Since I can remember, 'synthesis' has been a sort of prime directive
for me. The challenge of how things are to be held or comprehended as a whole
remains a prime concern - especially in its policy implications. In this spirit
I attended my first meeting of what was then the Society for General Systems
Research (SGSR) in 1969 in Boston. I was mightily impressed by the work reflected
in irs Yearbook - to the point of moving mountains to obtain a complete early
I attended my last meeting of SGSR in 1979 in London. Despite the theme (Improving
the Human Condition: quality and stability in social systems), I was left with
the conviction that a number of dimensions were missing. From 1972 I had been
working on what is now, in its 4th edition, the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential. Aside from profiling some 10,000
world problems perceived by the network of international organizations, it also
endeavoured to profile the range of approaches to integrative knowledge, interdisciplinarity,
and the like. It was clear that the systems approach constituted but one facet
of the challenge.
- Lack of self-reflexiveness
What is intriguing about the many approaches to wholeness, integration,
global understanding, and the like, is that no effort is made by their protagonists
to reflect the pattern of all approaches to wholeness. Each approach is
a creature of its discipline and methodology, and often specifically a vehicle
for competitive career advancement. Who would not wish to see their name
writ large on the Theory of Everything ? As a consequence, as in other domains,
approaches to wholeness are often best understood by what they exclude from
their considerations, rather than by what they include.
Granted that there are different approaches to wholeness - just as there
are different international "systems" societies - how is their
relationship to be understood ? Failure to respond to this question surely
represents a fundamental weakness in any wholeness initiative. Is each so
irrelevant from a larger perspective ? Is there not a need for some form
of mapping ? An inspiring beginning to this was made by Heinz von Forster.
Seemingly it was never followed up.
Beyond the quarrels and dynamics of the systems and cybernetics groups
lie other integrative initiatives. Some derive primarily from the challenge
of personality integration and maturation processes. Some focus on spiritual
challenges. Others are concerned with political or economic integration.
And again others are concerned with knowledge organization. Each of these,
and there are many more, tends to view the others as of little relevance
to their approach to wholeness. They may be treated as quaint, obsolete,
naïve, poorly focused, etc - as is typical of the relations between
many academic disciplines. Integrative studies does not have a chance in
A prime illustration of this phenomenon can be found in the description
of the Santa Fe Institute. As a self-defined
assembly of the best and the brightest, which specifically arranged to exclude
all social sciences except economics, it is amusing to read of the psycho-social
dynamics which undermined their early efforts to get their own act together
- Amenable challenges
The systems approach has inherited the prime weakness of the scientific
approach. Problems for treatment are selected on the basis of whether they
seem to be amenable to solution. A "system" will be defined
in a manner which is simple enough for treatment with the tools that are
available. Other factors will then be treated as "externalities".
Essentially the focus is an illustration of laboratory research where conditions
can be well-controlled. Only well-behaved problems are suitable for career
This approach can only be criticized where the real challenge of 'wholeness'
is understood to lie beyond such narrowly defined systems. It is one thing
to produce a precise systems treatment of a soft drink machine, a factory,
a galaxy, or an ecosystem niche. It is quite another to respond to the needs
of politicians faced with unemployment, regional conflicts, and environmental
There is the suspicion that the systems approach to wholeness has fallen
victim to Ashby's Law. Its methodology results in the definition of systems
which are not of requisite variety to be of value in encompassing and dealing
with the real challenges of the times. However, in populating society with
transportation systems, educational systems, health systems, manufacturing
systems, information systems, and the like, the systems approach has contributed
more to exacerbating the conditions of society than to alleviating the problems
to which such thinking is insensitive.
- Global vs Local
Globalization is a concept which is à la mode. It could be
assumed that it in some way meant enwholement. However it is now widely
taken to mean economic globalization, namely the planet-wide interdependence
of economic transactions. In this sense globalization is limited to a relatively
trivial geographical perspective. Social, cultural and conceptual dimensions
are excluded from this understanding --- or are treated as marginal aspects
of economic globalization. Ironically following the rejection of totalitarianism
as a political approach to wholeness, it would seem that the world is buying
into what amounts to economic totalitarianism.
This narrow window of understanding on wholeness as an intriniscally 'global'
perspective, suggests that economic globalization can best be understood
as an essentially 'local' approach to wholeness. As with other
specialized perspectives it is a local approach to the nature of wholeness
which necessarily must lie beyond its particular conceptual grasp. In the
same way the systems approach can best understood as a local approach to
wholeness. The question is how to interrelate the multitude of local approaches
as a way of carrying global insight into wholeness.
- Time-blind approaches
In exploring the many approaches to wholeness, there is an overriding impression
of time blindness. Many are formulated with little or no awareness of initiatives
that have preceded them. But they are formulated as though they were the
ultimate take on wholeness. Rejecting the past may be a good strategy -
starting afresh - except that this could usefully suggest the value of recognizing
that others in the immediate future will tend to do the same. The approach
formulated today, ignoring history, will be ignored in its turn tomorrow.
Maybe snapshot approaches to wholeness are appropriate. But a viable approach
to wholeness must surely build into its own dynamic framework the probable
emergence of (schismatic) alternatives as well as some form of development
or evolution. Failure to do this is effectively an arrogant effort at colonizing
all future approaches to wholeness - establishing some kind of '1,000
Year Conceptual Reich'. Is a static framework what is required ?
This evolution of understanding also applies to the individual or group
formulating the approach to wholeness. Will there be no change in that understanding
as time goes by ? How is this foreseeable change built into an approach
to wholeness ? Will the forumulator reject the earlier formulation? How
should this future rejection be allowed for at the moment of articulating
an understanding of wholeness ?
How should formulation of an approach to wholeness provide for the impact
of perspectives current in disciplines at some communication distance ?
Insights from some disciplines may take years to filter through communication
space to the domain from which the approach to wholeness is being formulated.
Insights can become "lost" in the process. There are even
those specifically concerned with 'lost knowledge'.
Then there is the challenge of how people encounter wholeness. For some
it is precisely through what are considered outdated insights that people
(students and others on some kind of leanring pathway) may first encounter
meaningful insights into wholeness. Such outdated insights continue to be
used for illustrative purposes as part of any educational programme. The
introduction to atoms and solar systems is not through the most recent insights,
but through outdated simplistic insights. In this sense antiquated views
still have a vital function in framing wholeness. The most advanced views
of today will become antiquated in years to come. Failure to recognize that
current insights into wholeness will be reframed is an indication of counter-productive
- Patententing approaches to wholeness
There is acceptance of the fact that any new Theory of Everything will
be labelled with the name of the discoverer. In the rational world of science
this touch of irrationality and personal vanity goes unquestioned. The conceptual
cathedrals of the future will all be thoroughly named -- like academic buildings
and professorships are named after their donors - the 'Pierre R Ndube
Theory of Everything'.
If the theory can be exploited economically in any way, then patent law
will be used to ensure that its use is restricted to licensees. Precursors
of this are to be found in genetic patenting and related tests. Stafford
Beer is marketing his application of tensegrity under the name syntegrity.
At what point might global security be held to ransom by the owner of a
patent relating to some Theory of Everything ?
To what extent will belief systems become subject to intellectual copyright
? Originating in this century, would the major religions benefit from protection
by copyright or patent law ? How would a major paradigmatic breakthrough
- Representation of sets
There is a marked tendency to articulate an understanding of wholeness
through sets of principles, values or dimensions of some kind. Whether it
be a global ethic, a set of commandments, a global plan of action, or axes
of symmetry, these are associated with particular numbers. Theories of Wholeness
have been based on most of the smaller numbers : 3 (eg trinity), 4 (eg Jung,
Wilber), 5 (eg alchemy, taoism), 6 (eg Abelio, I Ching), 7 (eg esotericism),
8 (eg 8-fold way of Buddhism), etc.
Strangely there has been little attempt to look at the consequences of
any such choice and the nature of the relationship between theories based
on different numbers - all of which purport to articulate the whole. The
next initiative will tend to make such a choice with little reference to
previous choices or to their apparent appeal to certain constituencies,
cultures and personality types.
In this light it could well be argued that choice of any particular number
as the basis for a Theory of Everything has its strengths and weaknesses.
But failure to reconcile theories based on different numbers traps the new
initiative into a particular domain of relevance which will tend to be perceived
as of limited relevance to other domains.
- Limited operational significance
Efforts to articulate understandings of wholeness tend to emphasize explanation.
Explanations may require volumes of some size to articulate - as is the
case of the recent proof of Fermat's last theorem. Ken Wilber's initiative
is an even more recent example.
Such explanations beg the question of the manner in which people are to
be expected to respond to them. How does one respond to a new articulation
of wholeness ? Does one read it all ? Strain to understand it ? Resign oneself
to not understanding it ? Disseminate it maximally (as with religious literature)
? Require that people endeavour to understand it ?
But more important, what is the link between the explanation and the reality
in which people live ? Is it the case that everyone should believe in the
new dispensation in order for change to happen ? How is the new understanding
to be delivered and implemented ? What is to be done with the unbelievers
- Dissidence and unbelief
Whatever the Theory of Everything, there are dissidents and unbelievers.
The early dramas of many religions concern the relationship between believers
and unbelievers - first the believers are persecuted by the unbelievers,
then later on the roles are often reversed.
Religions are usually quite articulate about the situation and treatment
of unbelievers. But how are unbelievers handled within the frameworks of
newer Theories of Everything ? How does one Theory of Everything take into
account believers in another Theory of Everything ? What happens to wholeness
if some people do not buy into a particular formulation of it ? Can wholeness
be complete if it fails to give space to those who do not subscribe to it
? But what sort of framework is required that can allow for its own denial
? What is the function of dissidence ? Is it a characteristic of a mature
Theory of Everything that its completeness depends on incoporation of its
own denial ?
- Relevance of the Peter Principle
As applied to promotion of executives within organizations, the Peter
Principle holds that people are promoted to the level at which they become
incompetent, since clearly below that level they will always appear to be
eligible for promotion.
Is it not fruitful to explore the possibility that understandings of wholeness
are elevated to the level at which they have no operational significance
? At such a level consensus may be most easily sought since it is without
any practical consequence. This may be seen in the case of many global declarations,
strategies and action plans. It may also be characteristic of many philosophies.
Would it not also be the case with the Ultimate Theory of Everything ?
How is 'holism' to be understood in this light ? And 'planetary
consciousness' ? And what about such universal values as 'peace'
? Is it possible that their principal merit lies in the fact that no operational
significance may be associated with them - however well they may serve as
an unattainable point of reference ?