On Ontological and Descriptive Complexity

There’s a duality between descriptive and ontological complexity (Emmeche, 1997) and in socio-complex systems we are dealing with both. Defining ontological boundaries in complex adaptive systems is difficult because they are open systems, in constant interaction with their environment. How do we determine which parts belong to one system and which ones to another? The boundaries aren’t clear and we can define the system arbitrarily.

Cilliers (2001) wrote “Boundaries are simultaneously a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved. In other words, we frame the system by describing it in a certain way (for a certain reason), but we are constrained in where the frame can be drawn. The boundary of the system is therefore neither purely a function of our description, nor is it a purely natural thing.”

The boundary, therefore, is phenomenological as well as ontic-epistemic. It cannot be clearly defined, it’s fuzzy and has descriptive and ontological properties.

Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® can give us a good idea of a system and its boundaries by identifying patterns, attractors in the system, stability and fitness landscapes, and in a continued research showing their dynamics over time. In a broad sense the boundaries are constrained by the signification framework, but the narrative fragments themselves aren’t rigidly constrained and can contain anything and extend beyond what are regarded as boundaries. It does, however, provide a way for comparative ontology by combining quantitative and qualitative research, and I think it’s about the best we can do.

Emmeche (1997) said “we cannot a priori decide whether descriptive complexity entails ontological complexity.” It may, but it may not. Boundaries, likewise, can be descriptive or ontological, or both.

I suggest we could look at boundaries as a form of descriptive-ontological dualism; the descriptive aspect being crossing a domain boundary, while the ontological aspect being an ontological change, a transition in the state space, a phase shift in the system dynamics. Even highly constrained systems don’t exist in isolation and have varying degrees of freedom and connectivity – only constrained – and may be perturbed to induce a transition in the state space, so we don’t even need to limit ourselves to considering only ontologically complex systems.

(Originally posted as comments to Dave Snowden’s blog entry about Boundary conditions.)


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