Thinking about an upcoming dialogue, I thought I’d compose a brief outline of what I’m about in 2023. A conversation starter.
I’m doing “Systems Thinking”.
For 20+ years, I would have called it “Cybernetics” by which I mean the original sense of the term – how humans as living things decide and govern ourselves for the best, individually and collectively – (Cybernetes = Governance = Gubernatorial). Of course in the second half of the 20th century systems and cybernetics became more and more associated with engineered systems – information systems, digital computers, automation & control, robotics, “cyberspace” and the like. Even organisational management systems becoming embodied in the information technology.
So much so that many today, even high-quality thinkers about the eco-socio-cultural processes of humanity, the ills and potential solutions that face us, baulk at cybernetic / systems language, even basic terms like information, algorithms, computation and systems. It’s understandable. These things are now so closely associated with “tech” and with programmable, deterministic – objectifying & de-humanising – applications in every corner of everyday life. But it needn’t be that way. Social engineering too has a bad name, as if it’s something technocrats do to other humans, but engineering (ie ingenuity) is simply something we humans do. We make things happen, creatively.
So, rather than systems engineering, think systems thinking and think soft systems. Systems of governance, whether individual / group / organisational or state / political, whether hierarchical or democratic or any heterarchical mix of these.
I’m using systems thinking simply to say, it’s better to think of things in terms of their functional relations, internal with component parts and processes, and external with their environmental systems and structures, their ecosystem. And in saying that I’m making absolutely no presumptions about those things being physical, biological, social/cultural or intellectual/conceptual. They’re better treated in terms of functional relations as opposed to objects – in terms of the architecture of many such relationships. Such relational thinking predates the “western” intellectual history of either philosophy or science – including systems science – and was embodied in any number of pre-historical / indigenous / aboriginal ways of life.
With such broad thinking, we quickly bump into all aspects of life, the universe and everything. My own areas of interest probably best illustrated by these three examples:
- Relational Philosophy
As I say above, relational thinking is prehistoric – embodied in human traditions long before being intellectually documented in our philosophies and/or sciences. A very recent example from Matt Segall referred to the percept<>concept distinction being an issue underlying so many of philosophy’s enduring problems. Percepts being the things we perceive by direct participation the world, as opposed to the concepts we attempt to capture, name and define intellectually – to get a grip, get a handle on them. Recognising the former as more fundamental than the latter, Segall takes the radical empiricist position (after William James) and takes a dynamic process view of the participatory interaction (after A.N. Whitehead). The English language has sadly lost the knowledge distinction between (say) Savoir / Connaitre (in French) or Wissen / Kennen (in German).
- Brain-Mind & Consciousness
Whole libraries have been – and continue to be – written about these topics. Modern approaches range from panpsychist and dual-aspect monist philosophies to neuro-physiological and psychological sciences. All bets appear to stumble on the so-called hard-problem of first-person experience. Two recent thinkers and writers interest me most, seeming to be closest to explanations of these. Iain McGilchrist would reject my use of systems thinking language but he nevertheless takes a wholly architectural position in how our best view of the world comes from integration of left and right brain perspectives – our divided brains architected that way by evolution for good reasons. Mark Solms embraces systems language but focusses on the functional integration of the upper (more recently evolved) and lower (more ancient) brain components in explaining not just how consciousness works but how our first-person perspective is supported.
- Free Energy Principles and Active Inference
Free Energy and the complementarity of Entropy and Information are as old as Gibbs & Boltzmann and the formalisation of thermodynamics as a science. They have been increasingly exploited in two directions, inwardly towards the fundamental elements of physics itself and outwardly into the completely generic behaviour of systems as described above. Karl Friston has done most recently to elaborate these in systems thinking terms. Solms has used Friston’s work in his explanation of the evolution and functioning of first-person consciousness (above). Furthermore Friston’s work is being used by a growing community to describe and create an evolutionary ecosystem for human and environmental flourishing.
- Relational Philosophy