Thinking about Complexity

Complexity/chaos offers the possibility of an engaged science not founded in pride, in the assertion of an absolute knowledge as the basis for social programmes, but rather in a humility about the complexity of the world coupled with a hopeful belief in the potential of human beings for doing something about it

Byrne Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences p45

The Origins of Complexity Thinking and Chaos Theory

The modern interest in complexity has come about because of a shift in scientific thinking and method.  Classically science from Galileo, Newton and Bacon onwards has been based on simplification and reductionism, that is they have sought to discover general underlying laws which ignore the actual complexity of life as it is ordinarily experienced.  Scientific texts have therefore been full of tiny assumptions which enable the scientist to ignore forces which would make his experiments more complex - thus friction or air pressure or wind speeds are ignored in the quest for a simple idealized model of reality which is describable by mathematics.  This simplification has been incredibly useful and has enabled humanity to achieve remarkable things.  Science has been like the tunnel visioned entrepreneur who knows what he wants to get on and do and ignores anything which doesn't fit into his vision.  We have all experienced people like this - yes we like the fact that they get things done but we also get frustrated by their failure to engage with what anyone else is thinking or feeling.

Thinking about complex systems has begun to challenge this simplification and reductionism in the scientific method.  Not completely, but it has begun to make some people think again about science and about reality.  The interest in complexity really began with the creation of computers which could handle large amounts of data.  This made it possible for scientists to examine complex systems such as the flow of liquids, in a way which just wasn't feasible when they were restricted to blackboards and chalk.  What happened then were a number of discoveries which surprised scientists and made those frustrated with deterministic science think that their gut feelings about the limits of science might be right after all.  Thus we can see that the growth of complexity thinking is not just a neutral growth in objective knowledge but a key area of contested debate about the nature of reality.

An important event in the development of thinking about complexity was Edward Lorenz's 1963 weather model

almost any two nearby starting points, indicating the current weather, will quickly diverge trajectories and will quite frequently end up in different “lobes,” which correspond to calm or stormy weather.The Lorenz model's twin-lobed shape gave rise to the somewhat facetious “butterfly effect” metaphor: The flapping of a butterfly's wings in China today may cause a tornado in Kansas tomorrow

What is interesting about Lorenz is that his limited piece of work on the weather has taken on a life of its own and become an icon of modern culture.  The butterfly effect means many things - that the world is interconnected, that small things can have an incredible influence and that the world is too complex for scientists to understand.  Just these three ideas are powerful in themselves especially when they can be seen to derive from the cutting edge of science.  Many people have begun to find that complexity thinking is opening up a possibility for them to think in new and different ways - freed from simplistic linear models.  Some scientists seem to be resisting this, saying that complexity thinking (and especially chaos theory which I examine below) only extends the reductionist scientific project by enabling it to be extended beyond simple processes into complex processes as well (BBC 2002).  There is a resistance to using Complexity and Chaos as 'metaphors' in the same way as Relativity and Evolution have been used over the years (Smith 1998) but nonetheless people continue to find complexity thinking fascinating and useful in their reflection on reality.  Thus there is a book of papers from the Vatican Observatory (Russell 1995) which takes a serious look at the implications of chaos and complexity for theology, a series of seminars from the London School of Economics (LSE 1999) which seek to apply the theories to the business world (and seem to misunderstand chaos in the process!) and they are used by a friend of mine (Winter 2002) in her attempts to understand the role of intuition in midwifery.  The use of complexity in Social Science has only really got going in the 90s and it feels as if we are still in the middle of understanding what it's impact will be.  A key text for me has been David Byrne's work quoted at the beginning of the chapter.  Byrne is most interested in the strict mathematical use of complexity thinking, particularly as applied to social surveys, seeing this as a way of understanding reality as it really is and thus being able to do something about it.  He is attempting to resurrect social engineering as a more subtle and responsive science and therefore challenge postmodern hopelessness which restricts social science to the disengaged world of the academy.  Despite his own emphasis on the mathematics of chaos/complexity he recognises the metaphorical use of the theory as so-called "chaotics".

There is something in complexity thinking which is very powerful and very suggestive.  Coming to complexity from a community development background it felt like someone was providing me with a language to describe the reality which I experienced daily.  No longer was I being expected to provide simplistic explanations of what community work was about in terms of the ubiquitous inputs, outputs and outcomes but now I could talk about the way things emerge, how patterns can be discerned in the seemingly random and why simplistic top down programmes don't work.  Complexity has changed the agenda - it has necessitated reappraisals of the enlightenment project and along with many other post positivistic trends causes us to re-examine our intellectual heritage in order to think more wisely about the world as it actually is rather than as we might wish it were.

Below I go on to examine some of the aspects of complexity and chaos which seem particularly appropriate to the themes of community development and urban mission with which I am concerned.  I am happy to use the suggestive power of complexity and chaos as metaphors but I also seek to hear what the scientists tell us about what they are discovering about how our complex world can be understood, and about the limits of complexity and chaos theory.  The use that the theory of evolution has been put to in the facist ideology of the survival of the fittest should warn us about the dangers of using scientific insights carelessly.  Nonetheless we can't help but talk about what matters to us in the language which is available to us.  Actually I'm sure that I'm not saying anything which community development workers won't already recognise - my belief is that it gives us a way to structure and develop our thinking in creative ways.


We are examining complex systems.  This is important.  There are somethings in life which are simple - the movement of the stars and planets, for instance.  Thus it is predictable that the sun will rise every morning and set every night.  Not everything is complex and confusing.  Religion has often been a refuge from complexity giving simple answers to the complications of life: I once remember a group of young people saying that they liked Paul's letters because they told them how to live their lives - the enigmatic challenges of Jesus's parables and the heart searching of the Psalms were much less to their liking.  Complexity thinking is therefore a challenge to accept the complexities of life and not always look for the straightforward answer - it isn't OK to ignore the dangers of paternalism and get on and do something for the inner city just because the complexities of the city unsettle you.  In fact embracing complexity can reveal some surprising patterns and actually make the city feel more orderly than at first appears.  In the end, simplistic solutions solve nothing and bring no clarity, they just create more problems and make things more complicated!

Initial Conditions

A key to understanding complex systems is to recognise the importance of sensitivity to initial conditions.  Thus with weather systems slightly different initial conditions might lead to either calm weather or a storm.  If you are going to understand how a process might proceed then you have to understand the context in which it has begun.  This is a truth which liberation theology has been trying to bring to the worldwide church for years - its fundamental message being that any theology cannot be universal but arises out of a particular context (e.g. the introduction to Segundo's Christology at the Crossroads).  The misunderstanding of liberation theology as being a simple call to the church to be concerned with issues of social justice illustrates that we find it difficult to understand the importance of initial conditions.  This is also indicated by the futile search for the best models for church planting or urban mission - there is no model which can be transferred into another context because even the slightest difference in context will radically alter how the model develops in a new situation.  Complexity thinking is particularly radical because it does not merely say that transferring models from suburbia to the urban or from Latin America to the U.K. won't work but that even transferring a model from one parish to its neighbour isn't going to produce predictable results because the initial conditions will never be the same.

We will go on to see that complexity thinking doesn't mean that you can't learn anything from anybody else but it should make us wary of trying to simplistically transfer models, and - more positively, encourages us to examine the context, or initial conditions, when trying to understand what impact our interventions will have in urban communities.  Thus we do not need merely to do a needs analysis in order to find out what are, for instance, the needs for childcare in a particular area.  What we really need to do is to understand the community and the intervention we are proposing and so try and understand the impact that our nursery, run in this particular way, will have on this particular community at this particular time!


Another key characteristic of complex systems is feedback

This means that all parts of the system affect many other parts throughout the system (which then affects them back) including the surrounding environment (which in turn also influences all those parts) in an endlessly complex web of cause and effect and feedback.


Thus a new minister persuades his somewhat reluctant church to set up a youth club.  The club attracts young people to the church and they damage the building.  At the church meeting there is a furious row leaving the minister alienated from his new congregation and the church determined never to have any young people on its premises again.  The minister thinks the church is a force to influence the lives of young people but what actually happens is that the young people remain largely unaffected by the church but the church and the minister are profoundly changed by their encounter with the young people!  This is feedback: everyone affects everyone else, there is not a simple linear pattern whereby a few change agents make things happen to a passive majority but rather there is a profound complexity where everyone changes everyone else.  Often feedback is at its most powerful in keeping things as they are, so that nothing really changes despite the appearance of continuous change.

Feedback is highly significant for understanding cities. Change is not simply brought about by the powerful but everyone affects everyone else. This is not difficult for people in London to understand - everyone feels powerless from politician to the homeless person because they are constantly being pushed and pulled by the actions of others whose names they often do not know. It also reminds us that the so-called powerful are not the only important ones but that everyone needs to to be involved in the processes of change and regeneration.


Emergence is perhaps the key idea in complexity thinking.  It is a rejection of reductionist science which has believed that you can understand how something is going to work by breaking it down into its constituent parts.  Reductionism says a + b = c, i.e. if you can just isolate all the constituent parts then their result is predictable.  Emergence says that this isn't actually how the world works it says something like a + b + c = ?, i.e. everything that has gone into creating a situation combines with that situation to create the unknown future and it isn't possible to untangle all the forces of cause and effect.

Churches tend to search for the causes which will effect the result of a growing church or successful community project.  Thus some people will say that Good Biblical Preaching + Dedicated Pastoral Care = Growing Church.  Others might add in Exercise of Spiritual Gifts or Identifying with the Felt Needs of the Community but emergence gives us a clearer understanding of how complex systems actually work.  Getting all the correct ingredients together won't guarantee that you produce the expected outcome.  Urban communities don't work like a Delia recipe because they, like all complex systems, are more than the sum of their parts.


Chaos theory has been a companion to complexity thinking but it is a somewhat misleading term.  It doesn't mean complete randomness but it is rather a state in between complete randomness and complete predictability.  It is a tool which has enabled scientists to develop some understanding of complex systems rather than just give them up as too complicated to engage with - a kind of scientific third way.

John Van Eenwyk looks at the similarities between Jungian thought and Chaos theory.  He makes a distinction between entropic chaos and deterministic chaos.  Entropic chaos threatens death and destruction and causes us fear but it when it is embraced we can see that chaos is a way to bring about change and liberation.

Strange attractors

A key to chaos theory's usefulness in understanding complex systems has been the discovery of strange attractors.  An attractor is a point to which a moving object, such as a pendulum, is inevitably attracted - as it gradually slows down it comes to a stop in a mid point between its furthest swings on either side.  A pendulum is a simple system so it's attractor is relatively obvious but now with the use of computers scientists have been able to see that sometimes complex systems (e.g. the flow of fluids) have strange attractors i.e. attractors which are not a single point but a infinite multiplicity of varying points which create a pattern (such as the Lorenz butterfly).

Thus we can begin to see how complexity thinking doesn't just leave us with a wholly random world but one where attractors give it a geometric shape.  I find this gives me a language which is suggestive of how churches and community projects develop. Good preaching does tend to attract people to a church and good pastoral care tends to keep them their - these are attractors.  But they are shifting, for what exactly is good preaching?  What an African might think is good preaching perhaps differs from what a Cockney relates to.  Even the nature of preaching might need to change in a society where hypertext is replacing the printed word.  Another attractor is funding.  Community projects tend to develop in ways which is determined by the funding available.  For sometime employment training was the easiest way to get government money, now, perhaps, with Sure Start initiatives and the Children's Fund the emphasis will shift towards work with children.  The funding available doesn't completely determine how projects develop but it does tend to attract towards certain priorities.  In fact churches themselves are strange attractors developing subtly different but recognisable patterns in many different situations.


Chaotic (i.e. strange) attractors create patterns which are known as fractals.  In chaotic systems the elements tend to diverge but when a chaotic attractor is operating this divergence gets to a certain point then folds back on itself in the same way that kneaded bread is continuously folded back on to itself.  This creates the infinitely complex fractal patterns of ever evolving shapes and colours which computers can generate.  These fractal patterns are observable in nature, such as in a mountain ridge or coastline which is neither completely predictable but neither is it completely random - it has a certain pattern which it is easier to feel than exactly analyse.

Thinking about patterns is very suggestive for trying to understand communities.  It is not often possible to exactly analyse what is going on in a project or congregation but after awhile you do begin to pick up patterns e.g. the minister who likes to keep everything informal as a way of maintaining control or the recurrent pattern of a congregation scapegoating a minister and getting a new one every few years.  These patterns undoubtedly exist, they don't give predictive power because initial conditions are always different but they do, over the years, give us the ability to build up a wisdom about how different kinds of communities tend to work.  Research methods such as naturalistic research (Erlandson) give us some tools to recognise these patterns and techniques such as family therapy (Friedman) provide us with methods to work which them.  None have a linear simplicity but they do give us an opportunity to navigate a way through complex systems.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Scientists are beginning to realise that chaos has distinct advantages:

Chaos is often seen in terms of the limitations it implies, such as lack of predictability.  Nature may, however, employ chaos constructively.  Through amplification of small fluctuations it can provide natural systems with access to novelty.  A prey escaping a predator's attack could use chaotic flight control as an element of surprise to evade capture. ...


Even the process of intellectual progress relies on the injection of new ideas and on new ways of connecting old ideas.  Innate creativity may have an underlying chaotic process that selectivity amplifies small fluctuations and molds them into macroscopic coherent mental states that are experienced as thoughts.  In some cases the thoughts may be decisions, or what are perceived to be the exercise of will.  In this light, chaos provides a mechanism that allows free will within a world governed by deterministic laws.

Crutchfield p47-8

We are now getting to the crunch of why complexity thinking is so important.  It enables us to free ourselves from rigid thinking and begin to make use of the natural abilities that God has given us to adjust to new situations and find new solutions, for, above all, complex systems are adaptive.  This is what gives them their power.  Simple systems breakdown as soon as anything changes.  Complex systems are able to adapt to new circumstances and so look forward to the future rather than fearing it.  Nonetheless accepting complexity thinking and living on the 'edge of chaos' does require some adjustment.

Emotional resources for coping with complexity

Everything affects everything else. Our actions have unintentional consequences.  Complex systems produce patterns. These are useful ideas to tussle with but Kirzbaum points out how difficult these are to deal with emotionally. We often find simple explanations comforting, we want to know how we can do good in a simple, straightforward way. Complexity thinking seems to be telling us that this is no longer possible. How do we cope? Kirzbaum suggests that we need to make use of certain key strategies:

         Increasing emotional stability: enabling ourselves to manage our emotions and come to terms with uncomfortable feelings of anger, pain or frustration

         Developing our mental strength: increasing our ability to handle complex sets of data possibly through meditation techniques which help the mind establish a calm centre

         Building supportive social systems: providing places where risks can be safely taken and thoughts and feelings openly explored

         Valuing an open-mindedness: developing values and cultural icons which support and demonstrate inclusiveness, respect for difference and freedom of conscience.

We might also add that spiritual growth is necessary and perhaps underlies these strategies; but Kirzbaum finally suggests that we need to educate ourselves in complexity thinking and this provides us with a clear agenda for the future.  I believe a equipping ourselves to thinking complex ways will be a key task as the 21st century emerges.


What then can we gain from this new scientific concern for complexity and chaos?  In what way does it map a new way of being church and doing mission in our complex urban society?  Below I begin to try and answer these questions

Firstly it gives us a way of understanding and acting in society which is not positivistic and linear.  In the academy positivism is well and truly dead but that is far from true in the so-called real world.  Targets are still crippling public services causing managers and professionals to meet external targets rather than improve the quality of services actually delivered.  Outputs and outcomes are discouraging creativity in the voluntary sector, replacing genuine engagement with people with a succession of dubiously engineered statistics.  Churches are still looking for the simple quick fix which will solve problems without an understanding of the complex reality of the society in which they are working.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly and more challengingly, it provides an alternative to postmodern analysis.  The postmodern glories in the complex, it is fascinated by the ever changing surface of our cities and the myriad of different perspectives and possibilities that the global village presents us with.  It says that there is no longer one story which explains everything, everyone has their own perspective and everything must be open to the critical gaze which seeks to deconstruct what is being said in order to reveal what is the real agenda behind it.  This is, however, problematic because it tautological - postmodernism seeks to destroy the 'one story' - the metanarrative, but in the process creates its own new story of how the world is.  A story which is just as dictatorial as any that has gone before.  But the major problem with the postmodern agenda is that it is so busy deconstructing that it seems to have little to say about the construction of a new world.  This is where complexity thinking is strong because it says that behind the apparent disorder there is in fact a chaotic order that can be discerned - patterns which can be understood such that reasonable interventions can be made. This description of chaotic order is well illustrated by David Byrne (Byrne 1998):

The significance of the chaos/complexity approach lies precisely in the recognition that whilst there is no inevitable outcome, no linear law, no single answer; we can nonetheless analyse in order to see what the possible set of outcomes might be, what the possible answers are, and, in situations of robust chaos, intervene in order to achieve those we want to see happen.  We retain a programme of rational agency.


This work at a social science level is important and useful - as is all the scientific work based around complexity/chaos but there is also the possibility for complexity thinking percolate deeper into society.  Postmodernism in its reaction to the disasters caused by rational planning, whether they be in the Soviet Union or in the ecological crisis tends towards an attitude of cynicism and despair.  It makes people think that they can't do anything - especially anything based on rational analysis but rather all we can do is 'enjoy' the world in all its exotic complication, all that is left is to party, dance and (if you're so inclined) resist.  Yet it seems to me that an appreciation of ideas like emergence and strange attractors can enable us to see that there is a God given order inside the complexity and that there is some hope for rational change.  The emergence, for instance, of forums discussing complexity within the NHS is a cause for hope in what is, otherwise, increasingly looking like a moribund organization being tortured with death by a thousand targets.  There is reason to believe that emergence, chaos and strange attractors will become part of popular understanding and that, I believe, will make the world a gentler, wiser and more sustainable place.


Alison Gilchrist The well-connected community: networking to the 'edge of chaos' Community Development Journal Vol 35 No 3 Jul 2000 pp 264-275

BBC In Our Time Chaos 2002

Clare Winter MSc Dissertation 2002

David Byrne.  Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences Routledge 1998

David Erlandson Doing Naturalistic Inquiry Sage 1993

David Kirzbaum Emotional Reactions to Complexity, Confusion and Chaos 1999

Douglas Rushkoff Children of Chaos. Flamingo 1997

Howard Snyder Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ's Body Baker Books 2001

James P Crutchfield Complexity: Order contra Chaos in Proceedings of the International Conference on Fuzzy Logic and Neural Networks, S. Yasui and T. Yamakawa, editors, Iizuka, Japan (July 1990) World Scientific Publishers, Singapore (1990) 127.

John Van Eenwyk Symbols and Strange Attractors Inner City Books 1997

LSE Complexity Seminar 28 Oct. 1999.  Compiled by Geoffrey Higgs

Richard Seel Culture and Complexity.  Organizations and People 7 2 May 2000

Robert Russell, Nancy Murphy, Arthur Peacocke eds Chaos and Complexity.  Vatican Observatory 1995

Smith, R. D. (1998) 'Social Structures and Chaos Theory' Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1,

Ziauddin Sardar and Iwona Abrams Introducing Chaos Icon Books ISBN 1-84046-581-6 previously published as Chaos for Beginners