James Ladyman and K. Wiesner, "What Is a Complex System?" (Yale UP, 2020)


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While i find it pretty easy to recognize when i'm reading articles in complexity science, i've never been satisfied by definitions of complexity and related concepts. I'm not alone! Researchers' own attempts to define complex systems incorporate a mix of folk wisdom and fraught assumptions anchored to a menagerie of contested examples. The field was ripe for a 2013 article proposing a unified account of complexity, and it's no less ripe today for this book-length expansion.

In What Is a Complex System? (Yale UP, 2020), philosopher of science James Ladyman and physicist and mathematician Karoline Wiesner systematically interrogate popular definitions. They break the most commonly cited features into three bins: truisms on which there is universal agreement, the conditions necessary for complexity to arise, and various emergent products of complexity. A key insight of their account, for me, was to understand emergence as a relation between features rather than one feature among many.

The book is compact, accessible, and at times profound. Indeed, James and Karoline bring the lessons of their account to some of the most consequential complex systems of our time, including Earth's climate and biosphere as well as our global social media ecosystem. I was honored to host them in conversation on this episode, and i encourage listeners to pick up the book itself for deeper dives into the topics we discussed.

James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol and works mainly in the philosophy of science. Karoline Wiesner is professor of physics at the University of Potsdam and uses information theory to understand complex systems.

Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data. He welcomes book suggestions, listener feedback, and transparent supply chains.

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