Complex is not (the same as) difficult (4)

Pieter Jansen and Fredrike Bannink



The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In complex systems, unpredictability is not the same as randomness. Often more or less clear patterns or forms of organization can be recognized. In these cases it is tempting to look for causality. But is this the best way to move forward?


Mr. A sees a psychologist. He fills out a questionnaire, showing that his complaints meet the DSM-5 criteria for depression. The pattern is recognizable, but is the course of psychotherapy hence predictable? What are possible treatments? Does this mean the cause-and-effect model of psychotherapy needs to be installed here?

A small difference in an initial state can have big consequences at a later stage. Unfortunately, diagnoses do not provide predictability. There is no straight line between cause and effect.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. How important is the information from questionnaires from the perspective of the complexity model? After all, as in thermodynamics, previous states do not inform us about future developments, not even when patterns can be recognized. In a complex setting people construct their preferred outcome by using real-time opportunities.


Emergence shows the effect of countless interactions within complex systems. The appearance of new properties in a system, due to large amounts of interactions between smaller elements in that system, is called emergence, when the smaller elements do not show these properties.

An example of an emergent property is color. Individual atoms have no color. An arrangement of large numbers of atoms causes a color to develop when light is absorbed and reflected. An ant colony is another example. Based on the behavior of one ant one cannot derive how the behavior of an entire ant colony is organized. Temperature, fluidity, pressure, culture, language and health are all examples of emergent properties.

The concept of emergence is different from the concept of causality because it is not suitable for scientific (analytical) experiments, where usually one cause-and-effect relationship is central. With emergence, there is an infinite or very large number of causes that (can) occur together at the same time.


In the end, probably all phenomena are emergent. Verlinde (2017) even tries to prove that gravity is not a fixed and universal value, but an emergent property, a consequence of interactions. This is of course of no importance for everyday life. It is important to know that there is weak and strong emergence. The analysis paradigm may be used for weak emergent topics. A functional approach (the synthesis paradigm) works better in strong emergent topics.

Still much territory for synthesis remains unexplored. Fortunately, there is a functional working method, the solution-focused model, which has already proven its value in practice.


Verlinde, E. (2017). Emergent gravity and the dark universe. SciPost Physics, 2, 016 (2017)