Complex Potential States Theory

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Contextual Citation

"Unlike the logic of complex adaptive systems which asks “what do we do now?” the logic of complex potential states asks “what is possible from here?”

- Bonnita Roy [1]


Bonnita Roy:

"Today I coined the term Complex Potential States to designate a shift from thinking in terms of adaptive pressure and escalating complexity, toward a more process philosophical view where systems are not bounded entities with agency that struggle to adapt, but are construed as relational states composed by all agents that strive to advance. Here a theory of change means relational-state “systems” advance from moment to moment by achieving coherence, which has a temporal dimension called a “duration.” Since agents exercise agency across multiple scales and durations, there is not only one single moment in time when everything changes all at once." (


Relation to Process Philosophy and related conceptions

Bonnita Roy:

"In his book Facing the Planetary, William E. Connolly describes Whitehead’s notions around potential states as a “stream brimming with pluripotentiality flowing toward action.” The coherent state that emerges as action taken, enfolds only some of the potentials. Those not selected are in a sense “left behind,” but they are not eliminated. Connolly writes “The open plurality that preceded the selection now simmers in the background of being, available to enter into future vibrations when a new situation arises.”

Taking this into consideration for Complex Potential States theory would mean that subthreshold signals in the potential states have causal properties that endure from moment to moment, even when they have not “adapted” to fit the incoming “occasion.” This is similar to genes that are stored in the DNA, that do not manifest, or manifest in response to epigenetic conditions, except in this case, the presence of those genes must somehow make a difference in how the rest of the genome works. This is also very similar to the notion of the Implicit Understanding (IU) in Gendlin’s work, wherein implicit processes carry meaning forward, even when they fail to cross a threshold of conscious, symbolic processing. Subthreshold potentials are significant because they continue to exert an influence, even as actual time creeps by.

We can also think of governance and politics this way, where minority positions may never be turned into legislation, but they are operating none-the-less to change the conversation and carry opinion forward. The ultimate legislative change might never reflect that position, but nevertheless have been fashioned by it (carried forward by it).

According to Connolly, Whitehead thought of these subthreshold potentials as “scars” — features that could have long term causal properties. Whitehead coined the term “subsist” as opposed to “exist” to tease out the causal properties of potentials that failed to reach thresholds for becoming actuals. In this way a theory of Complex Potential States can account for the kind of numinous causality in complexity science — that causes are simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. Such a theory would posit that only actual effects exist, while causes “merely” subsist, and that is why they are not detectable. Since causes do not actually exist, then there is nothing to respond or adapt to. There is no struggle, only creative advance. Unlike the logic of complex adaptive systems, which asks “what do we do now?” the logic of complex potential states leads us to the question “what can we do from here?”

This gives Connolly and myself, reason to hope in the era of the Anthropocene where most of what we do to enact new potential worlds, hardly materializes on the global stage. Is it possible, then, to reframe the big questions of climate change, existential risk, institutional crisis, and the breakdown of meaning, from one of adaptive pressure on a global scale to a theory of complex potential states on a human scale? In a world as diverse in people and rich in meanings as ours, big change might come from small acts by everyone operating everywhere in the contexts that already present themselves in their ordinary lives. These might form what Connolly calls “the uncanny processes of creativity.” “The process is uncanny,” Connolly writes, “because creativity is neither the simple result of a profound intention, nor the realization of a preordained principle waiting to be elaborated.”