The self, complexity, and coming to terms with being a councillor

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, Will Storr’s Selfie, his account of our obsession with the self and self-interest. One of the key ideas to emerge from this very well written and engaging book is that many neuro-scientists are now dismissing the idea of a core self, some intrinsic principle which is the true and authentic us, and instead talking about the multiple self. This ‘I’ is not one, but many; a number of different versions of who we are collected and formed from different social environments. I say all this not to get into a discussion about the ‘self’, but simply to point out that when armed with a fresh ‘interpretive framework’ our personal experiences can be brought into a much sharper focus.

For example, one of the long running narratives of my life has been not just an interest in philosophy, but to ask quite fundamental questions about my experiences. This has led me to explore various philosophical approaches, and formulate a certain understanding of the ‘human condition’. This ‘personal project’ forms a key narrative of who I am, but it is by no means the only one. Another key narrative of my life, one that is new and quite dominant at the moment, is that of local politician. Being newly elected to Dorset Council I find myself engaged in the process of establishing a role within what at times feels like an environment that everyone seems to understand except me. Absorbing and internalising the subtleties of a new social environment can be exhausting at the best of times, but when political game playing is added to the mix it can be quite overwhelming.

However, whilst participating in a councillor event this week, one focussing on the development of a Dorset industrial strategy, my philosophical narrative, or at least an element of it, managed to overcome the defences of my political narrative and offer some much needed assistance. We were being asked to rank certain elements of a possible industrial strategy in priority order when, out of the blue, work I had done years ago related to systems theory and complexity science, came charging to my assistance.

Social systems, which includes economic systems, can be (in fact should be) understood through the science of complex systems. This approach sees all the elements that come together to form the socio-economic system as a highly connected network, a network in which no element can be understood in isolation of any other element, and a network in which the flows of energy or information are highly non-linear. This means that our basic understanding of cause and effect does not apply; that because of various features such as feedback loops, very small inputs can have massive and unpredictable outputs and effects on other parts of the system. The only way to manage such systems is to try and grasp their dynamic complexity.

Which leads me to wonder whether its possible to so grasp perhaps the most dynamic and complex system of all – the human mind? Yes, I agree with the emerging evidence cited by Storr that there is no authentic self, and that we have a multiplicity of selves, but I’m wondering whether it’s possible to view ourselves not as a single unit, but as a single dynamic system, albeit one that is connected to other such systems in highly complex ways? I suppose I’m simply suggesting that it would be beneficial for all of us to develop an understanding of complexity; that developing our ‘interpretive frameworks’ to incorporate complexity may help us come to terms with ourselves and our place in the world.

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