General System Theory in Science

1. General System Theory and the Unity of Science

Let me close these remarks with a few words about the general implications of interdisciplinary theory.

The integrative function of general system theory can perhaps be summarized as follows. So far, the unification of science has been seen in the reduction of all sciences to physics, the final resolution of all phenomena into physical events. From our point of view, unity of science gains a more realistic aspect. A unitary conception of the world may be based, not upon the possibly futile and certainly farfetched hope finally to reduce all levels of reality to the level of physics, but rather on the isomorphy of laws in different    fields. Speaking in what has been called the “formal” mode, i.e., looking at the conceptual constructs of science, this means structural uniformities of the schemes we are applying. Speaking in “material” language, it means that the world, i.e., the total of observable events, shows structural uniformities, manifesting themselves by isomorphic traces of order in the different levels or realms.

We come, then, to a conception which in contrast to reduc- tionism, we may call perspectiyism. We cannot reduce the biological, behavioral, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the constructs and laws of physics. We can, however, find constructs and possibly laws within the individual levels. The world is, as Aldous Huxley once put it, like a Neapolitan ice cream cake where the levels—the physical, the biological, the social and the moral universe—represent the chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla layers. We cannot reduce strawberry to chocolate—the most we can say is that possibly in the last resort, all is vanilla, all mind or spirit. The unifying principle is that we find organization at all levels. The mechanistic world view, taking the play of physical particles as ultimate reality, found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time. Possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history.

2. General System Theory in Education: The Production of Scientific Generalists

After this sketchy outline of the meaning and aims of general system theory, let me try to answer the question of what it may contribute to integrative education. In order not to appear partisan, I give a few quotations from authors who were not themselves engaged in the development of general system theory.

A few years ago, a paper, entitled “The Education of Scientific Generalists,” was published by a group of scientists including the engineer Bode, the sociologist Mosteller, the mathematician Tukey, and the biologist Winsor. The authors emphasized the “need for a simpler, more unified approach to scientific problems.” They wrote:

We often hear that “one man can no longer cover a broad enough field” and that “there is too much narrow specializa-tion.” . .. We need a simpler, more unified approach to scientific problems, we need men who practice science—not a , particular science, in a word, we need scientific generalists (Bode et al., 1949).

The authors then make clear how and why generalists- are needed in fields such as physical chemistry, biophysics, the application of chemistry, physics, and mathematics to medicine, and they continue:

Any research group needs a generalist, whether it is an institutional group in a university or a foundation, or an industrial group In an engineering group, the generalist would naturally be concerned with system problems. These problems arise whenever parts are made into a balanced whole (Bode et al., 1949).

In a symposium of the Foundation for Integrated Education, Professor Mather (1951) discussed “Integrative Studies for General Education.” He stated:

One of the criticisms of general education is based upon the fact that it may easily degenerate into the mere presentation of information picked up in as many fields of enquiry as there is time to survey during a semester or a year…. If you were to overhear several senior students talking, you might hear one of them say “our professors have stuffed us full, but what does it all mean?” More important is the search for basic concepts and underlying principles that may be valid throughout the entire body of knowledge.

In answer to what these basic concepts may be, Mather states:

Very similar general concepts have been independently de- veloped by investigators who have been working in widely different fields. These correspondences are all the more significant because they are based upon totally different facts. The men who developed them were largely unaware of each other’s work. They started with conflicting philosophies and yet have reached remarkably similar conclusions….

Thus conceived, [Mather concludes], integrative studies would prove to be an essential part of the quest for an understanding of reality.

No comments seem to be necessary. Conventional education in physics, biology, psychology or the social sciences treats them as separate domains, the general trend being that increasingly smaller subdomains become separate sciences, and this process is repeated to the point where each specialty becomes a triflingly small field, unconnected with the rest. In contrast, the educational demands of training “Scientific Generalists’’ and of developing interdisciplinary “basic principles” are precisely those general system theory tries to fill. They are not a mere program or a pious wish since, as we have tried to show, such theoretical structure is already in the process of development. In this sense, general system theory seems to be an important headway towards interdisciplinary synthesis and integrated education.

3. Science and Society

However, if we speak of education, we do not mean solely scientific values, i.e., communication and integration of facts. We also mean ethical values, contributing to the development of personality. Is there something to be gained from the viewpoints we have discussed? This leads to the fundamental problem of the value of science in general and the behavioral and social sciences in particular.

An often-used argument about the value of science and its impact upon society and the welfare of mankind runs something like this. Our knowledge of the laws of physics is excellent, and consequently our technological control of inanimate nature almost unlimited. Our knowledge of biological laws is not so far advanced, but sufficient to allow for a good amount of biological technology in modern medicine and applied biology. It has extended the life expectancy far beyond the limits allotted to human beings in earlier centuries or even decades. The application of the modern methods of scientific agriculture, husbandry, etc., would well suffice to sustain a human population far surpassing the present one of our planet. What is lacking, however, is knowledge of the laws of human society, and consequently a sociological technology. So the achievements of physics are put to use for ever more efficient destruction; we have famines in vast parts of the world while harvests rot or are destroyed in other parts; war and indiscriminate annihilation of human life, culture, and means of sustenance are the only way out of uncontrolled fertility and consequent overpopulation. They are the outcome of the fact that we know and control physical forces only too well, biological forces tolerably well, and social forces not at all. If, therefore, we would have a well-developed science of human society and a corresponding technology, it would be the way out of the chaos and impending destruction of our present world.

This seems to be plausible enough and is, in fact, but a modern version of  Plato’s precept that only if the rulers are philosophers, humanity will be saved. There is, however, a catch in the argument. We have a fair idea what a scientifically controlled world would look like. In the best case, it would be like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in the worst, like Orwell’s 1984. It is an empirical fact that scientific achievements are put just as much, or even more, to destructive as constructive use. The sciences of human behavior and society are no exception. In fact, it is perhaps the greatest danger of the systems of modern totalitarianism that they are so alarmingly up-to- date not only in physical and biological, but also in psychological technology. The methods of mass suggestion, of the release of the instincts of the human beast, of conditioning and thought control are developed to highest efficacy; just because modern totalitarianism is so terrifically scientific, it makes the absolutism of former periods appear a dilettantish and comparatively harmless makeshift. Scientific control of society is no highway to Utopia.

4. The Ultimate Precept: Man as the Individual

We may, however, conceive of a scientific understanding of human society and its laws in a somewhat different and more modest way. Such knowledge can teach us not only what human behavior and society have in common with other organizations, but also what is their uniqueness. Here the main tenet will be: Man is not only a political animal; he is, before and above all, an individual. The real values of humanity are not those which it shares with biological entities, the function of an organism or a community of animals, but those which stem from the individual mind. Human society is not a community of ants or termites, governed by inherited instinct and controlled by the laws of the superordinate whole; it is based upon the achievements of the individual and is doomed if the individual is made a cog in the social machine. This, I believe, is the ultimate precept a theory of organization can give: not a manual for dictators of any denomination more efficiently to subjugate human beings by the scientific application of Iron Laws, but a warning that the Leviathan of organization must not swallow the individual without sealing its own inevitable doom.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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