complexity consciousness

Awakening from Our Cartesian Sleep: Intimate and Satisfactory Relations


William James, the grandfather of American psychology, was also one of the grandfathers of what he called “panpsychist pluralism.” In his 1909 Hibbert Lectures, he suggested,

“Not to demand intimate relations with the universe, and not to wish them satisfactory, should be accounted signs of something wrong.” (James, 1909/2016, p. 33)

As humans awaken from modernity’s utopian dream (what I call our “Cartesian sleep”), we realize that something is terribly wrong. I call this a Cartesian sleep because philosopher Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) formulation of cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) increased an already present emphasis on the human thinking mind as the seat of Earthly consciousness. This emphasis on human consciousness as the only seat of sentience magnified an already increasing imagined separation between humans and the more-than-human world. From Descartes’ time forward, an ontological chasm opened between man and nature, and culture and nature; this is often called by some philosophers a bifurcation, because it split the world of humans off from the rest of the cosmos. Eventually humans perceived of nature (and all nonhumans) as a static backdrop to a dominant human culture. Humans in this supposedly separate and exceptional culture fell into a sort of slumber, not perceiving of the dazzling animate universe around us, full of interactive, intersubjective selves. Descartes was in fact so convinced that humans were the only center of consciousness, sentience and agency in an insentient world, that he invented the practice of vivisection: invasive experiments on living animals. He attributed nonhuman screams and struggles to mechanical reactions. Anyone who thinks we have transcended this kind of Cartesian thinking need only observe what goes on in laboratories, factory farms and fur farms to understand that this attitude continues to pervade our human societal systems.

Cartesian solipsism and the myth of separation tore some humans away from their intrinsic empathic connection with the more-than-human world.  Insensitive to the plight of this animate planet with its many subjective selves on many scales, humans failed to recognize the early warnings systems of nonhuman kin that there was something deeply wrong. Failure to demand intimate and satisfactory relations with the more-than-human world has led to what many now call the Anthropocene, an age characterized by the cumulative impact of human behaviors that have permanently altered Earth’s dynamic and complex systems of regeneration.

The Anthropocene’s many alarm bells blare and awaken humans rather abruptly from Cartesian sleep. The Anthropocene compels us to respond, as highly volatile and less predictable systems demand our attention. Human behaviors have sped an irreversible cascade of systemic disruptions in the biospheric disequilibrium that has created and regenerates our world and all that we are, and all that we have known up until now. Nature is not, as it turns out, a static backdrop for human culture, but rather a complex creative process in which all beings and systems of beings participate. The way in which we participate impacts other beings and systems by way of recursivity; the “to and fro” between systems. The alteration of regenerative recursivity has disrupted cascades of subsystems (human and nonhuman) on many scales.

The Anthropocene interrupts our delusions of the primacy of progress, unbridled extraction and unlimited growth, as the many cascades of systemic dysfunction engender pervasive nihilism and no sense of futurity among many human populations. Mass extinction events increase, desertification looms, acidification of oceans speeds the death of coral reefs, glacial melt threatens to unleash dormant microbes, plastic pollution pervades even ecosystems remote from human populations. Massive migrations uproot both human and nonhuman societies; those populations of humans and nonhumans without refuge increase. Both humans and nonhumans—all planetary societies at many scales—share this sense of uncertainty. Especially palpable is the sense of urgency for those who are the most vulnerable to these changes. From migrating humans to migrating birds, Earthlings continue to lose their dwellings to ecological and political upheavals; these upheavals are intrinsically intertwined.

Why this catastrophic cascade of troubles? I would suggest, though the answer is undeniably complex, that perhaps a subtler underlying answer on the level of consciousness might be found in that Jamesian articulation of a cautionary tale: humanity’s failure to demand that their individual and collective systems sustain intimate and satisfactory relations with the universe at many scales. A truly pluralist planetary society (one that works for diverse humans and nonhumans) cannot emerge from worldviews of domination, mastery, opposition and separation. Rather, humans need a new understanding of the world as full of other sentient beings with their own needs, desires and agency. Supporting those more-than-human needs, desires and expressions of agency, it turns out, recursively benefits humans. This is the dawning realization of awakening from a Cartesian sleep into the reality of entanglement; life's regeneration inevitably depends upon diverse interspecies collaborations. 

How might we develop intimate and satisfactory relations? Developing intimacy with the universe could mean becoming available to experiences of the more-than-human world. This could be as simple as planting and caring for a tree, or connecting with a nonhuman friend deeply with care, or even becoming curious about the thoughts and feelings of diverse beings. Developing satisfactory relations could mean becoming committed to engaging in compassionate interspecies kinships and unexpected caring creative alliances with diverse humans and nonhumans at a tenuous time that compels us to recognize how inescapably entangled we are in this mess, and how profoundly we need each other.


Complexity Consciousness


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.


  • 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.