Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Complexity is an interesting concept because it can be, and is, understood both in a positive and in a negative way—and sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph. And when people give it a negative flavoring, they are actually referring to the exact opposite of that which the positive connotation means. To illustrate…

People will, for instance, berate the tax code because of its complexity. What they mean is that the code is virtually impossible to comprehend rationally based on the principles on which it is supposedly built. The code, in other words, is opaque to the rational vision. But to use a description like “complex” to signal this opacity misleads. The difficulty we experience in seeing the whole may be due to complexity—or it may be due to other features of the target. In all such cases a great deal of work is required even to obtain the information we need to make a judgment.

When I use the word I almost invariable use it with a positive connotation. What I mean is that I’m in the presence of a “higher order.” A simple series (1, 2, 3) is already an order—but not yet complex. Complexity appears when simple but rationally discernible structures are meaningfully combined so that they are mutually related and supported for some purpose. That purpose may be discernibly intended; such is the case in human artifacts. The purpose may also be perceptible, but only in a philosophical manner, thus as in Aristotle’s fourth, the final, cause of things, that for which the thing exists.

In the positive sense of the word, higher order, it is the harmonious, indeed one might say the necessary, relationships and interaction of the parts that create the sensation of order and the implication of some purpose and—using a word like purpose—of intentionality. And this intentionality is, you might say, focused, concentrated. It’s not distracted, flighty, or frivolous—it is pointed. That is the reason why the complexity, the higher order, is discernible at all. I note here that the word is almost never used to refer to a big, hopeless mess. After a tornado has wreaked its havoc on a township or a tsunami on a coastline, people don’t refer to the results as complex. Chaos is the more usual phrase.

Behind the negative connotation of complexity—the expression of frustration that the word implies when people complain of complexity—lies a disordered intentionality, the conflict between two or more competing intentions, compromises that distort a rational tendency in the whole and render it opaque to view.

This, surely, is the case with the tax code. It overweening purpose is to obtain money from the governed—and it does that job just fine. Complexity arises, in the negative sense, because other intentions are present in it as well—but are poorly implemented. One of these is the intention of justice: to obtain the money fairly so that burdens fall on everyone in equal measure based on capacity or some other rule. And that intention, while it is arguably possible to apply harmoniously, competes with yet other intentions. Among these is that of powerful interests to escape the burden and of others to use the tax code for purposes of negative or positive stimulus (to cause people to quit smoking, to cause others to invest or to employ). And I’ve not even begun to list all of the competing intentions that the tax code manifests, not least mixed modes in which stimulus represents payoffs and punitive taxes are beneficial to others. And so it goes. And in these cases—where intentionality is all too present in the structure—the same internationalities are not harmoniously balanced at all. They depend on the balance of power at any one point in time; they reflect a vast layering of past balances of might left in place but partially weakened or strengthened, and so on. Complexity is present but it has become deformed. Such is the deposit of centuries of civilization. Reforming it, alas, invariably requires a new start.

The word also lives in an environment where the very concept of intentionality is in question—not in the courts of law but certainly in the courts of science and philosophy. For this reason a phenomenon like life, the very apex of genuine complexity visible to us, is difficult to understand. How can such a complex something come into being without any intentionality at all—purely by accident…

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