The MWS Podcast 53: Jean Boulton on Complexity Theory & Spirituality

Jean Boulton has a background in theoretical physics and is a strategy consultant and also a part-time academic at both Bath and Cranfield universities. She is passionate about the implications of complexity theory for management and policy development as well as its connection to spiritual traditions. It is this relationship between complexity theory and spirituality that will be the topic of our conversation today.

MWS Podcast 53: Jean Boulton as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

7 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 53: Jean Boulton on Complexity Theory & Spirituality

  1. A very interesting discussion. I’m fascinated by the potential of complexity and systems theory, and there was much that I could relate to here. However, there were also a few things that made me uneasy, which may only have been a matter of style or emphasis or may possibly be more important than that – I find it hard to tell.

    One thing I especially resonated with was the point about the negative effects of unthinkingly taking a mechanistic set of assumptions from one context and applying them to another, for example with what Jean said about its effects on education. More broadly I’d suggest that it is that tendency that has effectively destroyed our understanding of ethics in the Western world, because the fact-value distinction has been imported from a logical abstract context on the assumption that it applies straightforwardly to a complex organic context. This point links also to what Jean said about the limitations of measurability. I think the scientific tradition has tended to confuse incrementality – which is quite a good indicator of accessibility to experience – with measurability. But lots of things are incremental (like inspiration, which Jean mentioned) but not measurable. The fact that they’re not measurable does not necessarily make them dogmatic.

    What made me rather uneasy, though, was Jean’s easy movement between entirely speculative theories about the universe and the benefits of a recognition of complexity in experience. The idea that ‘laws of nature’ in the universe at large may have evolved rather than being set may possibly be true, but then so might lots of other cosmological speculations. Whether it is true or not has no implications for the judgements we make in our lives, and is basically unresolvable through experience, like other claims about ‘laws of nature’. She also seemed happy to apply the term ‘karma’, which is heavily freighted with metaphysical dogmatic assumptions.

    I think there are a lot of dangers involved in associating the Middle Way with an indeterminist type theory – this is a similar point to the one I made recently about the Gay Watson podcast. To do this is likely to drag us into another dualistic conflict of deterministic vs indeterministic claims. The theory of Heraclitean flow, for example, has nothing much to do with the Middle Way: it’s just another metaphysical speculation. Heraclites was neither more nor less justified than Parmenides, who asserted the opposite (that change was illusory). If, on the other hand, what Jean wants to do primarily is to get us to focus on the limitations of mechanistic judgement, to recognise complexity and thus be more provisional in the assumptions we make, in science or religion or elsewhere, then I’m fully behind her: but that seems to require a much more agnostic approach to these issues of physics.

    1. whilst Lee Smolin’s ideas about the universe evolving is certainly speculative, complexity theory, the theory of open thermodynamic systems, is well established. It is clear that situations in the world and in the universe are in general non-deterministic – without that the whole disordered structure of the universe would not exist, nor would evolution. What I am doing is commenting that pre-modern experiences of the world – flow and the notion of karma – relate very closely to post-modern scientific theories – isn’t that interesting. And I am using karma ontologically not morally as an expression of so-called path-dependence – the idea that the past shapes the future but not inexorably. My book on all this will be out in the summer – Embracing Complexity – to be published by OUP. So more of these arguments will be set out there…

  2. Hi Jean, I can see how an assumption of general (as opposed to total) non-determinism may be required for the gene shuffling involved in evolution. But this kind of non-determinism is surely potentially just an admission of ignorance? There may be sufficient causes behind these processes that we just don’t understand. Anything non-determined can only be seen as such within the limitations of our standpoint. Given the extent of our ignorance, metaphysical indeterminism is surely just as unjustifiable as determinism?

    “I am using karma ontologically not morally” does suggest that you are taking the fact-value distinction for granted. I don’t think there is any possible claim by an embodied human that is entirely ontological without being moral, still more one about karma, which is a theory created for moral purposes. I would have thought that embracing complexity involves recognising this constructedness and uncertainty in our distinctions between facts and values.

    1. The issue of determinism or not is key. There is the idea – Laplace’s daemon, that the universe is complicated but that an all-knowing daemon in outer space could know everything in principle. What evolutionary complexity theory is emphasising is that the future is unknowable in principle – that, for the future to be full of possibilities and for the emergence of the new and creative – there is, to quote one of my colleagues, more than one future. This is a very key point. And, I am not using evolution just to talk about genes, but as a key principle for ‘how the world works’. Leibniz made the point to Newton that how the universe is shaped, what particular configurations of planets and galaxies, is not predictable and emerged in a path-dependent way out of the non-uniform spread of material at the ‘big bang’.

      Re Karma, I am merely trying to point out that the idea that the past shapes the future – the notion of path-dependency – is akin to the Buddhist notion of Karma. I am interested in the congruence between pre-modern and post-modern scientific views. When we apply this to humans, then, of course, how we behave and what we believe plays a key part in what we create for the future for ourselves and others. I am not disagreeing with that at all, merely trying to make a wider point.

  3. Hi Jean, Where I’d take issue with both you and your colleague here is that ‘the future is unknowable in principle’ is equivalent to ‘there is more than one future’. The former position I thoroughly agree with, and it is just a recognition of uncertainty. The latter, however, seems to be a metaphysical claim about the ultimate structure of events and time that we can be in no position to justify. If the future is unknowable in principle, then to me that implies that we cannot know whether there is more than one future or not. If your work leads you to challenge the claim that we know there is only one future, then that’s good, but that challenge should not be confused with a positive indeterminist claim that there is more than one future.

    I don’t think there is any need at all to assume that there has to be more than one future so that there can be new and creative possibilities. Those possibilities are found in our experience, not in some state of affairs in the universe beyond that experience. We are able to be creative because we do not know how much we are constrained, not because we know ourselves to be ultimately unconstrained. That’s why I think it’s a profound mistake to conflate the Middle Way with indeterminism. The Middle Way is just not about the universe itself, but rather about our ways of making judgements in relation to it.

    1. My talk is really about ontology and the wider issues of the nature of science and its congruence with pre-modernism. A key element of evolutionary complexity theory is indeterminism in its metaphysical sense. Following Darwin, as you will know, there was a huge explosion in considerations of indeterminism – by Veblen, the pragmatists, the emergentists and then the physicists. I am not talking about uncertainty, I am talking about the inherent indeterminism in the universe. Without that there is no possibility of emergence and change, the universe merely unfolds in accordance with its initial conditions.

      I feel we are talking across each other a bit. I think you are talking about humans primarily and I am looking at much wider ontological and metaphysical issues from the point of view of ‘new physics’.

  4. Hi Jean, You’re right that we are talking across (or past) each other. That’s because I start with a position based in what is accessible to experience. It seems contradictory to me for science (which is justified through experience) to offer any kind of metaphysical position that is not based in experience. Such positions are dogmatic rather than scientific. That needn’t undermine the great usefulness of scientific work when scientists maintain the provisionality of the scientific method, and offer only conclusions that are compatible with that provisionality, but scientists overreach themselves when they adopt metaphysical positions for which science offers no justification.

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