Analysis of the systems view of life

This is a post in my organizing ”between and beyond” series. Other posts are here. The purpose of this post is to analyze the key assumptions in the systems view of life. The analysis is summarized here.

This post is based on The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi. Here is my book review. Additional thoughts on the book are in the Appendix at the end of this post.

Alexander Bogdanov (1973–1928) tried to clarify and generalize the principles of organization of all living and nonliving structures already in the 1910s.1 The main characteristics of systems thinking emerged during the 1920s,2 but it was Ludwig von Bertalanffy who established systems thinking as a major scientific movement in the 1940s.3 Systems thinkers then began to formulate systems theories.4 A systems view of life has emerged over the past 30 years, where emphasis is given to complexity, networks, and patterns of organization.

The key assumptions in the systems view of life are that:5

    • Living systems are integrated wholes.
    • The essential properties of living systems arise from the system’s patterns of organization.
    • Patterns of organization represent the very essence of life.
    • All living systems share common properties and principles of organization.
    • Living systems nest within living systems.
    • Ultimately there are no parts but a web of relationships.
    • Patterns are configurations of relationships.
    • Every structure is a manifestation of underlying processes.
    • All scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate.

Key concepts underlying the systems view of life are autopoiesis and networks. Autopoiesis is assumed to be the particular self-organization of life that specifies the processes which, within a circular logic, permit the regeneration of the components.6 It is assumed that it is sufficient to see whether a system is autopoietic or not to determine whether a given system is living or not.7 Autopoiesis is assumed to be equivalent to life.8

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi introduce a conceptual framework where four different perspectives on life are integrated:9

  • Form: Pattern of organization.
  • Matter: Material structure.
  • Process: Process of cognition.
  • Meaning: Reflective consciousness.

Capra & Luisi’s conceptual framework is based on the assumption that there is a basic unity to life. The basic pattern of organization in all living systems is the network pattern. The processes and components of living systems are interlinked in networks.10

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi write that autopoiesis is a necessary, and sufficient, condition for life in the biological world.11 However, they also write that autopoiesis is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for life. Artificial systems have been found that are autopoietic but not living.12 These two statemens are incompatible. How can autopoiesis be a necessary and sufficient condition for biological life, when autopoiesis isn’t a sufficient condition for life in general? What is the difference between an artificial autopoietic system and a living autopoietic system?

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s conceptual framework is interesting, but I think it needs further development. Capra & Luisi sometimes make different assumptions. One such case is regarding mind, where Luisi views mind as forms of cognition involving living organisms with brains, while Capra views mind as a mental process in general.13 Both Capra & Luisi assume that mind and consciousness emerges from material processes. Interestingly, David Bohm & F. David Peat think that this is ”fairly accurate up to a point”.14 Bohm & Peat view the infinite depths of the implicate orders as the ground of consciousness. Being influenced by Bohm & Peat, I think there is a deeper generative order in organizing — and in life.

1 Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge, 4th printing 2015), p. 84.
2 Ibid., p. 63.
3 Ibid., p. 85.
4 Ibid., p. 83.
5 Ibid., pp. 79–82.
6 Ibid., p. 135.
7 Ibid., p. 138.
8 Ibid., p. 137.
9 Ibid., pp. 301–308.
10 Ibid., p. 307.
11 Ibid., p. 137.
12 Ibid., p. 138.
13 Ibid., pp. 254–255.
14 David Bohm and F. David Peat, Science, Order, and Creativity (Routledge, 2010, first published 1987), p. 209.

Related book reviews:
Book Review: The Systems View of Life
Book Review: Mind, Matter and the Implicate Order
Book Review: Science, Order, and Creativity

Related posts:
Organizing in between and beyond posts

This text has been moved here from the review of The Systems View of Life by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi. Here is the book review. This is work in progress…

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi refer to quantum physics and write that ultimately there are no parts at all, but a web of relationships (Capra & Luisi, The Systems View of Life, p.80). But what does that mean? I will come back to this at the end. Niels Bohr is mentioned in the discussions on the new physics and quantum theory, but not David Bohm (pp.68–79). I think this is an omission. David Bohm was intimately familiar with Niels Bohr’s interpretation, but also dissatisfied with it.

I think that Bohm’s ontological interpretation of the quantum theory is relevant, not only in relation to the discussions on quantum theory, but also in in relation to the discussion on mind and consciousness (pp.252–274). Mind and matter are intimately related. I believe that there is a deeper generative order behind life’s self-organization and emergence. If Bohm’s theory of the implicate order is correct, then mind and matter are two sides of one process.

I think Bohm’s ideas add a deeper dimension to, for example, the ”Santiago theory” which was developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s (p.254). Why is, for example, the ”organizing activity of living systems, at all levels,” a ”mental activity” (p.254)? Bohm’s theory of the implicate order, if correct, provides an answer to this question. The ”Santiago theory of cognition … overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter” (p.257). Bohm’s theory of the implicate order overcomes the Cartesian division too.

Emergence is one of the hallmarks of life (p.160). My hypothesis is that the phenomenon of emergence has a deeper order, or said differently, that there is a deeper order behind the nonlinear dynamics. My question is why ”consciousness emerges” from ”cognitive activity” (p.269)? Maybe consciousness is ”a phenomenon associated with life,” not because mind is ”a property of matter” (p.264), but because mind and matter share a common ground? Bohm assumed, based on the notion of unbroken wholeness, that consciousness and matter have a common ground. Mind and matter are, in this view, not only complementary aspects of life, but of the physical world, including consciousness.

In my view, both the relationships within a system (pattern of organization) and the system’s physical embodiment (structure) are explicate orders. The pattern of a system’s organization is an explicate order because the relationships between the components are functional. And the system’s structure is an explicate order since the structure is ”the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization” (p.302). I think that implicate orders are important in living systems because the components (if we can talk about components in living systems), and their relations, continually change. In a living system, there is birth, growth, development, and death. For me, the striking property of living systems are their order of orders. The pattern of organization is a generative force, which, I think, has a deeper generative (implicate) order.

I find it interesting that Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi introduce the general terminology of form (pattern of organization), matter (material structure), and process (process of cognition) to describe the nature of life. Capra & Luisi also add meaning to these three perspectives. This is reminiscent of Bohm’s notions of information, matter, and process of enfoldment/unfoldment. Literally to in-form means to put form into. For Bohm, meaning is inseparably connected with information. What is essential for a form to constitute information is that it has a meaning. Another comparison is that Capra and Luisi view illness as a result of disorder. Bohm would probably view illness as a result of mis-information, or misinformed order. Whatever happens always take place in some order. I think that the theory implicate order provides an interesting deeper perspective on the systems view of life.

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi mention the principle of Occam’s razor, which means assumptions should not be multiplied beyond necessity (p.219). What’s interesting is that Bohm’s ontological interpretation respects this principle. Bohm doesn’t make additional assumptions, but move beyond unnecessary assumptions. Here are two examples:
(1) One example is the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, where an observer is needed to answer the question of whether a cat is dead or alive. Capra & Luisi write that quantum theory always include the human observer and his or her consciousness (pp.73-74). Bohm’s position is that the quantum theory can be understood without bringing in an observer and that this is probably the best approach. This sort of paradox does not arise because Bohm goes beyond the assumption that the Schrödinger wave function is the most complete possible description of reality. There is no way to remove the ambiguity in the cat’s state of being in the conventional interpretation. Bohm’s interpretation makes it possible to treat the situation non-paradoxically (See Bohm & Hiley, The Undivided Universe, pp.126–127, 381).
(2) The other example is the wave-particle duality of elementary particles. Capra & Luisi write that an electron is neither a particle nor a wave (p. 71). This is Bohm & Hiley’s view too. However, Bohm & Hiley goes much further than Capra & Luisi in explaining the ultimate web of relationships. It is the implicate order. And it has implications for the systems view of life. One of the hallmarks of life is the order of orders.


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