in one’s own `goodness’ can lead, through a process Jung called `enantiodromia,’ to a coincidence of opposites, where the very actions taken to fight the enemy bring about the conditions that the enemy’s victory would ensure. Where, for instance, a democratic country fighting a totalitarian regime resorts to such drastic draconian actions that it actually destroys the very democratic principles it is allegedly attempting to safeguard.”

05 Complex thinking must be holographic, multidimensional, transdiciplinary. Morin tackles the big questions that individual disciplines avoid, academia thus being divorced from lived experience. Morin is described as transgressive rather than progressive. Transdisciplinary practice CHALLENGES the assumptions of each discipline [that have not been subject to external or non-disciplinary scrutiny.]

Transdisciplinary practice is inquiry-driven; meta-paradigmatic; rooted in an understanding of the organization of knowledge [see also Harold Wilenski’s Organizational Intelligence: Knowledge and Policy in Government and Industry]; and committed to full transparency of the process by which knowledge is derived. It is the opposite of reductionist approaches that isolate phenomena from their environment and operated with a disjunctive logic of either/or.

06 Dogma must be avoided at all costs, it “possesses” humans and blocks constructive engagement rooted in truth.

07 Content is determined by organization – certainly this applies to the US Government and particularly the US (secret) intelligence community. As one of my graduate theses demonstrated, the US Country Team collects at best 20% of the relevant information, and spills 80% of that in how it does or does not share the information with the rest of the government.

08 Systems biology and “a social ecology of being and knowledge” are central to Morin’s work. He replaces linear progression with an open spiral of hybrid cultures and cross-fertilizations.

09 UNCERTAINTY is an OPPORTUNITY for creativity, not just a source of anxiety. Citing Paul Davies:

“The paradigm of the creative universe `emphasizes the collective, cooperative, and organizational aspects of nature; its perspective is synthetic and holistic rather than analytic and reductionist.”

10 ORGANIZATION without DISORDER is a sterile system where innovation is not possible. Citing Marin, Montuori emphasizes that it is the interaction of order and disorder that allows for change and therefore growth.
INSIGHT: Morin makes it clear that what Western analytics might consider “noise” is in fact potential signal, depending on the context. Cultural stories, for example, that impatient Westerners might wish to dispense with, could in fact be vital to understanding subtle messages. I am fascinated by Morin’s concept of “self-eco-re-organizing system” and reminded of Russell Ackoff and second and third order cybernetics.

INSIGHT: In times of uncertainty full of potential, reductionist thinking makes matters worse. That for me is the US Government and most corporations in a nutshell. Brain dead and locked in time and space, unable to perceive, much less adapt.

11 THINKING should be a discipline in its own right. As a professional intelligence officer who has long championed the integration of education, intelligence (decision-support) and research, and who wrote the original article on “Creating a Smart Nation,” I see the value of this, its relevance to intelligence, and the abject failure of all concerned to THINK. We have not been responsible about the profession of intelligence, its sources, its methods, and its purposes.

I am reminded of:

Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West
The Manufacture Of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System
One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

Morin makes clear that the principles guiding the selection and rejection of data are the defining attribute of any “intelligence” system.

QUOTE (3): “We are dominated by the principle of disjunction, reduction, and abstraction. Together they constitute what I call the `paradigm of simplification.'”

QUOTE (4): “Mutilating thought necessarily leads to mutilating actions.” US foreign policy, for example, still arrogant and ignorant.

QUOTE (6): “The modern pathology of mind is in the hyper-simplification that makes us blind to the complexity of reality.

Core bullets:

Life and earth are OPEN systems, NOT NOT NOT “closed” systems.

Laws of DIS-EUILIBRIUM rule.

Intelligibility must be sought and found across the whole system of systems, not in isolation.

Information is biological – to think is to live.

“Negentropy” is the creation of something from nothing.

The presumption that machines might emulate humans is retarded – and thus cybernetics in its present form is retarded. Humans are unique for managing fuzzy while computers are either/or, on or off.

I am reminded of:

Pathology Of Power
Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency

Complexity is both macro and micro.

Learning is a biological function rooted in the interaction of the human senses with external stimuli. [Schools are thus distanced from real learning in the real world.]

Uncertainly creates new knowledge only when those concerned are engaged in an OPEN dialog.

Coherence demands a unity of science.

Truth is never absolute – it is interactive and in the moment/space.

QUOTE (34): What affects a paradigm, that is, the vault key of a whole system of thought, affects the ontology, the methodology, the epistemology, the logic, and by consequence, the practices, the society, and the politics. The ontology of the West was founded on closed entities, such as substance, identity (linear), causality, subject, object. These entities don’t communicate amongst themselves. Oppositions provoke revulsion or canceling of a concept by another (like subject/object).

Humanity has two forms of madness: absolute incoherence, and absolute coherence, or tyranny.

HUGE POINT: Strategy should be the constant, and help maintain agility and adjustment of programs in the face of change and opportunity. The programs should NOT be static and rigid. Complexity DEMANDS a strategy that is itself holistic. Strategy is the opposite of program.

QUOTE (57): “Much of the suffering of millions of beings results from the effects of fragmented and one-dimensional thought.”

Three common causalities among Western enterprises:
01 Linear causality
02 Feedback causality
03 Recursive causalities

The enterprise is the system between the individual and other systems.

QUOTE (63): “The only way to fight against degeneration is permanent regeneration.”

QUOTE (70): “Autonomy, therefore, involves a profound energetic informational and organizational DEPENDENCE with respect to the outside world.”

I am reminded of intra-terrestrial intelligence (both plants and animals).

QUOTE (86): “For as long as there is anything new or interfering, the expert tends to fail somewhat more frequently than the non-expert.

We finally have three systems sciences: cosmology, earth sciences, and ecology.

Human have two kinds of thinking: rational, empirical and technical; and symbolic, mythological, and magical.

QUOTE (95): “We know that rationality does not grow as a matter of course. It can regress; can take on insane forms of rationalization, which is to day the form of a closed logical system, incapable of seeing reality.”

I will keep this book. It is perhaps the most useful book I have read in that it confirms my own growing conclusions from a lifetime of reading, and it is simple enough to be understood by a well-intentioned leader contemplating the creation of an Open Source Agency (OSA) and adoption of the Open Source Everything approach to global multinational information-sharing and sense-making. There is no organization, no individual, and no academic discipline that could not benefit from EVERYONE reading this book.

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World

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