Fritjof Capra, "Complexity and Life", ISSS 2006 at Sonoma State University, Sunday, July 9, 2006, 8:00 p.m.
Fritjof Capra, Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley, at the 50th Annual Meeting of the ISSS,
Sonoma State University, July 9, 2006, 8:00 p.m..
These participant's notes were created in real-time during the meeting,
based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience.
These should not be viewed as official transcripts of the meeting, but
only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical
errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions
about content should be directed to the originator. These notes have
been contributed by David Ing (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the
Systemic Business Community ( http://systemicbusiness.org ).
Introduction by Debora Hammond
- First heard a tape of him, many years ago
- Turning Point, Web of Life
- Has moved onto the work of Leonardo Da Vinci
- Organizations that serve, as well as preserve for future
- Center for Ecoliteracy.
tonight is the new understanding of life, over the last 20 years:
integrating biological, psychological and cognitive dimension
Systems thinking means in terms of relationships, patterns, processes and context
- Complexity theory, non-linear dynamics
Review the historical development
- Biological form
- Number versus form
- Bateson, Mind and Nature: do you ask what it's made of, or do you ask what is its pattern
- Pythagoreans ask about patterns
- Aristotle had 4 causes: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and the final case
- First two are tension between matter and form
- Two perspectives, matter and form
Often tension between parts and wholes
- Parts: mechanistic
- Whole: systemic
Matter and form distinction has persisted, in different fields: biology, psychology
- Organized relations
- Gestalts, systems within systems
- Ecosystems, ecological cycles, networks, communities
End of 1930, well defined
1940s: systems theories
- Coherent frameworks, organizations of living systems
- Classical systems theories: general systems theory and cybernetics
- They represent the two perspectives: matter and form
- Matter uses the language of physics and chemistry to describe material structure, forces: von Bertalanffy
- Form: abstract mapping of relationships, e.g. networks of feedback loops
- Historical development: lack of communication between the two forces
lots of discussion about whether living systems are open or closed:
from matter, they're open, but in form they're closed
Mid-20th century: molecular biology and genetics, DNA, new mechanistic thinking
- Systems thinking went underground
1970s-1980s, systems thinking re-emerged
- Two innovations:
- Non-linear dynamics, the new mathematics of complexity
- Feature of these new theories is a new mathematical language to handle living systems
the simplest living cell is a network involving thousands of chemical
reactions that are interdependent and go on all of the time
- New techniques: chaos theory and fractal geometry
had previously tried to avoid non-linear equations: i.e. the
first thing you do is linearize it, so that you can solve something
- Looking for lost keys under the lamp
- 1970s had high-speed computers to tackle non-linear equations
- Revealed surprising patterns, an underlying order
- Chaos theory is really a theory of order, an order revealed by the new mathematics
- Summary by Ralph Abraham: "chaos is okay"
- Result not a formula, but a physical shape, a pattern traced by the computer
- Visual descriptions of complex dynamics
One of first scientists to use non-linear dynamics was Prigogine
- Living systems, under non-linear
- 1960s, systems far from equilibrium
- Breakthrough: systems far from equilibrium must be described by non-linear equations
- Become theory of dissipative structures
- Bertalanffy: living systems maintains itself far from equilibrium, yet it is stable: a state of flowing balance
- Prigogine coined this a dissipative structure: close interplay between structure, and flow/change
- Dynamics: spontaneous emergence of new forms of order
- May reach instability or bifurcation into a new state
- Order a new stability -- now called emergence -- is important to the understanding of life
- Emergence is a hallmark of life
- Creativity, the creation of novelty is a key property of all living systems
- This property is all related to the openness of the system to flows of energy and matter
- Open systems develop, learn, evolve
Second principle of self-organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s: autopoesis by Maturana and Varela
- From ecology: recognition that networks are the basic pattern
- Ecosystems are understood as food web
we see life, we set networks: don't that this literally, because
they're functional networks, between processes: chemical
reactions, feeding relations
- Network is an abstract, non-material pattern
- During the 1960s, while Prigogine
- Maturana: circular organization, but also components are produced and maintained by it
- The key characteristic of living networks is that they're self-generating
- Cells, etc., continuously produced, maintained by living networks
- Transform and replace components
- Continued structural changes
- Autopoesis, means self-making
- Coherent theory of self-generating networks
Two outstanding theories applying complexity theory again reflect the study of matter and form
- Prigogine comes from Bertalanffy, open systems
- Maturana, from cybernetics: patterns of organization
- Little communications between the followers of Prigogine and the followers of Maturana
- Opinion that require synthesis
- Have provide the outline of synthesis in the last two books
Emergence and refinement of pattern of organization has been a central theme in systems of thinking
- Pattern as relationships
- Ecologists as patterns of life
- Causal links
- Mathematics of visual patterns
- Also need to understand details of systems structure
of organization: the configuration of relationships among the
system components that determines the system's essential characteristics
- e.g. something that is essentially a bicycle, a chair or a cat
a bicycle, imagine had brought all of the parts of a bicycle and put
them on the stage: would say it's not a bicycle, it's the parts
of a bicycle
- Get a bicycle by putting them togehter in an order: the pattern of organization
- To describe the pattern of organization, can use a language, e.g. don't know to know whether frame is heavy or light
- Description of structure is the material embodiment
- Abstract mapping of relationships
- Describing actual physical components
Living systems is different
- Thousands of chemical reactions
- Dynamic nature suggests process as a third criteria for a comprehensive description
- Life: the process in the material embodiment
- Link between pattern and structure
All three criteria are interdependent: patterns, structure and process
theories of self-organization: can identify the structure as
dissipative as per Prigogine, and as autopoetic as Maturana
New conception of mind and consciousness, overcoming Cartesianism
- Proposed by Bateson and Maturana, elaborated by Maturana and Varela
- Abandon the mind as a thing: Descartes on the mind as an extended thing
- See the mind as part of the life process
- Rich interdisciplinary field: cognitive science, the process of knowing
- Maturana: the process of knowing, and the process of life
- Self-perpetuation of living networks
- Life and cognition become immanent
- Mind and matter are complementary
- Now have a scientific theory of mind, matter and life
Last part: the synthesis can be extended into the social dimension: in The Hidden Connections
- Assumption: fundamental unity of life
- Evolution has proceeded for billions of years, by using the same patterns
- Patterns may become more elaboration, but are still variations on the same patterns
- Social domain: extend life's basic patterns, and organization; living networks to social reality
- Luhmann: social networks are networks of communications
- Need to consider our inner worlds of consciouness and culture; value, goals, conflicts, power
- Matter, form and process aren't sufficient, need a fourth perspective
Social networks are self-generating, but don't generate material structures
- Material structures are different form those from biological networks
- Come from design, embody some meaning
- The fourth perspective of life: the perspective of meaning -- culture, consciousness, inner life
Form, matter, process and and meaning
Juxtapose biological and social networks: a half-day exercise
- Biological networks operate in matter
- Social networks operate in meaning
- Biological networks exchange molecules
- Social networks exchange ideas
- Biological networks have a material boundary
- Social networks produce and sustain a non-material culture boundary, constraining behaviour of members
- Can push this far
Extension includes the material world
- For social scientists, this is unusual, because they're not traditionally interested in matter
- Social structures are rules of behaviour
- In the future, strict divisions may not be possible
- Future: build ecological sustainable communities
- Design principles of future communities must be consistent with nature's ability to maintain life
Conclude with some recent theoretical developments
- Biochemistry and biology: pre-biotic or molecular evolution, Morawitz
- Morphogenesis, biology of form, Stuart Kauffman, Ian Stuart
- Gaia theory: Margulis
- Cognitive science: consciousnessness: Varela, Dimasio, Lakoff
- Social theory: networks, e.g. Castells, Barabasi
- Organizational theorists: Wheatley, Juanita Brown
Often shy away from living systems, to emphasis networks
- Doesn't change the fact that they're working in the systems sciences
does this lead? Not to a systems science. Science means
testable in experience. Either change the name of ISSS to remove
science, or we support the work that links to systems science.
these ideas are beautiful, but they shouldn't be calling systems
science, as in the ISSS, as science is based on experience.
- All the scientists I mentioned and models I mentioned are empirical scientists
- It's standard science in methods
- Systems science vision: a patchwork of theories and models, glued together by systems science
- Not an overarching theory, but a language so that we know how to relate
say these as stories. Kaufman, etc. patterns. Haven't included
concrete examples on how these things relate to biological things.
Eastern medicine is systemic, don't know whether it's right or
wrong. Empirical science?
- Answer is yes, didn't have time to go into this.
- Many examples in the last two books.
team at the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, ETH, autopoetic chemical
systems, non-living (no proteins), but are self-generating; trying to
relate this to RNA and DNA
- Brian Goodwin, formation of single
cell organization in the Mediterranean that forms parasols:
computer model of the cells, good results in simulations
- Agree, they're the minority school, and the majority are reductionist
- At completion of the human genome project, biologist now know it's not about the thing, but the biogenesis
Unification of form affect fundamental physics?
to how to chaos theory and complexity theory relate to quantum theory?
Haven't followed this. From colleagues, not very clear.
In the new future, a grand theory of systems, with general principles, rules and laws?
- It's possible to develop a theory, but we're far away.
- We need to adopt these three different perspectives.
- Can't just, as Bertalanffy, say will write down equations. Also need the patterns perspectives
- In social systems, learn not only from cognitive, but also from social scientists, anthropologists, historians
- In social systems, have people will map communications about how people link to each other, but they never what they talk about.
- Need all dimensions.
- The time to have these dimensions coalesce is probably still very far away.
Meaning: can this be understood from sciences below? Art and aesthetics inform? Where does this lead?
- An interesting suggestion.
we extend the systemic approach to the social dimension, we need to
learn from the insights of cognitive science, political science,
philosophy, history, humanities.
- Have not added the arts to that. I should have.
area where I have thought a lot is in the Center for Ecoliteracy:
using principles of ecology in primary and secondary education,
and we extensively use the arts, with an emotional connection to the
Reintegrate matter, form and process. What is the most promising approach?
- Requires a long response. Read the last book, and then can correspond.
As we get further into understanding, may understand our first language of music has been ignored.
- Along the same lines as what we can learn from artists.
- Have also thought about this historically. Working on the synthesis of art and science with Leonardo Da Vinci.
- Da Vinci composed music, but we don't have any records.
Complexity. Democracy? A crisis in democracy?
- Yes. A whole different talk. It's certainly true.
- It's come to such an extent that I hesitate to make comments in public, because I'm not an American citizen, have a green card.
- Democracy is interesting in systems science: is there democracy in non-living systems, are there morals and ethics?
Not only art, but also myth in self-organizing systems?
- 30 years, when started Tao of Physics, started from the mystical traditions, but that's not work I'm doing now.
Realistic to discuss sustainability? Greeks, cyclicality? One political system, or a cycle?
- Reflects a confusion.
- What is sustained in a society is life, not the status quo, but it's life itself.
- We're now interfering with those cycles, we're interrupting.
- Not honouring, or cooperating with life.
- Continuous change in life.
preconference workshop on Bateson. Mind may not be in body, but
in the system. Networks, in the worldwide web, so large that it's
not mappable. Comment on this explosive network on the idea of
mind. A global mind?
- If you associate mind with life,
and as Bateson and Maturana the maintenance of a living system, then
every living system will be associated with some type of cognition:
up to Gaia.
- Total Gaia mind in human and non-human structures
- Not much work has been done on this. Best book starting on this is by John Ury, Lancaster University, Global Complexity.
like history of sociology. Interested in general theory, but have
come to have 2 or 3 general theories or more. May develop 27
hypotheses, and then there are 10 or 15 things still missing.
Prefer triangulation. Can't say that one or two theory is
- Patchwork or mosiac of theories interlinked, and the interlinking is the systemic component.
Big bang? Equifinality at the end
- Big bang in the beginning.
- Big crunch a few years away.
- The problems of sustainability are really urgent.
- Can recommend Al Gore's new film, An Uncomfortable Truth
- U.S. is the main contributor to greenhouse gases and global climate change
- It would be easy to increase the efficiency of cars.
- Raising for 20 mpg to 30 mpg would make a big difference, we have the technology, but not the political will.
of pros and cons, of looking at social structures as different from
biological structures. Can see the benefit of looking a social
structures as a metaphor, but what happens when you separate them?
- In terms of patterns of organization, they're similar because they're networks.
- The processes, though, are very different: biochemical versus communications.
- Can't apply biochemistry, but can apply networks. That's the link.
- The link is there, because that's the link of life.
- Social systems came from biological systems.
What community of scientists?
- Studies cognitive science when moved from physics.
- In early 1980s, met Maturana and Varela, especially Varela.
- Link between pattern and structure, form and matter, linked through the process of life, then cognition.
- Then studied Dimasio, Lakoff.
in information. Separating the social from the biological.
DNA. Flight from materiality. Same kinds of risks.
Exchanges of information, where it doesn't become more difficult
to handle these concerns. When we communicate, we change others
materials positions. It's always fugitive.
- Agree. Information as exchange of ideas. Happy to drop information and discuss ideas.
- We tend to think of bits of information being out there, and we can pick it up.
we say it's now 9:25, it sounds a bit of information, but it
presupposes planetary motion, and social construct of how we measure
- It's the same with genetic information. It's an abstraction from a network of processes.
Maturana and Varela. Information and ideas.
talk about information in human consciousness, reflective
consciousness. It's the first step. Maturana didn't go
farther to analyze the abstractions that make it possible to speak
Each system has cognition and intentionality. Gaia has intentionality?
characteristics of consciousness. Wrote about this in Hidden
Connections. Humans have the ability to form abstract mental
images. If can't form an abstract mental image, can't have an
- If prefer some over others, have values.
- Once have value, have conflicts.
- When have conflicts, have power.
- These all rest on the ability to form mental images. This isn't present in plants, or organisms without mental processes.
Sustainable development. Need a theory focused on political agency.
Systems approach studying the evolution of consciousness. Foster conscious evolution?
- Agree, have the possibility to engage in conscious evolution.
- If success means changes, then yes. But if success means sustainability, not going well.
- U.S. policy is lacking some intelligent design.