User Tools

Site Tools



42nd Annual Meeting of the

International Society for the Systems Sciences

Atlanta, Georgia USA

July 24, 1998

In-Coming Presidential Address

ISSS: The Difference that Makes a Difference

Bela Antal Banathy

During the past few centuries we have achieved a remarkable synthesis of science and technology. We have been less successful in establishing a graceful or even workable relationship between nature, humanity, science, and technology. It is becoming increasingly important for us to ask the fundamental questions that will lead to an understanding of these relationships.

Unique to our age is the massive scale at which we are applying science and technology to the construction of our physical, social, and cultural reality. However, the dominant approach to the construction of these realities is fragmented. A distinguishing feature of the next millennium must be a more systemic view of science and technology. A view that gives full expression to the creative energy of the human Spirit upon which the information age can be built.

A disciplined approach to engaging our creative energy calls for a level of understanding that crosses the boundaries between the humanities, the arts, the sciences, and technologies. It certainly calls for a reexamination of science, one that embraces different ways of knowing, and different ways of being. The boundary-crossings may well be rooted in our humanity, in our conceptions of aesthetics, justice, morality, and ethics.

The above discussion echoes the sentiments of the founders of ISSS. Some 44 years ago a group of systems thinkers asked; How can science be unified? How can science be applied to the improvement of the human condition? Considering these questions, at, first one at a time, then in their mutual relations, will give us an indication of how insightful they really are, and in what direction we ought to proceed.

The unification of science is normally treated as an epistemological issue with the ontological (and perhaps teleological) aspects being left to a divine creator, simply ignored, or barred from scientific discourse. This is science operating in a “discovery” mode. In discovery mode the concern is with peering into the mysteries of the universe and confirming that a discovery had in fact been made. The central questions relate to what can be known about the world and how degrees of certainty of such knowledge can be established. In its earlier days, organized-science enjoyed the luxury of staying in the epistemological realm, remaining essentially passive, receptive to the eternal truths that had been pre-determined. An orderly universe revealed its secrets to the rational inquiry of generations of scientists. To the extent that unity is inherent in the underlying structure of the world its contours would eventually converge through the consistent application of the scientific method in all disciplines.

The shift from discovery to a subsequent mode of science came about through the application of technology. We can think of technology as a way of selectively projecting what we know about the world onto the world. Of course knowledge can embrace different aspects of reality and the subsequent technological projections would magnify only the selected aspects. We can find examples of the full spectrum of such projections, raging from spiritual aspects amplified through the technologies of religious cultures to the most concrete and tangible aspects exhibited in the durable goods of consumer products.

In the absence of technology, the consequences of failure in discovery-mode-science were confined to the epistemological realm, reality was not significantly effected. As scientific and technological synthesis was achieved, what we knew about the world became projected onto the world, and we literally began to construct our reality. At this point science started to operate in a “construction” mode. The consequences of failure, in construction mode, are more severe. In fact failure, in construction mode, has many faces, and its consequences may extend well beyond what was “known” at the time of the construction.

The theme for the 1998 Annual Meeting of ISSS addresses precisely this point. It also reminds us of our responsibility for the current state of affairs. The cybernetics and systems communities played a significant role in the synthesis of science and technology that led to the birth of construction-mode-science. Surely we are obligated to foster its maturation.

It seems that, science, in construction mode, is nearing maturation. Even a cursory list of accomplishments reads like science fiction. We are witnessing. rapid advances in molecular-biology and bio-technologies (genetic engineering, cross-species transplantation, cloning, etc.); frequent breakthroughs 'in materials science and manufacturing technologies; exponential gains in computer science and communications/computing technologies (doubling of computing power every 18 months, phenomenal increase in global communications bandwidth, etc.); to name just a few. It is not merely that we keep crossing the boundary between the improbable and probable, the improbable becomes the expected. We are gaining so much confidence in construction-mode-science that it is not uncommon to see references to the evolution of a “global-brain” that would, based on some grand, unifying meta-schema, embrace all of these developments and accelerate the pace!

To really put things in perspective, we need to remind ourselves that these are the ordinary developments of the day. We are not counting-on major conceptual breakthroughs or paradigm-shifts to sustain these efforts. Science and technology have achieved a degree of synthesis sufficient to sustain this momentum, they seem to be on their own evolutionary trajectory.

Do we need to question these ordinary developments? Yes, but in an extraordinary way. West Churchman keeps reminding us that on an Ordinary day 35,000 children die of starvation, this seems to be common knowledge, and nothing is really done about it.

How can that be? We can ask similarly disturbing questions about education, healthcare, social-issues in general, environmental concerns, the fate of future generations, and the list continues. Our inability to get a handle on the extraordinary questions suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong at work here.

The scientific enterprise is operating under the illusion that an epistemological unification is on the horizon; and that this unification will be a guarantor of the future. If we practice “good” science then everything will be all right This is clearly not the case. Our knowledge of the world is confined to selected aspects of reality, and is fragrnented. It is tempting to accept the illusion of unity and suggest that the discrepancies between what is and what should be can be resolved if we leave science alone, and turn our attention to the questions related to the improvement of the human condition. At this point the scientists and technologists can wash their hands of the matter and defer the issue to people responsible for the “non-scientific” aspects of reality. Questions of aesthetics, justice, ethics, morality, and spirituality are posed for treatment in the humanities, or perhaps in the social sciences. The two cultures confront each other, and at times proposals are made for the colonization of one by the other. History repeats itself as each question is treated in isolation, and nothing is resolved!

Borrowing a phrase from Gregory Bateson, “the difference that makes a difference” is that the founders of ISSS asked two questions. It is not that two groups of people with different concerns met to negotiate-away their differences; each person in the group felt compelled to raise both questions. As systems thinkers, they wished to address the epistemological, the ontological, and teleological as interrelated.

The questions are not merely: how can science be unified, or how can the human condition be improved? The questions are: How can the improvement of the human condition become the basis for the unification of science? How can the unification of science become the basis for the improvement of the human condition? These are the questions that systems scientists in general, and ISSS in particular, must address.

The questions become particularly urgent when we consider the scale at which we are modifying the inheritance of future generations.

These may be meaningless-questions, meaningless in the sense that they can only be addressed at a different level of consciousness. They call for a new conception of science and a new conception of what a system is; conceptions grounded in more than mere epistemology; conceptions that also embrace ontology, and teleology. The interrelation of the three will lead to science operating in a “systemic” mode.

Consider that in nature, evolution has led to marvelous creations: the physical universe, the ecosystem on this planet, the human brain, to name the most obvious. Just think of the epistemological and ontological issues inherent in such a construction project! Nature does not delegate the task to disparate sets of agents: one responsible for what can be known, one for what can be (and perhaps what should be), and one for what should be captured in stable form so that it can be propagated across space and time. Nature organizes herself in terms of natural-systems that integrate these aspects. Nature abhors fragmentation.

Science, similarly organized, would be well suited to guide the evolution of life on this planet. The new organization must be such that it embraces all aspects of reality, from the spiritual to the most concrete, physical. This is precisely what ISSS endeavors to do! We differ from other professional groups in a number of significant ways: our Special Integration Groups (SIGs?) span the full spectrum of disciplined inquiry; we exhibit remarkable tolerance for ambiguity and tolerance for each other, yet manage to publish only that which has the potential to benefit the future; and finally, the difference that makes the most difference, we consider philosophy, theory, and practice to be inseparable. In theory ISSS should be the ideal prototype for the entire scientific enterprise, in practice we have yet to organize ourselves in a truly systemic way, we do not know how, but we continue to push the boundaries.

To give a partial illustration of what we face in this endeavor, consider two issues central to the information age. Warren Weaver was quoted as saying that information was a “measure of one's freedom of choice”. The significance of this statement depends on what the choices are. If the catalog of choices is the same today, as it was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow, then we are locked into a deterministic state-space and information is a measure of the size of our prison, discovery-mode-science is all we need. On the other hand, if free-choice is a reference to the creation of new states, or even a new state-space, then information is a measure of our ability to create the future, to actually shape what will be rather than merely know what is. This calls for systemic-mode-science.

Of course creation of the future cannot take place in a vacuum. Kenneth Boulding reminded us that “Only by understanding what is nonrandom in history can man hope to move from the slavery of evolution to the freedom of teleology. Only as we learn the real processes of society can we mold the future toward our present ideals”. If Boulding's “molding the future toward present ideals” is interpreted as a reference to some grand totalizing schema to coerce the future into today's model of the ideal, then we trade the slavery of evolution for slavery of technocracy and construction-mode science will suffice.

If on the other hand, molding the future toward our ideals is interpreted as an empowering-act that captures the best in the present to serve as the bases for constructing the future then we have the freedom to create new states, freedom to expand the state space. At this point the commonly accepted Shannon-Weaver definition of information must be abandoned. Information is no longer a homogeneous entity that we use to purchase standardized descriptions of phenomena. Information is now also an active force. As is the case in nature, 'information has multiple faces, it may even be constituted of more fundamental underlying aspects that interact to yield a stable historical trail. The trail is what we observe after the creative act, it is what we ordinarily call information, it has coordinates in the newly created state-space, but it did not create that state space.

Think of the implications of this. What does this mean in an “information” age?

It is obvious that, even in an age of computers, disciplined inquiry in science is vested in human beings. It is not so obvious that scientific inquiry must be humanistic inquiry. If human beings, individually or collectively, lack specific abilities to carry out certain informational tasks then we are free to fashion technological prostheses to fill the gaps. This is precisely what we are doing with mass-storage, high-speed computation, wideband communication, new display technologies, etc. This research and these developments are vital. However, we must keep in mind that the biological evolution of humanity has been superseded by socio-cultural evolution. At its present stage of development socio-cultural evolution has only begun to give expression to the creative power of the human mind. Our mind is the untapped resource upon which the information age can be built

A difference that makes a difference is the realization that the creation of the future and custody of the past are different activities to be delegated/relegated to different agents. Creation of the future is in the hands of the six billion people inhabiting this planet. Custody of the past can be in the hands of billions of machines, they can be the storehouse of what is “nonrandom in history”. They can enable us to recall, juxtapose, and visualize so that we can mold the future toward our ideals. But the creative force is human. The explicit investment of the information age must be an investment in humanity. The synthesis of science and technology have assured an implicit investment in technology.

Humanity's investments in the earlier modes of science are not lost. Each mode subsumes its predecessor(s). The transition to systemic-mode awaits resolution of all of the issues related to systemic functioning. The examples briefly cited above merely scratch the surface, and being in the formative stages of development, are relatively easy to address. Most related issues have a longer tradition and will require a concerted effort to resolve.

Are we up to the task? Can you think of another professional organization that is better equipped to take up this challenge? When we succeed, and succeed we must, science in general and the systems sciences in particular will have become the disciplined way to create the future.

presidential_address_1999.txt · Last modified: 2015/01/31 23:55 (external edit)