a. How We Understand a Complex Universe

How We Understand a Complex Universe


In this article I will describe the way in which we human beings make sense of the world that we inhabit, and the implications of this for the theory of General and Social Systems.


My starting point is the concept of the relationship. Normally, to describe a relationship, we use a diagram showing an arrow, the relationship, between two points, the related entities. However, this image can be misleading. A relationship is not something separate and distinct from other physical entities in the universe. Rather it comprises the two related entities in conjunction for a period of time. Thus, the relationship is also a physical entity, albeit one comprising two parts. The nature of the relationship is the nature of the conjunction of these parts.

A valid scientific theory is a statement of a causal relationship, in which entities of one type, the cause, always result in entities of another type, the effect. In fact, it comprises the cause and the effect for so long as the causal relationship exists between them. These theories are a subset of all relationships, and the same principles apply to them. A causal relationship differs mainly in that several recognised and named causes may be necessary for the effect, but it is their un-named and unrecognised conjunction that is sufficient for it to occur.

Physical Entities

Relationships do, of course, relate two physical entities. Every physical entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from the smallest and least complex ones known by us, to the entire universe. The sub-atomic level is the lowest level of complexity at which we know all of the building blocks of the universe. This comprises three particles, i.e., protons, neutrons, and electrons, together with four fundamental interactions, i.e., the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, the electro-magnetic force, and gravity. The latter interactions can be regarded as relationships between the particles. There are, of course, lower levels of complexity, comprising quarks and leptons, but they and their interactions are not yet fully understood. So, for the purpose of this article, protons, neutrons, and electrons will be treated as elementary particles.

Measuring Complexity

Every physical thing or entity can be regarded as lying on a scale of complexity, from a simple sub-atomic particle or interaction to the entire universe. The term “complexity” does not imply that the entity is either ordered or disordered. Rather, it merely refers to the number of sub-atomic particles and interactions that comprise it.

Ultimately, every physical entity, its properties, and its relationships with other entities are the consequence of a complex of sub-atomic particles and their interactions. The more complex an entity, the greater the number of particles and interactions. The same is true of relationships. The complexity of the relationship is the sum of the complexity of its two components.

Meaningful Entities and Relationships

If we draw a boundary around any part of the universe, call everything within it an entity or relationship, and give it our focus of attention, then for the most part its contents will be random, disorganised, and meaningless. However, in some cases the boundary will contain organisation and order. The more ordered an entity, the more likely it is to recur. The entities and relationships which are meaningful to us are those which we recognise as recurring. We then symbolise them by, for example, naming them, or creating an image of them.


However, we lack the ability to store and process the amount of information involved in representing more complex entities via their sub-atomic particles and interactions. There is a threshold of comprehension beyond which we are unable to understand entities in this way.

To overcome this, we simplify at or before this threshold of comprehension is reached. We do so by identifying a new set of elementary entities and relationships from recurrences at that level of complexity. For example, in chemistry, our elementary entities are atoms, and our relationships are atomic bonds. In sociology, our elementary entities are individual people, and our relationships are their social interactions.

We then use these new elementary entities and relationships to deal with greater complexity. They have substantially less information content and, initially, remain within our threshold of comprehension.

Ultimately, however, with further increases in complexity, each simplification reaches the threshold of comprehension once more. To remain within it we must simplify yet further. This leads to several fields of knowledge, each with its own elementary entities, relationships, and theories, each dependant on the speciality below, and each lying on a path of increasing complexity.

Possible Limits to Simplification

With each simplification, information is lost. It is also true that, unless emergent theories are based on careful and accurate observations of the real world, with each simplification comes the introduction of error. There is, therefore, likely to be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which a reliance on pure theory cannot take us. Observation is necessary to progress further.

However, there are difficulties in observing reality at very high levels of complexity. In general, the more ordered the elementary components and relationships within an entity, the greater the likelihood of it recurring and being recognised. However, it is also true that the more complex it is, the greater its size, and the greater its size, the less likely it is that we will be able to perceive it. Furthermore, it is less likely that it will recur within a timeframe that allows us to recognise its recurrence. Thus, there may be an upper threshold to complexity beyond which we are unable to perceive recurrence, and thus, recognise and name entities, including scientific theories.


Because each relationship, and thus, each scientific theory relies on a minimum amount of complexity, it cannot also apply in a less complex field. Thus, it will appear to emerge as complexity increases. However, the reverse is not necessarily the case. A relationship which requires relatively little complexity can, of course, exist within an entity of much greater complexity.


Increases in complexity can follow different paths, e.g., from an elementary particle to the cosmos, or from an elementary particle to an ecosystem. Different valid scientific theories emerge on each path. Those which emerge for life will, for example, differ for those which emerge for astro-physics.

The following path of increasing complexity is relevant to human social systems. At each level new theories emerge:

  1. Logic.
  2. Causality.
  3. Physics.
  4. Chemistry.
  5. Biochemistry.
  6. Evolution.
  7. Social Sciences, i.e., Psychology, Social Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Political Science.
  8. Ecology.

The path for astro-physics is, of course, different.

The Search for Understanding in Practice

In the above article, I have described the process of understanding reality from the elementary particles and their interactions upwards. However, in practice, the starting point in our search for understanding was reality at the human scale, i.e., the world in which we live and its direct impacts upon us. From here, the search has not only been in the upward direction towards ever greater complexity, but also in the downward direction towards ever less complexity. Both processes are ongoing, but the more we understand what underlies the sub-atomic world, the more this increases the complexity above it.

Implications for General Systems Theory

Because systems and entities are essentially the same concept, the implication for General Systems Theory is, of course, that there is no single set of rules applicable to all systems. So, for example, human social systems will have their own set, some of which are shared by less complex levels, and some of which are particular to the field. Any General Systems Theory is therefore likely to be a meta-theory, i.e., a theory of theories, that explains what theories emerge on a particular path of increasing complexity, and why. This would require an explanation of the relationships between simplifying concepts at one level of complexity, and those at the levels above and below.

Implications for the Social Sciences

In the social sciences, the search is for valid macro-causal rules, or theories which emerge at, as yet un-simplified higher levels of complexity. However, in the same way as other entities, their recognition depends on their recurrence. Unfortunately, the greater the level of complexity, the less frequently these recurrences will be observed. Furthermore, the larger the scale at which they operate, the less likely it is that we will recognise them.

To add to these difficulties, human behaviour is caused by emotion, knowledge, and reasoning skills. If we were to recognise a new macro-causal rule, then this would constitute new knowledge, and might alter our behaviour. This, in turn, might invalidate the theory. For example, if it becomes known that an event, x, always causes war, then, whenever x is encountered, effort will be put into avoiding its consequence. So, rather than stating that “x always causes war”, the theory should in fact state that “x, and not knowing that x always causes war, and the absence of any inhibitors always cause war”.

The decreasing likelihood of our recognising causal rules or theories as complexity increases could well mean that there is a maximum level of complexity at which human recognition can occur. If so, then beyond that point, causal rules are unrecognisable, and so, not affected by human agency. However, whilst they are fixed, we are unable to recognise and take advantage of them.

If for example, they could be identified using advanced artificial intelligence, or by a General Systems Meta-theory, then the newly discovered macro-causal rules would no longer be fixed, and the threshold would move upwards. This increased knowledge would, of course, also alter our culture.

Is New Social Knowledge Worth Pursuing?

Given all these difficulties, the reader may question whether new social knowledge is worth pursuing. Personally, I believe that it is, but that an ethical framework is needed to control its use. New knowledge can change human behaviour for the better, for example, by avoiding war. However, it can also change it for the worse. An elite may, for example, keep the knowledge to themselves and use it to manipulate others, as may already be the case in the fields of politics and advertising. To avoid this, it is important that there be open access to any new knowledge in the social sciences, that it be used ethically, and that these requirements are policed.

f. Sense, Order and Meaning

Sense, Order and Meaning

Among our growth needs are two which drive us to make sense of the world. They are the need to perceive order and the need for meaning. Meaning is of two types: everyday meaning, for example that imparted by speech or text, and existential meaning, or why we exist. It is my own understanding of the latter, developed over several decades, that I will discuss here.

Perceiving order in the world helps us to make sense of it. The universe follows physical laws, and, through curiosity, investigation, and reason, we can discern the order that these laws impart. This enables us to make successful decisions when faced with a threat or opportunity. On the other hand, if we cannot perceive order, then this increases our vulnerability. However, we often see order as being imbued by something other than physical laws. For example, rhino horn has been thought to provide sexual potency because of its shape and the strength of the rhinoceros.

Meaning is a different concept to order. To find meaning would be to understand the purpose of the world and our part in it. The search for meaning has a side effect in that it helps us to discover order and, so, to survive and procreate. However, whilst meaning is a need, and we can be strongly motivated to search for it, meaninglessness is an existential given or unavoidable contra-need. In other words, we can never truly find objective meaning because, in practice, the universe appears to have none. Meaning is, therefore, entirely subjective, and personal. Finding subjective meaning involves much effort, but ultimately it can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, effort to seek objective meaning, will rapidly run up against the limits of our knowledge and abilities. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it can lead to frustration, distress, and a readiness to accept “wishful beliefs”. Such beliefs are often “off the shelf” and include a super-natural or super-human element. Because they may be emotionally satisfying and superficially appear to fit the facts, they are often inadequately criticized. This can open us up to potential exploitation by their authors.

According to the British Psychologist, Frederic Bartlett, to understand the world we create schemata or mental models. This is as true in the search for meaning as it is in more practical matters. Our schemata determine the way in which we understand meaning and perceive order. Because of the mental effort involved, once a schema is established, it is resistant to change. We are more likely to remember information that is consistent with our schemata and less likely to remember, or may even modify, information that contradicts them. This process is sometimes referred to as “effort after meaning”.

Schemata are established in childhood by our parents and other close adults. They can include erroneous or “wishful” beliefs. For example, meaning can be seen to be something other than personal and subjective arising, for example, from a supernatural source. Schemata grow throughout our lives, becoming ever more complex. Although resistant to change, they can be affected by our cultural environment and, depending on its nature, can be either reinforced or slowly altered as we age. If they are reinforced, this can cause us to become set in our ways. If they are revised, this can cause any beliefs gained in early childhood or later life, to become unacceptable, leading to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and social difficulties. Nevertheless, realism does stand up to the test of time.

I would suggest, therefore, that finding meaning involves:

  1. accepting that we are naturally evolved organisms with all the limitations it entails. As the Chinese author, Cixin Liu says in his novel The Dark Forest: “It’s a wonder to be alive. If you don’t understand that, how can you search for anything deeper?”;
  2. recognising that finding meaning is a personal and subjective endeavour; and
  3. being critical of the numerous erroneous, “wishful” beliefs on offer.

We are motivated by needs for existence, procreation, relatedness, and growth. The satisfaction of most is necessary for a happy and meaningful life. However, there can often be obstacles in the way. When people find it difficult to satisfy their existence and procreation needs their focus is on these, and on relatedness. This means that “wishful beliefs” are often used as a way of satisfying their growth needs with minimum effort. This can lead to exploitation and the elimination of poverty would, therefore, have great societal benefit.

There can be contradictions between different needs. Ronald Inglehart, in his book “Cultural Evolution” identified that, since the 1980s, there has been great emphasis, in the West, on self-expression, a growth need, at the expense of relatedness. However, we are social animals, co-operation better enables us to survive and so a balance must be sought. Social connection brings with it the pressure to conform to a culture. If there is a conflict between this and the need to be oneself then, in extreme cases, according to the psychologist Karl Rogers, mental ill-health can result. Thus, we must reconcile our growth needs with our relatedness needs.

So far, I have discussed what might be referred to as “normal” human needs. In my next post I will discuss “abnormal” needs because of the powerful influence they have on human affairs.