Monday, December 26, 2011

The Web of Life 17

Final Post on Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking 3

This will be my final post on Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life.  I wish here to resolve the dilemma I left readers with in the last post: that of a living world unfolding towards increasing order and complexity (evolution), and that of an engine running down, a world of ever-increasing disorder  (Second Law of thermodynamics). Who was right, Darwin or Carnot?

Fritjof Capra points out that the great Ludwig von Bertalanffy could not resolve this dilemma with the mathematics then available to him at that time (1940s).  However, he (L. v B.) did differentiate between what he termed closed and open systems.  He contended that all living organisms are open systems that simply cannot be described by classical thermodynamics.  He called such systems open because they need to feed on a continual flux of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive.  Closed systems settle easily into a state of equilibrium.  Open systems, on the other hand maintain themselves far from equilibrium by continual flow and change.  These systems were in "steady states" far from equilibrium.  Classical thermodynamics was only able to describe closed systems, not open ones like organisms.

The New Thermodynamics described mathematically by Ilya Prigogine

In the 1970s  Ilya Prigogine developed a new mathematics to re-evaluate the second law by radically rethinking traditional scientific views of order and disorder.  He thereby resolved the dilemma inherent in the clash between Darwin's and Carnot's theories described in my opening paragraph.  In the succinct words of Dr. Capra we read:
Bertalanffy correctly identified the characteristcs of the steady state as those of the process of metabolism, which led him to postulate self-regulation as another key property of open systems.  This idea was refined by Prigogine thirty years later in terms of the self-organization of "disippative structures."... However, during the last two decades after his [Bertalanffy's] death in 1972, a systemic conception of life, mind and consciousness began to emerge which transcends disciplinary boundaries, and, indeed, holds a promise of unifying various fields of study that were formerly separated.  Although this new conception of life has its roots more clearly in cybernetics than in general systems theory, it certainly owes a great deal to the concepts and thinking which Ludwig von Bartalanffy introduced into science. (Op. cit. supra, pp. 49-50)
Conclusion 

How far this systemic conception of life  has gone to  unify various fields of study is unknown to this author who is neophyte in this area.  However, it is the drift and direction of systems thinking and its thrust to unity and to that elusive unifying principle of life that enthralls this author.  One hopes that this is no utopian dream, illusion or delusion even, or even that it might not be as futile as Dr Casaubon's (George Eliot's Middlemarch) "key to all mythologies" fixation.  However, I take great consolation from the ever questioning and sharp approach of all good philosophy in the Socratic sense of that word and also from the reluctance of all good thinkers worth their salt to engage in silly reductionist thinking which places the findings of their narrow science alone on a single foundation they believe to be the sole arbiter of truth.  Hence, my disappointment, nay impatience, with such reductionists as Dawkins, Hitchens et al who continue to argue so fundamentally and reductionistically from the narrow viewpoint of science or, at least of their conception of what science is, or from their own ideas solely (an arrogant stance I believe!).  Let us be open to knowledge from all sciences and all areas which pursue truths in a sincere, congruent and authentic manner.

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