Thoughts & Insights

The longing for unambiguousness in a complex world

In the last one hundred years, our knowledge of the cosmos, our world, and what happens in it, and our understanding of ourselves as part of life in this world and this universe, has expanded enormously. And in the last thirty years the rate at which we acquire new knowledge has grown at a breath-taking speed. All this has changed our view of the world and ourselves. Yet, even so, our consciousness still finds it difficult to grapple with the implications of what this newly acquired knowledge means and to adequately assimilate them.

Our own view of the world suggests that it is becoming increasingly complex. Yet it is our increasing awareness of the complexity of the world, of the flood of information with which we are confronted and which we ourselves have engineered that challenges us and stretches us to our limits.

Our ancestors roamed primeval forests in search of food. Such forests are highly complex systems which require the utmost alertness of all our senses, highly concentrated perception of visual and acoustic signals. Catching and killing a wild animal in such an uncertain and dangerous environment without yourself being killed while tracking or killing it was – in today’s language – a successful way of dealing with complexity. The same can be said for those daring bands of ten or twelve men, armed only with spears, who could select and kill a single buffalo – essential food and clothing for their tribe’s survival – from a herd of such powerful creatures on the wild steppe without themselves being trampled to death or falling over a precipice.

Why this invocation of the reality of life for people in this world ten or twenty thousands of years ago? Because it provides a short though very compelling answer to the question of whether this world really was simpler earlier on and now has grown more complex. Yet principally because a comparison of then and now reveals a decisive difference in ways of perceiving and dealing with the complexity of life in this world. Back then the challenge was direct, specific and physical – and always a matter of life and death. It was always a matter of survival. Such specific situations were clear and lacking in ambiguity. Yet today we mainly no longer view changed complexity as unambiguous, specific and physical but as something abstract and virtual, equivocal and capable of multiple meaning. These are the qualities which we attribute to growing complexity, the qualities which stretch us to our limits.

Now this should not be surprising, in fact it’s more than understandable because in relation to the evolutionary history of our species, one or two centuries are little more than the hundredth of a second. We are now in an extremely exciting transitional phase in our history. The old models of perception that used to be so essential to our survival are still active and still drive us forward. Embedded in our unconscious, they are still important for determining our actions. With our conscious minds we might try to direct and control these forces, yet this is something that can’t be done on the quick. Critically, it’s also extremely strenuous and stressful, producing perceptible increases in general levels of irritability which find expression on the platforms of the global communication networks we now have where it is vented and amplified. Something is bubbling up there.

What often is hidden behind it is nothing more than the longing for a simple, unambiguous, understandable, controllable world – no matter in which guise such a longing might be cast. And what emerges from this is the assumption of a combat position based on the idea that in this novel perception of complexity the protagonist has now found a genuine vantage point that is clear and devoid of ambiguity which means that he or she is in the right.

We are confronted with ourselves and the consequences of our actions in a manner which is unprecedented in the history of our species. This is a situation into which, step by step for over one hundred years, we have brought ourselves through our tenacious human-centric view of the world. Could we learn to accept ambiguity and nuance, and learn how to deal creatively with issues and situations that do not allow for a single, definite interpretation but are open to multiple meanings? Could we learn to bear uncertainty and states of “not-knowing” without hitting the panic button? Couldn’t we start to explore completely new ways of thinking and acting? And, looking around the world, where could we find the motivation needed to effect such a “change of consciousness”?

In the coming decades, cooperation between human and artificial intelligence could well help us to find these new ways of thinking and acting. Perhaps indeed the history of our own evolution is the very reason why we ourselves have developed a new intelligent species on this planet. Nobody has forced us to take this step. And yet it is a step we have taken – most probably because left to its own devices our own human intelligence wouldn’t be capable of taking the right decisions within the limited amount of time left us.