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Complexity Theories, Science & Scientism

| by Shelton A. Gunaratne*

( October 3, 2014, Boston , Sri Lanka Guardian) I am both a journalist and a social science scholar.

I have authored several publications on the shortcomings of social science, a creation of Western thought, and the need to De-Westernize it by seeking the “truth” through a method combining systems thinking, complexity theories and quantum physics—all of which are more compatible with universal or “humanocentric” thought.

Perhaps because of this background, the editor of a scholarly journal in communication studies recently assigned me to review a manuscript on complexity on a double-blind basis. This means that I have no clue on who authored the article and the author has no clue on who wrote the review.

My recommendation was that the manuscript should not appear in the journal as a definitive stand-alone essay without substantial revision in the literature review that includes the history of complexity theories to the Buddhist dependent co-origination (paticca samuppada or PS) model and the Daoist Yijing paradigm of 64 hexagrams. Recent publications in communication journals have documented that both Buddha and Laozi (the founder of Daoist philosophy) were well aware of complexity in the sixth century BC, long before the advent of Western “science” circa 17th century AD.

The author was a stanch defender of the “scientific” rigor of Western scholarship because he totally ignored the case made by many global scholars for de-Westernizing the putative social sciences, including communication studies. The linear presumption resulting from categorization of variables as independent or dependent often created doubts about the findings–-whether they belonged to science or scientism.

How can the “scientific” community defend concepts such as “reliability,” “linearity,” and “equilibrium,” when we are deeply aware of the inconstancy, conditionality, and re-becoming of all natural phenomena—the “truths” derived from quantum physics and Buddhist philosophy. The objectivity that the dominant Western paradigm attempts to establish is a huge mirage that does not exist. The very act of observation changes what is observed. Every “being” sees phenomena through its own experience and arrives at conventional/objective truth. The dominant paradigm can only find this illusionary conventional truth. 

Buddhism attempts at finding the absolute or ultimate truth—existence as it really is: the inconstancy, unsubstantialty, and unsatisfactoriness of cyclic existence. A “being” itself is an illusion—a composite of the Five Aggregates: the material form and its mind components of feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. These are interconnected, interdependent, and interactive variables that the linear dominant paradigm cannot measure and deploy for predictability.

We can transcend testability by recognizing mind power as a powerful force that can go beyond the conventional truth to at least reach the level of intuitive truth, if not the absolute/ultimate truth. The cybernetic approach coupled with mind-power (via concentration) approach will provide the insights we seek in organized complexity without the need for conventional testability. Buddha used his mind power to describe the galactic universe much more accurately than medieval science.

If the author had traced the history of complexity to Buddhist phenomenology and systems thinking, he could have investigated the weaknesses of the dominant paradigm obvious to many researchers. Instead, he follows the regressive path and even excludes citing any of the de-Westernizing scholars (e.g., Wallerstein, Prigogine, Capra, Gunaratne, and others).

The author classifies complexity into three types: algorithmic, deterministic, and aggregate. Without making the slightest effort to recognize the verisimilitude of the plethora of scholarship on the Eurocentric bias of social science, he situates the history of complexity in Weaver’s three eras of science: simplicity (17th century), disorganized complexity (19th century) and organized complexity (20th century).

This classification incorrectly presumes that complexity is a product of modern European thought. Because “science” masqueraded as natural philosophy before the advent of Newton, it is disingenuous for the author to imply that complexity was unknown before its relatively late “discovery” by European thinkers. What he offers is a makeshift “paradigm’’ that gives communication scholars merely a sense of testing complexity concepts.

I referred the author to three publications that would have revealed the pitfalls of science. The standard 12 variables in the PS model presume that no variable is independent, that every variable is both dependent and independent at different points, that all variables are interdependent and interactive with one another, that there is no first cause, and that no single variable could arise without another co-arising variable. Thus, this nonlinearity makes it incongruent with “scientific” measurability and predictability. Modern theories deal with millions of variables applying some of the same principles associated with the PS model. The derivation of the 64 hexagrams starting with the bifurcation of one into two (yin and yang) in the Yijing model is even more complex. Fractals, strange attractors and phase spaces appear in the hexagrams as well.
The author’s arguments for preserving the Newtonian paradigm were unconvincing.

(*Professor emeritus Shelton Gunaratne is the lead editor and author of the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach to be released by Routledge in March 2015.)

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