This issue of E:CO has many interesting and important ideas being developed and explored within the papers. They concern among other things how organizations evolve, and how the capacity for organizational development comes about, as well as an examination of the complexity of communication, and indeed how it is not just about the communication of simple facts. Recently, though I have been thinking about the links between philosophy and complexity, and in particular the ideas of Nietzsche. For example, in Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of rational thinking and order, appealing to prudence and purity. On the other hand, Dionysus is the god of the irrationality and chaos, appealing to emotions and instincts. Many important philosophers had taken the Apollonian route and believed in rationality and reason being the important underpinning of our beliefs. However, Nietzsche was a Dionysian, believing in emotions, instincts and inspirations as the basic contents of his struggle to build a new basis and purpose for society, now that most people (in Europe) no longer really believed in the literal truth of the bible.
But, from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous, I remember the day when having developed a spatial, dynamic model of Canadian fishing fleets in the North Atlantic, I discovered that highly rational fishermen could not fish successfully in the long term. They could only fish out what they knew initially, extremely efficiently – but could not know what to do afterwards. This was because, in order to know where any further fish stocks might be, boats had to go to different places without knowing whether there were fish there or not! This requires random, stochastic trajectories, that can discover where there are more fish. In other words, in order to ‘learn’, one must ‘explore’ and go to places about which there is no current information concerning fish stocks. This led to my labeling two different types of fishermen – Cartesians and Stochasts. The Cartesians are Apollonian, with rational and effective behavior, while the Stochasts were Dionysian, daring to go to places where they had no knowledge of possible catch and profits. The model developed into one that could automatically adapt the degree of both behaviors. Successful fishermen were clearly philosopher-kings!
While I was working on these ideas, quite independently Jean-Louis Deneubourg had shown exactly the same idea was important for ants. Successful foraging required an imperfect track-laying – tracking system which meant that some ants got lost and ‘explored’. It seems hard to think of Apollonian and Dionysian ants – yet they are clearly a very successful, and persistent part of nature.
And our insights into the behavior of fishermen were found to extend to many matters involving learning, innovation and evolutionary improvement. They all required some kind of ‘Cartesian/Stochast’ split or distribution as a necessary mechanism. It allowed exploration beyond current knowledge, and when it was rewarded with success, the extension and development of knowledge, technology and ideas. The one thing that will stop learning, and therefore evolutionary development, is when a population are all in agreement about everything. It may superficially sound nice and friendly, but it can only lead to extinction, as no future adaptation or learning will be possible. Therefore, it is vital not only that people have different opinions about what ‘should be done’, but they have different concerns, different views and knowledge, and different ideas on how things could be achieved.
So, if an evolutionary step were to lead to the uniform adoption of an innovation, and the undisputed view it is ‘the best’ – then the system might cease to evolve and go extinct. What is required is that different views should persist, that heterogeneous situations should lead to differing ‘suitabilities’ and diverse cultures, technologies and ideas so that evolution and future adaptabilities would persist.
Of course, democracies, free enterprise, and free news media, providing they remain diverse and not under narrow ownership, can provide just such a source of new ideas and learning. Regimes that fall under the excessive control of passing tyrants of political or religious bent will tend to fail to evolve and adapt their social and economic systems over time.
Successful, evolving socio-cultural and economic systems will therefore be characterized by individuals with a variety of views and varying degree of interest in religion, ethics, morals and values. Nietzsche was incensed by the idea that although ‘many people’ did not really believe in the actual literal truth of the Christian story, they continued to ‘use’ the values, morals and ethics attached to them. Instead of seeking a new, moral order based on the ‘truth’ that God was dead, they just carried on as before. They found the old values, ethics and morals perfectly adequate, and the degree of compassion suggested quite satisfactory. But, Nietzsche thought that without a god we needed to find new goals and purposes for our lives. He despised the majority of people who merely sought ‘contentment’ and rather mediocre goals, rather than achieving some amazing artistic or creative goal suitable for an Übermensch!
But let us remind ourselves that a successful society will have a diversity of people, with differing ideas on their aims in life. And let us further remember that a large proportion of ‘great artists-athletes-scientists, etc.’ are actually extremely selfish and difficult to live with. The real world requires a much broader spectrum of types if it is to function in practice – although there will be great moments and achievements that result from some actions of genius. But, all the same we still need the buses to run and the shops to open for life to continue. Whilst admitting that great art, music, literature and science may provide some high points in our existence, many of us would not wish for the stress and responsibility of being the genius struggling to produce truly great art. Most of us, struggling with the idiocies of everyday working life may be happy to slump in a favorite chair, enjoying a good cup of coffee/tea/wine/beer, and some nice view or uninspiring television. All very simple and peaceful. But Nietzsche despised such ‘contentment’ and thought it lead to mediocrity and not to emerging greatness. But of course, Nietzsche was a philosophical Übermensch! He was at the extreme end of the distribution of characters, where, having spotted the problem of the basis for values, ethics and morals without God, he spent his whole life trying to find a new way forward, and a new purpose for life.
It is pragmatically sound to continue accepting the values, ethics and morals of a religion that seem to have worked well – even if science has undermined our belief in the literal truth of the biblical tales. For Nietzsche, it seemed inadequate to simply say that the rules from before, when we believed, could be fine for our new enlightened situation. But people are indeed diverse, and so many still hold on to their different religious views and stories, while accepting the practical laws and customs that have emerged over the years. Most people are so absorbed in the problems of everyday life, surviving financially and raising a family, that they just don’t have much time or energy to try to solve the problem of ‘what it’s all for’.
In fact, one of Nietzsche’s key ideas was that happiness should be seen, not as the result of some passive set of attributes – enough money, social security, health services, etc. but also resulted from some ‘successful’ struggle and the ‘achievement’ of an outcome part of the happiness derived. This is certainly true and clearly the massive interest in sport today underlines the importance of the ‘struggle for success’, but still shows clearly that more people watch sport than participate in it. Nietzsche would have admired the Heroes but not the TV viewers. But it takes all sorts to make a functioning world!
We now know that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic, and not a Fascist, and we can judge better his achievements today. He was extreme in his desire for consistency – one’s whole set of values, ethics and morals, and one’s goal in life all had to fit one’s underlying beliefs about the universe. However, most of us are not so demanding, and do not require a purpose in life derived from our view of the universe. Most of us are prepared to accept that we don’t know enough to reformulate the rights and rules that govern society – and prepared to go on pragmatically using the historically based social rules that seem good enough. When we fear corruption or bigotry to be affecting outcomes, then we can legislate new rules to try to counter the effects.
We can develop complex systems models in order to anticipate possible problems and issues, and use them to attempt to accept that in a social situation there are multiple individuals and views, and that whilst not everything is true, there is no single truth. Complexity shows us that Philosophy needs to be multi-faceted and multi-channeled.