Complex Systems and Human Freedom

Complex Systems and Human Freedom

Perhaps the last great project of the traditional Enlightenment was the 20th century effort by philosophers and logicians such as Russell, Whitehead, and Wittgen-stein to demonstrate that mathematics and language — and by extension, reality itself — could be founded with absolute certainty on explicit logical structures. As is well known, this attempt failed. The mathematician Kurt Godel demonstrated in the 1930’s that arithmetic was "incomplete" — that is, it will always contain more truths than can be derived from its axioms — and Alan Turing showed that even fairly simple computer programs could be "undecideable." Quantum mechanics — the Heisenberg uncertainty principle — demonstrated that at the heart of physical reality lay uncertainty.

The inherent uncertainty of any complex system has been reconfirmed by, for example, chaos theory. The Enlightenment belief that the Universe was mechanistic and therefore at least in theory predictable was overthrown.

The effects of this realization have been profound in many spheres, but for our purposes one stands out: the uncertainty that now lies at the core of our reality creates human freedom, and by implication the need for human choice. Sartre was right: "Man is condemned to be free." If we are to have any pretense of being moral beings, we must accept this freedom and its burden of choice. For we are not only charged with creating ourselves as authentic beings, as Heidegger puts it, but with creating authentic institutions as well.

Why does this matter for environmentalism? Because our burden does not stop there. Environmental systems are composed of two parts: a predominantly natural component — a salt marsh, say — and a human component — industry and residential areas surrounding the marsh, for example. These components have become so intertwined that they are in most cases inseparable. More broadly, the dynamics of most critical natural systems are increasingly dominated by anthropogenic factors, so they become products not just of their internal dynamics, but of human activity. The effect of the climate negotiations, for example, is to greatly accelerate the commoditization of the carbon cycle and the future path that system takes will likely be a reflection not of "the natural world" but of human choice.

Nature — which we have tended to treat as exogenous to the human experience — is the basis of the new field of earth systems engineering and management. In light of the above, however, it is something else as well: the integration of the earth as a set of systems into the realm of human freedom. It is the demand that we create, per Heidegger, an authentic earth, representing the moral, philosophic, and theological aspirations of the human species.

Realistically speaking, we have yet to begin this task. Exercise of human freedom requires a free choice, and we cannot choose without knowledge. Our understanding of natural systems — the carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, heavy metal, or hydrologic cycles, for example, or oceanic, atmospheric, or biological systems — is quite primitive; our knowledge of the dynamics of human systems even more so. Most environmentalism, corporate or otherwise, and much environmental science, reflects considerable ideological, even theological, bias. Our teleologies, whether that of a high-tech New Jerusalem or a depopulated return to Eden, are largely still implicit. They subtly, even unconsciously, exercise their limitations on our perceptions and thinking.

The situation is complicated by the general failure in the environmental area to separate our private and public moralities. While most of us, at least in democratic societies, understand that we cannot impose our private morality on others, that is not the case with the environment, where there is still a strong tendency to believe that one’s view of what is "right" for the environment can be imposed on others regardless of their interests because it is in the greater good. Environment remains an exception to the increasing acceptance of multiculturalism as a key aspect of global governance mechanisms.

Amid these constraints and complications, we cannot lose sight of the unique demands of human freedom in an increasingly human world. We fail as ethical beings if we refuse to accept the responsibility that our evolutionary history — and the essence of uncertain reality itself — have placed upon us.


Allenby is environment, health and safety vice president, AT&T, and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.