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Reflections on Complexity

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Speech, 1801

Since my late teens, I have been fascinated by the emerging science of complexity, one that both attracted me and rendered me immobile. I sensed its disruptive potential, and was busy trying to meet the standards of a logical, analytic and “scientific” academic community enmeshed in small discoveries that would not upset essential assumptions about “reality”. I knew that complexity was disruptive.

And I also knew it had the future on its side, and explained much that was otherwise unexplainable. So I lived in this land of intellectual tension, with forays into the new world while inhabiting the old. Decades of discomfort have made me feel compassion with the resistance of others to the implications of complexity science.

From this place of compassion, I have searched for a metaphor that might make it possible to hold two competing ideas simultaneously, traditional Newtonian physics and the unsettling future of quantum theory, the ability to see linearity and complexity at the same time.

Hence the spider thread and the spider web.  My patio is full of industrious spiders. On any day I can find one casting a thread from the overhang, setting off on an adventure of creativity. I can also find webs.  The thread is real, can be observed and understood, and is purposeful. Eventually, if all goes well, there will be a web, a much grander goal that shapes the linear enterprise. Both provide information about spiders and my patio.

It helps me to see both the linear and the networked concurrently, as compatible insights into a shared reality.  Knowing one reveals more about the other. I think both are worth knowing, and both shape my understanding of other comparable realities.

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