Islamic politics, I suggested in a previous post, may be approaching a state of criticality. This assertion, if true, would imply much about the future of global affairs and thus merits careful consideration. What, exactly, does this assertion imply and how might one test it?


Assertion: Islamic politics is approaching a state of criticality.

Proposition: Explore the assertion.

Implication: Complexity is being maximized.

Which entails:

  • many components
  • many roles
  • intense adaptation
  • many perspectives
  • intense debate
  • enhanced information flow
  • dense networks
  • intense debate
  • high fitness
  • self-organization

Conclusion: Learning is being maximized and the system is evolving rapidly, theoretically raising its ability to manipulate its environment. In practice, this evolutionary process will eventually hit constraints. Moreover, an outsider should not assume that the goal the system is trying to achieve is obvious. For example, from a Western perspective, Islamic politics in most of the Islamic political system may not seem very fit. Islamic politics does not seem very effective at driving the Islamic world toward economic development and civil liberties. But imagine the possibility that the Islamic political system is being driven by the multitude of actors participating in the broad self-organizational process the Islamic world is currently experiencing toward some other goal…toward not a traditional Western goal but an Islamic goal…say, removing the weight of Western influence. Before considering the effectiveness of a system, we need to determine the system’s goal. Is it conceivable that the West might view the Islamic world as saddled by an inefficient system because that system does not deliver Western goals while the system is actually performing very well at attaining its actual goal?

We now have a list of characteristics that should be evident if the Islamic political system (or a part of it, for in a complex system one should anticipate both temporal and spatial heterogeneity) is approaching criticality. And, indeed, these do seem intuitively on the mark. In many parts of the Islamic world there does in fact appear to be a rising array of political components (activist religious leaders, militias, political factions) linked by a dense network of ties and involved in an intense debate. The activity also does in fact appear to be mostly self-organized rather than coming down from traditional leadership groups. The assertion thus appears plausible enough to merit testing.

Why all this matters is implicit in the above, but to make it explicit, if the Islamic political system reaches a state of criticality, whether it in the end performs effectively or not, it will have a major impact. The goal of existing at the state of criticality is to maximize performance, so if the Islamic political system succeeds in hitting the target and staying there, it will become extraordinarily influential. The danger of being at the state of criticality, however, is “avalanches,” a metaphor for, in the social world, violence. So failure at the state of criticality means chaos.

“Performance maximization” has significant implications. If society is organizing itself to reach a new goal, a goal never before attaianed, e.g., casting out Western influence from the Islamic world, exp0erimentation will be needed. The most effective components, roles, adaptive processes will not be known in advance. So the optimum strategy will be to maximize experimentation – establish the densest possible networks to maximize information flow, try every plausible role, debate all ideas, and, of course, in order to put all this into practice in the absence of a clear plan, maximize creativity. This means unrestrained self-organization in an all-out competition to maximize system fitness, analogous to evolution with a high mutation rate and short generations. Everyone will make every effort to reach the goal by any means possible. In a word, the society will strive to reach, but not tumble off the edge of, the state of criticality.

These thoughts seem to leave us with more questions than answers, including:

Question 1. Are these correct theoretical statements?

Question 2. Does evidence from Islamic politics support or refute them?

Question 3. How close is Islamic politics to the state of criticality? (…and a host of follow-on questions about rate of approach, how to influence rate and direction, implications of being in one position or another, moving at one rate or another, moving in one direction or another)

Question 4. How should the world deal with a political system nearing criticality?


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