The Core Ideas of Systems Theory
The systems model presented here postulates that unity and creativity are the fundamental characteristics of our Universe, and that Nature’s Systems are everywhere. Such a perspective encourages us to draw from our knowledge of creative processes, to think in the metaphors of activities like sports, games, gardening, weaving, building, music and dance. The wisdom of our spiritual traditions begins to make more sense. Our values and priorities can begin to shift. All areas of social and individual activity could be profoundly effected by a model of the Universe that presents humans as creative participants in nature, and the entire Cosmos as a continuously unfolding tapestry of activity.
To make the ideas of systems theory easier to understand, we can organize them into two separate (but fundamentally related) categories, what we might call the Unifying and Creative Properties of Natural Systems. Each word or idea described here focuses our attention on a different process or characteristic of the physical world. Although some of these concepts have their roots in pre-modern philosophies, they can be integrated into contemporary systems theory. By bringing ancient and modern wisdom together we may regain our understanding of how our universe is structured, and how it creates new forms.
THE UNIFYING PROPERTIES OF NATURE
There are several distinct attributes and processes which play a role in maintaining and unifying all the systems in our world. From a systems perspective, many independent systems and polar opposites are actually fundamentally connected. Animals, ecosystems and the global economy are all UNIFIED systems. They are each composed of many interacting individuals, communities and sub-systems. Systems theorists often use the term COMPLEXITY to refer to these intricate structures and the webs of INTERDEPENDENCE that enable individual creatures (or sub-systems) and their surrounding systems to function together as coherent wholes.
A similar idea is found in the Taoist conception of yin and yang, where polar opposites like black and white are represented as interdependent parts of an indivisible whole. This fundamental relatedness can be difficult to perceive when one looks at the world in terms of mutually exclusive categories such as humans and nature, or good and evil. Dualistic logic screens out the complex interdependencies that actually exist all around us. Take the second world war for example. The ideas of communism, fascism and modern capitalism were all grounded in the extremely competitive picture of nature painted by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Our nations were locked into a polarized struggle for “survival of the fittest.” Leaders on all sides were so intent on demonizing and dominating their enemy that they were willing to destroy millions of people rather than be defeated.
One of the things dualistic thinking ignores is our fundamental UNIVERSALITY, how we are part of one human family, how we are embedded in the cosmos and it is embedded in us. If you were to trace the history of all the molecules, atoms and energy currently forming the cells of your body, you would find that you are composed of elements from flowers, oceans, dinosaurs, meteorites, our sun and earlier stars now long gone. Each of us is also embedded in a wide range of human systems, such as our nations, families, educational systems, work places, cities, and the global economy.
Another essential characteristic of natural systems is that they are SELF-ORGANIZING. That is, the many different parts that make up a system arrange themselves into coherent structures, patterns, activities and forms. This applies to living as well as non-living systems. Snow flakes, planets, brains, rivers, villages and street gangs are all self- organizing. Self-organizing systems often maintain their structure by creating states of equilibrium and DYNAMIC STABILITY. That is, unified systems and organisms are sustained through a process of constant self-renewal, a balancing act of rhythmic movement, patterned order and cyclic change. The earth rotates around the sun, as the moon circles the earth. Weather patterns dissipate energy and carry water over land in consistent seasonal patterns.
Dynamic organized systems such as the human body or the economy are sometimes called OPEN SYSTEMS because they are constantly gathering in new elements (in order to maintain their structure) and then returning them to their surroundings. This organic interdependency is one of the central insights heralded by the modern ecology movement. When we dump pollutants into our rivers it comes back to us in the seafood that we eat.
A related characteristic of natural systems is that of CENTRALITY. Creative systems that maintain their structure are often centered and unified by a specific place, pattern, purpose or goal. Musicians are intent on creating and performing songs. A tribal village centers on the future and well-being of its children.
In order for complex organisms and communities to thrive they must center upon and value all of their component members or “sub-systems” equally. This may sound strange because of our tendency to think of “centers” in a geometric way, as points at the center of circles or spheres. But nature often organizes things organically, within and all over the surface of structures, where “centers” exist in a plural sense. The complex social problems of modern societies may have their roots in the way our social institutions place more of a value on some people than others. A family, nation, or institution that does not center upon all of its members equally should not be surprised if some of those members no longer prioritize the well-being of either themselves, or their surrounding social communities.
Connected to these ideas is the concept of STRUCTURED SPACE. This idea is based on the Taoist and Zen conceptions of space or nothingness (what we might call the EMPTY CUP PRINCIPLE). Space here is viewed as a well structured place that invites participation, that provides room for relationships, and supports creative development. This differs significantly from the usual Western conception of space as a void or vacuum, a lonely vacancy we often feel compelled to fill.