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 series called La Methode (1977-2008). He discussed these ideas further in an English translation, On Complexity, published in 2008. To avoid the disjunctive, reductive thinking of simplification, Morin suggests that systems and complexity theory indicate new 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, fluctuating 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.” The ancient systemic wisdom of “right relationship” pervades 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.” In recognition that the second law of thermodynamics could not fully explain evolution's increasing complexity, he discovered that self-organization and regeneration occurred in states of disequilibrium. Life’s creativity thrives on complexity, chaos, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

  • Life arises from recursive and imbricated (overlapping) systems. Morin describes a world of hyper-complex open, interrelated complex networks. In the multi-layered cosmic organism, each being consists of a multitude of systems-within-systems. As human-created systems increasingly affect Earth’s systems, understanding the implications of recursivity remains crucial to our future.

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; either/or thinking. 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 ideas; we can think things together that have been previously apart.
  • 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”). Morin employs this systemic way of thinking to understanding our planetary “household.” 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 be able to shift our perspective. Like astronauts whose worldviews shifted after experiencing the Overview Effect, Morin suggests that we might see ourselves from another perspective. This requires curiosity, humility, and surrendering our illusion of objectivity.
  • Autocritique: Morin cautions against the 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 research must always incorporate the reality of the observer as participant. We must understand how our experience informs (and possibly distorts) our observations.