Friday, December 23, 2011

The Web of Life 15

Systems Thinking 2

What is the Truth?

Francis Bacon, scientist and statesman
I have touched on this topic many times before, and those first few lines from Francis Bacon's (1561 –1626) famous essay keep surfacing in my mind: "WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."  I have often questioned in these pages as to whether there is one singular truth or rather many different truths.  I have also questioned whether it is more correct to speak about the Truth, that is truth with a capital letter or to speak of the plural truths in lower case letters.  Many times have I written the often-quoted  assertion in these posts that we see the world not as it is, that is objectively, but rather as we are, that is, subjectively.  I'm rather cynical, then, as to whether we can arrive at the objective truth at all.  And yet to live in this matter-of-fact world, we have to accept many facts as given truths if we are to survive at all.  The great Victorian churchman and academic John Henry Cardinal Newman said something similar to my contention in the last sentence here - that the human mind has to accept ascribed certainties in lfe, otherwise we'd never make decisions. 

My opening remarks lead me on nicely to the following words from Dr. Capra:
Therefore, scientists can never deal with the truth, in the sense of a precise correspondence between the description and the described phenomenon.  In science, we always deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality.  This may sound frustrating but for systems thinkers the fact that we can obtain approximate knowledge about an infinite web of interconnected patterns is a source of confidence and strength. (The Web of Life, p. 41)
Process Thinking
Alfred North Whitehead in pensive mood!
There are two strands of system thinking, viz., contextual thinking, which we have already discussed, and process thinking.  It is to this latter that we now turn our attention.  It is possible to trace elements of process thinking back to the ancients, especially back to Heraclitus who authored the famous dictum: "everything flows" as well as the saying that "one cannot step into the same river twice."  No wonder we speak of flow diagrams or flow charts when we discuss process thinking.  During the 1920s, the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead formulated a strongly process-oriented philosophy.  In opposition to the classical model of change as purely accidental and illusory (as by Aristotle), process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality–the cornerstone of being thought as becoming. In physics Ilya Prigogine (1917 – 2003) distinguishes between the "physics of being" and the "physics of becoming".  (See here and here)

Another complementary concept is that of homeostasis.  The biologists Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon promoted the principle of the constancy of the organism's "internal environment" and refined it into the concept of homeostasis - which essentially is the self-regulatory mechanism that allows organisms to maintain themselves in a state of dynamic balance with their variables fluctuating between tolerance limits.  Metabolism of the individual cell combines order and activity in a way that cannot be described by mechanistic science.  Indeed, it requires thousands of chemical reactions - in short, it is a continual, complex and highly organized activity.

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