The Classical Paradigm of Science, and the Emergence of General Systems Theory
General systems theory emerged out of the need to map and explain biological phenomena that cannot be suitably understood using the classical mechanistic model of reality. “The analytic, mechanistic, one-way causal paradigm of classical science,” as the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy describes it, assumes that reality can be quantifiably analyzed; that a whole can be understood in terms of its parts; and that the nature and function of a substance or an organism can be comprehended by reducing it to its material, externally observable components. (1)
Systems analysis acknowledges the impressive gains in scientific inquiry, and the subsequent technological advances, afforded by the classical scientific paradigm. Granted, highly sophisticated methods of dissecting and quantifiably analyzing natural phenomena have provided important insights into the construction of our world. Such insights have also afforded a considerable, though limited, capacity to predict and control small pieces of reality, at a given moment in time. Yet, these gains have been achieved at considerable costs, costs that notably include: overspecialization and narrow professionalism in scientific research; the fracturing and fragmentation of science’s vision of nature; and a subsequent sense of alienation from the beauty of nature’s underlying unity.
Systems analysis observes that with the classical paradigm of reality, wider more inclusive patterns of interaction are disregarded as immeasurable. Also, virtually all considerations of purpose and plan, e.g., mental process, and final causes, are a priori excluded as non-empirical, or again, immeasurable. Coupled with Cartesian mind-body duality, the one-way causal paradigm of classical science assumes the nature of a substance—and this includes organisms—is reducible to forces, impacts and regularities that are inevitably subject to the second law of thermodynamics. It also assumes that all causes, effects and potentialities can be traced back, in linear fashion, to initial conditions.
While these assumptions are adequate for explaining carefully isolated phenomena, and the causal relationships between one “thing” and another “thing,” science has found it difficult to apply this model of reality in situations displaying more than two variables (2). Mapping multivariable complexes in terms of linear relations involves a piecemeal, fragmented analysis, in which the units involved are reduced to sequences of interacting pairs. Any process that is more complex than a hydrogen atom, with one electron orbiting its nucleus, embodies a complexity that escapes sufficient explanation. This method affords useful information, but it cannot sufficiently map the flow of an interactive complex.
Moreover, the successes garnered by the classical scientific paradigm revealed its inadequacies. As refined tools have opened wider panoramas of research, exhibiting data of increasing complexity, science has been driven to search for new ways of conceptualizing reality. In short, the classical paradigm of science has proven inadequate to the task of mapping the natural world. It is particularly inadequate when applied to describing and explaining the multivariable processes of human interaction, e.g., communication, and humankind’s intricate interrelationship with local and global ecological systems.
Under closer observation, it has become evident that natural phenomena do not behave as though they are subject to the narrow determinism postulated by the paradigm of classical science. This has led to a tangential or corollary view, a view that completely abandons causality and envisions the cosmos as random. As Joanna Rogers Macy has noted, the unidirectional paradigm of classical science has culminated in two distinct alternatives: “either we live in a clockwork universe, wholly predetermined by initial conditions, with no scope for genuine novelty, or the cosmos is a blind and purposeless play of atoms, and determinable only statistically, by the laws of chance.” (3)
Macy identifies these dismal alternatives as a major contributing factor in the spiritual and psychic dislocation, or the sense of alienation experienced by contemporary humankind. These limited alternatives also serve as key barriers, blocking meaningful dialogue between science and religion.
The perspective offered by advocates of general systems analysis identifies at least four areas where the inadequacy of the classical scientific paradigm is most apparently manifest, areas where its failings have stimulated the development and acceptance of systems analysis and subsequently cybernetics:
1. As previously noted, natural phenomena displaying a multiplicity of variables cannot be adequately understood through an analysis of their variables as separate entities. Since focusing on isolated traits obscures or eclipses attributes characteristic of the whole, our focus should move to examining the combined interaction of these variables.
2. A linear concept of causality cannot adequately explain the interactions of a complex system or Gestalt. The classical scientific paradigm is sufficient only for understanding carefully isolated phenomena, where unidirectional cause and effect relationships occur between interacting pairs, e.g., between one thing and another thing.
3. Entropy, or evidence of negentropic processes in the growth and evolution of living organisms, is also a realm of explanation where the classical paradigm of science has proven interactions of biological systems involve regularities other than the second law of thermodynamics. According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy always increases: with every transformation of energy there is a measure of that energy which is lost; therefore differences in heat become gradually equalized and the universe is seen as ultimately tending toward sameness, randomness and disorganization. In the physical sciences, this law has never been contradicted or disproved, and it is generally regarded as holding a “supreme position among the laws of Nature.” (4) Yet, the second law of thermodynamics cannot adequately explain the evidence of continued biological negentropy.
In their forms of life and patterns of interaction living organisms have not tended toward sameness, randomness and disorganization. Living systems differentiate, evolve and maintain increasingly complex forms of social and self-organization. Such self-organization in biological phenomena has been studied since the 1920’s, and the anti-entropic evidence in the evolution of order and increased complexity within biological systems simply cannot be explained with traditional linear concepts such as the second law of thermodynamics, where effect is understood to pre-exist in cause.
4. The classical paradigm of science has led to overspecialization and departmentalization, blocking the perception and investigation of interdependence in natural phenomena. Perhaps the most damaging result of over-specialization in scientific inquiry is that it has obstructed the perception and study of the non-substantial phenomena intrinsically manifest in relationships. As Ervin Laszlo notes,
We are drilling holes in the wall of mystery that we call nature and reality on many locations, and we carry out delicate analyses on each of these sites. But it is only now that we are beginning to realize the need for connecting the probes with one another and gaining some coherent insight into what is there. (5)
1) Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. xxi.
2) Ervin Laszlo, Systems View of the World (New York: George Braziller, 1972), pp. 5, 6.
3) Joanna Rogers Macy, “Interdependence:” (Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University, 1978), p.58.
4) Shannon & Weaver, pp. 12-28; also, Spyros Makridakis, “The Second Law of Systems,” International Journal of General Systems, 4 (September 1977): 2-4. (hereafter — IJGS)
5) Ervin Laszlo, Systems View of the World, p. 4.