Complexity’s History and the Future

A vast leading edge of a new gestalt has begun to upset and encompass mathematics, philosophy, computers and the Internet, psychology, art, and science. It will change how we understand our world and ourselves, and what we believe is possible.

This new gestalt is the culmination of threads that have been developing in many different areas, and they intersect in the emerging understanding of complexity and its connection with computers. Here are a few thoughts of how historical developments have brought us to this point.

Within mathematics, the rise of formalism upended the very nature of mathematics, making math about the creation of math, only to see this approach run up against fundamental flaws (Incompleteness and Halting problems). However, that process of realization itself led to the creation of computer.

Within physics, linear models gave rise to systems understandings (the inadequacy of causality, overdeterminacy), paralleling the evolution of mathematics away from the simple mechanics of truth. This process of exploration is now giving rise to models of out-of-equilibrium processes and entropy, possible only to study through simulation.

These processes in academics were connected to what happened in art, with the transition from the importance of technique (like physics’s former focus on formulas), to an exploration into the nature of painting itself (formalism), to a re-engagement with society (systems). Now new media (computers) are breaking open the possibilities of experience (simulation).

Within philosophy, the trench warfare that has shown a slow receding of absolutism to the forces of relativism is giving way to a new philosophy of multiple perspectives.

Within psychology, early neurobiology combined with the opportunities of technology produced positive psychology, but now more modern views are developing an idea of the emergent self.

It is no mistake the study of complexity is arising at this moment in history, nor that complexity science is so closely tied to developments in computational approaches. Another society-wide driver is also inextricably connected: the rise of big data. Big data lays out complexity for us to see, and demands a new fundamental theory of physics which combines thermodynamics with information theory.

The process of formalism changed the way that people thought about what they were doing, and computers are changing the way we think about everything again. The new gestalt recognizes multiple realities, and it recognizes the importance of simulation. In fact, it ties these two together: simulation and reality are linked. When you make a simulation, you create a new reality. It isn’t this reality, but this reality isn’t a well-defined thing either.

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