What do we mean by "systemic", "systemics", and "creative" (systemic) change?

Bela H. Banathy 
Fritjof Capra  
Janet Eaton  

Bela H. Banathy. The Evolution of Systems Inquiry. The First International Electronic Seminar on Wholeness. An Activity of the Special Integration group of the International Society for Systems Sciences.  

The Pioneers of the Systems Idea 

During the fifties, the basic concepts and principles of a general theory of systems were set forth by such pioneers of the systems movement as Ashby, Bertalanffy, Boulding, Fagen, Gerard, and Rappoport. These scholars represented variety of disciplines and fields of study. They shared and articulated a common conviction: the unified nature of reality. They recognized a compelling need for a unified disciplined inquiry in understanding and dealing with increasing complexities, complexities that are beyond the competence of any single discipline. As a result, they developed a trans-disciplinary perspective that emphasized the intrinsic order and interdependence of the world in all its manifestations.  

Systems inquiry incorporates three interrelated domains of disciplined inquiry: systems theory, systems philosophy, and systems methodology. In contrast with the analytical, reductionist, and linear-causal paradigm of classical science, systems philosophy brings forth a reorientation of thought and world view, manifested by an expansionist, non-linear dynamic, and synthetic mode of thinking. The scientific exploration of the theories of systems standing for the various sciences have brought forth a general theory of systems, a set of interrelated concepts and principles, applying to all systems. Systems methodology provides us with a set of models, strategies, methods, and tools; that instrumentalize systems theory and philosophy in analysis, design, development, problem solving in--and the management--of complex systems. In the first part of the present paper I describe these three branches of systems inquiry. Link to the whole paper  

Fritjof Capra. 1996. "The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems". New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday   
"The dramatic change in concepts and ideas that happened in physics during the first three decades of this century has been widely discussed by physicists and philosophers for more than fifty years...The intellectual crisis of quantum physicists in the 1920's is mirrored today by a similar but much broader cultural crisis. The major problems of our time...are all different facets of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception...Like the crisis in quantum physics, it derives from the fact that most of us and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated world view...At the same time researchers...are developing a new vision of reality...emerging from modern physics which can be characterized by words like organic, holistic, and ecological. It might also be called a systems view, in the sense of general systems theory. The universe is no longer seen as a machine, made up of a multitude of objects, but has to be pictured as one indivisible dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process". What we are seeing today is a shift of paradigms not only within science but also in the larger social arena...The social paradigm now receding had dominated our culture for several hundred years, during which it shaped our modern Western society and has significantly influenced the rest of the world...This paradigm consists of...the view of the world as a mechanical system, the view of the body as a machine...the view of life as a competitive struggle...the belief of unlimited progress achieved through economic and technological growth and the belief that the female is subsumed under the male...During recent decades all these assumptions have been severely limited and in need of radical revision. Indeed, such a revision is now taking place...In science, the language of systems theory. and especially the theory of living systems, seems to provide the most appropriate formulation of the new ecological paradigm.  

Janet M.Eaton. 1996 Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts as Context for the Transition to Health Care. (Excerpt)
Link to full paper

The Nature and Implications of the Rational/ Scientific /Mechanistic /Fragmented Paradigm: 

With the rise of modern science -- associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, and Descartes -- this great unified and holistic view of the world began to fall apart, in ways that none of these pioneering scientists themselves either foresaw or intended. (Wilbur, 1996) This new science later became exemplified by Sir Isaac Newton's mathematical discoveries which allowed him to postulate a clockwork universe with parts that functioned like a machine. This metaphor of a clock or machine which was synonymous with a closed system was adopted in almost every field of knowledge. 

In this machine-like paradigm the different parts were seen as more significant than the whole. They were seen clearly in relation to one another, and could be separated out and studied to determine cause and effect relationships. This lead to a tendency to study the parts while abandoning the whole. In this view of the world the observer was separated from the observed which tended to isolate people from their environment. Complete objectivity was assumed and events were seen in isolation. (Hutchins, 1995) Rational, knowledge with a preference for analysis, reduction, and a convergent focus became the dominant mode of thinking about and studying the world and the intuitive and spiritual was diminished and devalued. (Banathy, 1992) Problems came to be seen as something which could be isolated as variables in linear problem/ solution and cause and effect terms where a "quick technical fix" was possible. 

Consequences of this reductionist mode of thinking included the separation of knowledge into separate disciplines or modes of experience....[ and ] ...a growth in applied social sciences or professions which arose to offer services to fragmented humans, families, organizations, and businesses isolated from the whole system.. 

The results of this fragmentation led to a dominant economic paradigm which has taken us to the edge of environmental catastrophe because of its failure to view the whole; the factory model of piecemeal production and scientific management; schools, universities, social and health services which offered partial services to parts of a system. 

The mechanistic reductionist paradigm changed the maps of the world that each person carried unconsciously within them. This loss of the interior dimension of human nature reduced individuals to two-dimensional beings cast about by events on the physical surface of reality and it terminated our intimate bond with the rest of the cosmos environment, community, and humanity. (Coombes and Holland, 1996) Thus science discouraged us from looking below the surface to our inner self where we find creativity, intuition, self-knowledge, compassion and will to act -- the very stuff that had formed much of the perennial philosophy throughout the ages. 

The result of this loss to the human psyche is eloquently expressed by new physicist, David Bohm, discoverer of "holography": 

"For fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them..... The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion." --David Bohm---(in Capra, 1991) 

From a human consciousness perspective the rational state allowed the human species to move from a rule /role mind state of earlier "mythic" cultures to a new ego state where self-esteem replaced the need for belonging, abstract reasoning replaced concrete thought and moral development shifted beyond the approval of others to that of individual rights i.e. from conformist to individualistic. (Wilbur, 1996) 

The New Integrated/ Evolutionary Systemic / Holistic/ Paradigm 

Fritjof Capra, in "The Turning Point" challenged the Newtonian world machine of closed systems with a description of a new world view which emerged from quantum physics as a universe as dynamic, even restless, and a web of interconnected relationships. (Capra, 1975, 1991) 

New physics embodied by the Einstein's general theory of relativity and Heisenberg's Quantum Theory together showed Newtonian physics to be a mere approximation of reality. (Coombes and Holland, 1996) According to David Bohm both relativity and quantum physics share the common perspective of wholeness. Relativity views space not as a void of nothingness between solid atoms-- but returns to a vision of the universe as continuous , unbroken fabric. Quantum theory is holistic in quite another sense viewing all action as continuous and unbroken, where the particles have no individual existence. 

New physics evolved and incorporated new theories to become "new science" which Wilbur, in his latest synthesis of knowledge, describes collectively as the "sciences of complexity"---including General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, Weiss) , Cybernetics (Weiner), Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics which includes self-organizing theory (Prigogine), Autopoietic system theory (Maturana and Varela) Dynamic Systems Theory (Shaw, Abraham) and Chaos theories, among others." (Wilbur, 1996) He refers to them all collectively as Systems Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory or Evolutionary Systems Theory.  

The general claim of evolutionary systems theory is that there have now been discovered basic regularities, patterns or laws, that apply in broad fashion to all three great realms of evolution, the physical, biological and social spheres and that a unity of science --a coherent and unified world view--is now possible. These general systems theories claim in other words that "everything is connected to everything else"-- the web of life as a scientific and not just religious conclusion as it had been in period prior to the Rational Scientific paradigm. (Wilbur, 1996) 

In contrast to the old paradigm the new systems sciences have provided evidence of a very different fundamental basis of the universe one which is much more akin to the perennial philosopy of the ages. The world is seen as an integrated whole instead of a dissociated collection of parts, i.e. the system is greater than the sum of its parts, with any events that occur being viewed as linked or interconnected. (Capra, 1991) The systemic or systems approach examines the world in terms of relationships and integration's. Systems are treated as integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller units. In this the observer is connected to the observed- and subjectivity is assumed impossible to avoid (Hutchins, 1995) Recent research in the fields of 'bioenergy" and morphic field analysis of Rupert Sheldrake (Coombes and Holland, 1996) is bringing greater understanding to this area of energy fields which surround all living matter and connect us, research which, has until recently, been shunned because it did not fit the dominant paradigm. 

There is a preference for synthesis and divergent focus as opposed to the analytical and reductionist thinking of the old paradigm (Banathy, 1993) Within individuals there is a balance between the rational knowledge and cerebral thinking abilities and intuitive and spiritual abilities. This balancing of the human psyche or integration is the essence of the new paradigm as described by Wilbur and Gebser who saw the link with the evolution of human consciousness and that of cultural evolution. Hence transcendence by a critical number of individuals from the rational paradigm to an integrated paradigm could signal a dominant paradigm shift of civilization. 

Whereas the reductionist paradigm led to fragmentation of knowledge there is a growing awareness that all learning must be contextual to be effective: 

" we need to end the travesty of the educator that is removed from context. Real life experiences, and therefore knowledge, do not come chopped up in discrete subjects but are invariably interdisciplinary. " (Hutchins, 1996) 

The systems thinkers go a step further in recognizing that knowledge of life is not in fact interdisciplinary but is better understood as systemic knowledge, the understanding of social systems, ecological communities, and hundreds of other systems that provide the context for carrying out our purpose - survival. (Hutchins, 1995) 

Evolutionary systems theory is providing an alternative to steady-state and equilibrium approaches for the design of socio-cultural systems. Within the evolutionary vision, old static theories of social change are being replaced by theories that are truly expressive of the full range of human potential. They recognize "evolutionary consciousness which stems from our capacity to direct our own evolution in a self-transcendent mode, our unique human ability to be self-aware, "to view a situation in a new light, or jump over one's own shadow." (Bach, 1993) And new social systems design research and practice is developing new methodologies for assisting groups in "transcending old paradigms" to move on to co-create new open systems based on the knowledge of new science. .. A central thesis of evolutionary systems theory which derives from Chaos Theory and the Self-Organizing theory of Ilya Prigogine is that all manner of systems - chemical, biological, physical when they enter states of turbulence, reach a bifurcation point, and eventually either self-destruct or self-transcend. Some evolutionary systemic theorists are saying that human civilization has reached a bifurcation point and that the need to "transcend" old ways has never been more evident or imperative. From this theoretical vantage point moving to an integrated state either as an individual or society is synonymous with wholeness, or wellness which begins with integration of the human psyche.  

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