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The Global Age of Complexity

NEW YORK – Every century, it seems, has its “age.” The Renaissance, from a philosophical perspective, has been called the Age of Adventure. The seventeenth-century Age of Reason was followed by the Age of Enlightenment. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ages of ideology and analysis, respectively. As for the twenty-first century, I would argue that it is the Age of Complexity.

On the one hand, science and technology have progressed to the point that humans can create life and, through ultra-advanced genome-editing technologies, even engineer new species. Futurologist Yuval Noah Harari anticipates the imminent rise of Homo deus: a species of humanity that can “play god” by manipulating nature in myriad ways, including delaying and ultimately even conquering death. Most of the technological trends identified by the US Department of Defense as crucial in the coming years were unheard of just 30 years ago.

On the other hand, much of humanity is besieged by feelings of helplessness and frustration, owing to the challenges we seem unable to resolve, from pollution and climate change to unrelenting radicalism and terrorism. Economic inequality – reinforced by job losses from automation, deeply entrenched social orders, and damaging political power dynamics – has contributed substantially to this sense of powerlessness.

At a time when our power of creation, matched by our power of destruction, has reached unprecedented levels – when one weapons launch could change the course of history – the development of a more equitable and effective system could not be more urgent. In this new age of complexity, we need a new paradigm for thinking about the world, and thus for guiding our efforts to advance peace and prosperity.

A prevailing worldview has always been essential to shaping human destiny. Alexander the Great would not have conquered most of the known world of his time without the influence of his philosopher-teacher Aristotle. And he was not unique: behind every great empire has been a great philosopher or historian whose worldview imbued the imperial drive with legitimacy and even sacred significance. (Were history written by the victims, not the victors, empire-building would look a lot less glorious.)

As we move to develop a new worldview to guide our future, we must embrace a truly global perspective. In the past, analysis of the evolution of humanity’s worldview has tended to focus on the West, following the European and, later, American progression from exploration, colonization, and empire-building, to industrialization, the diffusion of market relations, and technological innovation.

In the twenty-first century, however, this narrative is being revised. The global economic crisis that originated in the United States in 2007 exposed the fragility of the advanced-country model, giving rise to a new, more multipolar worldview, in which the emerging economies, led by China, India, and Russia, have increasingly challenged the status quo.

Meanwhile, the challenges countries are facing have become increasingly interconnected, with global mega-trends, from climate change to financialization, playing out beyond the purview of individual governments. As the physicist-turned-ecologist Fritjof Capra and the chemist Pier Luigi Luisi remarked in their 2014 book The Systems View of Life, “the major problems of our time are systemic problems – all interconnected and interdependent.” Accordingly, “they require systemic solutions.”

In this context, the world needs a more holistic worldview that accepts the pluralism and diversity – in terms of geography, tradition, and governance models – that reflect and reinforce the complexity of today’s global trends. Such an approach must recognize not just the need for countries to work together to shape the world, but also the limits of our ability to shape it at all.

Humanity has long operated within a paradigm of determinism; we believe we can predict and manipulate outcomes. But we have not discovered any natural laws or equations that explain how life evolved into its current state, much less indicate how it will evolve in the future. Determinism has run its course, and must be replaced by a paradigm in which uncertainty is accepted as an irreducible fact of life.

In the natural sciences, this is already happening. Quantum mechanics, general relativity, and uncertainty have been accepted as the way forward in physics and mathematics. In biology and neuroscience, there is a growing acceptance that life emerges through cognition (self-awareness and self-generation) and changes constantly, meaning that there is no “prestatable becoming,” in the words of the biologist Stuart Kauffman.

Yet in the social sciences – from economics to politics – this transition has yet to take place. Economics continues to operate in a largely linear manner, guided by the deterministic eighteenth-century Newtonian framework. But simple mechanistic theories cannot deal with living, complex, and often quantum systems. Indeed, the reductionist logic, based on simplistic assumptions, that dominates economics today is at best incomplete, and potentially fundamentally wrong.

Similarly, in politics, we continue to struggle to reach systemic solutions, not least because we often cannot agree on the nature of the complex problem we face. This partly reflects the global nature of today’s challenges and the diversity of perspectives that therefore must be reconciled. More fundamentally, it reflects the fact that humans are not always rational – a fact that a new “complexity economics” would do more to acknowledge.

More broadly, a new “complexity worldview” must appreciate that human behavior is driven by everything from politics and economics to culture and psychology – even by technology itself. In an age of complexity, the institutions we build and sustain demand a system-minded approach that evolves alongside the rapidly progressing natural sciences.