This paper discusses the historical quest for a General Operating principle, or General System Principle, or Theory of Everything as it has been presented in ancient Chinese literature, early Greek philosophy, and modern quantum physics. Bertalanffy's role as the father of the "science of wholeness," what he and we call systems, is granted. The role of "entity" as a ontological basis of atomistic existence is compared with that of "relationships" as the basis of all systemic activity. A contextual "ordinary-language philosophy" meant to supplement the use of esoteric terms is proposed. The present approach of dividing "systems and cybernetic sciences" and most recently, the science of complexity, into "three General systems" is disputed. A relational reinterpretation of Early Greek philosophy is compared to the Chinese system of Yin/Yang. The role of "twos" in both nature and our description of nature is pointed out and the possibility of a modern version combining the general forms of all these systems into a single complementary is proposed. Finally, a "general" relational definition, Part (A), of the General System is offered for universal use by the Primer Group.
Keywords - General Systems Theory, General Systems Principles, Complexity, Simplexity, Relationship Theory, Family of Relationships. The Primer Group
It is time we, especially we in the systems movement, stop fighting amongst ourselves. It is time we unify our principles in the true Bertalanffy tradition, not as disparate and competitive systems, but as aspects of one whole. A house divided against itself will collapse, and history is not kind to fallen theories. We are, above all, if we believe our own precepts, a whole, a meaningful family, if you will, and what we do to others we do onto ourselves. To separate "us from them" is to separate everything. "Separate" is not a operational systemic term. It is time to become the whole that we already are.
The subject of a General Principle, a.k.a. General Systems Theory, is at the root of ISSS's work. Yet little has been done at this most general level. Most systemicists have accepted Bertalanffy's minimal definition - elements, relations and wholes - going on from there to derive their particular system; for example, as Anderson & Carter (1984) write, "Systems models of various kinds are used in many fields besides sociology, so a social system can be thought of as a special case of a more general system model."(1).
But some others go on to create an entire new general system of their own, which they attain by particularizing the general definition somewhat, in effect creating a "sister" GST. For example, the Principia Cybernetica Project within ISSS itself holds, "...that in our time, the age of information, it is systems science and cybernetics, as the general sciences of organization and communication, that can provide the basis for contemporary philosophy." (ISSS Bulletin, 1994, Winter, pp52.)
The former derivative process results in the same thing being said but in different ways. The latter inventive process, unfortunately, is populated by many who would modify the general system by introducing "something new." This "invention," often contains incorrect assumptions subsequently leading to errors making it difficult if not impossible to understand and use their systems. ISSS has hundreds of such "theories" on record.
Clearly, if in fact there is a General System "out there" our task would be not to "invent" unique conceptual theories, but to describe what we have discovered the best we can. And if in fact there is a general system, it is "necessary" that it can be explained in myriad of ways, yet all will be using the same principle. A General System requires a General Principle. Do we find such a "thing" just about anywhere we look?
General System Theory, as a science, was formulated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy at the end of the second world war. It was he who formalized the general concepts of General Systems into the science of Systems. While modern systems has a produced a wealth of system, Bertalanffy's premise still holds. What is new is a new emphasis, not so much on "things" anymore, as it is on their relationships, the "patterns," and then, on the whole.
Bertalanffy was not the first, however, to see the patterns of nature, nor was he even the first to see a general pattern. Systems design was discussed by Lao Tzu as early as the 6th Century B.C. The earliest system, the Chinese Yin/Yang is five thousand years old. Now, as we approach the 21st Century, there are hundreds of "systems" under study conceived of either independently or as a result of Bertalanffy's work. The major problem Bertalanffy spoke of long ago, nevertheless, still remains to this day. He said then,
It is suggested here, as it has been in numerous other studies that the crisis science and humankind are facing in general is much more profound than the difficulty experienced trying to understand different languages. It's not what is written in the language, but the language itself that is problematic. Things are what they do, not what we call them, unless one believes that what we call them is all they do...
Bertalanffy had a vision, a dream that spoke of a greater problem than just the efficiency of knowledge transferal. His perspective was a humanist perspective, a reconstruction of the individual not as a separate entity in a struggle against the world, but in a resonance with the universe.
We in the systems sciences should be greatly concerned that we may be in a micro-Dark Age brought on by a faulty ontological assumption. True systems thinking, if it is to include natural systems, is a radical departure from the old atomistic thinking that has brought science this far. Systemics, insofar as it would be a mirror of reality, is not just about simply organizing separate entities into something we call a whole (as if it were merely a theory of organizations.) Indeed, the most significant difference between the old and the new is that the "old" fundamental concept of separateness i.e., "things," is not a part of systemic ontology (basis of existence). The ontological basis of being, the object, is not the basis of being in systemics. Look at the black and white of this page, then look at what they are doing, that is how different the new system's thinking is from the old. A door not in use is functionally a wall.
Systems thinking's fundamental concept is the connecting relationship - what things are doing to each other. For example computer Bytes are made of Bits in a meaningful relationship. We never see the Bits themselves, nor do we take them for granted. In a sense of Tao, the Bits, the things, are "flow-mates." (20) A thing is a relationship inside out, so to speak; or, better yet, outside in...
The bottom line is that ultimately things, entities, are, internally, relationships.
Classical Ontological existence depends on "qualities" such as color. But the qualities are actually emergent properties of the relationship between relational elements being perceived by us as a different "logical type." It is the expressive relationships (Simplexities), which we perceive as a thing (Simplicites). Therefore, the ontological idea of an "entity" as a disconnected isolated concept is not general enough. This suggests that Classical ontology, as the ontology of all Existence, has no actual basis. This idea is not new, "Maya" is one word to historically describe this particular illusion or "misplaced concreteness."
It follows we need a language of relationships, a language that everyone can understand. We propose that such a transdiscliplinary relational-language can be found in the ordinary and simple language. Indeed, there is already an "Ordinary-Language Philosophy." Wittgenstein has spoken of deriving the meaning of a statement from the contextual relationships between the words. Is is really necessary to create words having a precise meaning, and then not understand them? Or is better to use ordinary words in a contextual way (if you want to be consistent with systemic relational principles) and be able to figure them out? Of particular interest to us are the natural relational-terms, like father or son, or daughter, or sister, or acquaintence, which describe a particular relationship. If we need to create words. they could be functional equivalents of these "friendly" words. Family is such a relational term, that not only describes a whole, but implies all that is implied by our personal idea of what a family is. In a general sense, a system is a family. In a more specific case, a system is a family of relationships. In the sense of what is asked by this paper, General System Science is the family of families. This is not to be unexpected - a system of systems which merge into systems will end up as one system.
The idea of a General System is not necessarily new. If we discard our cultural and spiritual affinities, the concept of a General System can be traced back five thousand years to when the Chinese Yin/Yang was first conceived. Since that time, many writers, East and West, have spoken of a General System, although most if not all of their systems have been stated in the cultural specific language of the author. It is this necessary particularity that limits and confines the system to his culture and subsequently eliminates the generality. We call it the problem of "Misplaced Generality."
The elements of a General Systems View can also be found in the early philosophical writings of the Greeks. That is if we reinterprete them as such. We are going to apply the principles of contextual relations and general systems principles to our first philosophies and see what comes up. It is well worth returning to that early beginning stage, where the axiom "start straight" would apply.
It is rumored that Thales was the first to predict an eclipse on the 28th of May, 585 B.C.. And in fact it did occur. Because there was no distinction between what was philosophy and what was science at that early time, it can be said Thales conducted the first experiment and thus would be the father of science, and May 28th, 585 B.C. would be the birthday. Isaac Asimov also held this view.
Around 585 B.C. Thales of Miletus formulated Western civilization's first philosophy in an attempt to break from the mythical gods of Homer and Hesiod. His rational explanation was the first to replace the magical creation of the Cosmos by the various gods. His idea was simple: the world was constructed of a kind of "stuff", a single thing that made up the world, much like WATER made up the oceans.
But knowledge was not meant to stop evolving and soon afterwards Thales' student, Anaximander, took issue with Thales's model of stuff, water, suggesting that there also was an infinite quality, the Boundless, which was then further modified by Anaximenes to include a specificness about it, much like AIR.
Heraclitus then surmised that Change was an important part of the total picture, a movement from one thing to another much like FIRE consumes and creates new forms of matter. He also spoke of them as the opposites, "What is in opposition, is in concert."
A fifth Ionian philosopher, Empedocles, decided that all of these concepts should be integrated into a whole to include the many not unlike the EARTH integrates all forms of matter. Furthermore, these forces were modulated by the forces of love and hate. Hence the concept of Water, Air, Fire, and Earth was born.
Very little of what Thales actually wrote has been found. What we do have is a verbal account given us by Aristotle. Aristotle's interpretation, however, leads one to believe the four elements actually existed as things, that water, air, fire and earth were actual elements which everything was made of. He also added a fifth celestial sphere, presumably to make it original.
Unfortunately, Aristotle's atomistic treatment of the Ionian philosopher's System as "four elements" -- Water, Air, Fire and Earth missed the point. His approach of four distinct things resulted in a stagnant "elemental" age that lasted more than 1500 years as science sought, instead, to make gold. Secretly of course. Unprofitably, at end...
But what if water was merely an example of Thales "Stuff?" And what if air also was an example of the Boundless? And what if fire was an example of Change rather than the accepted version that everything was fire? And what if earth was an example of what happens when you put all these Together? We would have a Greek General Systems Theory that would rival any we have today, at least of the general sort.
Indeed, if we interpret these elements in this relational manner, we find that we have two primary elements, water and air, which combine like fire combines, the whole of which is one, like the earth. Certainly this idea is not different from our own general system principles. Could they have gotten it right to begin with? There is evidence that such a scenario could have existed.
So far we have discussed the material nature of the world. They story didn't end there. The idea of "mind" arose in Greek thought soon after the material. It was easy to imagine that such a thing existed. Protagoras reasoned that "man is the measure," while Anaxagoras believed in "mind or Nous." Socretes declined to comment on the material nature of the universe, instead used Nous and man to develop the concept of the "Soul" which existed inside of man. At the same time, Gorgias concluded that everything was relative and literally gave up. Aristotle adopted the material, but saw it as entity, not system.
Similarly, Plato's exclusion of the material in his Idealistic perspective stunted the evolution of knowledge of that complementarity of mind/matter, resulting in a illusory Cartesian division of reality. A dualism that has persisted to this very day. And so the stage was set - unity was stated in the dualistic terms - mind and body. This chasm would express itself throughout the ages as the conflict between Idealism and Materialism.
Thales Theory of Stuff led to a different, and most well known theory of the Atom or Atomos. This theory was not at all well known at its beginning, however. Leucippus and Democritus formulated the original theory of the atom, conceiving of it as a bit or atomos existing in a space. Obviously this is a special case of Thales more general model (Schroedinger also made this comparison.), but not of systems as it leaves out their relationship. The theory went nowhere as it was ridiculed by Aristotle severely (Aristotle even wanted to burn Democritus' books.) Fortunately, The philosopher Epicurus wrote of the Atomos concept incorporating it into his philosophy, but that philosophy died off, and with it went the atom theory. Around the turn of the millennium, he Roman poet Leucretius came across the writings of Epicurus and wrote the long poem "On the Nature of Things." which incorporated the theory of Atomos. This poem was lost, and with it, all reference to the atom during the dark ages. It would remain hidden for centuries until a French philosopher Gassendi found it and passed it on to Boyle, (I believe), and eventually became the second book published on the Gutenberg Press. The poem was read by Dalton who then modernized the theory of the atom, retaining the name "atom" out of deference to the earlier Greek theory of Atomos. .
Ironically, many scientists chose not to believe in the atom, and general acceptance didn't occur until 1895 when the electron was found. The final proof of the atom's existence was provided by Einstein in his Brownian Motion paper which ironically used the same principle "dancing motes of dust in a beam of sunlight " (in his Brownian motion paper) that Leucrtius used in his poem two thousand years earlier.
As physicists delved into the interior of the atom, theory after theory crumbled to dust. The absoluteness of Newtonian physics was shattered when space and time were found to be aspects of each other rather than the separate absolute entities Newton claimed they were. The accepted methodology of science was proven inadequate and had to be fundamentally changed by Planck's concept of quanta - a unit of action. Finally, the ontological basis of Identity was disrupted, if not washed away, by Bohr's complementarity. The Wavacle, described in strict classical terms, is and isn't, contrary to Aristotle's law of the excluded middle. Yes, a thing can be a thing and not a thing at the same time. Furthermore, as science began to delve even further into the interior of the atom, looking for the ultimate particle everything must be made of, they found no entity, i.e., matter, what they found, succinctly put by Erwin Schroedinger, one of the founders of Quantum mechanics, was,
The atom is not a stuff after all...
Instead the parts, or things, that ontologically must exist, the physicists found patterns. Instead of a single element of everything, the physicists found a relationship between different things. Instead of bits and pieces, the physicists found the whole. A new physics was born. (Eventually it would be found that the new physics must include the old, but both as aspects rather than separate absolutes.) Gregory Bateson explains it this way:
Several hundred books have been written about the quantum revolution in elementary physics. The simplicity of the object under study reduced the variables to a minimum, and thus the problems of investigation were likewise reduced to their minimums. For a long time enigma after enigma emerged, until finally a new paradigm emerged. While several excellent summaries of this paradigm shift have been published, Capra's approach fits best with what we are doing in the General Systems Sciences.
In 1976, Fritjof Capra wrote "The Tao of Physics" in which he described the parallels in Eastern thought and Quantum Physics in the common and ordinary language. This book set off a continuing stream of ordinary language philosophical interpretations of Quantum Physics written in ordinary language for the lay public There also was a resurgence of talk about a General Theory, the Secret of the Universe, a concept that has settled around the terms Theory of Everything. Below are excerpts taken from his books and lectures. It is, in our sense, The Best of Systems Thinking from the point of view of physics.
While Western civilization began on the shore of the Nile and Euphrates river deltas, there also arose a Eastern civilization on the shores of the Yangtze river delta, now known as China. Five thousand years ago, a document was produced introducing the art of acupuncture. In this document reference was made to the Chinese system known a the Yin/Yang. This symbol is said to be a birds eye view of a mountain, with dark and light side. The form of their symbol implies a movement of the light around the mountain, a flow, if you will. Indeed, the essence of their system is about movement or flow.
Around the time (3OO-500 B.C.) about when Heraclitus was formulating
his concepts of change, or thereabouts, the Chinese were hard at work formulating
their own system but using pictures to write it down. The Tao Te Ching is
thought to be authored by either a group of writers or by the man called
Lao Tzu. It doesn't matter now who wrote it, what mattered was that at nearly
the same time in history, while the Greeks were thinking about their system
of earth, the Chinese were also writing down their system. Thousands of
miles away, someone wrote down these words. Compare them to the whole of
the pre-Socratic Greek systems philosophy we have speculated on above --
Written down in the ancient book, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42, Lao Tzu wrote:
Compare this to the Greek idea of stuff and space and a relationship as a whole according to the principles of love and hate. One made two and two is of three and three are many and many are harmonized by Yin/Yang. Systemically, they are the same.
Isn't it interesting that the Chinese have written up a system five thousand years ago, and to this day it hasn't changed? Moreover, nearly every Chinese book written refers to this concept, clearly it is useful to them.
Isn't there an extraordinary range of "twos" not only in our literature, but nature as well? What about complementarity? The opposites? Why was Dualism so popular? Where did it fail? Subject - object?
What about that memory trick - "association?" Why is it easier to remember two things than it is to remember one? And what about "this and that?" And everyone knows there are two sides to every coin.
Madden says in "The Structure of Scientific Thought" (1960, p6) "...let us say, as a simple approximation, that a law is a functional relationship between two independently meaningful variables." Minski also observed this in his book, I forgot the name, in the Glossary under interactionaism, "...I find it curious that most of all laws have been stated as the interaction between two elements, hardly any are in terms or three or more."
Why is cell division always into two parts? Is it because two is a part of that particular process? Or is because two is a necessary? And isn't DNA two?
And why is that the one of the few exceptions to the two rule is color? Not all things come in pairs, there are three primary colors. Ah, an inconsistency. Of course we could look at them as merely different vibratory frequencies, and there is our two. But let us work this through.
Yes, color is made of three primary's, not two. But most colors are made from two, not three, right? At least that is how it is when I adjust the filters on my color enlarger. Only two of the three are manipulated - never all three. But how the eye deals with those three is most interesting of all. Those three primaries are matched, as would be expected, by three corresponding cones in the eye, one cone for each of the three colors. Wouldn't we also expect the pathways from those cones to the brain to follow this triple scenario? They do not. Instead of three pathways for three colors from the eye to the brain, there are two. The third pathway is achieved by a modulation of the two. If in fact this is confirmed to be the case, this inconsistency might be a proof. It is at the least a significant clue.
Part of the post-quantum physics dialog centers around the search for a Theory of Everything as John D Barrow (1991) outlines in his book, "Theories of Everything, The Quest For Ultimate Explanation." Following is a selection of excerpts that tell his story:
But the story of science here does not have a happy ending, for Barrow concludes his book with the last statement,
Barrow is right as far as he goes. No particular Theory of science will ever be general. Science, by definition, cannot explain everything. The Principle of Verification, which is the cornerstone of empirical science, requires specifics. It is these specifics that preclude generality. Specifics replace generality (misplaced generality.)
This problem is old news to General Systems people. The Primer Group in ISSS is presently dialoging on a general definition of System(s) in preparation for our ISSS General Systems Primer. Our work has led us to the conclusion that the idea of a General System "Theory" is wrong. The terms "General" and "Theory" are exclusionary - they cannot be stated at the same time. A General System "Principle" is a different story, and not even one that we question; Bertalanffy himself said that the science of Systems is about finding general principles. So their "Theory of Everything" is our "Principle of Everything." We know what it is, we just don't know how to say it in a way that everyone would understand. Or do we?
AUTOPOETIC GENERAL PART (A) DEFINITION OF GENERAL SYSTEM SCIENCE
We in the Primer Group, have been able, through transdiscliplinary collaboration, to deconstruct and reconstruct a two-part complementary dialectical process-based definition of the General System that has none of the pitfalls a strictly scientific version faces. We are approaching the definition Problem by simply having both a general and a particular as opposed to having both together. Our postmodern definition, supported by general field theory, can be grasped in one word - Family. And, we are pleased to report, it works... (14)
ISSS PRIMER GROUP
While knowledge in Western civilization started out unified at the beginning of recorded history, the division into the separate aspects of philosophy and science, as well as it has served us, has produced a world made of myriad parts. Unfortunately, the chasm between science and philosophy, and along with it the world, has persisted to this day. Subsequently, the lack of ontological alternatives has misled all of us into believing these so-called parts are real. In some cases this belief leads to a assumption that these parts are all that is real. Not.
Contrarily, modern science, particularly quantum physics, has shown us that the universe cannot be described faithfully in terms of parts, it is better viewed as a whole in which the so-called parts are actually interrelationships woven into a seamless web in which their distinctions as parts ultimately fades into background. What matters is what they do.
Interestingly, contrary to popular thought, and not at all like the infinite entities of classical science, the principles of relationships are not that numerous. The elementary families of relationships at the elementary physical level, the forces of nature, number only four. Three of the four have been unified into one (SEW) and that remains yet to be unified with gravity. Do we know what the general form of their unification will be?
Life is a novel that has no end, and science is like reading the novel. The story you just read is merely an introduction, and what lies beyond is a new beginning. We leave you with a question. What does this "Blank" key look like to you? And what should ours look like?
This paper is part of an ongoing dialog among participating members of the ISSS Primer Project Group. We are Tom Mandel, editor, Ken Udas, Bruce Francis, Harbans Bhola, Matthew Shapiro, Helmut Burkhard, Arne Collen, Robert Valle, Charles Francios, Gary Boyd, Markus Schwaninger, Linda Peeno, James Kay, Aveniz Uyemov, Steven Totosy, Hans Paul Schwefel, J.L. Elohim, and Jennifer Wilby. Our goal is to collectively write a ISSS Primer, a "General Systems Made Simple" for the general reader.
 Anderson & Carter, 1984, Human Behavior in the Social Environment. New York, Aldine Publishing
 John D. Barrow, 1991, Theories of Everything. Oxford University Press.
 Gregory Bateson. 1979, Mind and Nature, a Necessary Unity, Bantam Books, New York, pp92.
 Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1968, General System Theory. New York, George Braziller, pp. 45.
 David Bohm, 1980, Wholeness and the Implicat order. London, Ark,
 Fritjof Capra, 1980, The Turning Point. New York, Bantum, pp. 77.
 Fritjof Capra, The Role of Physics in the Current Change in Paradigms. in The e World View of Contemporary Physics. Edited by R.F. Kitchener, New York, State University of New York Press,
 Mark Davidson, 1983, Uncommon Sense, the Life and Thoughts of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Houghton Mifflin, pp.184.
 Ibid pp. 100.
 A. Einstein, 1954, Ideas and Opinions. New York, Crown Publishers.
 Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, 1972, Tao Te Ching. Random House, New York, Chapter 42.
 Gerard t' Hooft, 1980, Gauge Theories of the Forces Between Elementary Particles. Scientific American, June pp.104.
 Aldous Huxley 1954, The Doors of Perception. New York, Harper and Row, pp. 23.
 Thomas Mandel, 1991, Journal of the Obvious Principle, LaGrange, TNT Press
 Thomas Mandel, 1994 Proceedings, Perspective on General System Principles, ISSS, pp1425
 Heinz Pagels, 1983, The Cosmic Code. Bantum, New Tork, pp. 310.
 Abraham Pais, 1986, Inward Bound. New York, Oxford University Press. pp262
 Erwin Schroedinger, 1952, Science and Humanism. New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 18.
[20 ] Matthew Shapiro, 1994, Trilogy, One Nature. Unpublished Paper
 D.T. Suzuki, 1956 Zen Buddhism. New York, Doubleday pp174
 M. Mitchell Waldrop, 1992, Complexity, the Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos., New York, Simon & Schuster, pp. 348.
 Ibid pp. 279.
 Alan Watts, 1951, The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York, Vantage books, pp. 44.
 Steven Weinberg, 1992, Dreams of a Final Theory. New York, Vantage, pp6
 Ken Wilber, 1985, The Spectrum of Consciousness. Quest Books, Wheaton, pp176
 Ken Wilber, 1979, No Boundary. Boston, Shambhala, pp. 19-59.
 Cohen & Steward , The Collaspe of Chaos. 1994, New York, Viking Press, pp440.