15 September 2006
Type/Items(s): I New Discoveries defining Complexity, Discussions & short presentations, Scientific Sessions
Submitted by: Suraj Ravindran (ICVolunteers)
Contributors: Moira Cockell (WKD), Gavin McClure (ICVolunteers), Jim Rudolf (ICVolunteers), Randy Schmieder (MCART), Sarah Webborn (ICVolunteers)
|In the second of the three main Scientific Sessions of the World Knowledge Dialogue, multiple presenters brought forward their own work and new discoveries in the broad field of Complexity. More than just a showcase for different research areas, the main speakers chose seminal works in their respective domains that attempt to simplify problems and look at complexity from the point of view of both the natural sciences and the social/human sciences -- in order to arrive at a more lucid and unified understanding of the topic.
Opening the WKDs second scientific session, Dr. Geoffrey West highlighted the complexity of life and introduced the concept of a general theory of complexity that explains biology in terms of scale, and may be extended to explain social networks and organizations. Details of this presentation are summarised in the news report "Of Mice and Cities".
Prof. Joachim Schellnhuber, Founding Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, talked about complexity involved in atmospheric dynamics. The central question "Why is planet Earth alive?" is answered through the phenomenon of a global carbon cycle.
Prof. Schellnhuber went on to discuss the Cambrian Explosion and Lovelock's Gaia theory to explain that in a billion years the Earth will fall out of the habitable zone of the solar system. It is predicted that at the current rate of unchecked development, global warming will reach a point of no return in 2080.
"Complexity is what remains when you have simplified everything": WKD Delegate. Image: Wikipedia
Prof. Schellnhuber went on to describe tipping points in atmospheric dynamics such as changes to the gulf-stream and the Indian monsoon cycle. introducing an Earth system model of intermediate complexity called CLIMBER, he described how it simulates the domino-like dynamics of the various tipping points.
Before concluding, the speaker stated that we need to look for a solution in the next two or three decades. The present situation warrants natural and social scientists to come together to break the urbanization mode in which we currently exist. In essence, Dr. Schellnhuber emphasized that a global movement is imperative for this auto-evolution to be successful.
Prof. Ian Hacking, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy of the University of Toronto, Canada, and member of the Collège de France in Paris, began by presenting complexity in a form that is essential but often overlooked. Complexity is frequently depicted in terms of an object in the world. Rather, in Dr. Hacking's view, complexity is "not in things" but is a "relation between people and things". It is goal-directed or context-driven. For instance a common object such as a leaf, which is simple for most people, is a subject involving complex details for a plant physiologist.
Prof. Hacking furthered his argument that we can comprehend complexity in terms of what we want to understand, predict and/or control. It is this context that explained the intriguing title of his presentation: Why physics is easy and people are hard. The speaker mentioned two of his recent interests - the physics of absolute zero and autism in children. As areas of research, these sit on diametrically opposite poles and yet are in the same league because they both are complex. Evolving over eleven years, the two have become fields of major research.
The title of Prof. Hacking's presentation comes from the fact that despite similarities, the two fields are vastly different in their complexities. Much is known today about physics in the ultra-cold domain of absolute zero whereas autism still remains an almost total enigma. There is a lot to look forward to in terms of understanding how autism is caused and how children suffering from it deal with the situation, often with fascinating success. Thus, in terms of what we understand, predict and control, ultra-cold physics is simple whereas autism has a greater degree of complexity.
The underlying theme that Dr. Hacking reiterated is that complexity relies on the context of a problem. It is imperative that we address 'complexity' not as a thing but as a function of our understanding and what we wish to achieve. On another note, he quoted the history of science to assert that Galileo (the theorist) and Boyle (the essential experimentalist) were parts of the whole and not separate from one another. He concluded by observing that a constant integration of theory and experiment is crucial for scientific progress and reflected that this first World Knowledge Dialogue is the current stage for the age-old Galileo-Boyle dialogue!
The main speeches were followed by two short presentations. Challenging the Limits of Understanding, Dr. Paul Cilliers, Department of Philosophy, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, presented a viewpoint of the social sciences and argued that due to their non-linear nature, complex systems are not compressible. This perspective on complexity is in contrast to the reductionist principle that his natural scientist counterparts usually work on, namely, simplification. However, common ground surfaced when Dr. Cilliers echoed Dr. West's assertion that as complex systems are open systems they cannot be understood completely without also understanding their environments and their history.
Having noted this, the speaker acknowledged that we cannot hope to fully understand complexity by incorporating all the complexity of the system and its environment in models. Thus, models that reduce complexity are justified, however this also implies that formal models have to be supplemented by narratives which make the limits of the formal model explicit.
Dr. Cilliers concluded by extending his argument. He emphasized that formal knowledge is temporal and context-specific as opposed to knowledge which is the sum total of experience, learning and imagination and there is scope for natural and the social sciences to complement each other. Amongst numerous other reasons, we all need social sciences for imagination purposes.
Boundaries between Fields and Boundaries in the Mind by Prof. Ernest Hartmann, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, USA, provided interesting thoughts on boundaries in knowledge and thus was an enlightening foil to the earlier discussions on complexity from different vantage points. The speaker began by stating that the world of our knowledge is composed of entities with boundaries. And indeed, they can be studied.
Prof. Hartmann mentioned some notable points of the studies conducted on various types of boundaries in the mind. Such boundaries could be between sensory input, thoughts, emotions, interpersonal, etc. They are not one-dimensional boundaries but can be relatively thick or relatively thin. Of particular interest were the results from the analysis of a "Boundary Questionnaire" - which classified types of people into groups. At the same time, it is important to note that boundaries fall into a continuum. Boundaries in the mind can change, even on a daily basis. People and societies tend to follow the amoeba principle - boundaries become thicker under threat whereas they become thinner in harmonious conditions.
This technical session gathered together new research of high import as well as presenting views of how complexity manifests itself in different forms and varied areas. An important concept gained credence by illustration and analogy. It is that like different compartments of the mind, the soft and the hard sciences not only can co-exist in harmony but are often complementary and can influence each other synergistically. Perhaps Dr. Hartmann's boundaries in the mind may lend us new conceptual frameworks through which to view the boundaries between fields of academic study. As stated in his abstract, "...people with thick boundaries differ markedly from those with thinner boundaries in their approach to science, art and philosophy...". Appreciating the dynamic nature of mind boundaries and understanding how different boundaries influence each other, may guide us to make choices that permit natural and social sciences to work better in unison. To take concrete steps in this direction is a fundamental aim of this World Knowledge Dialogue.