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It's Complicated - What You Don't Understand And Never Will

It's Complicated - What You Don't Understand And Never Will

Complexity underlies so much of what you cannot explain that some understanding of how complexity works is worth the time. You may have heard the following:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke"

You can take same idea and apply it to your understanding of the world, to cause and effect: Ignorance of any sufficiently complex cause is indistinguishable from God.

What Is Complexity

Complexity is the interaction between many related causes that, combined, have an effect. The weather is a good example. Weather prediction is an inexact science because of the complexity of the problem. As supercomputers and software improve, so do the predictions. Weather prediction will never be perfect. It's impossible. What is possible is to understand the causes: air pressure, moisture, liquid flows, surface interactions, solar heating, molecular interaction, Brownian motion, thermodynamics, and so forth; and their associated effects. The more you know, the more you can predict or, at least, explain.

Hurricanes are no longer the province of an angry Poseidon or Neptune. Science has shown us their origin and can partly predict their behavior. You can track their motions with satellite, radar, and aircraft imagery.

Scientists can visualize complex ideas such as hurricane Floyd, shown here.

Likewise, human nature is complex. You, just you alone, are complex enough to require a life's journey of self-awareness. Now multiply you by 7 billion people who interact with each other. Society is a complex system. So are the financial markets. As is your body.

Your PC and the internet are not, actually, a complex systems. Simple rules underpin their operation so despite software bugs and seeming complexity, it's actually pretty simple. You can understand it, if you want to. Real complex systems defy full understanding. That's why we call them complex.

Complex Is Not Random

With all this talk of complexity you might think that complexity is just randomness. It's not. There are rules, it is just that you can't follow all the players involved and understand how they will play at the same time. There are just too many possibilities. That said, you can make generalizations.

Medicine is just such a process. So are most stock market strategies. You take averages of behavior and from that average, you make assumptions about what is going to happen. And you get it wrong. Every time. What happens in a complex system is beyond your power to predict exactly. What you do get is something closer to correct than chance. Doctors do help us, weather forecasts are mostly correct, but even the very best stock market day-traders are right only about 55% of the time. The more information you have about the system, the better your analysis can be. The better your explanations of what has already happened. In fact, explaining causes of effects that have already happened is a task humans are actually comparatively good at these days. 20/20 hindsight, as they say.

Choosing To Know Imperfectly

When you accept that complexity is the cause of wars, famines, disease, death, life, thinking, feeling, society, financial markets, weather, oceans, evolution, and much more, you can start to move towards action. You know you do not fully understand these complex systems. Nobody does, nor can they fully know a large interactive complex system. Your knowledge is imperfect but it is not impotent. You may not know everything exactly but you can know everything to some degree.

Humans don't like this level of uncertainty. You want to know solid answers. Complex systems provide no such answers. The solid answer is that you cannot know with certainty all the causes in a complex system. You can be certain of a degree of uncertainty. The degree to which you are uncertain is the most important factor you need to be aware of. It is here, in knowing that you don't know completely, that you can most improve your knowledge level by increasing certainty.

In the first article in this series, I talked about your "To Be Filed Later folder" in which you file everything that was uncertain. Everything in there you explained as caused by a vague source, a 'higher power' that you cannot question or know, God, the stars, bad luck, or fate. What you know is that you know nothing. You just accept that this is the cause.

Moving to the partial understanding of a complex system, even if imperfectly, can only be seen as an upgrade. You need not accept the moniker "it's complex" as your new source, no not at all. The objective is to recognize that, yes, it's complex but there are causes and effects you can understand. The only acceptance, and I would say reluctant acceptance, is that your knowledge will remain imperfect. I say reluctant because there is nothing preventing you from gaining more perfect knowledge. Weather forecasters, behavioral psychologists, medical researchers, and hedge fund managers do this every day.

You can choose the course of your knowledge. Whether to accept knowing nothing, as has been done for millennia or you can choose to accept that you can know something, if imperfectly.

Knowledge Is Power

When you accept that you don't know you release your personal power to effect change. You abdicate your self-responsibility to the remainder of the complex system. You become a leaf in the wind. Ignorance, filing things in your To Be Filed Later folder, leads to inaction, impotence, and failure. I know many of you will say that it has been done this way essentially forever. When you look around you, read the news, think of your personal concerns for which you have no good answers, do you see the faith placed in an external 'higher power' as the explanation for your To Be Filed Later documents, as being beneficial? Is the world the best place it could be? Are you willing to accept that everything truly is perfect just as it is?

You need not accept life just as it is. You can make changes. I know you try. Everyone does but you can do more if you know more. Knowledge truly is power.

Power For Living

I'm trying with this very article, this website, with my research, and every ability I bring to the task. I know that the task is complex. I know that I am a small boat on a swift moving river. Knowledge is my paddle. I may not be able to paddle upstream but I can steer my boat a bit. I can deal with the complexity of an eddy, avoid some rocks, or push myself off a sandbar. Understanding complexity and complex ideas leads to some degree of control. The more I know, the larger my paddle, the more control, speed, and power I have. I can row against the current, avoid larger rocks, and overcome eddies more easily.

Having knowledge, a paddle for my boat, leaves me with the comfort of knowing that I can safely relax in the calm stretches, maybe read a few new books, learn something more, and be prepared for the rapids of life ahead. I know they will be there. I can vaguely hear the distant roar, though I do not know if there is a quieter side stream around the rush or not. All I can do is steer my boat of life to the best of my knowledge. Having my paddle, I can even choose to run the rapids, from time to time.

You, too, can increase the power in your life. My question is, are you rowing where you want to go or just up a creek without a paddle?

I know. It's complicated.

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What complex ideas challenge you?

3 comments
Jim Callahan
Jim Callahan

As I understand it anyway, the ultimate, so far, in trying to understand the physical world we live in is contained in quantum physics for small dimensions and relativity for cosmic dimensions. In either case, trying to understand the implications does not lead to better understanding of reality as we live and know it. Plus it doesn't explain anything, just describes it.

Kenneth Benjamin
Kenneth Benjamin moderator

@Jim Callahan The way I view it, both relativity and quantum mechanics do explain a lot. I'm just not nearly smart enough to understand it and never will be.

What I can get is that there are complex interactions going on. Quantum effects aren't random but rather probabilistic. There is a certain chance that something will happen, not just whatever. That chance, if understood, allows us to know with a known degree of certainty, what will happen.

It is not beyond the ability of scientists to accurately predict the weather with a fixed degree of certainty. We know how the parts relate fairly well. The limitation comes in the scale of the problem. To predict Earth's weather would require a computer larger than the atmosphere of the Earth, or more dense at minimum. The memory capacity would have to be sufficient to hold every subatomic particle's current state, then move forward to calculate the quantum interactions.

Fortunately, those quantum probabilities average out in fixed ways as well, as you can see with the double-slit experiment. Over time, half the photons go through one, half through the other. That averaging allows us to do useful work and effectively ignore quantum effects in most macroscopic systems.

Kenneth Benjamin
Kenneth Benjamin moderator

Continued...

Likewise, relativity only comes into play when relative speeds of objects approach the speed of light. It's important if you want to account for something like the speed of neutrinos.

If you recall the recent fuss about faster-than-light neutrinos being discovered, then you'll find the reason why they were detected as faster in the effects of relativity:

http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27260/

There was a reason I didn't share the faster-than-light neutrino story on my news ticker. It was highly speculative - and probably not true. That's science at work. Make a claim, particularly an extraordinary claim, be prepared to defend it because it's going to be challenged - a lot.

Knowing how complex things work may not allow me to predict them but it gives me great comfort to know that they follow a set of rules that I can know. It gives me the confidence to know that weather forecasts do work and that a whole host of simpler problems from GPS's to biological processes are knowable and predictable.

In learning more about how humans work I am learning to explain a great deal. The science of the human experience does tell me about who I am and about who you are. It allows me to view people more objectively for who and what they are than I can do from a purely subjective personal experience.

That, I think, is the single best thing to take away here. Learn about how people work so you can treat them honestly with respect and a true understanding.

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