DOI: 10.1177/03080188241232777 ISSN: 0308-0188

A beginner's guide to crossing the road: towards an epistemology of successful action in complex systems

Ragnar van der Merwe, Alex Broadbent
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)

Crossing the road within the traffic system is an example of an action human agents perform successfully day-to-day in complex systems. How do they perform such successful actions given that the behaviour of complex systems is often difficult to predict? The contemporary literature contains two contrasting approaches to the epistemology of complex systems: an analytic and a post-modern approach. We argue that neither adequately accounts for how successful action is possible in complex systems. Agents regularly perform successful actions without obeying (explicit or implicit) algorithmic rules (as the analytic approach suggests) and without an existential leap to action (as the post-modern approach suggests). We offer an alternative: A common-sense pragmatist epistemology, one that focuses on the kind of actions making up most agents’ successful moment-to-moment actions in complex systems. Successful actions obtain when agents apply ceteris paribus rules-of-thumb during predictive and decisional practices while achieving some desired goal.

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