Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness
by Donivan Bessinger

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5

World as System

En panta.
Heraclitus

The oldest known symbol of the universe is the circle, the symbol of completeness. In ancient China, the symbol first took the form of the pi'i disc, a flat doughnut-like circle of stone. Eventually they were decorated with inscriptions and elaborated into other designs, such as a dragon circled upon itself. In ancient Egypt and Greece, the similar ring-like symbol of the snake eating its tail (of which Kekule dreamed)* had been known as the ourabouros. It was prominent in alchemy, representing a circular, self-contained process.* In at least one alchemical source, * inscribed within that symbol is this idea in Greek: En panta.

The inscription derives from the writings of Heraclitus who flourished in Greece about 500 BCE. He was discussing the Logos, or Word, or Meaning:

Heidegger interprets the passage, "One unifying All." * From the earliest stages of cultural development, mankind has seemed to live intimately with the concept, or meaning, of being at oneness with the environment, and has sensed the universe as a whole system. That feeling is especially prominent in Oriental teachings, and in the shamanic traditions among the Original American People. * In the passage from Heraclitus we find a very similar feeling at the origins of Western philosophy.

As Western culture has developed into the technological age, however, we have grown progressively away from that heritage, content to leave such awareness to mystic religionists who seem to our scientific minds a "little odd."

It was perhaps inevitable, for it was essential to our understanding of the material world and to our technologic development that we learn to focus consciousness narrowly on a particular object of interest. The object may be an idea: an object of thought. Such a focused consciousness is apparent in the thought of Heraclitus and his contemporaries, and is carried into the inquiries into nature of Archimedes, Aristotle and many others.

The focus on manipulating the material world as a method of understanding is apparent in the impulses of alchemy, and of course is critical to the experimental method which has developed our base of scientific knowledge. In our ordinary encounter with the world, conscious mind must focus on a specific object (or group of objects).

To define the object further, we bring consciousness into an ever more narrow focus until we reach the limits of the study. Even in our ordinary lives, the generally diffuse consciousness into which we awaken each morning must become a consciousness focused on a succession of tasks at hand.

However, the focused studies with which we have tilled the fields of knowledge have yielded a harvest of an increasingly complex fruit. On the one hand, we are led to even more levels of specialization of human tasks, and to a profusion of disciplines which tend to see the world only in terms of the one area of study. However, it has also finally brought us to the point of beginning to understand complexity itself.

The diffuse specialty of studying complexity has operated under a number of names which reflect the variety of backgrounds from which it has developed -- names such as operations research, information theory, cybernetics, or systems theory. The term operations research * was first used in World War II, to refer to the work of interdisciplinary teams of scientists who were brought together to study the considerable logistic problems. In civilian life, those techniques came to be applied in management sciences generally.

Cybernetics * is the term coined by mathematician Norbert Wiener as the title of a 1948 book which dealt with the science of control and communication processes in man and machines. The subject is closely related to automation, * a word coined in 1936 in reference to automatic manufacturing operations.

Information theory grows out of the need for understanding the capacities and interactions of increasingly complex electronic communications and data systems. A simple telephone intercom "system" presents no major theoretical problems, and really is no system at all. However, when there are many calls and many different types of data (information) originating irregularily and unpredictably, moving in different formats at different rates to widely diverse destinations, and requiring different kinds of switching and transmission equipment, the design and control problems become quite complex indeed. Such an arrangement even requires a certain level of internal interactive "intelligence" to prevent an overload or breakdown. At that level of complexity of operation, the process in its entirety is a system.

Systems theory has come to mean the science of dealing generically with all such big operations. Systems theory is concerned with how processes which involve the participation of many units work together in some purposeful way. Sometimes the purpose is intended and designed into the system, as in a computer-controlled manufacturing operation. Sometimes the purpose is only implied, as in the operation of natural life processes.

Scientists have long held that it is not appropriate for science to think in terms of "teleology", or purpose, in the operation of natural mechanisms. For the scientist, the study of purpose, along with such other abstractions as meaning, is the province of philosophy, specifically of metaphysics. Yet natural systems do indeed seem to operate toward perpetuating the system. With respect to life systems, we say the purpose is survival.

Of course, the system that is a biological organism does not survive forever -- it ends up dying. But in the natural world, systems contain systems. It seems true that, for everything that we know about (except perhaps for the universe itself, and maybe even that), the natural system operates as if to perpetuate itself and/or the system of which it is a subsystem. Viewed as a system, the universe itself is a wholeness. But we knew that at the origins of philosophy. After all, En panta.

Accepting that premise in the complex modern world, however, is not as easy as it sounds. In a world in which specialists focus consciousness so strongly and so precisely on their own well-defined square of the gridwork of knowledge, we have difficulty seeing the links that define the interactions between the units or subsystems of a major system. Sometimes that is because we have not yet discovered the link, but usually the problem is that we fail to see them. The scientific worldview has such a strong sensing-thinking-judging function that it is hard to deal intuitively with the many links and "strange loops" which are already known.

To gain a deeper understanding of the universe as a whole system, it will be helpful to consider its component systems and to discover some of the more important links that illustrate its interrelatedness. Before turning to that task, let us consider some basic concepts of general systems theory.


The essential feature of a system is that the units which compose it are related to each other. In the system, a unit influences other units and is in turn influenced by the others. The working of a system creates a result that is distinct from the result of the simple working of its units independently. The effect of the whole is distinct from the effect of all its parts.

Systems theory is generic, * and its principles can be applied in analyzing any type of system. A concrete system is a system of units which are part of the material world. That is to say, it operates in the spacetime dimensions, and is subject to the laws of the physical universe. Its units are composed of matter and/or energy. Of course since Einstein, we know that the two are inter-convertible. Similar theories may be applied to a conceptual system that is composed of words or symbols, and could be computer programs or mathematical equations.

Natural systems typically consist of systems of subsystems nested within larger systems still. That illustrates one of the primary considerations in understanding modern systems theory: the concept of levels. For example, the human organism consists of many functional systems -- the circulatory, digestive, and musculoskeletal, for example. Each consists of several organs working together for a common purpose. Yet within each organ is a variety of tissues which consist of particular specialized cell types. Each cell is itself a small but quite complex organism with its own local environment, its own array of independant functions, and its own nested molecular subsystems in the cytoplasm and the nucleus. The molecules themselves consist of atoms, then particles, then quarks and gluons, then ... the field in which all exists.

But the human is only a part of a larger system including other humans (social systems). That depends on its relationships with other living things in the immediate vicinity (ecological systems) and in the total biosphere. Atmospheric systems (for example, weather systems) and geologic systems relate also to all life, and all earth systems are in turn dependent on and subsist within the solar, galactic, and cosmic systems, within the field in which all exists. The progressionÄregression seems, and may be, infinite.

In accounting for processes or actions at one level, one must consider also actions at adjacent levels. Systems and their subsystems are often described as hierarchies. However, particularly in natural systems, "orders" and "reports" do not typically travel as if in the hierarchy of military command. They may cross the boundaries in many parallels, so that many effects of a process at one level may be apparent at many places on another level.

There are many different types of processes that occur in a system or subsystem. For example, there are units or components organized to deal with input and output. In a living organism, these are the taking in of nutrients and respiratory gases, the radiation of energy (e.g. heat) and the excretion of waste products. In an information system, these activities are concerned with data and energy input and output.

Within the system there is a distributor subsystem, such as an animal's circulatory system or a computer's data bus and distribution network. Other generic subsystem processes are internal converters (digestion, decoding), producers (chemical synthesis, data switching), storage (fat and glycogen, data memory), motor (muscules, robotic movement), reproducer (genital system, data copy), and supporter systems (skeleton, hardware frame).

We must look also at the important concept of a system's boundary. The boundary may be concrete or conceptual, but at each level, the concept of system requires a boundary. In living systems, the boundary may be the integument (skin) or the cell membrane. The boundary helps maintain the internal environment. It provides appropriate entrance and exit of matter and energy, and filters improper input. The boundary defines the limits of system (subsystem) processes. Without the concept of boundary, an operation of combined processes (a system) cannot be seen as having integrity and coherence.

However, the boundary does not define the limits of a system's influence. While the boundary is a barrier, it is a selective barrier (filter). A system boundary that is a total barrier to all internal and external influences is inconceivable within the universe, for all that exists does exist within the influence of (at a minimum) the gravitational field. No system (except perhaps the universe itself) exists in isolation. Systems are open.

Systems are also characterized by internal adjustment processes. In a simple linear operation, an "order" continues in effect while the operation is on. However, a system has feedback loops by which a "report" effects the continuation of "orders." * In computer systems, such a loop is programmed with statements such as "DO procedure P, (but) IF X is greater than A, THEN DO procedure Q, then return to procedure P."

In systems, such feedback loops work toward a state of equilibrium, in which variables are kept within a certain range of values. Since the variables are subject to constant change, the equilibrium is dynamic, * and is sometimes referred to as a flux equilibrium or steady state. As a variable moves toward the limit of its range, the system is placed in strain, keying a variety of possible internal adjustments or "healing" responses acting to restore balance.

Even the equilibrium of non-living macrocosmic systems can be conceived in terms of feedback. Though a smaller body is held by the gravity of a larger one, the smaller's gravity may be seen as a feedback attracting the larger. If one of a group of bodies (e.g. asteroids) were to fall out of orbit, the relative positions of the remaining bodies would be readjusted by the network (field) of gravitational influences.

Systems are also characterized by rhythm. * The feedback signals result in repeated fluctuations or changes that at various levels are described as cycles, orbits, oscillations, periods, pulses, vibrations, waves, etc., all reflecting the dynamics of the interactions in the system.

Astronomical bodies exhibit rhythms as well, in their revolutions, rotations, and in the perturbations of their axes. Further, in its characteristic elliptical orbit (Kepler's first law), a body's forward motion changes while its angular motion around the central body remains constant (Kepler's second law). There is also the harmonic law (Kepler's third) * of the relationship between a planet's size and its period of orbit. Some scientists conjecture that the current expansion of the universe (observed in the red shift of the light of receeding bodies) represents but one pulse of an expansionÄcontraction cycle of the universe.

Living systems also exhibit a characteristic increase in the order of complexity as one moves "up" the scale from subsystem to system. The higher system contains more component subsystems. It demonstrates more modification, more organization, more differentiation, and more specialization in its functions. This phenomenon has been called shred-out, * because it is like the unravelling of a rope in which each unwinding exposes more and more strands, then more and more fibers.

Living systems also exhibit emergence. An emergent is a characteristic which arises out of the function of the system at a particular level. Describing such a characteristic requires describing more than the operations of the system's components. An emergent is "something special" * arising from the system, such as the phenomenon of life emerging at the level of the primal cell, as language emerging at the level of the human being, and as the capacity to build space ships emerging at the level of the large science-technology task group.

The systems vision of the universe as a vibrant, pulsating, self-balancing harmonic whole is markedly different from the classic scientific view of the universe as a giant machine, well-greased to be sure, but operating in a fixed and entirely predictable, determined way. In the systems view, one sees the universe as process, rhythmically interacting at all levels.

The systems view opens the way to examine these inter-relationships at many levels. It brings us again to the origins of philosophy and to the insights of Heraclitus, for in addition to seeing all as one, Heraclitus saw all as change. The world was in flux, exhibiting repeating cycles of energy. The systems view shows us that too. In spiraling again toward Heraclitus' position, we carry with us a much greater weight of learning, and as he warned us, we "cannot step into the same river twice." We cannot expect to entirely close the circle but we do bridge the gap and link across the levels of the spiral to grasp these strange loops which he extended for us:



Related exhibit from Religion Confronting Science:

[ Generic systems diagram ]



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