The Meaning and Unity of Science

At a time of universal crises such as we are experiencing today, the question of the meaning and purpose of natural sciences arises. That science is to be blamed for the miseries of our time is a reproach frequently heard; it is believed that men have been enslaved by machines, by technology at large, and eventually have been driven into the carnage of the world wars. We do not have the power to substantially influence the course of history; our only choice is to recognize it or to be overrun by it.

A renowned scholar, Professor Dr. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, addressed a crowded audience in the Department of Forensic Medicine within the framework of a scientific lecture series spon- sored by FÖST (Freie Österreichische Studentenschaft). He spoke on vital present-day questions in connection with the problem of the special position of man in nature.

In contrast to the animal which has an “ambient” (Umwelt) determined by its organization, man himself creates his world, which we call human culture. Among the presuppositions for its evolution are two factors, language and formation of concepts, which are closely related to each other. “Language” as appeal or command can already be observed in the animal world; examples for this are the singing of birds, the warning whistle of mountain chamois, etc. Language as representation and communica-tion of facts, however, is man’s monopoly. Language, in the wider sense of the word, comprises not only oral speech but also script and the symbolic system of mathematics. These are systems not of inherited but of freely created arid traditional symbols. First of all, this explains the specificity of human history in contrast to biological evolution: Tradition in contrast to hereditary mutations which occur only over a long period of time. Secondly, physical trial-and-error, largely characteristic of animal behavior, is replaced by mental experimentation—i.e., one with conceptual symbols. For this reason, true goal-directedness becomes possible. Goal-directedness and teleology in a metaphorical sense—i.e., regulation of happenings in the sense of maintenance, production and reproduction of organic wholeness, is a general criterion of life. True purposiveness, however, implies that actions are carried out with knowledge of their goal, of their future final results; the conception of the future goal does already exist and influences present actions. This applies to primitive actions of everyday life as well as to the highest achievements of the human intellect in science and technology. Furthermore, the symbolic world created by men gains a life of its own, as it were; it becomes more intelligent than its creator. The symbol system of mathematics, for example, is embodied in an enormous thinking machine which, fed with a statement, produces in return a solution on the basis of a fixed process of concatenation of symbols, which could hardly be anticipated. On the other hand, however, this symbolic world becomes a power which can lead to grave disturbances. If it comes to a conflict between the symbolic world— which in human society has emerged in moral values and social conventions—and biological drives, which are out of place in cultural surroundings, the individual is confronted with a situation prone to psychoneurosis. As a social power the symbolic world, which makes man human, at the same time produces the sanguinary course of history. In contrast to the naive struggle for existence of organisms, human history is largely dominated by the struggle of ideologies—i.e., of symbolisms, which are the more dangerous, the more they disguise primitive instincts. We cannot revoke the course of events, which has produced what we call “man”; it is up to him, however, whether he applies his power of foresight for his enhancement or for his own annihilation. In this sense the question of what course the scientific world- conception will take is at the same time a question of the destiny of mankind.

A survey of scientific developments reveals a strange phenom- enon. Independently of each other, similar general principles start to take shape in the various fields of science. As such, the lecturer emphasized especially the aspects of organization, wholeness, and dynamics, and sketched their influence in the various sciences. In physics, these conceptions are characteristic of modern in contrast to classical physics. In biology, they are emphasized by the “organismic conception” represented by the lecturer. Similar conceptions are found in medicine, psychology (gestalt psychology, theory of stratification) and in modern philosophy.

This results in a tremendous perspective, the prospect of a unity of the world-view hitherto unknown. How does this unity of general principles come about? Dr. von Bertalanffy answers this question by demanding a new field in science which he calls “General System Theory” and which he attempted to found. This is a logico- mathematical field, whose task is the formulation, and derivation of those general principles that are applicable to “systems” in general. In this way, exact formulations of terms such as wholeness and sum, differentiation, progressive mechanization, centralization, hierarchical order, finality and equifinality, etc., become possible, terms which occur in all sciences dealing with “systems” and imply their logical homology.

Last century’s mechanistic world picture was closely related to the domination of the machine, the theoretical view of living beings as machines and the mechanization of man himself. Concepts, however, which are coined by modern scientific developments, have their most obvious exemplification in life itself. Thus, there is a hope that the new world concept of science is an expression of the development toward a new stage in human culture.

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

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