One of the most important concepts of system theory (but not only there) is the concept of contingency.
We say something is contingent when it is neither necessary nor impossible.
Or simpler: contingency means that the matter is also possible differently.
Contingency is limited by two sides.
Matters, behaviors, actions that are necessary limit it and matters, things, etc. that are impossible, too.
Whether something is necessary or impossible, like truth, often lies in the eye of the observer and changes with our social, individual and technological development. But when someone is starving, he has to get nutrition or he dies. And someone who claims that the laws of nature are contingent should show us how, as the comedian Tim Minchin so amusingly suggested, he simply floats away.
The climate crisis, for example, poses new contingency questions: What is necessary? What is impossible? Where is our room for manoeuvre within this field? Do we even have one? Which technologies do we have to develop in which order? Which ones don’t depend so much on it? How do we have to change? What can we immediately forget?
In complex closed systems such as human psyches or societies, processes can also run differently. Operations can also take place differently. The system can perform differently, and the system can produce a different performance. .However, the system event is irreversible. Such systems are not predictable to the point, but within limits, but what has happened has happened.
Push-button solutions, as proposed by many extremists and people who try to get their universe ideologically under control, do not work in such systems. Those who cannot recognize the contingency space and move more freely within it become – in case of doubt – part of the problem.
But contingency also means freedom. We are creative beings, we can find alternatives, discover new ways, broaden our horizons and make lemonade when life gives us lemons.
Perhaps too simple an example of contingency: when you play roulette, red and black are contingent. If you now bet 1,000 euros on black and then red happens, you have lost 1,000 euros, and that is irreversible. It can no longer be undone.
Contingent is not equal to arbitrary.
Because contingency needs connectivity. That confuses many today, which provides for some annoyance and much waste of energy. Facts and fake should be kept apart. Whoever says „Anything goes!“ not only leads us into quicksand but also exposes us to his arbitrariness and has left out an important condition for his argument, because: Anything goes only as it goes.
Contingent is not undetermined. Contingency can result in non-determined consequences. If you enjoy mathematical refinements and challenges, you google the P-NP problem.
From contingent not necessarily follows unpredictable.
Complex autopoietic systems create their own events. They create their own system time, and that is not reversible.
In Newton’s universe we could reverse the time strand. In the universe of Ilya Prigogine we cannot do that any longer.
Let’s take a closer look at contingency:
Suppose we are in the forest looking for a spring. There will be many ways to the spring. Some are longer, some shorter, some more difficult to walk than others, light conditions are not the same for all, etc. How we get to the spring is also possible in other ways.
But the moment we take the first step, this is irreversible. Even if we take it back, it is a new step. The way we go is the way we go, and what we have gone has happened as a system event. The step has been taken, so the step becomes a fact.
With every new step we can rethink contigency. But contingent is only what has not yet been realized as a system event. Facts do not care about contingency.
If at the end of our search we find several paths that lead in different ways to the same goal, provide sufficiently similar performance, we can regard these paths as functionally equivalent. I can walk one or the other – in terms of length, effort, lighting conditions, for example, it makes no difference to me in terms of the goal.
So I can use contingency by finding out which solutions work better, less well and even equivalent (according to given parameters).
And when I decide on a path, it becomes contingent how I walk the path, but what I have already walked is no longer possible in any other way.
Even if it turns out that there is only one way to the spring, I can still decide how I feel about it. I can find it exhausting or easy, can walk slowly or fast, can sing a song or be silent and listen to the birds.
Contingency enables complex systems that try to predict their own development and system events and to consider under what conditions they will experience what.
Trying to expect contingencies can increase degrees of freedom.
Double contingency pushes communication systems. I expect what the other person says or does, and vice versa, and have to reckon all the time that everything can be completely different. And in this game and dance highly complex societies develop. We have to talk to each other because we are not trivial, but surprising and fascinating and also possible in other ways, creative and literally constructive.
We live in our contingency spaces. If we overlook that and think too much „that’s impossible“ „that’s necessary, it has to happen“, we limit our possibilities for action.
Because we are complex, in many cases we can do things differently. The space in which we are free may not seem very large, but in it our options may be infinite.
And to that extent, exploring your contingency frameworks means exploring yourself and constantly discovering new opportunities.
I hope you enjoy it!
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