Kierkegaard and Complex Systems

James Conners
Feb 16 · 5 min read

“Then Abram believed in […] the Lord; and He counted (credited) it to him as righteousness (doing right in regard to God and man).” (Genesis 15:6 AMP)


In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores the tribulation of Abraham. He was called to be the father of many nations and promised a son. Only for God to demand that he sacrifice his son, perversifying that which was his soul’s only promise and joy (Genesis 22:2). Abraham embodied infinite resignation, and yet he still had faith. “Who can understand Abraham?” asks Kierkegaard. We suggest that understanding Abraham means appreciating his singular actions in the context of complexity.

Abraham inhabited his singular existence and operated in “an absolute relation to the absolute”. In doing so, he prepared to go against everything he held dear: the son he loved and his promise of descendents were brought under the knife, as was Abraham’s chance of ever being understood in the mind of another again. But Abraham had faith; he embraced his singularity, and, paradoxically, in doing so, the effects of his actions found universal resonance and scaled.

Complex Systems

In complex systems, interactions among many different components lead to outcomes that are substantially different from the contributions of individual components themselves. Large-scale system dynamics are determined by the interrelatedness and scaling relations among the system’s components; hence, cause and effect may relate in unpredictable ways. Small changes at finer scales can lead to drastic transformations at holistic levels, and a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, it is said, can induce a hurricane in another.

Agency is a challenge in complex systems. One reason for this has been mentioned: cause and effect follow unpredictable patterns in complex systems. Attempts to perturbate or disturb a system on a larger scale may result in completely unexpected outcomes, fully blossoming into cascades of transductivity, or, conversely, the acts may hardly exert any effect on the larger system at all.

Often we think of the agent as one who achieves their goals through working knowledge of cause and effect. This may hold true for simple or linear systems, but it is harder to justify for agents in complex systems, who, in many cases, may be seen as media for scaling trends and emergent outcomes, rather than enacters of intentional outcomes, just as a termite exists in scaling the medium of the termite mound.

Termite Mound.

Complexity and Trembling

Abraham must be understood as adaptation.

His medium of relevance is Abraham-God-Environment and in this system and we find an evolutionary adaptation. Abraham-God-Environment was faced with the problem of exponentially ‘scaling’ a population of descendants. This system, in achieving its task, oriented itself towards an unfathomable goal: the goal of killing Isaac, or, more specifically, the goal of bringing into immanence the moment of experiencing the killing of Isaac. This goal acted as a “teleological suspension of the ethical” that oriented behavior in the Abraham-God-Environment system.

The problem was paradoxical (“Obey God and love Isaac,” “Obey God and kill Isaac,” “Love Isaac and kill Isaac”), inviting eternal interpretations and rephrasings; it is for this reason the problem must not be understood verbally, but as Kierkegaard emphasizes, in terms of its movements. Abraham, insofar as he understood this problem, understood it through enacted or directional cognition: the repositionings and reorganizations that it invoked.

Abraham was tasked by God to commit infinite resignation; to infinitely resign himself to the outcome of the complex system he was embedded in, and yet, in doing so, not to lose sight of his love for Isaac. Only by “faith by virtue of the absurd” was Abraham able to hold these in delicate balance. Abraham embodied faith and eternal resignation, and in this flux we see dynamism.

Abraham responds to God by updating his framework to match the complexity of his unfathomable reality, entering “an absolute relation to the absolute” and maintaining his dynamism. He loses nothing affective in this process. Abraham holds as precious his love for Isaac and never gives this up — he approaches the “teleological suspension of the ethical” with a readiness-to-respond that contributes to the manifestation of Abraham-God-Environment as an intensifying modality.

“God Save the Singular!”

In Abraham’s orientation to the ethically suspended (i.e., his “absolute relation with the absolute”), he enters a closed loop where affective modalities find no grounding in ethics, language, nor comprehension.

Had Abraham-God-Environment not been a singularity, had its organization not been oriented towards that which was beyond comprehension in its suspension beyond the ethical, no such feedback loop would have existed. Had Abraham-God-Environment been accessible in the minds of Sarah and others before its moment of peak intensity and immanence, its potential would have been lost.

The intensity generated in the Abraham-God-Environment system reorganized the ethical landscape around itself, not itself around the ethical. The moral landscape submitted to Abraham-God-Environment and its legacy is modelled in the Judeo-Christian traditions to this day.

Concepts and abstractions have little relevance in contemplating the Abraham-God-Environment singularity. Rather, its organization around the paradox — its organization into distributed diverging and converging components and states — should be represented or ‘paralleled’ in the mind. In other words, this process can only be understood in directional or ‘enacted’ cognition.

Why should it be understood? We inhabit complex systems, and often we seek to exert influence over them. Like Abraham, we might find ourselves in the process of territorializing complex systems with our actions, as if social media, for example, or a termite hive might organize themselves around our inputs. This is entirely true, but it should be practised like Abraham: with both infinite resignation and a non-negligible amount of soul in the game. As if we were in the process of sacrificing our beloved son, we must act in complex systems to generate life-affirming ends.

“The paradox of faith, then, is this: that the single individual is higher than the universal… Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for thereby it is cancelled. Faith is this paradox, that the single individual simply cannot make himself understandable to anyone.” (Fear and Trembling, 70–1).

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By James Conners.

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