Systems theory is a science of complexity. Multiple fields have applied its principles for deeper understanding, including sociology, medicine, economics, psychology, physics, and engineering. I’m particularly interested in how it can make sense of individual, collective, and cosmic consciousness, to unite spirituality and science.
The conventional scientific method views the universe, and everything within it, as a machine operating to mathematical precision. Viewing the universe as a machine leads to the belief that problems are solved, and insight is gained, by reducing matter to smaller parts and analysing them. This is part of the ideology of materialism or reductionism.
This way of thinking is often highly effective, and often highly flawed. As an alternative, systems theory looks at the bigger picture. Systems are defined as “a group of interdependent parts interacting to form a complex whole.” In Mindsets for Mindfulness I introduced The Enchanted Worldview, which integrates the spiritual dimension by viewing reality as a complex whole.
Because systems theory is a scientific form of holism, much can be learned from viewing reality through this lens.
What’s the Matter with Cause and Effect?
Huge advancements in civilization and technology have come from mechanical mastery. But when used as a worldview or ideology, and not a tool, we run into philosophical roadblocks. The billions of atoms forming my body don’t explain my fears, dreams, and desires. My brain chemistry doesn’t tell you about my personality, or why I feel what I feel. Looking only at the parts of any system detaches it from its essence.
This ideology has a direct influence on your life. If the predominant worldview believes matter is all there is, any phenomena independent from matter is deemed impossible. That includes the spirit, thoughts, emotions, imagination, consciousness, love, etc. All of these have to come from matter, they need material explanations. As products of the material, people who believe them to be separate or distinct must be confused or deluded.
That leads to a big assumption of the mechanical approach — cause and effect. If matter is the foundation of reality, it must be the cause of all phenomena. This ideological blindspot leads to the confirmation bias of finding cause in matter, rather than witnessing effects in matter. For example, claiming that chemical reactions cause the effect of love, rather than love, as a non-physical essence, causing an effect on our chemical makeup.
Neuroscience, deeply embedded in materialism, is another field rich with mixing cause and effect. Whilst I’m fascinated by its discoveries, it attempts to explain all human experience, including religious, mystical or near death experiences (neurotheology), through brain activity. The underlying assumption is that, one day, there will be a neuroscientific explanation of the self. But what if these scans show effects of consciousness?
Systems theory moves away from a focus on cause and effect. It explores emergent phenomena and patterns. Everything that emerges has value in understanding of the complex system. For example, an alien species would get a better idea of the human experience from things created from it, such as music, poetry, myth, religion, and culture. Yet scientific orthodoxy holds on to the belief of a fixed material reality, independent from human consciousness, that can be poked and prodded.
The East has taken the opposite approach, studying consciousness vigorously from the inside. Millions of spiritual devotees have used a scientific approach to explore the subjective through meditative practices and self-enquiry. They’ve created philosophies and tools to validate their hypothesis. These insights claim that there is no truly material reality, that the universe isn’t a machine, but a unified field of consciousness, from which matter emerges.
The Limitations of the Machine
“The observer is the observed.”Jiddu Krishnamurti
When done earnestly, science and spirituality will arrive at the same truth. Spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti had regular dialogue with David Bohm, a British quantum physicist and philosopher who Albert Einstein called his spiritual son. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung shared ideas with Nobel-prize winning quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Deep study of reality from either side of the coin, objective or subjective, will lead to the other side, because the unifying principle is consciousness.
As mentioned above, dedication to material ideology has to explain away any non-material phenomena. That includes synchronicities or dreams that feel realer than real or experiencing the sky as an extension of you. What about telepathy, or feeling other people’s emotions? All of these imply an interaction between observer and observed, in a way that defies conventional materialism. They make sense if each of us is interrelated and connected, that there are dimensions independent from matter.
Many, many people experience these events subjectively. The choice is then to subscribe to convention and render yourself somewhere between naive and delusional, or to question convention. Systems theory is one way of questioning convention. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel — the Vedas, for example, use the metaphor of Indra’s Net to explain the universe as a complex web of interconnection — but offers a scientific path to the same truth.
Determined vs. Adaptive Systems
This shift in thinking starts with the acknowledgement not all systems are the same. One distinction relates to the degree in which responses are determined. A jet engine is a determined system. It’s a highly complicated and finely engineered machine, yet there is no randomness. Responses are determined in order for the pilot to fly the plane safely. Input and output are linear.
Adaptive systems don’t operate in a linear way. Small inputs can create large outputs, and those outputs aren’t consistent. The climate is an adaptive system. The metaphor of the butterfly effect explains nonlinear output, proposing that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a typhoon the other side of the world. In addition, an adaptive system contains agents that have a degree of freedom and autonomy.
Think of an ant colony. Each ant has its own role, which is dependent on the ant’s age, with younger ants working closer to the queen. Some ants forage, some reproduce, some build. Each focuses on its role without an overall comprehension of the colony. Yet if you view the whole, you’ll see the development of a highly complex, intricate, and synchronised system that operates like an organism.
Complicated vs. Complex Systems
Another distinction is between a complicated and complex system. A complicated system, such as the jet engine, can be broken down into its component parts and understood. Each part plays an equal role. If there’s a problem, an individual part can be isolated and fixed. The relationship or connection between parts creates a predictable output. All parts are needed for the system to function. Other examples include a smartphone or a watch.
A complex system doesn’t depend on one part or everything being in the right place to function. As Aristotle, a philosopher primed in holism, wrote: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” If a bird gets injured, the flock still moves. If an ant dies, the colony still evolves. Because agents are semi-autonomous, agents individual behavior is highly random, whilst collective behavior is more predictable. Other examples include the immune system and the weather.
One definition of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) is “a way of thinking about and analysing things by recognising complexity, patterns and interrelationships rather than focusing on cause and effect.” Rather than predicting clear outputs, these types of systems are best comprehended by their relationships and the patterns those relationships create. This is a much more organic approach to complexity, compared to mechanical thinking.
The Emergent Quality
As mentioned above, emergence is a component of complex systems. The collective relationship between parts creates something new, which is connected to, and independent from, the whole. Evolution itself is complexity emerging from greater complexity. Think of the trajectory of an atom, to a molecule, to a biological system, to a human, to society, to the Earth, to the solar system, to a galaxy, to the entire universe.
As a writer, I see the formation of ideas as a complex system. An idea for a book is a complex system made of subsystems (smaller collections of ideas that, together, create a coherent whole). At the same time, the process has its own feedback loop — the more I focus on and expand subsystems (i.e. chapters), the more coherent the overarching idea becomes. The clearer the overarching idea, the more I’m able to refine the sub-idea to create more coherency as a whole.
Language is a complex system. Letters create words, that create sentences, that create paragraphs, that create ideas and concepts. Yet language is ever-evolving based on culture. New meanings form, new words become part of the lexicon, meanings change. Grammar is a rule that explains how individual agents interact. Yet understanding grammar doesn’t mean you can predict the precise language someone will use in any given interaction.
Equally, from complex use of language, something new emerges — an idea. There’s even a branch of philosophy, meaning holism, that proposes the meaning of words is only formed by its interrelationship with other words and ideas, that no word has inherent meaning all by itself. Even more interesting is that ideas often pre-exist in mind, before being formed through language. The writer has the intention of the emergent idea or meaning as they sculpt the complexity of language.
The Right Tool, The Right Time
Humans love tools. Maybe that’s why, entranced by technological development, we’ve convinced ourselves that our modern tools will replace God, that they’ll offer a theory of everything, that they’ll break life down into its component parts, and allow us to fix anything we don’t like. We revere mechanical tools, from telescopes to microscopes, and overlook tools of the soul: meditation, prayer, contemplation, reflection, imagination.
Every tool has its place and its appropriate use. Thinking in complex terms gives us a wider scope of sensemaking. It’s application is far-reaching. I recently spoke to sociology professor Guy Burgess, from Beyond Intractability, to gain deeper insight into systems theory’s application to conflict resolution. Conflict is complex, there are multiple agents who have their own psychology, their own needs, their various levels of communication skills and emotional intelligence.
I’m intrigued by how complexity thinking could support individual conflict, or conflict between groups and nations. I was also pulled by its wider reach. On an abstract level, the conflict of multiple worldviews or ideologies is leading us to the brink of destruction. A new worldview (or modern synthesis) must resolve the conflicts between opposing ideologies. It has to apply conflict resolution tools to a high-level. Complex thinking is the correct tool for the task.
The Holarchical Shift
“Spirit is both the highest ‘level’ in the holarchy, but it’s also the paper on which the entire holarchy is written. It’s the highest rung in the ladder, but it’s also the wood out of which the entire ladder is made.”Ken Wilber
The complex structures in nature are holarchies. They’re similar to hierarchies except each builds upon, and includes, the system that precedes it. Complexity increases across levels. Higher levels wouldn’t exist without those below (a molecule can’t exist without an atom, but an atom can exist without a molecule). A new worldview must be holarchical. It must incorporate the best of both worlds, or all worlds. It must re-integrate the sacred, without rejecting technological progress, or the development of logic and reason.
This is a huge task. Synthesising worldviews isn’t as straightforward as marrying science and spirituality, as if the two are polar opposites. Spirituality has to be distilled to its truest essence. And fields within science (subsystems) have to be integrated. Even 100 years after its discovery, quantum physics is largely unintegrated from the mainstream, despite evidence that directly conflicts baseline assumptions of materialism.
For example, quantum entanglement demonstrates how two particles remain connected across space and time, a direct conflict with the assumption of locality, where objects are only influenced by other objects in close proximity. And, bizarrely, some experiments have shown that effects can appear before their causes on a quantum level, defying assumptions about past, present, and future.
A comprehension of complexity, and how systems interact and emerge, moves us towards a more accurate map of reality. The desire to synthesise, rather than stick to neat packages and ideological comfort zones, is a courageous step. The giant leap is to integrate holism, and turn the world of science upside down.
Maybe then, rather than reject the non-physical and non-ordinary as impossible, we’ll embrace them as integral to the wholeness of humanness, as emergent qualities from the complex and infinite system of consciousness.