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Distorted Understandings of Synthesis

Reconfiguring the challenge of wholeness

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Also distributed under the title: 'Wholeness' : why I am no longer a believer (1997)


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 collection.

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.

Configuring the challenge of wholeness

  1. 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.

  2. Exclusiveness

    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 this context.

    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 [more]

  3. 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 advancement.

    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 crises.

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 arrogance.

  6. 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 be handled?

  7. 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.

  8. 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 ?

  9. 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 ?

  10. 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 ?

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