International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)

I’ve been mentioning Systems and Systems Thinking increasingly as I explicitly formalise the metaphysics underlying my world-view and my various writing projects, technical synthesis and creative fictional narrative.

And I’m in “just write something” mode after 20+ years of intense reading and research trying to minimise distractions from what is now effectively my post-retirement day-job – still adding to an enormous reading  list (115 unread book entries), but rarely obtaining new reading material at the moment. However, several dialogues around the work – often whilst physically sitting in the pub – have thrown up some interesting stuff I just want to capture for now.

Comparing notes with Ant McWatt about reading and writing when sitting in the pub, we found we’d both had both experiences – interruptions that were essentially distractions and/or those that provided creative dialogue. In fact it was his own distraction (by me) from multiple writing projects we were originally talking about and Robert Pirsig’s version of the “just write something” advice his therapist gave him.

“Reading is a distraction from writing.”
– Robert Pirsig

Coincidentally – and I like coincidental connections – comparing those notes with Nick Summerhayes, he pointed me at a 2014 essay “Ant” had written on “Philosophy in Pubs” I’d not seen before?

As well as the first (general) link above, I had also mentioned my current local – (where live “Rock and Reel” – popular rock in the Celtic folk style, by Fat Medicine – is a regular attraction) – that I had experienced specific positive pub interruptions (as well as the basic “why are you reading that?”). In fact I have continued those discussions with the band-members on their nights off. So, well, then what?

It turns out, when I’d mentioned my topic of Cybernetics, that another regular, retiree Dennis Finlayson – retired from leading roles in international development – pointed out he too had a long-standing interest in Systems. After a bit of Stafford Beer and W Ross Ashby, turns out he’s a long-standing active member and past president of the ISSS (International Society for the Systems Sciences).

Given all the recent “God Talk” dialogue following the book-length chapter “The Sense of the Sacred” in Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter With Things” and my adoption of “Sacred Naturalism” as the best handle for direct experience of nature beyond objective science orthodoxy, it was interesting to hear Dennis give this brief clarification on any negative perception of the place of the “spiritual” in this “would-be-scientific” context.

Well that is Sacred Naturalism if ever I heard it. Dennis’ “synergy” is a complex emergence beyond immediately reductive objective science. It even includes a recommendation for Karen Armstrong’s “Sacred Nature. (I too have followed Armstrong over the years, but I hadn’t noticed those words in her latest title – also intriguing that the subtitle in that piece is “back to the garden” – Woodstock again. Fascinating when a plan comes together.)

I’ve mentioned before contacts with INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering) being the smartest people I’ve ever met. Anyway, ISSS I hadn’t interacted with directly before, but they were well represented at the 2021 Bogdanov conference and annual Mike Jackson Lecture at the Hull Centre for Systems Studies, Örsan Şenalp amongst others.

Minimal contact so far, intending to sign-up, but my “Systems Thinking 2020” post on the work of Anatoly Levenchuk is already shared on their ISSS blog.

Onward and upward.


Post Notes:

Spotted a tweet from the Guardian overnight advertising their recent “Dine Across the Divide” sessions, including:

Billy Bragg <> Tim Martin
Diane Abbott <> Katharine Birbalsingh
Rufus Hound <> Geoff Norcott
Rev Richard Coles <> Richard Dawkins

Lo and behold, this morning Dennis shared the Coles <> Dawkins session, which I had resisted since I have little time for either these days. Much more sophisticated thinkers on both science and theology. However, it has the sub-headline:

[Dawkins] “The problem is [Coles] is
not swayed by evidence but by feeling”

Which neatly reflects where we’ve already got to many times before.

That statement hinges on what we mean by evidence, and said that way (by Dawkins) it means the orthodox – objective, repeatable – kind. ie the rules as set by science (*). The very sentence discounts “feeling” (or any subjective affect – “spiritual” direct experience of nature) from scientific consideration. And obviously it does so because the orthodoxy still has great difficulty agreeing “scientific” explanations of these, because it excludes their consideration, because … and so on – a strange loop.

The problem IS exclusion of the subjective by orthodox science and at best its reduction to the identifiable objects that lie behind subjective experience.

Reductionism is fine to analyse all the objective components from which the subjective arises, in logical causal chains from the most primitive observables. But greedy reductionism does more than that. It excludes any higher evolved, emergent systems as having their own causal influence (or will) independent of these primitives. Simple is good, most elegant generally (although even Occam has his pitfalls) but, with Systems Thinking, simplest doesn’t mean most primitive, it means simplicity at the most appropriate systems architectural level (John C Doyle etc.)

Anyway – Dennis describes his holistic / synergy view of the direct “spiritual” experience of nature – that sacred naturalism – in the spoken piece above. I think we agree already, but Dennis suggests I read Peter Corning (ISSS) “Nature’s Magic” for his holistic / synergy view. (Ordered naturally, despite the distraction. I hope to find something I’ve missed but I’m sceptical. Be great if someone could point me at a summary of Corning’s thesis.)

Interestingly – in Corning’s prologue (courtesy of Amazon’s “see inside”), he opens with Koestler’s “beyond reductionism” and goes on to use that formulation – essentially the synergy that the whole is more than the sum of the parts – or in my words, emergent objects (and subjects) have their own existence and causality in nature, beyond the reductively limited orthodoxy of science. There is more than reductionism. (Be interested to see if Corning succeeds in a scientifically accepted explanation for HOW that synergy creates more than the assembly of parts, that the emergent patterns / systems have their own reality and natural causality without appealing to the same “crossing the Rubicon” arguments as Friston / Solms? Don’t see Ergodicity in his index – one reason things are more than the sum of their parts is that their functional / process history affects the end result, not just the state of their physical components.  Anyway – Synergy or Emergence – the word doesn’t matter, it’s the “how” explanatory argument that matters, how the “assembly” – a process – creates stuff that didn’t previously exist.)

[(*) Dennett – “if you agree to argue only on your opponent’s basis, you’ve already lost” – lost the opportunity for agreement – the basis of the dialogue itself has to evolve through that “strange loop”. Dennett is significant here because, like Dawkins, he was one of the four horsemen in the polarising God vs Science wars, he’s just so much more sophisticated philosophically when he’s not at war.]

6 thoughts on “International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)”

  1. Fascinating, Thanks AJ.

    And on reading it, very simple, highlights the essential “truth”. Venerate “sacred nature” – Sacred Naturalism, as I call it.

    Only two options – to persuade orthodox science to embrace it, or have them accept its value beyond science. No other possibilities?

  2. I’m not sure what to understand by “the sacred.”. Someone might say, “Marriage is sacred.” Is this because it has a sacred nature? Does it reflect a heightened consciousness of nature that learns from sacred indigenous mythologies of sky and earth, of yin and yang? Would this make gay marriage a sacrilege? Would it make the act of conception a sacred aspect of marriage? Would abortion violate the principles of the sacred?

    I’ve sen this argument made in response to Mircea Eliade’s analysis of the sacred and the profane. (I have the link somewhere if you’re interested.) Our intention was surely not to go there. Does that mean we are justl in left-brain mode about the sacred, refusing to admit its implications for our Enlightenment ways?

    Disturbing thoughts, but if marriage is not sacred in this way, then we need to explain what we do mean by “sacred nature,” and why our respect for it stops short of fear and trembling.

  3. Clearly I intend to elaborate on “Sacred Naturalism” and how sacred is being used (by me).
    In simplest (working) form – for me – Sacred simply = valuable even if not objectively justifiable.

    But no word is hostage to it’s previous usages – language evolves – so it is perfectly possible people saying “Marriage is sacred” are using it differently. In fact I could make a case we (can) mean the same, and probably will, but even though we mean the same, people will draw lines in different places. It’s the SAME axis even if we talk about DIFFERENT points in the real world – marriage, abortion, etc. I get the feeling this meta-point is the one I’ve failed to communicate to you so far 🙂

    And yes, our cultural left-brain dominance is what is making it hard for a generally accepted valid meaning to take hold. (Valid in being valued as “valuable” information, just like any objective left-brained scientific information is different BUT valued.)

    I’ve not read Eliade but am aware of his work, be interested in the response link.

  4. This is the link. It’s a long article by Rod Dreher, editor of The American Conservative.

    Your definition of sacred as “valuable even if not objectively justifiable” sounds promising, but needs unpacking for the relationship between “valuable” and “justifiable,” especially in the context of “objectively.” It sounds like it could translate logically into “valuable because subjectively justifiable,” which is exactly the quasi-Kierkegaardian post-truth condition I’ve been exploring.

    Wittgenstein held that meaning is use, so if people use a word differently than we do, it effectively means something different to them in a functional way. We can go on to understand the word as a cloud of related meanings with no precise reference, as in his example, the word “game.” I’m not sure how this aligns with your axis-and-points metaphor.

    Language evolves, and so does human understanding. I’ve been thinking that prior to the rise of the self and individualism, “the sacred” was not to be questioned, but with the arrival of a clearer subjective consciousness we want to progress toward a relationship of negiotiation with the other. The sacred is what is to be respected in itself, but not to the exclusion of what the left brain contributes. But then I recall Kierkegaard’s exploration of Fear and Trembling, with its exegesis of the stories of Isaac and Job. Perhaps at some point in the development of our understanding, we decided that the self-other relationship wasn’t working because the other did not seem to respect us, or even respond intelligibly; we bump up against “the problem of evil” or “the mystery of God’s ways.” Does nature decline to negotiate because there is no “other” there to respond, or because it is so vast as to render us insignificant, or simply that its responses are too vast for us to comprehend?

  5. Thanks AJ.
    I know a lot more about Wittgenstein than I do Kierkegaard, but that all makes sense to me.
    We agree already (in different words) – you (and Witt) say “game” I say “evolution” (of language) 🙂

    You’ll excuse me if I don’t address all your points here – I really need to focus on writing deadlines.
    That said, I really do appreciate all your thoughtful – and informed – inputs.

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