Complexity is not a paradigm shift

Benjamin P. Taylor
5 min readMay 20, 2021

Epistemic status: uncertain yet bold (working things out), and part of my thesis that there are no distinguishing fractures in the systems/cybernetics/complexity field, only many relevant and interesting dimensions of difference which cut across the supposed big distinctions.

Claims are made such as ‘complexity entails a scientific revolution, hence a radical shift in science’.

I believe that what is called complexity science is a continued working-through of ancient insights going back decades and centuries, and claiming a decisive shift leads us down dangerous paths and to miss out on powerful, valuable thinking.

It’s a Rorschach blot

That the world is fundamentally nebulous should not be denied.

It is true that a lot of work in the field (characterised as ‘systems thinking’) is used, naively and with the assumption of systematicity (or by ‘enforcing’ systematicity; reversing science and forcing the world to conform to the model) to sustain top-down, reductive, centralised ‘command-and-control’ of humans.

And it is true that much of the practice of management, government, organisation, fits many or all of the criteria of *unhealthy* top-down command-and-control.

So it is important to be clear that a prior assumption of ‘ordering’ or ‘systemicity’ would seem to be dangerous in any approach to a situation.

But in playing out an emotional proclivity to focus more on underlying nebulosity and how things can be, or become, irresoluble, versus a proclivity to focus on how relative, dynamic stability can nevertheless be achieved, we lose a lot.

Assuming an equivalence of ‘systematicity’ with ‘top-down control’, and assuming an equivalency of hierarchy of patterning and hierarchy of thinking and analysis with ‘dominance hierarchies’ slips in all too easily.

Those who want to distinguish complexity thinking say things like ‘Such a scientific revolution can help manage complex human social systems.’

This means that they do see some claim of organisational principles or structures or systems or laws to be available with the better, new, thinking. This, of course, a form of pattern or systematicity, perhaps at a different order than what they think of as naïve, dangerous, and destructive assumptions of constantly available order. And without understanding that we have always been struggling with the balance of nebulosity and pattern, they will fall into applying this new way of seeing pattern in equally destructive ways.

‘Paradigm shifters’ who don’t see lines of continuity will only repeat the mistakes they criticise; from the very beginnings of our field, the subtleties of thinking needed to support human freedom and flourishing have been available, we only have to grapple with the real complexities; naïve breakthroughs and breaks in the field do not help.

An approach which rejects systematicity can sometimes reject the concept of different levels of order and understanding, because it feels like hierarchy. Trying to explain everything at a single level of analysis produces a flattened universe with reduced understanding.

I give you Taylor’s Law (not my first attempt): if you expunge control from your theoretical framework, in the next paragraph you will be talking about control, without recognising it.

What we need to do is to recognise the actual paradigm shifts, or at least true advances:

  1. seeing the organisational potential within the system
    (from whatever source or level — systems/complexity/cybernetics can equally identify/support/set up structured, command-and-control hierarchies (say, Jacques’ Stratified Systems Theory), and the conditions for ‘pure self-organisation’)
  2. seeing the role of the observer, a second order perspective
    that the observer creates the ‘system’ (or the complexity or chaos); that talking about these terms — or pattern and nebulosity in general — outside of a loop between the observer and what is being observed — is meaningless
  3. making critical boundary judgements, i.e. understanding that the framing we bring to our observations has implications (this follows from (2))

This means that you can’t characterise anything as complex or organised in itself; you can only do so from some perspective. Complexity or otherwise of a situation is dependent, like any meaning, on framing, by which I include perspective, intent, context, interpretation, understanding, ‘mere reasonableness’, knowledge, sensemaking, language, experience, expertise, history, proclivities, and intent or purpose.

The mistake is to take the pointing finger for the moon; the claim there’s a paradigm shift from ‘systems and command-and-control’ to ‘complexity and anarchy’ is not actually an enlarging of thinking, it’s a mistaken narrowing.

Whether our biases are to focus more on underlying nebulosity or underlying pattern, we need to grapple with the interplay of both, and know we are doing so.

So, you can make an assumption of systematicity and choose to focus on ‘hierarchical control’, you can equally make an assumption of non-systematicity and choose to focus on ‘self-organisation’. In each case, two choices, not one — the options could be reversed — and not seeing that is a major omission.

But they are both just applying the same intent, quite appropriately, at a different logical levels, in different ways –the same type of thinking practices. But, cut off from earlier thinking (branded as systems and cybernetics), you will miss out both on powerful tools and approaches, and on a really important point that has seen serious work: given that hierarchies and control seem to be inescapable in human systems, how can we make them justified, distributed, truly democratic, anarchistic in the true sense?


· Pattern and nebulosity comes from David Chapman — podcast: and site:

· A lot of this thinking began in my quick-fire response to a link from Bojan Radej to an article on ‘anarchy and complexity’:

· My view on the basic interconnectedness of the systems/cybernetics/complexity field (best summed up as ‘there is no ‘difference that makes a difference that can distinguish one from the other without changing the classification of things already clearly labelled as and part of the discourse of one part of the field’) is introduced here: (And often were quite preoccupied with a better

· The concept of emotional biases in a focus either on ‘how chaos happens’ or ‘how stability is achieved’ to distinguish systems and complexity comes from a presentation at SCiO from Pete Miles and Patrick Hoverstadt

· I’ve used the phrase ‘command and control’ above, which I’m always cautious about. This has two or three meanings: it’s used to characterise a straw man for bad, centralised, micromanaging directive leadership (usually placed as a descriptor onto a real system which is far less coherent and intentional), and it is also used for a whole school of thoughtful thinking (from navy and other military contexts, usually, and covering ‘blue light’ services most explicitly), which seeks to balance maximum discretion to achieve mission purpose at the ‘front line’ with coherence of the organisation/mission as a whole.