Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

An Outline of General System Theory

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

An Outline of General System Theory

Article excerpt

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (with an introduction by Alicia Juarrero and Carl A. Rubino from their edited collection Emergence, Complexity & Self-Organization: Precursors and Prototypes published June 2008 from ISCE Publishing, ISBN 9780981703213).

Originally published as von Bertalanffy, L. (1950). "An outline of general system theory," British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, 1:134-165. Reprinted with kind permission.

We concluded our recently published collection of essays, entitled Emergence, Complexity, and Self-Organization: Precursors and Prototypes (ISCE Publishing, 2008), with excerpts from Ludwig von Bertalanffy's classic 1950 article, "An Outline of General System Theory." We decided to include Bertalanffy's essay not only because of its prescience in predicting the rediscovery of systems, but also because of its positive contributions to the discussion of emergence, complexity, and self-organization. As such, it is worth reprinting here.

Bertalanffy explicitly acknowledges the role that interactions among components play in producing organized complexity. By also recognizing the inescapable irreducibility of the interdependence that comes into play as a result of those interactions, he gives ontological status to the wholeness characteristic of systems. He also notes that, unlike the systems that have traditionally been studied in physics and chemistry, organisms and living systems are open systems, and that the continuous exchange of matter and energy with the environment causes significant differences to appear, not the least of which is the ability of living systems to achieve a metastable steady state maintained by the flux of energy and materials.

Echoing Kant, who is the first writer to appear in our collection, Bertalanffy, ends with a discussion of the teleological character present in the structure and form that results from the self-organization of open systems, and, in particular, the equifinality in evidence in all living systems, that is, their tendency to reach the same final state despite tracing very different trajectories.

1 Parallel Evolution in Science

As we survey the evolution of modern science, we find the remarkable phenomenon that similar general conceptions and viewpoints have evolved independently in the various branches of science, and to begin with these may be indicated as follows : in the past centuries, science tried to explain phenomena by reducing them to an interplay of elementary units which could be investigated independently of each other. In contemporary modern science, we find in all fields conceptions of what is rather vaguely termed 'wholeness.'

It was the aim of classical physics eventually to resolve all natural phenomena into a play of elementary units, the characteristics of which remain unaltered whether they are investigated in isolation or in a complex. The expression of this conception is the ideal of the Laplacean spirit, which resolves the world into an aimless play of atoms, governed by the laws of nature. This conception was not changed but rather strengthened when deterministic laws were replaced by statistical laws in Boltzmann's derivation of the second principle of thermodynamics. Physical laws appeared to be essentially 'laws of disorder,' a statistical result of unordered and fortuitous events. In contrast, the basic problems in modern physics are problems of organisation. Problems of this kind present themselves in atomic physics, in structural chemistry, in crystallography, and so forth. In microphysics, it becomes impossible to resolve phenomena into local events, as is shown by the Heisenberg relation and in quantum mechanics.

Corresponding to the procedure in physics, the attempt has been made in biology to resolve the phenomena of life into parts and processes which could be investigated in isolation. This procedure is essentially the same in the various branches of biology. The organism is considered to be an aggregate of cells as elementary life-units, its activities are resolved into functions of isolated organs and finally physico-chemical processes, its behaviour into reflexes, the material substratum of heredity into genes, acting independently of each other, phylogenetic evolution into single fortuitous mutations, and so on. …

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