Thursday, February 08, 2007
  Thoughts on The Systems View of the World
Laszlo, Erwin. The Systems View of the World. New York: George Braziller, 1972. 131 pages.

A few years ago, I really needed this book. The Systems View of the World is very close to a perspective which was productive in my thought as a young scholar. I was certainly not as articulate as the author and I would've liked to have had something to recommend to others.
The book feels a little light, though I suppose the topic doesn't leave much room for data, as the tools Laszlo offers are not so much predictive as interpretive, and in the end its lightness proves to be an advantage. The idea is one that now seems relatively commonplace: that complex systems (economies, ecosystems, living beings) seem to exhibit similar characteristics of self-organization. Laszlo isn't the originator of such concepts (Bertalanffy's general systems theory is credited in the book) but he does a very good job of explaining the advantages of the systems theory perspective in heavily humanistic terms.
From a philosophical perspective, it comes off a little naive, though still very interesting. The whole thing still seems to suffer from an inherent teleology, but in a certain way that's its power. The view described by Laszlo is a very good way of getting a perspective on complex systems. I'm not sure how rigorous the systems perspective he describes will ultimately turn out to be, and I'm not prepared to chime in regarding holism vs. reductionism right now. I do think that the systems perspective is a very good one, and one which is useful for recognizing that to study the properties of trees doesn't always give one a good picture of the forest.
I think that some things we know now complicate the author's hopeful outlook for the systems theory perspective. I'm no expert on the field, but while I was reading this book I couldn't help but wonder if systems theory and chaos theory formed a kind of thesis-antithesis relation, which is slowly synthesizing into the study of "complexity theory" (for lack of an agreed upon description of what's going on at places like the Santa Fe Institute.) Laszlo seems hopeful that as the concepts he sketches out become more precise, more concrete results will arise. Chaos theory showed us that though complex systems do tend to follow broad patterns, these patterns can't give us precise predictions about the behavior of the system. Low level interactions can result in chaotic behavior at higher levels and break down the usefulness of our teleological hierarchization of embedded systems.
To quote the book, in reference to our brains, "no system can process sufficient information to decode every aspect of another system of equal complexity". We rely on high level concepts to recognize broad patterns in extremely complex phenomena. Insomuch as large scale behavior in complex systems is sometimes contingent on low level behavior (the actions of one person in an economy, the firing of one neuron) we can't rely on high level concepts to fully predict the behavior of systems.
The people involved with "complexity theory" seem to be very much influenced by the systems theory perspective and very intent on dealing with and integrating chaos into their understandings of the behavior of such systems.

Laszlo's prose is very effective at times, particularly for a book on a somewhat scientific topic. His discussion on cultural values is interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable from an anthropological perspective and highly based on teleological observations of complex systems. I'm still grappling with whether this line of argumentation is philosophically fruitful.
Despite some small limitations, The Systems View of the World remains an accessible introduction to a compelling semi-philosophical perspective that's been motivating some of the more interesting scientific thinkers over the better part of the last decade.


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