Systems Theory (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Systems science emerged as a response to the need for finding ways of understanding and dealing with complexity. The expanding orientation of systems thinking enables a quest for connections and meaning that can expand the boundaries of what traditionally has been considered science. Systems thinking has been compared to Buddhism, and evolutionary systems thinking can be appreciated as the integration of the sciences with the works of mystical and transpersonal thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo (1872950) in the East and Carl G. Jung (1875961) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881955) in the West. This convergence of science, philosophy, and religion is manifested in the systemic inquiry on conscious evolution and its underlying ethic.
This entry reviews the core ideas within systems science, and in particular the development of General Systems Theory (GST) as a cornerstone of the systems movement. General Evolution Theory (GET) is introduced as the natural unfolding of GST in the study of complex dynamic systems. The emergent view of evolution has implications for the understanding and guidance of human systems and can become the basis for the integration of critical insights for science, philosophy, and religion to surface a new global ethic. Having become conscious of the evolutionary processes of which human beings are a part, and with a sense of awe and responsibility, the challenge is to learn to "dance to the rhythms of evolution" for the purposeful creation of a sustainable and evolutionary future.
The emergence of systems science
In the 1920s,a handful of scientists from different fields became aware of the potential to develop a general theory of organized complexity. The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901972) formulated the fullest expression of the emerging systems field in his General System Theory (GST). According to Fritjof Capra, Bertalanffy's work "established systems thinking as a major scientific movement (p. 46)" that responded to the limitations of modern analytical science and enabled a broader conception of science.
Analytical (as opposed to holistic) reductionism prevailed as the most central principle of scientific inquiry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Reductionism involves analysis of the isolated elements of the phenomena under study and seeks objectivity, repeatability of results, and refutation of hypotheses in order "to provide explanations for the new unknown, in terms of the known" (Checkland, p. 64). However, "the emergence of new phenomena at higher levels of complexity is itself a major problem for the method of science, and one which reductionist thinking has not been able to solve" (p. 65).
Systems science emerged from interdisciplinary studies and is characterized by a diversity of perspectives, foci, and approaches. Systems science is not a discipline, per se, but a meta-discipline or field whose subject matterrganized complexityan be applied within virtually any particular discipline. Systems science has become the broader scientific area that embodies all the thinking and practices derived from, and related to, advances in systems theory, methodology, and philosophy. The main professional association dedicated to the study and the advancement of this area is the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). When established in 1954 by von Bertalanffy, Ralph Gerard, Anatol Rapoport, James G. Miller, and Kenneth Boulding, it was originally called the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory.
General system theory
A system is a set of interconnected components that form a whole and show properties that are properties of the whole rather than of the individual components. This definition is valid for a cell, an organism, a society, or a galaxy. Therefore, as Joanna Macy expressed it, a system is less a thing than a pattern. Systems thinking uses the concept of system to apprehend the world. It "is a framework of thought that helps us to deal with complex things in a holistic way" (Flood and Carson, p. 4). When formalized in explicit, conventional and definite form, it can be termed systems theory.
Systems theory provides a knowledge base that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries; it seeks isomorphism between and among concepts, principles, laws, and models in various realms of experience; it provides a framework for the transfer and integration of insights relevant to particular domains of research; and it promotes the unity of science through improving communication among disciplines. Bertalanffy's General System Theory (GST) is "a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general" (Bertalanffy, p. 32). GST "aims to provide a framework or structure of systems on which to hang the flesh and blood of particular disciplines and particular subject matters in an orderly and coherent corpus of knowledge" (Boulding, p. 248).
General systems theorists acknowledge that specialized knowledge is as important as a general and integrative framework. Specific systems theories have emerged and include cybernetics, autopoietic systems theory, dynamical systems theory, chaos theory, organizational systems theory, and living systems theory, among others. Considered together, these specific systems theories comprise the systems sciences, many of which have become known as the so called new sciences or sciences of complexity.
General evolution theory
Following the systems tradition, General Evolution Theory (GET) looks for isomorphisms in the patterns of irreversible change over time at different systems levels. GET postulates that the evolutionary trend in the universe constitutes a "cosmic process" specified by a fundamental universal flow toward ever increasing complexity.
Evolution manifests itself through particular events and sequences of events that are not limited to the domain of biological phenomena but extend to include all aspects of change in open dynamic systems with a throughput of information and energy. In other words, evolution relates to the formation of stars from atoms, of Homo sapiens from the anthropoid apes, as much as to the formation of complex societies from rudimentary social systems. The process involves periods of dynamic stability (homeostasis), and when this stability can no longer be maintained, the system enters a period of turbulencer bifurcationhen it self-organizes into a higher level of organization, structural complexity, dynamism and autonomyr else, it devolves. In this way, complex open systems become more dynamic, more in control of themselves and of their environment, moving further and further away from the inert state of equilibrium.
The understanding of dynamic complexity, emergence, and self-organization manifested in general evolutionary processes has important implications for human activity systems. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers reflect on the social threats and possibilities implied by an understanding of nonlinearity by recognizing that in "our universe the security of stable, permanent rules are gone forever. We are living in a dangerous and uncertain world that inspires no blind confidence. Our hope arises from the knowledge that even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance" (Prigogine and Stengers, p. 313).
Human science and conscious evolution
Human science makes reference to an inclusive approach to the study of human phenomena that uses multiple systems of inquiry, including descriptive studies and prospective interventions. According to Marcia Salner, discussion about human science "was once conducted on the grounds of philosophy, professional researchers who must face up to practical problems of social survival are pragmatically moving toward what will work to provide answers where no reliable guides exist. . . . How we understand our world, how we learn about it, how we teach the young about their place in it, have consequences for our survival in it" (p. 8). Only a science that is both humanistic and systemic can deal effectively with complex human challenges and create evolutionary opportunities for human development in partnership with Earth.
Human science involves both systems (within the systems field) and systemic (outside the systems field) approaches. On the one hand, it involves the application of systems theories and methodologies in order to understand, ameliorate, and transform social systems. On the other hand, human science also incorporates systemic and holistic approaches, beyond the systems field, that challenge traditional assumptions about knowledge and science. For instance, critical theory seeks to combine philosophy and science, idealism and realism, and concepts and experiences to confront social injustice. Feminism seeks the emancipation of women for the betterment of humanity as a whole through the promotion of issues such as sexual equality, development, and peace. Scholars interested in qualitative research are articulating a comprehensive epistemology for a participatory paradigm that involves different ways of knowing. What is common to all these alternative approaches is their holistic character and their commitment to bridge theory and practice for understanding and transforming social realities.
Following the trend in systems science of looking for theoretical and methodological complementarity, there are approaches that seek to integrate the knowledge base of systems thinking, general evolutionary processes, and human science. Evolution, both as a scientific theory and as a universal myth, is a powerful story for the transformation of consciousness and society. The implications of this knowledge base provide rich opportunities for manifold inferences for social action and research. First, humans do not need to be the victims of changehange can happen through humans, not to humans. Second, the future is not probabilistic, but rather, possibilistic: Humans can influence the direction of change through their intentions and actions. Third, for the first time in human history, human beings can experience joy "while working for the most ambitious goal available to the human imagination: To blend our individual voice in the cosmic harmony, to join our unique consciousness with the emerging consciousness of the universe, to fold our momentary center of psychic energy into the current that tends toward increasing complexity and order" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 293). Indeed, science and spirituality are coming together in the ultimate exploration of the meaning and purpose of human existence: Conscious evolutionhe evolutionary phase in which a developing being becomes conscious of itself, aware of the processes of which it is a participant, and begins voluntarily to co-create with evolution.
A new global ethic
"If our society is not working well," Lester Milbrath reflects, "we get the message that we need to rethink our value structure" (Milbrath, p. 67). Scientists and religious leaders agree: A new global ethic is required if human misery and irreversible damage to the planet is to be avoided.
Regardless of postmodernist or relativist positions, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi reflects on how similar are the world's major moral systems. He believes that "we have to find an appropriate moral code to guide our choices. It should be a code that takes into account the wisdom of tradition, yet is inspired by the future rather than the past; it should specify right as being the unfolding of the maximum individual potential joined with the achievement of the greatest social and environmental harmony" (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 162). From a systemic and evolutionary perspective, a multilevel ethic would promote:
- Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the individualt must promote personal freedom;
- Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) societyt must promote social justice;
- Human actions that benefit (or at least not harm) the planett must promote ecological harmony.
To focus exclusively on one level corresponds to what Carolyn Merchant has called egocentric, homocentric, or ecocentric ethics, respectively. The challenge is to strive for the ideal of a multi-level ethical approach that promotes what is good for the whole of individual humans, societies, ecosystems, and future generations at the same time, in order to promote sustainability in an evolutionary sense. In other words, as Evrin Laszlo proposes, to live simply and meaningfully allowing other people and other species to live with dignity as well, so that a favorable dynamic equilibrium in the evolution of the biosphere can be reached and sustained.
An important aspect of this new emerging ethic is its process orientation. Rather than considering morality as a set of static norms and rules, it should be embraced as an ongoing inquiring process, a conversation as suggested by West C. Churchman, in which human values are neither relative nor absolute. In the past, philosophy and moral inquiry have been restricted to a privileged minority of mainly white men. An ethical society requires that every member of society become a lifelong learner engaged in the ongoing ethical conversation that purposefully informs the actions and decisions that shape the present and the future.
Science is evolving. The convergence between systems views and mystical views allow a more comprehensive and meaningful articulation of the human-as-part-and-process-of-cosmos story. This "New Story," as theologian Thomas Berry calls it, can guide people in the adventure of ethically evolving human systems.
See also COMPLEXITY; EVOLUTION; VALUE, VALUE THEORY
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KATHIA CASTRO LASZLO