Erwin Laszlo

The Rise of the Systems Sciences




In this extract from The Systems View of the World, Ervin Laszlo presents the arrival of the systemic approach and its application to reality. This makes possible to go beyond the Newtonian mechanistic world view and opens new perspectives to scientific analysis and understanding.



The protosciences of antiquity sought to penetrate the complexities of phenomena by insight or revelation. Their theories were imaginative and sometimes inspired, but they could seldom stand the test of confrontation with actual experience. Modern science insisted on such confrontation, and discarded all theories (such as theologies or concepts of soul) which either could not be tested against experience or failed the test. Since only simple interactions could be definitely tested, modern science developed as the science of Galileo and Newton. It could handle relatively simple relationships between forces or bodies, and it presented a world picture of a universe that is reducible to such relationships in all essential respects. Newtonian science looked upon the physical universe as an exquisitely designed giant mechanism, obeying elegant deterministic laws of motion. Complex sets of events could be understood by this science only when broken down to their elementary interactions. Whatever was clearly known behaved like a reliable mechanism, and the rest was assumed to do likewise (with the possible exception of mind - a phenomenon which Newtonian science could not even begin to comprehend). Thus the world was thought to be a mechanism, made up of a large number of uniformly behaving parts.

The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the breakdown of the mechanistic theory even within physics, the science where it was the most successful. Sets of interacting relationships came to occupy the center of attention, and these were of such staggering complexity - even within a physical entity as elementary as an atom - that the ability of Newtonian mechanics to provide an explanation had to be seriously questioned. Relativity took over in field physics, and the science of quantum theory in microphysics. The progress of investigation in other sciences followed parallel paths. Biology attempted to divest itself of the ad hoc dualism of a “life principle” as it appeared in the vitalism of Driesch, Bergson, and others, and tried to achieve a more testable theory of life. But the laws of physics were insufficient to explain the complex interactions which take place in a living organism, and thus new laws had to be postulated - not laws of “life forces,” but laws of integrated wholes, acting as such. Just as the science of economics proved to be incapable of explaining the rise of stock prices on the basis of the individual personalities of stockbrokers and public, so the science of biology was unable to explain the self-preservation of the animal organism by recourse to the physical laws governing the behavior of its atoms and molecules. New laws were postulated, which did not contradict physical laws but complemented them. They showed what highly complex sets of things, each subject to the basic laws of physics, do when they act together. In view of parallel developments in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, and economics, contemporary science became, in Warren Weaver’s phrase, the “science of organized complexity.”

Equipped with the concepts and theories provided by the contemporary sciences, we can discern systems of organized complexity wherever we look. Man is one such system, and so are his societies and his environment. Nature itself, as it manifests itself on this earth, is a giant system maintaining itself, although eventually all its individual parts get sifted out and replaced, some more quickly than others. Setting our sights even higher in terms of size, we can see that the solar system and the galaxy of which it is a part are also systems, and so is the astronomical universe of which our galaxy is a component.

Some systems endure for a relatively long time - a stable atom, for example, or the terrestrial biosphere as a whole. Others are more short-lived, such as a May-fly or a picket line. Yet while they exist, regardless of how long, each system has a specific structure made up of certain maintained relationships among its parts, and manifests irreducible characteristics of its own. If we want to know more about them we have to treat them as systems, that is, as wholes with properties of their own. That way we can find out, something about them - how they behave under various conditions, how they evolve or decay, what parts or sub-systems have controlling influence within them, and so on. It is quite unfeasible to come to know these things by considering the specific interactions of each of their individual parts; there are too many of them.

Ours is a complex world. But human knowledge is finite and circumscribed. “Nature does not come as clean as you can think it,” warned Alfred North Whitehead, and went on to propound an extremely clean and elegant cosmology. Since theories, like window panes, are clear only when they are clean, and the world does not come as cleanly as all that, we must know where we perform a clean-up operation. Scientific theories, while simpler than reality, must nevertheless reflect its essential structure. Science, then, must beware of rejecting the structure for the sake of simplicity; that would be to throw out the baby with the bath water.

The specialist concentrates on detail and disregards the wider structure which gives it context. The new scientist, however, concentrates on structure on all levels of magnitude and complexity, and fits detail into its general framework. He discerns relationships and situations, not atomistic facts and events. By this method he can understand a lot more about a great many more things than the rigorous specialist, although his understanding is somewhat more general and approximate. Yet some knowledge of connected complexity is preferable even to a more detailed knowledge of atomized simplicity, if it is connected complexity with which we are surrounded in nature and of which we ourselves are a part. If this is the case, to have an adequate grasp of reality we must look at things as systems, with properties and structures of their own. Systems of various kinds can then be compared, their relationships within still larger systems defined, and a general context established. If we are to understand what we are, and what we are faced with in the social and the natural world, evolving a general theory of systems is imperative.

“Systems sciences” are springing up everywhere, as contemporary scientists are discovering organized wholes in many realms of investigation. Systems theories are applied in almost all of the natural and social sciences today, and they are coming to the forefront of the human sciences as well. There is also a science of systems as such - the  General Systems Theory developed by von Bertalanffy and his collaborators.
These new sciences, which are at the forefront of contemporary scientific inquiry, adopt a flexible method. The systems approach does not restrict the scientist to one set of relationships as his object of investigation; he can switch levels, corresponding to his shifts in research interest. A systems science can look at a cell or an atom as a system, or it can look at the organ, the organism, the family, the community, the nation, the economy, and the ecology as systems, and it can view even the biosphere as such. A system in one perspective is a subsystem in another. But the systems view always treats systems as integrated wholes of their subsidiary components and never as the mechanistic aggregate of parts in isolable causal relations.

The systems view is the emerging contemporary view of organized complexity, one step beyond the Newtonian view of organized simplicity, and two steps beyond the classical world views of divinely ordered or imaginatively envisaged complexity.


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