Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Web of Life 9

Snail on holly (?) bush in Santry Park, October 2010
Chapter 2 is a chapter literally bulging with information, rich thought, insightful reflection in both philosophy and in the natural sciences, so continuing to meditate upon it is no waste of time.  Many scholars from both disciplines are discussed.  Dr Capra ranges across the whole gamut of scientific development from the time of the ancient Greeks like Pythagoras (b. circa 570 B.C.E.) , Plato (b. circa 424 B.C.E.), and Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.E.) right down to Max Wertheimer (b. 1880, Gestalt psychologist), Werner Heisenberg (b. 1901, physicist), Vladimir Vernadsky (geochemist, 1863-1945), James Lovelock (b.1919) and Lynn Margulis (b. 1938).  These latter two are medical researcher and biologist respectively and originators and promoters of the Gaia Hypothesis which I have already discussed in these pages. (See Here and following posts.)

Pythagoras was both a philosopher and a mathematician.  He was the discoverer of what is now eponymously called Pythagoras' Theorem which is known to every schoolboy and girl worth their salt.  It is also suggested (though it may be mythological) that he discovered the mathematical basis of  the musical scales.  Another myth attributed to him is that he was the originator of the phrase "the music of the spheres."  However,  whatever about the provenance of these statements, what is true is that Pythagoras was very interested in numbers and was essentially the founder of number theory.  He was the first mathematician to be interested in the patterns made by numbers rather than the "substance" of numbers.  For the Pythagoreans, number gave matter its form and shape.  Aristotle agreed with this, and argued that form had no separate existence but was immanent in matter. In this, these philosophers (and mathematicians) differed greatly from Plato who believed that the "Idea" of 2 differed vastly, in fact was a a different entity from any representations of that number in nature.

Dr Capra continues to trace Systems Thinking all the way from William Blake through the Romantic Movement, both in England and in Germany, where Immanuel Kant (born 1724) argued that organisms, in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing and self-organizing wholes.  He further traces its long history through "vitalism."  Here are the words of the learned Dr Capra which express this latter concept way more clearly that I can:
Vitalism and organicism are both opposed to the reduction of biology to physics and chemistry.  Both schools maintain that, although the laws of physics and chemistry are applicable to organisms,  they are insufficient to fully understand the phenomenon of life.  The behaviour of a living organism as an integrated whole cannot be understood from the study of its parts alone.  As the system theorists would put it several decades later, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (The Web of Life, p. 25)
Systems Thinking

Basically systems thinking is all about connectedness, relationships and contexts.  According to systems thinking, the essential properties of any living system or organism are properties which belong to the whole and not to any individual parts as such.  These properties arise from the interactions and relationships between the individual parts in the organism.  Dr Capra highlights  Paul Alfred Weiss (1898-1989), the Austrian biologist, as one of the founders of this school of thinking.  Indeed, the great shock of twentieth-century science, he argues, has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis.  The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties, but can only be understood in the context of the larger whole.  Once again, in the succinct words of Fritjof Capra:

Thus the relationship between the parts and the whole has been reversed.  In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the whole.  Accordingly, systems thinking does not concentrate on basic building-blocks but rather on the basic principles of organization..  Systems thinking is contextual, which is the opposite to analytical thinking.  Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of the larger whole. (Ibid., pp.29-30)