Implex and Complex

Brain teaser: what’s the opposite of “complex”?

“Simple,” right? Perhaps. But one could argue that “simple” represents a lack of complexity, not its polar opposite. I propose a different answer: the opposite of complex is implex (or maybe it’s the inverse—so sue me).

For example, a building is a complex, built brick by brick. But a human is an implex: an individual being that has many inner dimensions. Whereas complexes tend to be artificially constructed, an implex is a whole which has the unique capacity to unfold like a flower, like a brilliant plan, like an exquisite idea. Whereas a complex is an organized aggregation of separate components, an implex is a single whole entity that contains within itself many things that can be identified as parts but which are not separable from the whole. A complex consists of parts and synthesizes a whole. An implex consists wholly in itself and can (if plumbed) be analyzed into parts.

Nowadays we typically have trouble imagining an implex, and here’s why. First, we don’t normally think of anything as either an implex or a complex, unless those words are used in the name of a thing, as in an “office complex”; and there are no such current phrases that I know of that include the word “implex.” So, to ask the question whether something—say, a poem—is an implex or a complex, we have to stop and think about the thing (the poem) in question. If we are cognitively able to make the distinction between an implex and a complex, then when we start thinking about it, we are apt to think about it analytically, which is the predominant mode of scientific and philosophical thinking. Well, the word “analysis” means a disassembling of something to examine its component parts (Greek ana + lysis). Thus, the default mode of analytical thinking is to regard anything—a poem, a human body, a song—as constituted of separable parts, and therefore as a complex. Analytical thinking reveals to us that everything is made of parts, right?—even the atom is composed of subatomic particles.

But this is an error in our thinking. We know that we will be able to discover parts within virtually any whole. And so, as Henri Bortoft often notes (in his book The Wholeness of Nature), we start at the end of our thinking process (with our finished thought) rather than the beginning, and assume that all wholes are built up from parts. While this is certainly true of a Chevy Corvette, it is not true of a human baby. The only way to get at a human baby’s parts is to open it up—and since babies are not subject to psychoanalysis, this would require vivisection. But, one might argue, a single baby is a complex of multiple biological processes. While this is, quantitatively speaking, true, this view artificially carves a baby’s physiology into discrete processes. But the blood, the heart, the brain, the finger muscles and the vocal chords of a baby are all inseparably implexed in a whole. The whole human being is not constructed from parts in the manner of the “replicants” imagined by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the film Blade Runner). Rather, the whole organism evolves, just as Darwin observed. A baby is a single entity, not a team entity. It is not legion, it is whole. The notion that human beings are constructed of numerous organs, bones, and so on is literally science fiction. Only a pervasive intellectual habit—this insistence that anything we can carve up must be piecemeal by nature, and therefore everything is the sum of its parts rather than being an existential whole (which implies that mysterious thing identity)—only this stubborn habit stands in the way of our perceiving the obvious.

A daisy plant

Thus the word “part” itself may express these two distinct and contrapuntal senses: on the one hand of being inseparably part of a whole, as in being part of a family, or part of a plant (say, one flower); and on the other hand of being an isolable piece of a construction,

A daisy chain

as in being part (i.e. a member) of a chain gang, or one component part of a daisy chain.

An implex can unfold into a complex. How? How can a human baby unfold? Contemplate this: a fertilized egg can become a fully formed human being, and that human life can become a biography. What stories from your life stand out and say something about who you are? When you have lived a long life, what is the relationship of any one of your many experiences—a bar mitzvah, the moment of falling in love with a lifelong partner, the birth of a child, the death of a parent—to the whole of your life? If you write your autobiography, in which sense is each chapter a part of the whole book?


  1. Your unconscious mind is clearly an implex, because to your conscious awareness your unconscious is and remains monolithic until it is dredged with the aid of a highly paid professional. In other words, your unconscious is a whole which can be plumbed and analyzed. But what about your conscious mind? Are your conscious thoughts one whole interweaving implex, or a complex of separate ideas? Can thoughts be separated from each other? If so, how?

  2. Try to discern the moment when an experience, which is an inseparable part of your whole life, can become an isolable part of your constructed biography.


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