Systems All the Way Down

Chaos and the Never-Ending Story of Creativity

 By Christian de Quincey

Permission to publish the following article has been granted by the author -- September 11, 1997.

NOTE: Christian de Quincey holds an MA in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies from John F. Kennedy University, Orinda, CA where he is an adjunct faculty member. He is editor/science writer with Noetic Sciences and a freelance author specializing in the history, philosophy and science of consciousness. He can be contacted at E-mail de Quincey.

There is a story told about the psychologist William James and a little old lady who was attending one of his talks on the nature of reality. James had just finished his lecture when the old woman approached him: "Excuse me, Professor, but I'm afraid you've got it all wrong. The world is really supported on the back of a great big turtle." The venerable professor, being a gentleman, decided to humor the woman: "Tell me, then, what is holding the turtle up?" Quick as a flash, the old lady snapped back: "Another turtle, of course." "And what's supporting that turtle?" James asked, trying to ease her gently to a realization of her mistake. The conversation went on like this for another round or two and eventually, the little old lady interrupted with a noticeable tremor of exasperation: "Save your breath, sonny. It's turtles all the way down."

If all there is is systems, how do we distinguish one from another? If systems fill our universe from end to end and top to bottom, how can we step back and make sense of such an infinite chaotic flux? How can we use the concept of "systems" to help us organize and make sense of our world? Where do we start?

Well, in a sense we can't step back, because we are thoroughly embedded in this grand system of systems we call "the universe" or "reality." Embeddedness is a fundamental property of systems. We are stuck right in there like a currant inside a muffin. But we can turn to another fundamental property to help us in the difficult task of creating order from the apparent chaos-- and that property is "boundedness."

Every system is defined by its boundary. Except possibly the ultimate system--that "grand system of systems" just mentioned. The universe, so great minds like Einstein tell us, is finite butunbounded -- it is an expanding balloon of spacetime... But let's not get hung up on such cosmological conundrums here; for now, let's just stick with more manageable chunks of the world, like atoms, or cells, or organisms or societies or eco-niches, and see what sense we can make of such systems.

Boundaries help us distinguish systems, since by definition a system is identified by what is inside its boundary. And this leads us to another helpful systemic characteristic: whatever is inside the boundary is that system's self. In other words, the system's boundary separates self from not-self. We should make one more thing clear: boundaries do not have to be physical. They can be psychological (cognitive, emotional, behavioral), and perhaps even spiritual. They certainly can be conceptual. And that's convenient for folk like us embedded in the grand universal flux who want to say meaningful things about different types of systems.

For example, the combination of biological and psychological boundaries that identify me as my "self," allow me to exercise my imagination and step back conceptually to view the wall-to-wall panorama of systems carpeting the universe. By this feat of magic, I can begin to work away at the patterned fabric of the world I see before me and, by tugging at a thread here and another one there, I can begin to see the outlines of other boundaries and other systems.

Inside this bag of skin is me, and over there is a tall redwood tree; right below my fingers are the plastic keys of my keyboard plugged into a flickering computer monitor where these words are appearing, beside my steaming cup of tea. I see the sun dipping through the sky towards the Pacific horizon, I shield my eyes from its glare and catch sight of my wallet and checkbook on the desk. I see systems everywhere. All kinds of systems. Over there, that is a physical system, this here is a biological system; that's a chemical system, that's a cosmological system, and this checkbook is part of an economic system. Some of these thing-systems I recognize as "alive," others appear not to be. However, we all seem to be connected in some way.

Interconnectedness and Hierarchy

And this brings us to two intriguing, and in some ways controversial, concepts associated with systems: "interconnectedness" and "hierarchy." To say that everything is connected to everything else is one of those phrases that is simultaneously both bland and sublime. Its deep truth is so easily obscured by its universality. At one level, it seems almost obvious: How could there be nothing separating any two things? If they were truly separated by a void, how would they ever interact or communicate from their separate bubble universes? (The real conundrum in physics and philosophy is not so much "action-at-a-distance" as "action-through-a-void.") If, on the other hand, there was literally "nothing" separating them, then, of course, logically they would be connected. So, to be part of the same uni-verse, everything, it seems, must be connected in some way. But is such an insight really helpful? If it spurs us toward more ecologically-minded perceptions and actions, then, yes, it may be valuable. But for any such ecologically-motivated actions to be practical, we need to know more: We need to know how everything may be connected. And this brings us to the other concept: "hierarchy."

To many, the term "hierarchy" is emotionally loaded. It smacks of authoritarian power structures. In some postmodern critiques it is associated with patriarchal power plays, the kind of intellectual and social paradigms that have led to the creation of military and industrial complexes which have so devastated human societies and natural environments. Hierarchy has had bad press, and much of it deserved. But that is because the word has been coopted and abused by some of the power structures which have claimed to be models of hierarchy.

Originally, the word "hierarchy" meant something quite different from the connotations it carries today. In the middle ages, the word was used by the Church to characterize the relation- ships within ecclesiastical orders and between the clergy, the faithful, nature, and their God. Its original meaning referred to a "sacred relationship" between creatures and their divine creator. Later, as the Church rigidified into dogmatism, with a power structure designed to enforce the "word of God" as interpreted by the Church authorities, "hierarchy" lost its sense of sacred connection, and came to mean stratified levels of authority and the exercise of power. As a mechanism for asserting obedience, subjugation, and domination, this corrupted version of hierarchy became a natural model for armies to adopt. Today, the concept of hierarchy is most readily associated with chains of military command and with corporate employee relations. Hence its bad press.

However, no matter how justified we may be to bristle at the notion of hierarchy (as corrupted), we should be careful not to lose sight of the usefulness of the uncorrupted concept for describing actual relations between natural systems. Whether or not we object to the implicit notion of authoritarian power structures, it is difficult to consistently deny that nature appears to be structured as levels of organization or complexity. We have elementary particles which give rise to atoms; atomic structures form molecules, which in turn form macromolecules such as proteins and DNA, which are the basis for living organelles and cells, which congregate and cooperate to form the profusion of living organisms populating the planet. To deny this structuring of life within life, built up from simpler inorganic constituents, is to deny the complex ecological relationships which have come about through evolution. Evolution, as a progressive complexification of matter and psychobiotic systems, is ostensibly a dynamic process of ever- increasing levels of complexity and organization. In this sense, in the sense of nested systems within systems, hierarchy is an accurate and appropriate description of nature.

What hierarchy does not mean, in this sense, is a one-way chain of command, with power residing either at the top (authoritarianism), or at the bottom (reductionism). If we picture nature's nested systems as circles within circles within circles, where the boundaries of all the circles are permeable, then hierarchy, in this sense, permits the flow of information and energy both up and down, and laterally, between systems at all levels. Hierarchy involves communication of information and energy through "upward causation" (from lower level [meaning less complex] systems to higher-level [meaning more complex and organized] systems), and "downward causation" (from higher level systems to its component parts); as well as horizontal causation (laterally between systems on the same level). In this sytems view of hierarchy, power resides in the cooperative relationships between the various systems and their parts.

Arthur Koestler coined a new term, "holon," to refer to the systemic nature of the relationship between wholes and parts. Every whole is also a part of a greater system; and every part is a whole in relationship to its components. Holons are thus, "Janus-faced" entities, facing both upwards and downwards (Janus was an ancient dual-faced Greek god). Sensitive to the negative connotations of the historically-loaded version of "hierarchy," Koestler proposed the alternative term "holarchy" to capture the sense of multidirectional open-flow between nested systems. Another term, related to "hierarchy," that sometimes causes dissonance is "the Great Chain of Being." It is used both in a biological-ecological sense to mean the symbiotic relationships between different life forms (for example, in the predator-prey relationship referred to as the "food chain"), and in a spiritual-metaphysical sense to mean different, though connected, levels of reality, from matter, body, mind, and soul, to spirit. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the word "chain" has connotations of "chain of command" associated with the corrupted sense of hierarchy. When it is used as a metaphor to imply a continuum, or continuity, a link or connection, between levels of complexity or of being, it carries the same meaning as Koestler's holarchy. However, the image of a chain invokes the notion of linearity, of interlocking units, and it leaves out the important and intrinsic sense of levels of complexity and interdependence characteristic of nested Systems. For this reason, it might be better to speak of the "Great Holarchy of Being."

Whether we prefer to adopt the term "hierarchy," or "holarchy," or some other term, the universe presents itself to us as a system composed of parts-within-wholes, of systems within systems, organized through time and evolution as interdependent levels of complexity. Each part, including you and me, is integral to the whole; and, in some holographic sense, each part is a microcosm of the greater macrocosm. Each part contains within itself the seed or template of the whole.


No Chaos, No System

If everything is a system--if it's wall-to-wall systems all the way down--then the notion of "system" is meaningless. There is nothing to distinguish "system" from "non-system." For anything to exist, it needs its opposite. No yin without yang. No order without chaos. No energy without entropy. No information without noise. No system without. . . what? I'm tempted to say "chaos," but even chaos is riddled with bifurcating fractal systems all the way down.

And I think that's just the point. There is no system without chaos, just as there is no chaos without systems. Chaos and systems are embedded in each other all the way up and all the way down. They are like life and death, existence and the void. Just as the void is a plenum, brim-full of potential for a universe bursting with evolution and creativity, so too chaos is both the source and sink of system--systems forever exploring pathways of innovation, building up new twists of organization, and dissipating disorder back into the womb of chaos. And it is just as likely that this process is never ending as it never had a beginning. What goes down must come up. Right?


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