After an enforced layoff from writing, the Thinking Systems blog series is about to be reborn. What was once an attempt to understand complexity from a rationalist perspective has now become part of a much larger initiative. The previous focus on trying to make complexity “manageable” is understandable; I was a scientist once after all. My enforced layoff has caused me to reflect more deeply and broadly on what makes us human and on just how “unmanageable” many aspects of life really are. Too great a focus on prediction and strategy can leave us unprepared for the unexpected; too great a reliance on reason leaves us emotionally bereft and unwilling to accept change in the face of crisis.
So Thinking Systems Redux (reflect a little on the Roman Fortuna Redux) will reinvent and rewrite past blogs and construct new ones in a different context – a context that will include other cultural and intellectual perspectives besides science and reason.
The timing is apt. If scientists and engineers would reflect on global political and cultural affairs they would notice that a change is upon us. After many decades of rampant rationalism and materialism the pendulum is beginning to swing back. In the last few decades in the arts, in literature and in other cultural endeavours, old human undercurrents of thought, emotion and “irrational” responses have been increasingly resurrected. These gut responses to the unpredictable and the “unscientific” have always been with us – they have merely been drowned out of late. Reason alone does not suffice.
What I find intriguing is that as the pendulum begins to swing the response from the scientific community has been a blast of militant materialism and boundary riding – a response that I fear is already proving to be counter productive. The “age of reason” did without question provide tools and evidence that were useful, but when it comes to some of the great existential questions of the age (many resulting from a thoughtless pursuit of greed, unbridled reason and instrumentalism) too great a focus on predictions of doom and on “what the science says” has not convinced us to change our ways. In fact, such a focus seems to cause most to distance themselves even further from the problem.
There is much to discuss and it is time to bring into the light ideas that have too long lain in the shadows. Others have led the way: there is much we can draw on to aid us. In the Roman Empire Fortuna Redux was the goddess that oversaw the successful return from a long and perilous journey. To misquote JBS Haldane my suspicion is that the future is not only going to be queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. We will need to call on all our human faculties and foibles to cope.