Post-modernism and the pretense of understanding complexity theory

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

It’s near the end of the Fall semester, and I have one more paper to write, one that demands I pay a little more attention to issues of the self than I normally would. There’s a certain narcissism in a lot of what I’m seeing of the scholarship that relates to the self and when it comes to topics of good and evil (the class for which I still have to write this paper is entitled, “Goodness, Evil, and Politics”), I tend to look much more to the existential threats to human existence: climate change, war, famine, etc.

But the assignment is the assignment. So I’m reading an additional book by Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). The first chapter is actually useful, among other things connecting the notion of human rights to the notion of a self (if there is no self, then who has human rights?).

More troubling is the perception of a contradiction that I don’t see as a contradiction, yet which is taken for granted as a contradiction across a considerable portion of philosophical thought. Anderson points to David Hume:

In [Hume’s] view the self is the mind and its contents, and since these are always changing it hardly makes sense to think of a permanent identity. “What then,” he asked, “gives us so great a propensity . . . to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro’ the whole course of our lives?” He conclude that “the identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one.” (p. 19)

I’ve encountered this before, shrugged and glossed over it. I don’t see this as problematic at all. But post-modernists pick up the theme:

[Kenneth] Gergen said, “Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self. For everything that we ‘know to be true’ about ourselves, other voices within respond with doubt and even derision. This fragmentation of self-conceptions corresponds to a multiplicity of incoherent and disconnected relationships. These relationships pull us in myriad directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an ‘authentic self’ with knowable characteristics recedes from view.” (p. 38)

What’s curious here is that post-modernists seem to acknowledge and accept complexity theory. Yet their references to it are so fleeting that one can’t be entirely sure. Anderson writes that post-modern psychology “moves us toward an understanding of people as open systems—ever seeking new contacts, prepared to take in new information, willing to move boundaries, unafraid of change” (p. 34).

The term open systems is a precise reference to systems theory (a predecessor of complexity theory). Perhaps the easiest example of an open system and one of many used by Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996) is of an eddy current in a river, a pattern which forms spontaneously in water flowing downstream. The water in the current isn’t the same water from one moment to the next, yet the eddy current remains. And we view it as the same eddy current. Because the identity of the system rests in the pattern rather than in the substance.

Yet, in the case of the self, post-modernists would have us view the self as a different self because of a bombardment of ideas. They’re confusing the substance for the system and investing identity in ideas rather than the pattern of those ideas. It’s a rookie mistake that reflects a failure to grasp complexity. And it looks like this error lies at the heart of post-modernism.