Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Web of Life 13

Systems Thinking 1

Gravestone and Cobweb, Roscrea Cemetery, 2007

These days I am pursuing an interdisciplinary course in Human Development at a local college and one of the subjects we have studied is Feminisms and Theories of Care.  Therein, we have discussed the traditional hierarchical nature of societies.  Capra et al inform us the nature itself does not work in a hierarchical fashion.  Rather it works in a network fashion, with networks resting within networks.  In the insightful words of Dr Capra we read: "We tend to arrange these systems, all nesting within larger systems, in a hierarchical scheme by placing the larger systems above the smaller ones in pyramid fashion.  But this is a human projection." (The Web of Life, p. 35).

So in nature, the, Capra et al argue that there are no "aboves" or "belows" and no hierarchies.  Instead there are only networks within networks. 

Central Points of Systems Thinking

  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Living systems are all integrated wholes that cannot be reduced to a sum of its individual parts.  It's the interconnections and interrelationships between parts that really matter.  In other words , we might say that the function of the parts is in fact "systemic."

  • Systems thinking is the ability to shift one's attention back and forth between systems levels.  Capra argues that when stress is applied to an organism, a city or an economy we will gain insight into how that particular system works.

  • While there is no hierarchy within systems thinking there are different levels within a system that represent levels of different complexity.

  • Works in an opposite way to Cartesian thinking which believed that in any complex system the behaviour of the whole could be analysed in terms of the properties of its parts.  Systems science shows that living systems cannot be understood by analysis.  The properties of parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole.  In other words systems thinking is contextual thinking.

  • Ultimately, there are no parts at all, Dr Capra argues (ibid., p. 37). What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships.

  • The traditional metaphor for science has come from the building or architectural world, and no wonder, indeed, because all human beings (indeed all animals) need to construct a shelter in which to live.  Hence we speak of fundamental laws, foundational principles, basic building blocks etc.  Descartes spoke about "the shifting foundations" of philosophy upon which no solid science could be built.

  • Yet, three hundred years later Heisenberg could say that these very foundations of physics (indeed of all the sciences) were themselves not very solid.  In fact the foundations were shifting:  "the foundations of physics have started moving." (Heisenberg as quoted in Capra, ibid., p. 38)

  • In the new systems thinking, the metaphor of knowledge as a building is being replaced by that of the network.  This attention to metaphor, here, and our use of them, indeed our almost unconscious or unthinking use of them needs to be re-visited and thought about quite seriously as they do highlight our unthinking presuppositions.  In some old rabbinical tale or other I read over the years, I remember an old rabbi telling one of his disciples that what he had learned from a long life was that one should always question one's motivations.  Brilliant.  We should constantly question our motivations and indeed our presuppositions, and consequently our unthinking use of language.  This is where philosophy comes in and where poor old Descartes went wrong!

  • Interestingly, Capra alludes to Geoffrey Chew's famous concept of "bootstrap philosophy" where the notion of scientific knowledge as a network of concepts and models, in which no part is any more fundamental than the others.  This "bootstrap philosophy" abandons the idea of fundamental building-blocks of matter and accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever, whether equations or otherwise.  The universe itself is seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events.

  • Now all of these points above imply that physics can no longer be seen as the most fundamental level of science.  Since there are no foundations in the network, the phenomena described by physics are not any more foundational than those described by biology or chemistry or psychology or any other science.

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