Irreducible Complexity

My favourite argument in favour of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”. The argument is, roughly, that some things found in nature are so intricate and complex that if you change any one element by even a small amount, the whole thing becomes impossible. If it can’t be changed, then it must have been constructed as one piece, and the only way that can happen is if you have an intelligent designer in the ether. I love this argument because it appropriates the language of science to argue its case, and because I think it goes one step better than most mass thought to place complexity first and foremost. In order to engage with this argument, either for or against, it is necessary to place the idea of a complex system at the forefront of your thought. It is impossible to engage with this argument through simplistic reductive shortcuts, there is no chance to focus your attention on a single variable as “the key” to understanding the situation.

The world is a fantastically complicated place that I feel is continually being “simplified” in ways that are unhelpful. Examples are so common that it’s hard to choose one as emblematic of the general fault. As a random sample, a kind of mass metonymy, there’s the use of GDP as a measure of economic health, the emphasis we place on who is PM or President, the use of temperature rise as the sole indicator of climate change, the attempts to solve traffic flow problems by simply adding more roads, IQ scores as a measure of intelligence, the use of opening weekend box-office returns as an index of film profitability, the reliance on a “3 Act Structure” to interpret fictions…

In each of these examples, a part of a complex system is used as a representation of the whole system, to the detriment of our understanding of the full implications of the thing we’re interested in. For example, we discuss “Reganomics” as a metonymy for a number of social and cultural changes. Regan becomes a focal point, a symbol for privatisation – but Congress was solidly controlled by the Democratic party, so clearly there was a far wider and more pervasive ideological force in play that shaped both sides of the US political divide to allow the changes Regan ushered in. Similarly, it was a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, on whose watch Glass-Steagall was repealed, and he presided over a Congress and Senate with Republican majorities. Trying to understand the ebb-and-flow of US political history by focusing on the singular figure of the President is counter-productive. Wider cultural, ideological and political matters need to be considered.

Once you embrace complexity, however, it can become a deep rabbit hole. There can appear to be no way down through the layers to find an answer of any kind. My favourite example of surrendering the search for a solution comes from West Side Story, where the delinquents explain the reason for their behaviour to Officer Krupke:

They examine different possible explanations for their behaviour, rejecting each one in turn. No single factor or approach can comprehend their problems, and so the conclusion of the song is that they are simply no good after all. The whole system of their world needs to be revised, something beyond their ability to effect, even if not beyond their ability to recognise. Their criminality can only be completely corrected by simultaneously addressing all of the origins of their problems. It’s no coincidence that the most hardened and inveterate criminals are sometimes described as “products of the system”. It’s much easier to treat individual crimes and criminals than address the underlying systemic problems that support criminality. Their very attempt to compartmentalise their problems is what dooms any solution to failure, but without any such reductive strategies their plight could appear so complex that it could only be the result of deliberate design.

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