The Primer Family

A Special Integration Group within


International Society for the Systems Sciences


Boundary: Frozen Rivers of Relationship

by Matthew Shapiro

Our ability to act on the world is predicated on our ability to perceive boundaries between systems. In other words, we must be able to see and feel “wholes” or “things”. We are not alone in this requirement. All animals, or at least those of higher order with which we can best identify, must be able to do perceive wholes. Why is this? Coevolutionary process made it a necessity for survival. It is that falling tree which is “akin” to us; it is that approaching bear which is “akin” to us; it is the cold and deep river which is “akin” to us. These are the levels of system which parallel ours. We either recognize them as wholes at this level, and not at the level of their sub-systems or their supra-systems (which we share with them), or we perish.

Having always had the means to explore - intuitively, imaginatively, and with the tools of science (best represnted by systems theory) - we have become aware in various ways of various orders of complexity and the existence of sub-systems and supra-systems, and the dynamics which characterize them.

So now we wonder what makes the boundary between systems. Clearly, this is a matter of context. We place the boundaries wherever it is most auspicious and pragmatic to do so.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is defined by the things with which it is related. And what is “related”? The flow created by mutual definition. I use the term “flow” because all relationships are dynamic. And, of course, most things exist in this “dialectical constituency” with more than one other thing. Therefore, we may say that the nature of a thing is the sum total (and by sum total I do not mean additive, which would be reductionistic) of all the flows with which that thing engages with other things.

But here, we are still placing the thing first. In fact, it might be more realistic to say that we begin with relationships, flows, and “things” emerge from them. Things, or wholes, emerge from these multiple dialectical constituencies because we need or choose to perceive them as such.

How do we do this? By defining boundaries. Boundary is inseparable from consciousness. I will argue that the fact that we don’t fall through the sidewalk is not evidence that there is a boundary between us and the sidewalk, that we are separate things. I would argue that the use of the word “fact”, and our recognition that we are not falling through the sidewalk, is evidence of boundary.

Wholes emerge in consciousness from multiple dialectical constituency, the rivers which surround and define and transcend us. I should point out that by “river” I don’t mean river in the sense of the “water” of a river, or the “bed” of a river, but both simultaneously - the “there” and “not there” which creates difference, and allows flow to occur. This is the true nature of “river”, and the best word for it is, in my view, tao.

Now, we exist in multiple dialectical consituency. In other words, we have many “flow-mates”. But it appears to me that human consciusness is limited to focusing on only one relationship or flow at any given moment. Surely, while I am typing this on my keyboard, I am not engaged in only one relationship, that with the keyboard. I am, after all, still held by gravity to my chair, and exchanging energy with my environment, and breathing air, etc. However, while I am typing on my keyboard my perception of all of those other flows is suspended. I am consciously occuped with one relationship. The moment I pause and listen to the traffic outside, that has changed. What else has changed? Boundaries.

But what is boundary? Where does it come from? I would argue that when we are engaged in relationship / flow with something, our mind solidifies collectively every other relationship / flow with which both that “other” object and our “self” are engaged in. This collective solidification, or “freezing of rivers”, forms the shell of a whole. The interface between the shell of one whole and the shell of another constitutes the flow between these wholes. For purposes of this paper I will call this one special flow or relationship the Participant Observer-Object Relationship. It shifts frequently.

The “border” is a common example of the aforementioned interface of shells, and it is entirely intangible. No one can touch a border. Stand on the border between the United States and Canada in some rural part of Minnesota / Ontario, where there may be no walls or fences. Can you touch it? No. Yet you are aware of its existence. It is another ubiquitous and obvious / not-so-obvious manifestation of tao. I can’t communicate to you what it is, but we can all know it anyway.

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