Recently I started to supervise a Ph.D. student who was interested in the question, How do people deal, subjectively, with uncertainty? Here she was referring to the questions raised by economists such as Frank Knight and George Shackle which had really been somewhat overlooked by their disciplines. As a good ‘complexity’ person I immediately realized that much of what complexity science tells us is that the world is evolving and that prediction is never really possible, and therefore that uncertainty is in reality the norm and not the exception. However, as a cynical person of a certain age, I also thought that most people don’t want to accept this message and prefer to cocoon themselves in routines and trivial pursuits of various kinds, perhaps even in studying complexity science! But of course, as my student pointed out, some people only want to be working in a realm where uncertainty abounds, since only there can the new and the innovative really flourish, and because nothing interesting can happen anywhere else. So people differ in their willingness to accept uncertainty, and many flee as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
Clearly complexity science reinforces the message of an evolving world and a world of freedom. Freedom can only flourish where there is uncertainty—about the facts, the system, the issues, the possibilities. Ignorance is also an important facilitator or experiment. Not knowing that one is performing a risky experiment by leaving ‘physics’—a known subject and discipline—to work on ‘complexity’—involving urban systems, ecologies, organizations etc.—an unknown subject—with unknown job opportunities and great career risks, is something that, fortunately, I have only realized in retrospect. Fundamentally then, as the world changes, many people try desperately not to change what they do, but of course they are actually performing experiments in what they continue to do; others have no idea of the benefits or risks of pursuing a certain path, and therefore pursue it in ignorance of the potential consequences, and others do genuinely seek to work in a recently opened domain where little is known. These ideas have been found by various authors before—a successful population must contain both explorers and exploiters if it is to survive, since it must push into the unknown and hopefully exploit some of what it finds there.
This is an interesting idea and indeed we may think that complexity shows us how evolution will lead to successful populations that have this dual behavior of facing or fleeing uncertainty. However, my wife then told me about the book she was reading by Erich Fromm who seems to build greatly on these ideas before they even existed. In 1941 he wrote Escape from Freedom or Fear of Freedom as it was variously known, and talked about the consequences of people faced with freedom and hence with uncertainty. He thought that embracing freedom and facing uncertainty was healthy, whereas trying to deny or escape from it was the root cause of psychological conflicts. Fromm outlined three main escape mechanisms: automaton conformity, authoritarianism, and destructiveness. Automaton conformity is about suppressing your own identity in favour of what is perceived as the preferred type of personality of society. This pushes the burden of choice from the self onto society. Authoritarianism is allowing oneself to be controlled by others, perhaps political or religious leaders another, removing freedom of choice almost entirely and submitting that freedom to someone else. Lastly, the mechanism of destructiveness is a process that attempts to eliminate others or the world as a whole to escape freedom.
In many ways his views provide an explanation not only of the rise of Fascism and Communism, but also the prevalence of feudalism and religions, as people run to avoid making choices and decisions themselves about the many different issues that arise in our world. Some MBA students may consider that, having paid their fees, they are entitled to receive the Recipe Book—with the answers in. Democracies become sufficiently opaque for governing and decision making to be made by relatively few people, and the adoption of the idea of a free market economy means that people simply get on with consuming increasingly unneeded things in vast quantities, thereby avoiding the difficult thoughts and judgements that life produces. The idea that markets operate above moral frameworks or ethical standards, in that the ‘invisible hand’ can’t be wrong, not only flies in the face of what Adam Smith himself believed, but as recent events have shown, can potentially crash the global system of interconnected dishonesty, ruining and dispossessing real people. But these disasters are just part of the price we pay when we delegate power to others, and console ourselves by watching and reading superficial rubbish as a substitute for living and spending our efforts on acquiring more material goods to try to fill the emptiness that we feel.
So I think that Erich Fromm was quite clairvoyant in his writings and said some very important things way before their time. Complexity science and thinking tells us about emergence, creativity and freedom as a positive message, although it might still tell us that it is impossible to have only explorers—bold individuals with their own thoughts, views and ideas, innovating and creating new structures and organizations with improved performance. In fact, evolution will lead to a society in which there have to be a range of cognitive types, so that teams can be formed, can be lead and can also operate. In some ways then, Fromm considered the acceptance of freedom to be healthy and its non-acceptance to be sick, but since society needs organizations and structures if it is to deliver the things we need, then we require an emergence of harmonious cooperation between different kinds of people. However, this does suggest why evolution and complexity will have no end, but travelling hopefully is all we can do and in any case is better than its opposite.
Let me finish with some quotes of Erich Fromm that seem particularly relevant to E:CO:
Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.
Just as modern mass production requires the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man, and this standardization is called equality.
The capacity to be puzzled is the premise of all creation, be it in art or in science.
The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.
The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.
There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.