Complex, Complicated and Simple Systems — understanding the levels of Reality.
This is part one of a series of posts around the ‘U-Curve of Certainty’ Theory, which is intended to help people navigate complex systems.
Today I will do my best to explain complex systems, and how they interact with simple systems, without boring you half to death.
What’s a complex system?
A complex system is ‘a system composed of many components which may interact with each other’ (thank you Wikipedia).
Examples include climate, human beings and markets… at the end of this post, I list even more.
You cannot control or predict exactly what sort of person your child will be in the future, nor can you really control or predict what decisions you’ll make in the future.
That doesn’t stop us from trying…
Allow me to hurt your head (brace yourself) — the example of Genetics vs. Environment.
For example, when I studied psychology, we used to unpack the ‘Genetics vs. Environment’ debate — an age old question into what exactly shapes us into the people we become — our genes, or the context we grow up in?
Researchers use twins studies to get insights into this question. Imagine identical twins raised apart — if they have the same IQ, this seems like support for ‘Genetics.’
But I fear all this is still hugely oversimplifying.
Consider this: What’s ‘Environment’? Is it just anything that’s not genetics? There must be many layers of cultural conditioning — the historical stage we’re in, our country, our religion (or lack thereof), our geographical region, the type of school we went to, interaction with extended family, nuclear family, and so on…
Of the never-ending fragments you could split environment into, how many of them interact with each other, and how many interact with genetics?
We used to look at these studies to understand if IQ was inherited… then you ask, what’s IQ and what’s it measuring? Why?
You begin a never-ending rabbit hole there too.
Welcome to society and the very imprecise world of intellectualism. Things that are complex are, on most levels, impossible for our puny brains to dissect, because so much is going on. And the world is full of complex systems.
Decisions — are all our decisions complex systems? It sure feels like it.
Are all our decisions complex systems? There are so many factors in each and every human decision, and each of them is interacting with the others.
I don’t know what cafe I’ll choose to write from next Wednesday, but I’m quite sure I will be writing from a cafe of some sort. In saying that, it’s impossible to understand what factors form that decision.
I can try to explain and be a Weatherman about it (see the blog post on Weather People as part of this U-Curve series). I can say that I was looking for variety, and that cafe one was busy, and that I wanted a nicer coffee instead of a cheaper one… but in trying to understand these thoughts and reflections, things get real murky.
Yet, my decision to choose this cafe rather than that one is still a ‘simple’ one! I just chose this cafe… how bizarre. The world is full of things like this — things that look simple, but are complex when you deconstruct them.
I get into this more in the U-Curve Theory piece. For now, this thought reminds me of a great Frederick Maitland quote:
‘Simplicity is the end result of long, hard work, not the starting point‘
What are simple and complicated systems?
For clarity’s sake then, I understand a simple system is one where the cause-and-effect relationship is straightforward and very easy to understand. Something like how to open a book, pour milk or heat water.
I understand a complicated system to be lots of simple systems bundled up together — building an aeroplane is not complex, it’s just complicated. There are people who know every bit of how to do it. I’m not one of them, so to me flying still seems like magic. An important note — this is why I trust experts of complicated systems, but not complex systems.
Trusting experts of the complicated, but fearing experts of the complex.
I trust a heart surgeon who has done a hundred of the same type of heart surgery before to do this exact same heart surgery — but I don’t trust this heart surgeon to tell me how to avoid getting an unhealthy heart to begin with.
Sounds blasphemous doesn’t it?
(I go deeper into this dynamic in the U-Curve piece on the Weatherman Phenomenon.)
This point is made in the book Range by David Epstein, that experience is useful for repeating the exact same thing with little or no deviation, but that for creative efforts, experience is largely obstructive. We become biased by past knowledge.
To clarify this point, I think analogously of the member of a religion who has memorised its sacred text word-for-word, but in so doing, finds it harder to adapt the meaning to the modern nuances of life.
If the U-Curve Theory is correct, one day it will be blasphemous for narrow, specialised experts to make generalisations and prescriptions for reasons like this.
Nassim Taleb suspects that medicine had a negative track record up until Penicillin was invented. That is, he suspects a doctor was more likely to kill you than save your life before this point in history. Again, theories, theories, not proof.
Yet medicine has long been a very respected profession, and most of us passively obey our doctors. Maybe the prescription we all need is a small pill of doubt.
In other words, if something is complex, you know little more than squat about it.
As Gilly says, ‘if it’s not simple, it’s suspicious.’
If you would like to get into some more examples, below is a list of systems I believe to be complex, a few comments as to why, and some of the heuristics I used to navigate them.
Be warned, they are painfully simple — if not rudely so, maybe even over-simplified. You be the judge.
It might be more enjoyable to go on thinking we know and can formulate, generalise, prescribe, understand, control and substantially influence the complex. Well, that’s your choice. As my brother Oscar says, ‘Why do you want to help people understand things? If people start behaving too rationally, where will I find my entertainment?’
It’s not that we know nothing at all about a system that’s complex, it’s that we know the immediate, specific and highly circumstantial, as well as the deep fundamentals and first principles, and not much inbetween. That’s the basis for the U-Curve of Certainty Theory.
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Some commonly complex systems that confuse the shit out of working lives, health and general wellbeing.
- SEO — yes, it’s real, but I don’t think it can be hacked. But you can do the things that you know, as fundamentals, will help with SEO. Like… making something on your website genuinely useful, rather than panicking over hashtags.
- Social Media Algorithms and Google Algorithms. I have found life too short to try to ‘hack’, ‘understand’ or think I know what’s going on. I wonder what is so worthwhile on this good green earth it requires me to play the social media game.
I prefer to do without the concept of marketing these days and focus instead on service, cute as it sounds.
- Sales tactics — especially those pedaled by gurus. Now you might get more results, thus seemingly validating a calculated and tactical approach, but… a) this might just be because you’re more confident, b) your results are coming at a terrible cost that’s as of yet invisible to you (like hidden risks) or c) other factors we can’t comprehend.
In saying that, there seem to be some fundamentals and viable first principles to sales.
I prefer to do without the concept of sales these days and focus instead on service, cute as it sounds.
- Creative things are complex and non-linear. Not just painting, drawing and writing but coming up with new solutions, be it in business, parenting or any other life situation.
- That being said, artists speak of process — but process seems to be very individualised, with few best practices. Creative process is not about controlling the uncontrollable or calculating the non-linear to me, but navigating it.
- Business and Entrepreneurship — that’s why the smart ones know it can’t be trained.
- Health? — If the human body is not complex, I don’t know what is. Are medical professionals over-respected? It seems that medicine has a very sketchy track record, even today.
- Diet? — So dominated by absolute statements like ‘chips are bad’ and ‘greens are good.’ But why does my Dad eat so many Tim Tams, zero fruit, yet stay healthier than my health-obsessed Mum? Is diet, as an extension of health, a complex system?
- My personal heuristic is, if I feel like it, I eat it. If I feel bad after I eat it, I tend to eat less of it. My gut (pardon the pun) tells me stress has a bigger say on health than any reasonable food stuffs I put in my mouth.
- The efficacy and usefulness of COVID vaccines. Too soon?
- The Brain?
- I don’t think anyone disagrees, do they? The movie It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin should be renamed ‘It’s Complex!’
- ‘Mental Illness’? — Can we understand things like depression and anxiety by scanning the brain? Scanning the brain tells us something, just like my Blog analytics dashboard, but though my Blog stats say something, they are not usually useful. How do we tell how useful brain scans are?
- Therapy? — In what situations is a therapist an overpaid listener? In what situations is a therapist counter-intuitive? Is the moment of breakthrough the cause of breakthrough, or just the last step of countless previous steps that go unheralded?
- Most of science is referring to the complex. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Weather, Nature, Environment.
- Climate Change (don’t tell climate change activists. As my Dad says, why can’t we just be environmentally conscious, without creating a big hullabaloo about something our brains are not capable of understanding?)
- So complex that many find it to be fraudulent. Always worrying when something is too big to be understood by almost everyone it affects. Maybe take the ‘E’ out and call it ‘Con-omics.’
- We use dumb things like ATARs and SATs to predict who will function well in professional environments. As a seemingly wise man once said to me (I no longer consider him wise, but did at the time) ‘your high school mark is a measure of… something.’ Yes, but we have no idea what. People who do well at school might make better than average doctors and lawyers (I don’t even know if this is true), but firstly, the opportunity is more accessible to them because they did well at school.
- Maybe attitude should be the first thing we screen for, then domain competency?
Purpose, Meaning, Spirituality.
- A lot of religions and spiritual beliefs systems are guilty of turning the complex into a system, when it’s by definition impossible to do so. There is a big difference between over-simplifying (or reducing) and the sort of simplifying where we stop trying to know what can’t be known.
- The Spiritual is complex. The sages seem to arrive at a state of inner peace by surrendering, letting go of the desire to master that which cannot be mastered, and realising that the trees are beautiful to look at even if we don’t fully understand them.
- Trying to control a sense of meaning and purpose usually leads people to becoming purpose practitioners, as a pose to finding it themselves. They ultimately suppress their sense of inadequacy and take up instead helping others overcome theirs.
If you accept those things about the world that can’t be understood, then in a manner of speaking, you fully understand the world, because you understand what can’t be understood.
Congratulations — you might just be living in Reality.