System, general principles

If Nature follows a system, it has been around longer than we figured

Systemness is not new
Most historical accounts of systems science begin with scientific advances after WW2. On the other hand, the description of what a system does, the systemness, when put in general (philosophical) conceptualizing terms, can easily be seen to have been around for at least five thousand years. It first written down in the I Ching as the Yin/Yang, and explained further in the Tao te Ching, "The Tao begot One, One begot Two. Two begot Three. Three begot the Ten Thousand Things. The Ten thousand things embrace Yin and express Yang. Harmony is achieved by combining these forces." (Chap. 42).

So, while the idea of a "whole" ( aka system) may be new to modern Western science, emerging in the organismic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, the interactive biology of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the cybernetics of NorbertWiener, clearly, humankind greatest thinkers have already thought of this archetypal form all along in their own not so scientific way. The Greeks expressed it in their Four Elements; (if viewed as examples) Water and Air, in a Fire-like relationship forming the whole Earth. In the Cabalah, Mother and Father Birth the Child. The Christian Trinity has it as Father Son and the Holy Spirit (when spirit is the action) Leibniz with his binary numbering system (Still in use today). Bertalanffy cites Nicholus of Cuza with his coincidentia oppositorum. Subsequently, we have available to us a whole lot of prior research. Clearly systems is not something merely born out of the War and yet to be completely figured out, So what is it about a system that is so new and different from pre-system-science thinking? What is the simplest complexity?

Bertalanffy writes, "Entities of an essentially new sort are entering the sphere of scientific thought. Classical science in its diverse disciplines, be it chemistry, biology, psychology or the social sciences, tried to isolate the elements of the observed universe chemical compounds and enzymes, cells, elementary sensations, freely competing individuals, and what not expecting that, by putting them together again, -- cell, mind, society would result and be intelligible. Now we have learned that for an understanding not only the elements but their interrelations as well are required. (GST p xxii )

But, most importantly, it is much more than just adding on some information. There is new information to be sure, but it is a new kind of information, and not just more of the same. Relationships are of a different ontological level from entities. They are different from things in a fundamental way. It is at this fundamental level that is different about systems.

Erwin Schroedinger, one of the founders of quantum physics, tells his elementary story

"Let us now return to our ultimate particles and to small organizations of particles as atoms or small molecules. The old idea about them was that their individuality was based on the identity of matter in them...The new idea is that what is permanent in these ultimate particles or small aggregates is their shape and organization. The habit of everyday language deceives us and seems to require, whenever we hear the word shape or form of something. that it must be a material substratum is required to take on a shape. Scientifically this habit goes back to Aristotle, his causa materialis and causa formalis. But when you come to the ultimate particles constituting matter, there seems to be no point in thinking of them again as consisting of some material. They are as it were, pure shape, nothing but shape; what turns up again and again in successive observations is this shape, not an individual speck of material..."

But it is not the content of reality we have difficulty with, rather it is with our language, or how we use language to interpret that reality. More specifically it is how we let our language use us.

Ken Wilber, a well known author of this kind of "consciousness." writes, "Bergson was also aware of the spurios reality of "things" because, - as he himself pointed out - thought creates things by slicing up reality into small bits that it can easily grasp. Thus when you are think-ing you are thing-ing. Thought does not report things, it distorts reality to create things, and, as Bergson noted, "In so doing it allows what is the very essence of the real to escape." Thus to the extent we actually imagine a world of discrete and separate things, conceptions have become perceptions, and we have in this manner populated our universe with nothing but ghosts."

In the scientific sense, the brain does not "pass on" information about the external reality. For example, the one hundred million receptors of the eye feed information to the ganglion cells, which in turn are interconnected by amacrine and horizontal cells, and it is the million or so axons of the ganglion cells that enter the optic nerve, a reduction of over one hundreth. We see not what our eyes see, but what our brain says our eyes see. It is similar in the linguistic sense. When we assign a name to an object, we are creating something our brain can work with, and not a feature "out there."

These concepts are what Western language creates when it abstracts from the "unsayable". In short, our language constructs a "thing", an entity. (Some) humans think only in terms of things, elements, entities, objects. There is nothing abnormal about this. But if we attach a realness to the thing, then we have replaced perception with an illusion. If we believe this illusory realness is all that is real, we are operating under delusion. And that can hurt.

Quantum theorist David bohm summarizes the problematic situation. "Indeed, to some extent it has always been necessary and proper for man, in his thinking, to divide things up, if we tried to deal with the whole of reality at once, we would be swamped. However when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man's notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives, (i.e. in his world-view) then man ceases to regard the resultant divisions as merely useful or convenient and begins to see and experience himself and this world as actually constituted of separately existing fragments. What is needed is a relativistic theory, to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or building blocks. Rather one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes."

And that is why
Ludwig von Bertalanffy states

"Compared to the analytical procedure of classical science with resolution into component elements and one-way or linear causality as basic category, the investigation of organized wholes of many variables requires new categories of interaction, transaction, organization, teleology..."

See also