Laszlo and the Natural Systems

Ervin Laszlo, a Hungarian philosopher, has written a number of books covering systems philosophy. In one from 1972, Introduction to Systems Philosophy, he presents his concept of Natural Systems. Like so many other philosophers, he turns first to metaphysics to acquire the answers to questions concerning the ultimate nature of reality. Laszlo states that, in contrast to religion, the propositions of metaphysics rest  on  the  intrinsic  coherence  and  simplicity  —  on  the elegance — of its answers.

Laszlo begins with the following two primary presuppositions.

  • The world exists.
  • The world is, at least in some respect, intelligibly ordered (open to rational inquiry).

For Laszlo (as for Boulding, see p. 51), the concept of order has its own, intrinsic beauty. He regards order as the highest ideal of the human mind and thus order of thought motivates the existence of science. Likewise, order in feeling inspires art and existential order becomes the mainspring of religion. It is also quite reasonable to presuppose that the world beyond present human knowledge and experience is in some respect rationally ordered. (A theory of a chaotic universe is a contradiction of terms.)

Laszlo continues with two secondary propositions.

  • The world is intelligibly ordered in special domains.
  • The world is intelligibly ordered as a whole.

In this world, physical phenomena are viewed as systems according to modern mechanics or to field theory with complex subsidiary patterns such as the subsystems reflected in chemistry. Further counterparts of this view can be found in biology, where organisms are wholes forming a continuum demarcated by relative boundaries from still larger systems such as continental ecologies and social systems. From this starting point, Laszlo arranges all of the systems in two different planes: a macrohierarchy and a microhierarchy.

In the macrohierarchy, where the gravitational forces have the evolutionary role, the following entities of astronomy are found.

  • planets and their subbodies
  • stars
  • star clusters
  • galaxies
  • galaxy clusters

In the microhierarchy, where the electrical and related forces are instrumental, entities of physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, sociology and internal relations are found.

  • atoms
  • molecules
  • molecular compounds
  • crystals
  • cells
  • multicellular organisms
  • communities of organisms

While only a rudimentary state of knowledge exists of the macro- hierarchy, scientific knowledge of microevolution is extensive. Why the universe is fragmented into planets, stars and galaxies is not yet wholly understood. We have neither knowledge of the exact number of levels in the observable universe nor rational evidence that the series is infinite.

The theoretical hierarchical organization of nature with the microhierarchy superimposed on the macrohierarchy is shown in Figure 3.17. The intersection between the two hierarchies is on the level of the atom. This integrated hierarchy with its different levels is called the Natural Systems by Laszlo.

The development of natural systems from simple levels to more complex takes place according to adaptive self-organization, inevitably leading toward the known biological and psychological systems. Self- organization with its emerging complexification brings a decreasing stability to the system. Sudden disorganization is thus more probable at higher system levels than at lower ones. The inverse relation between structural complexity and self-stability is shown in Figure 3.18.

The higher we climb the hierarchical ladder, the more diverse the functions and properties, albeit in a decreasing number of systems. Atoms exist in greater numbers than molecules but have fewer structural variations and fewer properties than the latter. Although organisms are fewer in number than molecules they exhibit a hugely greater range of functions and properties. Laszlo points to the about  ten million existing species of plants and animals as an example of possible variation. While existing ecologies and societies are fewer in number than organisms, their properties and variations far exceed those of the single, or small groups of, organisms.

Figure 3.17 The Natural Systems hierarchy.

When examining the natural systems we find that they consist of both things and relationships. In Figure 3.19, the concept of things and relationships is related to the levels of microhierarchy. Things below but close to the human level are easy to grasp mentally; above this level the concept of things tends to transcend into relationships. On much lower levels of the hierarchy things are known only as an aggregate of smaller entities, such as crystals made up of molecules. Relationships become gradually weaker as we rise above the human level. From a personal point of view, the relationship vis-à-vis humanity is naturally more diffuse than one with a neighbour.

Figure 3.19 Concept of things and relationships correlated to the levels of microhierarchy.

(Reprinted with permission from E. Laszlo, Introduction to Systems Philosophy, Gordon & Breach Publishing Group, Lausanne, 1972.)

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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