“People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The Core Ideas of Systems Theory
This is the second part of an essay that was published in 1996 entitled “Systems Theory: Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm.” The first part of the article is here: Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm, Part I. My goal was to try to simplify and summarize the most important ideas of systems theory. ~Christopher Chase; Fukuoka, Japan
The systems model presented here postulates that unity and creativity are the fundamental characteristics of our Universe, and that Nature’s Systems are everywhere. Such a perspective encourages us to draw from our knowledge of creative processes, to think in the metaphors of activities like sports, games, gardening, weaving, building, music and dance.
The wisdom of our spiritual traditions begins to make more sense. Our values and priorities can begin to shift. All areas of social and individual activity could be profoundly effected by a model of the Universe that presents humans as creative participants in nature, and the entire Cosmos as a continuously unfolding tapestry of activity.
“You are not IN the universe, you ARE the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.” ~Eckhart Tolle
To make the ideas of systems theory easier to understand, we can organize them into two separate (but fundamentally related) categories, what we might call the Unifying and Creative Properties of Natural Systems. Each word or idea described here focuses our attention on a different process or characteristic of the physical world.
Although some of these concepts have their roots in pre-modern philosophies, they can be integrated into contemporary systems theory. By bringing ancient and modern wisdom together we may regain our understanding of how our universe is structured, and how it creates new forms.
THE UNIFYING PROPERTIES OF NATURE
There are several distinct attributes and processes which play a role in maintaining and unifying all the systems in our world. From a systems perspective, many independent systems and polar opposites are actually fundamentally connected. Animals, ecosystems and the global economy are all UNIFIED systems.
They are each composed of many interacting individuals, communities and sub-systems. Systems theorists often use the term COMPLEXITY to refer to these intricate structures and the webs of INTERDEPENDENCE that enable individual creatures (or sub-systems) and their surrounding systems to function together as coherent wholes.
A similar idea is found in the Taoist conception of yin and yang, where polar opposites like black and white are represented as interdependent parts of an indivisible whole. This fundamental relatedness can be difficult to perceive when one looks at the world in terms of mutually exclusive categories such as humans and nature, or good and evil.
Dualistic logic screens out the complex interdependencies that actually exist all around us. Take the second world war for example. The ideas of communism, fascism and modern capitalism were all grounded in the extremely competitive picture of nature painted by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Our nations were locked into a polarized struggle for “survival of the fittest.” Leaders on all sides were so intent on demonizing and dominating their enemy that they were willing to destroy millions of people rather than be defeated.
One of the things dualistic thinking ignores is our fundamental UNIVERSALITY, how we are part of one human family, how we are embedded in the cosmos and it is embedded in us. If you were to trace the history of all the molecules, atoms and energy currently forming the cells of your body, you would find that you are composed of elements from flowers, oceans, dinosaurs, meteorites, our sun and earlier stars now long gone. Each of us is also embedded in a wide range of human systems, such as our nations, families, educational systems, work places, cities, and the global economy.
Another essential characteristic of natural systems is that they are SELF-ORGANIZING. That is, the many different parts that make up a system arrange themselves into coherent structures, patterns, activities and forms. This applies to living as well as non-living systems. Snow flakes, planets, brains, rivers, villages and street gangs are all self- organizing.
Self-organizing systems often maintain their structure by creating states of equilibrium and DYNAMIC STABILITY. That is, unified systems and organisms are sustained through a process of constant regeneration and self-renewal, a balancing act of rhythmic movement, patterned order and cyclic change. The earth rotates around the sun, as the moon circles the earth. Weather patterns dissipate energy and carry water over land in consistent seasonal patterns.
Dynamic organized systems such as the human body or the economy are sometimes called OPEN SYSTEMS because they are constantly gathering in new elements (in order to maintain their structure) and then returning them to their surroundings. This organic interdependency is one of the central insights heralded by the modern ecology movement. When we dump pollutants into our rivers it comes back to us in the seafood that we eat.
A related characteristic of natural systems is that of ORGANIC CENTRALITY. Creative systems that maintain their structure are often centered and unified by a specific place, pattern, purpose or goal. Musicians are intent on creating and performing songs. A tribal village centers on the future and well-being of its children.
In order for complex organisms and communities to thrive they must center upon and value all of their component members or “sub-systems” equally. This may sound strange because of our tendency to think of “centers” in a geometric way, as points at the center of circles or spheres. But nature is organized ecologically and organically, within and all over the surface of structures, where “centers” exist in a plural sense, what William James described as a Pluralistic Universe.
The complex social problems of modern societies may have their roots in the way our social institutions place more of a value on some people than others. A family, nation, or institution that does not center upon all of its members equally should not be surprised if some of those members no longer prioritize the well-being of either themselves, or their surrounding social communities.
Connected to these ideas is the concept of STRUCTURED SPACE. This idea is based on the Taoist and Zen conceptions of space or nothingness (what we might call the EMPTY CUP PRINCIPLE). Space here is viewed as a well structured place that invites participation, that provides room for relationships, and supports creative development. This differs significantly from the usual Western conception of space as a void or vacuum, a lonely vacancy we often feel compelled to fill.
Most of nature’s systems provide structured space for other systems within them. The Earth’s surface provides an environment ideally suited for the evolution of life. Local ecosystems provide niches for many different species of creatures. Human communities thrive as they provide opportunities for their members to participate and contribute creatively. Great art, science, literature, music, and education leaves space for the inner world of individuals, seeking to stir our imagination and emotions, leaving room for our souls.
Another property which helps to maintain organizational unity is that of INFORMATIONAL FLOW, the communication processes linking independent structures in nature. Living systems like ourselves rely upon a constant flow of sensory information in order to maintain our internal processes, move about, and learn from our surroundings. Through our senses we are intimately connected to our local environments.
Walking in a lush natural setting it’s amazing to consider all the information flowing around us. Flowers and trees are releasing genetic information for their kin through pollen, while scents and colors signal to insects and animals that a tasty nectar or fruit is available. Bees buzz about, returning to their hives to communicate the direction of local feasts. Birds are calling to mates or warning away approaching predators. Thousands of insects are communicating below the grass with chemical signals we can not smell. In the world around us, Nature is “talking” all the time.
We humans seem to have taken this capability to a new level with our ability to communicate and represent information through spoken languages and written symbols. These tools have allowed literate societies to pass on very complicated information to one another and to future generations (much as DNA links our bodies to our direct ancestors in the past). This helps to explain the enormous complexity of modern civilization, and all our wondrous technologies.
We may be fooling ourselves, however, if we think that our tools (and books) somehow prove that we are smarter than nature. We are a fundamental part of nature, one of the newer expressions of a universe that came up with DNA coding and neural systems over half a billion years ago. Nature offers us a living library of wisdom to learn from, a world that often “speaks” to us, if we listen carefully.
As one Native American leader put it, “You know, if you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals which include us.”
THE CREATIVE PROPERTIES OF NATURE
While the unifying processes of our universe link separate elements together, the creative properties of nature help to constantly bring new things into being. The most basic example of this creativity is the process of SELF-CONSTRUCTION, a term biologists sometimes use to describe the physical growth and development of organic systems. Building on a long and rich evolutionary history, each plant and animal must grow its bodily structure on its own. By contrast, human tools and machines are constructed, they have been built from the outside rather than growing themselves from within.
Many of the organized systems mentioned so far exhibit an incredible innovativeness and creativity that our present cultural paradigm does not acknowledge. Some of the recurring problems that Western societies have created may stem in part from our assumption that the natural world was constructed from the outside, much like a piece of pottery or a machine.
I use the term CREATIVE SYSTEM to refer to any system that forms a unified whole and causes new things to come into being. I would hope that a term like this can help us to transform our culture’s rather limited conceptions of creativity. It recognizes the creative processes and systems characteristics shared by individual artists, cultural communities, and the rest of the natural world. It opens our eyes to the methods by which our universe has developed and evolved complex structures over time.
The method of creativity most widely employed by creative systems is in many ways similar to what Darwin describes in evolutionary theory. First, components in a system generate a large number of variations. Next, other components or processes in the system (or in the surrounding systems in which it takes part) select or reward the form, structure or pattern which best “fits” with both the system and its environment as a whole.
Families, societies, ecosystems and innovative organizations (like Toyota or NASA) produce things this way, through production, experimentation and the careful selection of those efforts which work best. While this idea of creativity builds on Darwin’s insights, it also puts them into a broader context. The seemingly random and destructive activities of evolution can be seen as part of a self-organizing creative process operating at many different levels in the cosmos.
As Gregory Bateson has pointed out (in his book Mind and Nature), human learning often involves this kind of process. Whenever we first try to develop a new skill (such as walking, talking or playing a musical instrument) we begin by trying out a lot of things that don’t work. We then select those specific efforts that are rewarded (through positive inner emotions, social praise, etc.) and continue using them in the future. Creativity is therefore not a rare quality that exists within individual people, it is a common process that requires interactions between systems and their environments.
This conception of creativity is related to the Greek notion of SYNERGY, the idea that individual methods or parts on their own can not equal what comes about when they cooperate together. Modern systems theorists call this kind of activity NON-LINEAR DYNAMICS. What they means is that the separate parts in a system or structure are working together in a way that cannot be computed or explained by traditional linear “1+1=2” logic.
Numerous films (like Apollo 13 or Schindler’s List) and musicians (like the Beatles) provide excellent examples of non-linear dynamics and synergy. They show us how high levels of human creativity often involve many separate individuals working together in unison.
Underlying all creative activity is the phenomena of MOVEMENT, and the fact that our cosmos is a flowing network of systems constantly involved in the process of CHANGE. When organized in stable patterns or cycles this universal movement takes temporary forms (such as atoms, cells, stars, birds, civilizations, etc). When these break apart we observe disorganization and chaos, until elements are reorganized again into a new pattern, or are absorbed as part of another system.
Systems theorist Donald Ford describes this change process as “Organization-Disorganization-Reorganization.” It is the fundamental pattern for systemic change in our universe, applying as much to civilizations and ecosystems as to waterfalls, relationships and learning.
In many cultures this change process has been represented through mythic ideas and religious images, such as the Chinese dragon, or Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. In Hindu and Taoist philosophy both chaos and order are viewed as unified aspects of the universal movement, where new structures continuously come into being only to eventually dissolve and reorganize.
Unfortunately, the model of nature currently dominant in Western science is rather one- sided. It emphasizes the role of chaos, or entropy, in the world around us. Our cosmos is thought to be ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the overall orderliness of the universe is always decreasing. This ignores the change pattern just mentioned. It also overlooks the ENERGY UTILIZATION processes of creative self- organizing systems, how they transform chaos and utilize energy, working with it as a sailboat rides with the wind.
Take life on our planet as an example. Plants and animals exist thanks to the entropy production of our sun, which releases photons of free energy as it builds heavier elements in its core. The diagram presented here (below) shows the complex and interdependent network of systems involved in capturing this energy and utilizing it to animate all life on our planet. Living creatures are solar-powered, thriving on the chaos and energy that surrounds us.
Because of the interdependent and dynamic nature of complex systems, an event or change in one system can have a ripple effect upon surrounding systems. This is also called the BUTTERFLY EFFECT in the field of CHAOS THEORY, the idea that a butterfly’s wings can set off a series of events that eventually effect weather patterns on the other side of the globe.
We can see this dynamic happening constantly in the world around us, where small actions set off a chain of events that have a big influence. Two thousand years ago a young Jewish man by the name of Jesus taught about love. His words have rippled through cultures around the world. Five hundred years earlier with the Tao te Ching the Chinese sage Lao Tsu’s holistic ideas about nature spread out more slowly, but continue to stir highly transformational waves.
Modern day examples would be the global financial instability created by unwise “subprime” home loans or the problems of global warming, arctic melting and rising sea levels caused by burning fossil fuels. The potential chaos caused by small actions is a theme in many movies, such as Jurassic Park, the Terminator series and Back to the Future. The potential of events to have both positive and negative consequences means that much of life is unpredictable, and small actions can have a powerful effect.
Two more important characteristics of creative systems are AUTONOMY and PARTICIPATION. Complex natural systems often exhibit a high degree of both freedom and interdependence. Individual structures are to some extent autonomous and yet must also operate within certain bounds, fitting into their surroundings as a whole, and supporting the larger systems in which they play a part.
The human digestive system and reproductive system function separately, but both support and partake in the life of a single creature. Individual animals have a great deal of autonomy, but also participate in social groups and ecosystems. What we commonly call “cancer” refers to groups of cells that are functioning autonomously, without participating responsibly in the life of their larger community, the body of the organism of which they are a part.
The dynamic interplay of creative and unifying processes often give rise to certain emergent properties in complex systems. As an example, nature’s creations often possess a POTENTIAL for optimal balance, development, performance, or functioning. Our planet has the potential for evolving and supporting life.
The physical bodies of animals have the potential for health and freedom from disease. Seeds are potential trees. Most human beings have the potential for developing complex skills in art, music, mathematics, and languages. When these potentials are not realized it is more often due to a lack of environmental support and opportunity, then to any lack of possibility within individuals themselves.
The idea of potentiality is important because it encourages us to focus on nature’s successes, on the structures and capabilities that have come into being over millions of years. The ideas of preventive care and holistic medicine are focused on supporting the body’s natural ability to maintain its healthy functioning (what physician Andrew Weil has called the healing system).
Progressive educational programs try to work with children’s inborn capacity for curiosity, perseverance, creativity, enjoyment and learning. It is often much easier and more efficient to nurture what has potential then to try to fix a situation after something has been neglected.
Related to this is the idea of ADAPTABILITY, the potential ability of a system to change, to adjust its patterns to that of internal or surrounding conditions. Researchers who study creative systems (such as the biosphere or the economy) often refer to them as COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS. A structure like the brain exists because it specializes in its ability to adapt a creature to constant changes in its personal needs or environmental conditions. Our social institutions are currently being challenged to adapt themselves creatively, to let go of out-moded methods and “fit” the people they serve.
Like most of nature’s systems, our institutions have the capacity for SELF- TRANSFORMATION– for moving beyond their current patterns or situations. Some creatures are able to transcend their physical identities dramatically, like tadpoles and caterpillars. Human children continuously move past one level of structural identity and into another. Few patterns in nature are fixed. In fact, evolution and transformation may be the only way dynamic self-organizing systems can maintain themselves over time.
One final concept that I will present is the principle of EQUIFINALITY. The idea here is that the same final state or condition can be reached using a variety of methods, with systems or individuals starting from different locations or positions. We see this in nature, in what is called parallel evolution. Eagles, humans and dragonflies all developed the ability to sail through the sky independently, each using a different method.
It is important for people in education and government to recognize the principle of equifinality. Since no two children, communities or nations are the same the best path to learning, economic development or peace may differ from one individual or group to the next. Unfortunately, many political and educational institutions often assume that there is one best path which all should follow. Those whose backgrounds or experiences do not “fit” with the dominant approach may fail to receive the opportunities, support and experiences they need in order to change their behavior, develop themselves or learn.
“You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here… Keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world.” ~ Max Ehrmann (Desiderata, 1927)
REDISCOVERING NATURE’S PARADIGM
At this moment, the cells of our bodies are buzzing with activity, maintaining the processes of life. In a similar manner, our cities, businesses and communities are continuously maintaining and recreating themselves. All around us, the creative awareness inhabiting Nature looks out from countless points of view– tasting, touching, moving and sensing this multidimensional wonder we inhabit.
As we release the limited thought patterns of the mechanistic age we become aware of the Cosmic Presence that surrounds and infuses our world. Centered in our present experience we begin to notice how our thoughts and emotions arise and self-organize. We start to recognize how the continuous dance of inner and outer conditions evokes this realm of experience, this unique position each of us occupies in the fields of the Universal Creation.
The spider, the cat, the child crossing the road, holding his mother’s hand… Within each of us an inner life exists that is as complex and creative as the wider Universe which has brought us into being. Linking outward, with the current dance of Everything, we join the play of sights and sounds that surround us, the local rhythms of the world. Our inner singularity begins to move in sync with the mountains and the birds… We are welcomed home.
~ Christopher Chase ~
Creative Systems Thinking
The first part of this essay is here: Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm, Part I. The text is from an article I wrote in 1996: “Systems Theory: Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm”Full pdf file can be downloaded from here
“The Earth is alive and contains the knowledge you seek. It is your consciousness that determines what it reveals. How to access this knowledge? And where are the keys to open it and make it yours? The Earth speaks. Love her, honor and respect her and she will reveal her secrets.” —Barbara Marciniak
“You don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomena of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.” ~ Alan Watts ~