David Foster Wallace, pictured above, died mid-September, 2008. He was an influential American author, and his renown in the liberal arts is honored regularly by those touched by his words. I wish to count myself among them and conclude this five-part series on complexity in college life by presenting Wallace’s commencement address, delivered to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio three years before his death.

This sort of work is not often the subject of science blogging, but Complex Systems is an interdisciplinary field and I have found, given my undergraduate work in both Computer Science and Professional Writing, that the lines between Art and Science are blurred oftener than not.

The thesis of Wallace’s speech is simple: a liberal arts education serves to teach one how to think, consciously and selectively.

This is Water. He opens, after clearing his throat nervously, with an aquatic parable. Two young fish are passed by an older fish, who greets them in casually asking, “How’s the water?” After a moment of thought, one young fish asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace apologizes to the graduating class for indulging the commencement speech cliche of leading with a didactic story or anecdote. He does not intend to set the stage to speak about himself as some wise, old fish. He means, instead, to talk at length about the difficulties occasionally inherent in thinking about “the most obvious” realities.

Here he presents his thesis, another requirement of the genre, in asking his audience to suspend their emotions and not to be insulted by the idea that an education teaches one how to think, even though “the fact that you even got admitted into a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think.”

Day in, Day Out. He means, by “how to think,” that this education has given the students the ability to choose their thoughts. He paints a vivid picture of day in, day out adult life to illustrate: imagine, he has finished a long day of work and wants nothing more than to go home and rest, but he remembers that he hasn’t any food at home, so he drives, in the dreary rain and behind SUV-laden traffic, to the grocery store, where everyone else has finished their long days of work and haven’t any food at home, and there are only two check-out lanes open, even though it’s been rush-hour like this, “day after week after month after year.”

Reality, he says, is inherently self-centered, that “the world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you.” Consciousness does not extend from one individual to another, so the feelings of others can only be experienced by communication, and even then it is substantially limited by what language can convey.

Simple Awareness. With this in mind, he has the choice of how to think about the woman who writes a check to buy a single item in the check-out lane in front of him—with the default, hard-wired into humans self-centeredness, or with the possible, albeit unlikely, interpretation that maybe this woman has no other means of payment, and her dog is cancer-ridden and about to be put to sleep, and she is buying for him this one kind of peanut butter candy bar that he loves more than any other, although it probably isn’t healthy for him.

Wallace asks the graduating class of Kenyon college to consider alternatives, to not be limited to their default interpretations, “to consciously decide what has meaning.”

At the heart of Complex Systems, systems thinking asks a similar request: to consider reality as a system of parts joined into wholes by regular interconnections, spanning both time and scales.

In reasoning this way, we move past static models and “Whodunit” causal theories; we come to be aware of pattern formations in soccer games, solutions to a well known bar game, finding papers in a growing research database, and acquistion of members in campus clubs and organizations.

The world is complex, and as the future brings new technologies and social networks and wealths of information, conceptualizing this growing complexity will require new ways to think about the world. It will require being conscious and selective about how we view reality.

I chose to model the world according to the lessons of Complex Systems. That’s my reality.

For those just finishing your first semesters of college, I ask, What’s yours? ∎

Read more in this series and follow me on Twitter. Let’s chat sometime.