Category Archives: Complexity

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.

Anti-psychiatry; an example of polarized debate between anti-science fringe and orthodoxy

Reading on the internet has probably already introduced you to the anti-psychiatric movement, which appeals to the dislike people have for the “disease model” and fear of medication for mental illness, which relates to their fears of being out of control of their own minds. Although they will have already experienced this as human beings, if not also as sufferers of particular disorders, they may not have accepted it any more than people can accept the fact of their future death.

In short, the anti-psychiatric movement, and specifically its anti-psychopharmacological message, appeals to the folk rejection of the mind or “soul” people think of as their unitary self being in some way integrated or derived—to some debatable degree—without conscious control, and being subject instead to the evolution, development, oddities and dysfunctions of a physical electrochemical brain, a compound, complex adaptive system. Despite mountains of scientific evidence, folk beliefs about the brain prefer to believe it is merely the seat of consciousness. This is just as true of secularists, who won’t use the word “soul,” but still believe in a metaphysical notion about the mind, falsely distinguishing the experience from the brain from which it emerges.

Figureheads of the movement like Thomas Szasz also portray psychiatry almost exclusively as a soulless industry abusing and controlling patients and selling destructive “medicine” they don’t need for imaginary ailments, rather than as a non-monolithic medical field which is generally less problematic now than some of its earlier history, but still muddling through, like its patients, not without problems, errors, and differences of opinion. The evil-psychiatry portrayal is mixed with a lot of disprovable medical ignorance and some brazen lies, but as is well known on the internet, most readers are not diligent in their fact-checking and not particularly critical about sources.

If any of them know, I have never seen one of the many people who reference the anti-psychiatry quack Thomas Szasz ever mention that his group, the so-called “Citizens Commission on Human Rights,” is a front for the Church of Scientology.

Scientologists have to be wise to their need for fronts like this to promote their views, which will otherwise be received as if they come from a science fiction cult—because they do. They have an agenda to disparage medical science, psychopharmacology, all psychiatric and psychological theories and treatment options—effective and ineffective, appropriate and inappropriate alike—to promote their own brand of quackery instead. This isn’t news, but I imagine that it will be useful for some readers on the internet, who have been taken in by some of the false arguments figureheads like Szasz have promoted, to learn about their associations with Scientology.

That was enough reason to make this post, but I would also like to briefly connect it to a larger pattern I have repeatedly noticed in dialogues about contentious science.

One unfortunate effect of anti-scientific criticism you will see is the gradual elimination of other positions with sensible criticisms of the establishment, in the fight between two absolutes.

One analogy to the environment created between the pro-medication (many would say, over-medication) psychiatry and anti-psychiatry camps (the latter essentially dismissing the science behind psychopharmacology, the former exaggerating its precision and utility) can be found in the environment created by vaccine critics attacking the vaccine establishment. Advocates like Paul Offit end up claiming vaccines can virtually never do any harm just to counter baseless claims that vaccines never did any good (polio, anyone?), or caused autism, or poison people, or spread HIV. Meanwhile, the fact that different vaccines vary widely in their effectiveness and safety, and evidence that both a great deal of industry money and centralized regulatory and public health information systems do distort both approval of vaccines and public perceptions of vaccines, are largely ignored.

Scientists become more shrill, dogmatic, and devotional, and adopt more politically-calculated positions, in response to bizarre anti-scientific positions attacking them which are shrill, dogmatic, and devotional from the beginning.

This also reminds me of what happened between the anti-Darwin positions (Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates) and the establishment academic positions on evolution. Prominent evolutionary scientists and advocates were increasingly pushed not only into a reactionary atheism but a reactionary neo-Darwinism, with some even intolerant or dismissive of valuable gadfly Steven Jay Gould.

The extremity of the debate sets the tone for a shallower discussion and understanding of science in which there is a temptation to underplay, distort, or ignore facts on *both* sides, to refuse to yield ground and to refuse ammunition to “the other side”—for there erroneously will appear to be only two, to the combatants.

One conclusion I would draw is that the partisan involvement of the public in a scientific field makes science less scientific. It’s not only the lure of public funding that can corrupt scientists, as in the Climategate IPCC scandal. It’s also that the rancorous mentalities of public debate with non-scientists frequently erode the essential scientific mentalities of openness and impartiality that require careful construction and maintenance. Scientists are humans too, and they become defensive about their turf just as readily as others. The public is understandably concerned about the effects of applied science, but interference with the aim of altering scientific conclusions to become more acceptable to preconceptions (the true bane of science) seems to corrupt scientists reacting to it more than they realize.

Even more so, public dialogue and understanding about contentious scientific subjects becomes corrupted, and polarized.

UPDATE: Thanks to Evi Numen for this excellent supplementary exposé of Szasz, Scientology, and the destructiveness of applying mind-body dualism to medicine: Dr. Stephen Wiseman takes on Dr. Thomas Szasz and Scientology’s “Citizens Commission on Human Rights”

On growing away from a singular vision that can define perfection

I’ve come to appreciate an interesting lesson while combining creative and intellectual ambitions with perfectionism: pursuing perfection according to certain expansive goals actually leads away from any meaningful perception of “perfection.” If carried through, particularly ambitious, magnificent aims for creative projects can grow them into a scale and complexity more analogous to the design of a city or at least a neighborhood than a single, intentional work of art or design.

A single work can be circumscribed, defined, and evaluated. Sometimes they even give a sense of achieving perfection according to the intentions evident in them. Cities or neighborhoods are composed of many interconnected works and can never become perfect—not just due to the difficulty involved, although that is relevant to flaws creeping in—but because there is too much going on and there are too many simultaneous intentions to retain clarity about such overarching terms of evaluation. Likewise a single passage of an epic can retain a focus within itself similar to a short story, but the breadth of the thing is something else. Or rather, it takes on many qualities, perspectives and mantles.

Even given the sense in which one person can encompass many different facets at different times, it’s surprising to find that in practice a creative process primarily involving one person can open up in a similar way to a city or neighborhood designed by many, so that even one creator ends up populating as much as unifying. At some point, it’s difficult to judge, criticize or admire except by adopting a limited view. So I feel like perfection means less and becomes less applicable even as I feel like I do come closer to attaining expansive and ambitious goals, overall.

I suppose this sense of unfolding is something that few writers or single creators of creative works get a chance to experience, as opposed to filmmakers or others who work collaboratively. I particularly feel that relatively modest goals for single writing projects differ not only in degree but in kind from something like a philosophical epic novel few novelists would be crazy enough to attempt, or—as I have also perceived, through glimpses—an intricate body of nonfiction work such as few philosophers have written. I only know this from experience.

I think it’s unfortunate that few perfectionistic writers—and perfectionists make some of the best writers—will take the risks necessary to gain the valuable psychological experience of investing in work like this. It’s work that not only tests limits, but will redistribute creative attentions for less of a sense of tight, intentional control over a project, but a deeper sense of realization that one was nevertheless a facilitator of something ambitious and that it was realized.

Ego dissolution isn’t the right phrase, but it does have to do with opening up and letting go, even though—and this is important, I think—the way there requires a tremendous amount of struggling with tight, focused and laborious work to absurdly high standards. If you will, spiritual attainment of a less constrained view of a laborious creative process needs to go through it, first. Shortcuts do not work. (I believe I’ve heard this a few thousand times about esoteric spiritual practices?)

Self-Organization: Toward an Informed Optimism

This was my reply to Egypt – Cradle of Self-Organization (on the author’s blog). I have reproduced it here because social transformation beyond hierarchical, collective, and compulsory institutions is a perennial and integral interest of mine, and so is complexity theory (understood broadly, encompassing the subjects of emergence, attractors, chaos, cybernetics, feedback, systems, networks, self-organization, etc.). Unfortunately the fascinations and enthusiasm which often accompany bringing any of the latter trendy set into the context of the former are, in my view, insufficiently prepared with detailed knowledge of either one or both contexts and insufficiently exacting in the translation.

In a complex adaptive system, like society, self-organization happens around attractors. One difficulty with predicting that the self-organization of a revolution to make democratic changes will carry forward afterward is that different attractors are required. The attractors—like technologies, people and ideas—that can catalyze self-organization for a movement like the laudable protests in Egypt are very different from the attractors, particularly ideas, which will be needed for organizing a different sociopolitical reality. Do we have the ideas we need? Are they in enough hands? It seems to me that people can know they want change and achieve it, but have the vaguest idea of what should happen afterward. The fact that centralized, collectivized, hierarchical state “democracy” based on political parties and other institutions will likely be established because it is still the dominant paradigm should induce some caution about proclaiming the new future. Without alternatives, the firmest attractors are those of the past and its problems.

A great deal more can be said; I have tried to say some of it in an essay on human progress entitled Rising in Walls. For those interested, it is available in this collection.