It is not just living systems that are complicated.

Author Jeremy Lent, as quoted in a Quartz article about how an overly mechanistic worldview is interfering with scientific progress:

Lent is among a growing group of thinkers that believes it’s dangerous to persist in a mechanical worldview. “Every part of a living system may be mapped out but the whole affects the parts in nonlinear ways,” he says. “There is reciprocal causality, with causes and effects going in either direction continually.”

The writer told Quartz that “it’s a big mistake” to think of humans, or nature, like machines with discrete parts that can be reduced to simple elements. This fails to recognize that we evolved in a process within interrelated ecosystems in a living universe, and that a new reality is continually created by these relationships.

“Living systems are all a function of the preceding moment all the way back to the beginning of life,” Lent says. “We’re embedded in a complex web, part of a living system, and what we do has consequences we can’t predict or control.”

I agree with Lent to a certain extent, although I worry that there is a risk of magical thinking here, leaving room for all sorts of mystical nonsense.

It is also worth noting that the sort of mechanical view Lent is criticizing is not just a problem for living ecosystems. Too often, as we build increasingly complicated systems—especially software-based systems—we continue to expect that we will be able to understand and predict how these systems will behave. After all, we know how all the components work, and we know how they are connected to one another, so we should be able to figure it out, right? And from there it follows that if the system fails or behaves in a way we didn't expect, we should be able to trace it back to a single root cause and eliminate the unpredictability.

Except that complicated technical systems—just like complicated living systems—do not behave that way. When you get enough parts of the system talking to and acting upon enough other parts, and those parts all start feeding back upon one another, you can't necessarily predict how the system will behave. When the system fails, you can't expect to trace that failure back to a single cause or faulty component.

As with living systems, the deterministic sort of thinking that Lent describes gets us into trouble with any complicated system.

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