Complexity consciousness means cultivating the ability to think about thinking. French philosopher Edgar Morin calls this radical new kind of thinking “complex thought.” According to Morin, humanity’s greatest problem arises from how we organize our knowledge, and by extension, our cultures and societies.
Morin proposes that people, especially in the West, tend to seek certainty and simplification, imposing control over anything ambiguous. We seek identifiable categorizations based on our supposed objectivity. Through this kind of flawed thinking, we “mutilate knowledge and disfigure reality.” Morin blames simplification for “blind intelligence” that leads to myopic practices in science, technology, and many disciplines, as well as the fragmentation of disciplines.
He first elaborated his ideas of complex thought in his six volume series called La Methode that spanned from 1977-2008. He discussed these ideas further in an English translation of his book On Complexity published in 2008. To avoid the disjunctive, reductive thinking of simplification, Morin suggests that systems and complexity theory indicate different ways of organizing knowledge and thinking about thinking:
- Living systems must be both open to take in nourishment or energy, and closed enough to maintain integrity. As a result, living systems balance chaos and organization. Nevertheless, open living systems do not obey the laws of equilibrium. Rather, they fluctuate between disequilibrium and stabilization.
- Open systems maintain complex relationships with their environment. Morin says, “Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment.” In other words, the ancient systemic wisdom of “right relationship” lies at the heart of all life processes.
- Living systems creatively self-organize and regenerate. In living, open systems, complexity emerges from states of disorder. Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine called these “dissipative structures.” He recognized that the second law of thermodynamics and entropy could not fully explain evolution's increasing complexity. He found that self-organization and regeneration occurred in states of disequilibrium. In other words, life’s creativity depends on chaotic processes. Creativity and chaos go hand in hand. This means that life’s creativity thrives on complexity, chaos, uncertainty, and ambiguity.
- Life arises from recursive and imbricated (overlapping) systems. Morin describes the world as a hyper-complex “unitas multiplex” of open, interrelated complex networks made up of many interlocking nested systems. In the multi-layered cosmic organism, each being consists of a multitude of systems-within-systems. For example, I consist of subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, circulatory system, nervous system, and many other systems and organs. I also experience my internal systems and those external to my body. In short: Subjectivity forms an essential part of my embodied being. At the same time, I also exist as a part of many other systems—family, community, society, and the planet as a whole. How I experience, relate, and create affects other systems, just as they affect me. In multi-layered interconnected systems every action ripples throughout the entire network, and in turn comes back to affect us. Human-created systems increasingly affect the whole global system, and so we must strive to understand the implications of this recursivity.
MORIN POINTS OUT THE NEED FOR MAJOR SHIFTS IN HOW WE ORGANIZE OUR THOUGHTS, FOR EXAMPLE, BY EMBRACING COMPLEXITY:
- From either/or to both/and: Our classical, dualistic way of thinking can lead to oppositional duality, and black-and-white thinking. We need to incorporate life’s ambiguities into our reasoning. Morin advocates dialogic thought that cultivates “both/and” thinking, a synthesis of apparent opposites. Just as the cosmos combines both order and chaos, we can reorganize our thinking by creatively synthesizing seemingly opposing ideas to form a new unity.
- Ecologized thinking: According to Morin, we need to understand our deep interdependence within the context of nested systems that constitute our environment. The word “ecology” comes from the Greek oikos (meaning “home, dwelling, or family”) and logia (the “study of”). First used by zoologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866, “ecology” began to refer to the network of living systems and their interrelationships—requiring a systemic understanding of the natural world. Morin employs this systemic way of thinking to understanding our collective, planetary family—our global “household.” Being both dependent and autonomous, we must inquire how our actions support (or destroy) our oikos (our planet and all the living systems that create and sustain it). Ecologized thinking means we must always consider our interdependence within the planetary family.
- The meta-point-of-view: Morin points out that in order to contextualize ourselves and our systems, and avoid the traps of relativism and ethnocentrism, we must shift our perspective. Much like astronauts who changed their worldview after experiencing the Overview Effect, Morin suggests that we, too, can see ourselves from another perspective. Doing so, will require curiosity and humility, and a willingness to let go of the illusion of objectivity.
Autocritique: Morin cautions against the widespread and endemic tendency toward objectivism and reductionism. While scientific objectivity plays a role in many discoveries, it has also caused countless atrocities. Ideologies that split subject from object cause great oppression. Morin suggests that whatever we think about, we must always incorporate the reality of the observer as participant. We must contextualize our own experience when observing and interacting with other beings. Individual experience remains always an intrinsic part of the whole; as a result, we must understand how experience shapes and informs (and possibly distorts) our observations.