The Philosophical Trinity of Complexity

Those beginning to study philosophy often ask, “With which philosopher should one start?” The answer is, “Start anywhere and keep going.” Your correspondent started with Bertrand Russell’s Power, which he found in his father’s bookshelf. The first book of your philosophy purchased was the modernist classic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he purchased in Berkeley, California and revealed its Berkeley-ness by already having writing in it. From there, he took many philosophy courses, and three authors stand out from his reading: Spinoza, Hegel, and Tocqueville. The primary razor for the selections concerns  the classic philosophical cleavage between the world “as it is” and “as it should be,” between the positive and the normative (i.e., the fact-value distinction). Your correspondents particular fascination and insight, such as it is, concerns complexity, because the world as it is complex, and the availability of power computation allows a previously unavailable opportunity to address the characteristics and consequences of complexity.

Baruch Spinoza worked as an engineer rather than an academic, so he experienced the physical world directly rather than through books as most philosophers do. Two Spinoza phrases stand out specifically. First, Spinoza said Deus sive Natura (God or Nature), which means God is, “a dynamic nature in action, growing and changing, not a passive or static thing.” Whether this means “God is nature” or that humanity may learn about God through nature seems to be a distinction without a difference. In either case, attention should be given to understanding the world around us. Second, he said sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity) is, “an expression describing what is universally and eternally true.” This observation points to notions of dynamic complexity, an understanding of the extended processes discussed by the first observation.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is included because he continued to address the structure of reality that resulted in dynamic complexity, what he called historicism. Hegel is controversial due to his association with Marxism, but there exists both left and right Hegelianism, and the argument here stresses the politically agnostic structural aspects of dialecticism—thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Modern computation reveals that these structures are both ubiquitous in complex social systems, and lead to the dynamic complexity Hegel referred to as historicism.

Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville, aka Alexis de Tocqueville, may be a slightly controversial choice because a classic question is, “Is Tocqueville a philosopher?” Here we focus on his method, which is that careful observation, consideration, and narrative are a perfectly reasonable way to address social systems as complex a the French and American Revolutions. His observation that democracy is antithetical to excellence should not detract from the utility of his method or the accuracy of his observation, even if most who employ his method do not generate equally brilliant results.

Each philosopher was selected because he attempted to address the complexity of social systems as honesty, effectively, and directly as possible given the limitations of the day. With the availability of powerful computation, a peerless tool for addressing complexity, it seems worth the effort to apply that tool to these question both to honor their memory as well as for the good of humanity.


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