Systems Philosophyis a discipline that uses systems concepts and systems methods to construct a realistic ‘philosophy’ (in the sense of ‘world-view’) and putting it to practical use. Systems philosophers use not only scientific knowledge but also systems concepts such as hierarchy, emergence, relationship, connection, synergy and wholeness to analyse and model the structure, components, variety and functioning of the real world and our place in it. “Systems Philosophy” embraces Systems Metaphysics, Systems Cosmology, and Applied Systems Philosophy, as follows:(a)Systems Metaphysics is about clarifying the concepts and concept relationships used in systems theories (General Systems Theory and the specialised systems theories collectively known as Systemics). This enhances the utility of systems approaches in research, engineering and management; (more...)(b)Systems Cosmology is about using the conceptual framework from Systems Metaphysics and the latest findings from science and philosophy to develop high-level models of the nature of Reality/Nature, and hence world-views, i.e. perspectives on ‘the scheme of things’ and our place in it; (more...)(c)Applied Systems Philosophy is about using reality-models from Systems Cosmology as frameworks for scientific research that addresses important problems in philosophy and society. (more...)Systems philosophers argue that the systems approach is essential to understanding the nature of Reality/Nature, and delivers a cosmological model that can serve not only as a general foundation for explanatory theories across the academy, but moreover one that is uniquely useful in addressing foundational questions in science, society and philosophy (the so-called ‘Big Questions’). Systems philosophers argue that many questions that seem otherwise intractable become analysable when approached from a systems perspective.Introduction to Systems Philosophy
The origins and principles of Systems Philosophy
Systems Philosophy was founded by Ervin Laszlo in 1972 with the publication of his book Introduction to Systems Philosophy. It is grounded in an insight made possible firstly by the Systems Sciences that developed from the middle of the 20th century onwards, and secondly by the General System Theory formulated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, Anatol Rapoport and others in the 1960s.From at least the time of Aristotle to the early 20th century, it was not known in virtue what systems have the ‘wholeness’ that distinguishes them from mere aggregates of parts. The search for this principle was made urgent by the evident failure of reductionistic programs in science that aimed to explain the properties of systems in terms of the properties of their parts. The systems principle was finally worked out in the late 1940s: “systems” are structures that function as wholes because of the relationships between their parts (Rapoport, 1986). These relationships lead to the ‘emergence’ of new kinds of behaviours and properties that the parts do not have by themselves (von Bertalanffy, 1969). For example, water is wet but hydrogen and oxygen are not. The relationships between the parts also enable the maintenance of identity-preserving boundaries (Laszlo, A. & Krippner, 1998), so that, for example, an ancient oak can rightly be said to be the same individual as the young sapling it once was even though it has changed in size, structure and content (in organisms this ‘self-maintenance’ process is called autopoesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980)). The principles involved in maintaining the wholeness, identity and stability of systems apply to systems of all kinds, and hence across the different scientific domains. This enabled the development of truly trans-disciplinary theories. Besides the specialised systems sciences such as Communications Theory, Network Theory, Cybernetics, Fractal Theory, Chaos Theory and so on, there is also General System Theory (GST). GST captures the concepts and principles that apply across all the systems sciences. The systems concept was a truly revolutionary insight, and most of the advanced technological products of the modern era could not have been developed if it were not for the insights and methods flowing from the systems sciences. Laszlo’s central systems insights, which provide the key to Systems Philosophy, can be explained in the following way. The specialised sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Genetics, Sociology etc) show that the real world is organised into intelligible domains. The systems sciences, by revealing principles and patterns that occur across these domains, show that reality is intelligibly organised as a whole. This global organisation is reflected in the principles of GST. The existence of global organising principles entails that nature’s special domains (as characterised by the specialised sciences) are contingent expressions or arrangements or projections of an underlyingintelligibly ordered reality. In this way Laszlo realised that (a) the existence of a GST implies that there is an ordered reality underlying Nature, and (b) that GST provides a characterization of it. Knowing that such an interpretation of GST exists does not tell us what this underlying reality is comprised of, or how it does what it does, but it does describe the patterns and limitations of its behaviour (it characterises its nature rather than its substance). This is similar to how e.g. Communication Systems Theory describes the functions and limitations of a communications system but does not tell us anything about how to make components such as signal transmitters, receivers, switches, and so on. Likewise, in order to understand the reality underlying Nature we will still have to look to science and philosophy for facts and concepts, but GST tells us that such understanding is possible, and gives it structure. GST allows us to construct an ‘architectural schematic’ of reality, into which we can arrange our facts and ideas, and from which we can tell which facts and ideas are the fundamental ones.Doing this would however provide us with much more than just an understanding of the nature of reality. This understanding would be stated in terms of the concepts, principles and facts that are the most fundamental ones we could have - the ones in which all intelligible valid theories are ultimately grounded. This description therefore forms the most fundamental ‘discourse domain’, the ontological framework that underlies the whole explanatory paradigm being constructed through scientific and philosophical effort across the academy. If this discourse domain were in hand then progress in the specialised disciplines would be greatly accelerated, because the ‘architectural schematic’ derived from GST would suggest what sorts of ideas cannot be made to fit (set boundary conditions for theorising), and suggest sorts of facts that must still be ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered (suggest productive exploratory opportunities). The central claims of Systems Philosophy are therefore that there is an intelligibly ordered ultimate reality underlying nature, that science and philosophy can describe it if they work together under a systems perspective, and that this conception is the most efficient basis from which to develop explanatory theories. The central objectives of Systems Philosophy are to articulate this model of reality, to refine its conceptual foundations, and to use it to solve otherwise intractable problems in science and philosophy.
The methods of Systems Philosophy
However, defining this ontological framework is no simple task. Ervin Laszlo’s central insight reveals that there is an underlying reality, and that it is analysable in terms of scientific principles and empirically grounded philosophy, but it does not by itself provide a guide for how to reconcile the alternative interpretations that fundamental scientists put upon their work. For example, in relation to the nature of time some scientists say that the appearance of change is an illusion (this model is called “the block-universe model of space-time”) while others say that events are the ultimate constituents of reality (this model is called “process philosophy”). Differences such as these occur across the whole conceptual range, taking in the notions of space, time, matter, energy, cause, change, existence, physical, mental, transcendent, field, particle, object, etc. An important challenge for systems philosophy is to find principled methods on the basis of which a selection from these views can be made that would result in a discourse domain that is both internally consistent and externally compatible with the findings of science. Three different approaches to this have so far been developed. Firstly, Mario Bunge has argued that scientists are not trained to interpret the meaning of scientific work, but that historians and philosophers of science have formal tools for doing this. The application of these methods reveals a consistent picture, but one that is often at odds with the metaphysical pronouncements of individual scientists. However, the picture so revealed turns out to be consistent with the behaviour of scientists across the board, and this supports the correctness of this view since there is then a consistency between the ontological framework, scientific practice, and the success of science. A good outline of this ontological framework can be found in the first half of Bunge’s book Matter and Mind (2010, Springer). Secondly, as especially Archie Bahm has argued, the natural systems hierarchy involves both top-down and bottom causation, so that the properties of natural systems are conditioned not only by the properties of their parts and the relationships between the parts, but also by the given system’s relations to other systems in its environment, and the properties of those contextual systems. This systems philosophy is called “Organicism” (Bahm,1981). The implication of this insight is that the ways in which environments condition systems must be taken into account in addition to the way in which systems are conditioned by their parts and part-relationships, if the essential properties of natural objects are to be worked out. The natural systems hierarchy therefore should not be taken as supporting a simple reductionistic model in which the nature of Reality can in principle be fully characterised using only the discourse domain of fundamental physics. Thirdly, David Rousseau has argued that although the behaviour of natural systems cannot be explained reductively (due to the conditioning influence of the system’s environment) the composition of systems is nevertheless to be understood reductively. In the sense that every level in the natural systems hierarchy is described by a specialised discipline, the implication of compositional reductivism is that the ontological and metaphysical claims of every naturalistic discipline should form a hierarchy too. We therefore need to firstly identify the foundational implications of each discipline’s specialised insights, as revealed by their organicistic context, and then consider them in the light of their compositional dependencies. Exposing this hierarchical schema of ontological and metaphysical relationships would put us in a position to work on resolving dissonances between them, and as we do this the disciplines would naturally become consilient, i.e. carry the same implications for the nature and scope of ultimate reality, and hence be wholly compatible in terms of their different ‘higher order’ models (Rousseau, 2011, 2013).
The challenges of Systems Philosophy
It is of course an open question whether Reality is comprised only of naturalistic systems, but this can be investigated empirically once we have a model of the nature of the natural systems in hand as a reference baseline, and clarified how the term ‘naturalistic’ should be properly understood. Both these tasks are central occupations for Systems Philosophy. Likewise it is an open question whether natural systems are themselves grounded in a physicalistic ontology, a broader materialism, or something wider still. Projects within the Centre for Systems Philosophy are addressing these issues, but we are still very limited in our knowledge about these matters. Deep questions remain to be answered in all specialised disciplines, as exemplified by the questions in fundamental physics (e.g. the nature of the quantum vacuum), cosmology (e.g. the nature of dark energy and cosmological fine tuning), consciousness studies (e.g. the nature of ‘mental’ phenomena such as intentionality, creativity, agency, will, genius and intuition) and spirituality studies (e.g. the nature of moral percepts, meditation benefits, and spiritual experiences). These phenomena show clearly not only how little we know, but also that answering the Big Questions will require experts from multiple disciplines working together and using trans-disciplinary methods such as those provided by Systems Philosophy. References:Bahm, A. J. (1981). Five Types of Systems Philosophy. International Journal of General Systems, 6(4), 233–237.von Bertalanffy, L. (1969). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, NY: Braziller.Bunge, M. (1977). Ontology I: The furniture of the world. Dordrecht: Reidel.Bunge, M. (1979). Ontology II: A World of Systems. Dordrecht: Reidel.Bunge, M. (2010). Matter and Mind: A Philosophical Inquiry. New York, NY: Springer.Laszlo, A., & Krippner, S. (1998). Systems Theories: Their origins, foundations, and development. In J. C. Jordan (Ed.), Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception, Advances in Psychology (Vol. 126, pp. 47–74). Amsterdam: North-Holland/Elsevier.Laszlo, E. (1972). Introduction to Systems Philosophy: toward a new paradigm of contemporary thought. New York N.Y.: Harper Torch.Laszlo, E. (1972). The Systems View of the World. Oxford: Blackwell.Laszlo, E. (2006). Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos: The Rise of the Integral Vision of Reality. Inner Traditions.Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. London: Reidel.Rapoport, A. (1986). General System Theory: essential concepts & applications. Cambridge Mass.: Abacus Press.Rousseau, D. (2011) Minds, Souls and Nature: A Systems-Philosophical Analysis of the Mind-Body Relationship in the Light of Near-Death Experiences. (PhD Thesis, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David).Rousseau, D. (2013). Systems Philosophy and the Unity of Knowledge. Forthcoming in Systems Research and Behavioral Science.