Complexity and Consciousness

Human consciousness has reached a point at which it must expand, or go under. By “expand” I mean, in the context of these times, that it must come to confidently handle far more variables than it has in the past. The mental-rational consciousness structure, expressed as dialectics, could handle, at most, two variables. This was in terms of “thesis” and the “antithesis” — the duopoly. Those two variables became expressed as antagonistic pairs of opposites — private and public, past and future, subject and object, good and evil, true and false, right and wrong, left and right, conservative and progressive, and so on.

This way of thinking in terms of pairs of opposites, or dualism, has become inadequate to cope with present reality, which is multivariate, multiform, and multidimensional. Perplexity in the face of this new complexity is simply owing to an obsolete logic which has become, as Gebser put it, “deficient”.

The mental-rational consciousness structure is not confident in handling a multipolar, multivariate cosmos, nor is it really competent to do so. Much like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it has command, but no mastery of its circumstances. From quantum physics, to climate science, to ecology and Chaos Theory, the received logic is proving incapable of “coming to terms” with the new multivariate reality.

Einstein’s unification of space and time in the spacetime continuum was both a simplification and a complexification. No longer could a simple dualism or dialectic of spaces, in terms of subject and object spaces, and a simple dualism or dialectic of times, as past and future times, be treated as discrete and separate issues. While the unification in terms of the spacetime continuum was a simplification, it also introduced a new complexity in terms of the “four dimensions”. Instead of two variables, one now had four mutually entangled and co-dependent variables to try to account for in terms of the four aspects of spacetime — forwards, backwards, inwards, and outwards.

This is “complexity”, and if you follow these matters in science (and even outside science) you’ll know the perplexity and bewilderment that characterises much of the new science, whether it’s the Butterfly Effect in climate science and Chaos Theory or quantum indeterminacy in physics. The old urban legend that only a handful of people truly understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has a modicum of truth to it, as well as illustrating the perplexity of the general public about the spacetime continuum, because the received logic of mind still wants to cast the issues into simple binaries and has trouble coping with pluralism and diversity, in the form of a multivariate, multidimensional, multiform reality.

This is especially the case with the public controversies over climate change.

In order to cope with this new complexity  — and not just cope, but master it, because if we do not, it will master us — we need a true metanoia, a real “mutation” in consciousness. And that’s where Jean Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy become relevant to our concerns, the former with his “integral consciousness” and the latter with his “quadrilateral logic”. And it’s in the context of this perplexity about multivariate reality, and the inability of the mind to cope with that multivariability, that their work must be appreciated.

The troublesome “gotchyas” of the present — the seemingly intractable dilemmas we face in terms of “perverse outcome” or “unintended consequence”, or “ironic reversal” or “blowback” or “revenge effect” and so on — are a reflection of our continuing ignorance of the complex interdependencies. We really think we’ve accomplished something if we can manipulate one or two variables in order to effect certain outcomes and results, while we’ve remained largely oblivious to the “overview” where these manipulations have simultaneous effects on the other ignored but co-dependent variables.

They simply can’t be ignored any longer, but we seem to be at a loss for how to control for those complex interactions. Our mental models aren’t designed for such complexity. The mental-rational consciousness structure has become like a juggler who is suddenly distressed to find he is now juggling too many objects at once. It is no longer “fit for purpose”, as they say.

This situation is the pressure that is driving the search for a new consciousness, with a more adequate logic, one that can comfortably and confidently handle pluralism and a multivariate reality without breaking down like the unfortunate juggler.

6 responses to “Complexity and Consciousness”

  1. davidm58 says :

    Well said, Scott. For anyone interested in exploring “complexity,” I have a page with links to some of my favorite pieces exploring the topic. Edgar Morin is featured heavily.

    “We must, certainly, reintegrate humans with nature and we must be able to distinguish humans from nature, thereby not reducing humans to nature. We must, consequently, at the same time, develop a theory, a logic, and an epistemology of complexity that will be appropriate to the knowledge of human beings. We are looking for the unification of science and a theory addressing the very high degree of human complexity. It is a principle with deep roots whose developments are increasingly diversifying and branching out more and more the higher we go. I situate myself, therefore, well outside the two antagonistic clans: one that destroys difference by reducing it to a simple unity, the other that obscures unity by only seeing differences. I see myself well outside both, but I am attempting to integrate the two truths. In other words, I am attempting to go beyond the either/or alternative.”
    – Edgar Morin, On Complexity

  2. edlevin2015 says :

    In 1995 I read a book called “In Over Our Heads” by Robert Kegan that I think is relevant here. It doesn’t have the historical “overview” of Gebser and Roesenstock-Huessy, but it deals very specifically with a theory of the structures of consciousness that would be adequate for the complexity of the modern world, and the difficulties in making that shift. I haven’t thought about Kegan for a long time, but I recently received a blog post that rekindled my interest. I offer it to see if you’re familiar with Kegan, and if not, if you find him helpful. The blogger, David Chapman, has a definite axe to grind, but he has produced a strong summary of Kegan’s theory.

    • Scott Preston says :

      You’re right. That is a very long read, so I haven’t finished all of it as yet. Just wondering to myself while reading whether his five “stages” can be correlated with Gebser’s structures of consciousness. I see some similarities, but some not. There’s his addressing the issue of “being” and “having” that Gebser also addresses likewise.

      I certainly like the title “in Over Our Heads”, which is very suggestive, although ambiguous (like almost everything). There’s something of Rumi in that — immersion, submersion or transcendence?

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