Complexity theories, science and scientism  
Posted on October 3rd, 2014

By Shelton A. Gunaratne (1)

I am both a journalist and a social science scholar.

I have authored several publications on the shortcomings of social science, a creation of Western thought, and the need to De-Westernize it by seeking the truth” through a method combining systems thinking, complexity theories and quantum physics—all of which are more compatible with universal or humanocentric” thought.

Perhaps because of this background, the editor of a scholarly journal in communication studies recently assigned me to review a manuscript on complexity on a double-blind basis. This means that I have no clue on who authored the article and the author has no clue on who wrote the review.

My recommendation was that the manuscript should not appear in the journal as a definitive stand-alone essay without substantial revision in the literature review that includes the history of complexity theories to the Buddhist dependent co-origination (paticca samuppada or PS) model and the Daoist Yijing paradigm of 64 hexagrams. Recent publications in communication journals have documented that both Buddha and Laozi (the founder of Daoist philosophy) were well aware of complexity in the sixth century BC, long before the advent of Western science” circa 17th century AD.

The author was a stanch defender of the scientific” rigor of Western scholarship because he totally ignored the case made by many global scholars for de-Westernizing the putative social sciences, including communication studies. The linear presumption resulting from categorization of variables as independent or dependent often created doubts about the findings–-whether they belonged to science or scientism.

How can the scientific” community defend concepts such as reliability,” linearity,” and equilibrium,” when we are deeply aware of the inconstancy, conditionality, and re-becoming of all natural phenomena—the truths” derived from quantum physics and Buddhist philosophy. The objectivity that the dominant Western paradigm attempts to establish is a huge mirage that does not exist. The very act of observation changes what is observed. Every being” sees phenomena through its own experience and arrives at conventional/objective truth. The dominant paradigm can only find this illusionary conventional truth.

Buddhism attempts at finding the absolute or ultimate truth—existence as it really is: the inconstancy, unsubstantialty, and unsatisfactoriness of cyclic existence.  A being” itself is an illusion—a composite of the Five Aggregates: the material form and its mind components of feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. These are interconnected, interdependent, and interactive variables that the linear dominant paradigm cannot measure and deploy for predictability.

We can transcend testability by recognizing mind power as a powerful force that can go beyond the conventional truth to at least reach the level of intuitive truth, if not the absolute/ultimate truth. The cybernetic approach coupled with mind-power (via concentration) approach will provide the insights we seek in organized complexity without the need for conventional testability. Buddha used his mind power to describe the galactic universe much more accurately than medieval science.

If the author had traced the history of complexity to Buddhist phenomenology and systems thinking, he could have investigated the weaknesses of the dominant paradigm obvious to many researchers. Instead, he follows the regressive path and even excludes citing any of the de-Westernizing scholars (e.g., Wallerstein, Prigogine, Capra, Gunaratne, and others).

The author classifies complexity into three types: algorithmic, deterministic, and aggregate. Without making the slightest effort to recognize the verisimilitude of the plethora of scholarship on the Eurocentric bias of social science, he situates the history of complexity in Weaver’s three eras of science: simplicity (17th century), disorganized complexity (19th century) and organized complexity (20th century).

This classification incorrectly presumes that complexity is a product of modern European thought. Because science” masqueraded as natural philosophy before the advent of Newton, it is disingenuous for the author to imply that complexity was unknown before its relatively late discovery” by European thinkers. What he offers is a makeshift paradigm’’ that gives communication scholars merely a sense of testing complexity concepts.

I referred the author to three publications that would have revealed the pitfalls of science. The standard 12 variables in the PS model presume that no variable is independent, that every variable is both dependent and independent at different points, that all variables are interdependent and interactive with one another, that there is no first cause, and that no single variable could arise without another co-arising variable. Thus, this nonlinearity makes it incongruent with scientific” measurability and predictability. Modern theories deal with millions of variables applying some of the same principles associated with the PS model. The derivation of the 64 hexagrams starting with the bifurcation of one into two (yin and yang) in the Yijing model is even more complex. Fractals, strange attractors and phase spaces appear in the hexagrams as well.

The author’s arguments for preserving the Newtonian paradigm were unconvincing.

(1)Professor emeritus Shelton Gunaratne is the lead editor and author of the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach to be released by Routledge in March 2015.)

5 Responses to “Complexity theories, science and scientism  ”

  1. Ranjith Says:

    Dear Prof. Gunaratne,

    Thank you very much for the interesting / illuminating article.

    In para 5 line 5, you write convenional/objective truth. Should not this be subjective truth? Could you please clarify?


  2. Arcadius Says:

    Line 5 in paragraph 5 should have appeared as conventional/”objective” truth. Newtonian science tries to find the “objective” truth by testing and measuring all phenomena by using valid and reliable tools to derive covering laws that work both backwards and forwards. This is also called rational knowledge and the Daoists call “no knowledge.”

    The sum total of “scientific” laws so derived represent the empirical branch of epistemology, the theory of knowledge that the West supposedly established though “objective” observation.

    Eastern thinkers, on the other hand, depended heavily on ontology, the metaphysical aspects of existence. Thus, they talked about two additional higher levels of truth–the intuitive/sensate and the absolute/ultimate.

    The West ignores the latter two because they are not measurable and testable. Buddhists try to reach intuitive truth through mental development. Only arhants can get to see the absolute truth. Until we recognize mind power as a valid and reliable method of understanding truth, the “rational” thinking of the WEst is not likely to go away despite the fallibility of the concepts of reliability and validity.

  3. Ranjith Says:


    I am confused. If it is conventional/ and objecvtive why is it also being called ‘illusionary’ in line 6? I can understand this if it was called subjective. Objective truth cannot be illussionary? please clarify.

  4. Arcadius Says:

    “Objective” is in quotes because it is a claim. That is why Buddhists believe the material form, which classical scien is is an illusion

  5. Arcadius Says:

    [correction to the previous blog]

    …. the material form, which classical science incorrectly calls “objective,” is in Buddhist eyes an illusion.

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