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Complexity theory is the study of both complexity and complex systems. Interdisciplinary in nature, complexity theory grew out of systems theory in the 1960s, making it a relatively new science. Or is it?
Drawing on natural-science research that examines uncertainty and nonlinearity, the tenets of complexity theory are actually echoes of ancient wisdom. It was near 500 BCE when Lao-tzu founded Taoism, Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism, and Heraclitus founded a school of thought that lives on today as “process philosophy.”
These contemporaries all considered the impermanence of worldly things (the Many) and the mysterious creative fount (Unity) from which they arise. For Lao-tzu that mystery was the Tao (the Way), for Buddha it was Boddhi (Truth), and for Heraclitus it was Fire (eternal change as the only constant). All stressed the changing nature of things, but also the Unity that is their source.
Complexity theory speaks of the parts and wholes of complex systems and describes how these two systemic levels interact. Curiously, complex systems are dynamic yet also resilient, persistent, and stable over time. More curious yet, they “self-organize,” bringing order from chaos in a way that we can describe but not fully understand.
And while science has long focused on mechanical systems (such as those described by Sir Isaac Newton), it seems complex systems are more the rule than the exception. Every biological, ecological, and human social system is complex (e.g., your body, global climate change, and the stock market).
In this course, we’ll examine ancient traditions and modern science for their unique insights and for the many ways in which they echo and synergize one another. The result? A new understanding of how we see the world and ourselves, as well as how we can best effect change in the world and in ourselves. As we discuss paradox, the beauty of language, and “aha moments,” we’ll also delve into how to live life—both fully and well—in a complex and interconnected world.
John B. Miller is a Senior Fellow of the University of Minnesota’s Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing where in 2008, he helped to found the Whole Systems Healing program. He received his BA in Ancient Studies with a special interest in religions and philosophies from the University and his MA in Education from Augsburg University. A seasoned teacher, Miller’s great passion is the study of complex systems.