b. General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory

In this article, I will describe a branch of science known as General Systems Theory. I will do so because it provides an extremely powerful set of tools for understanding human nature and society.

The aim of General Systems Theory is to provide an overarching theory of organisation which can be applied to any field of study. It aims to identify broadly applicable concepts rather than those which apply only to one field. It can, therefore, apply in the fields of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, biology, the social sciences, ecology, etc. One of the principal founders of General Systems Theory was the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972), although there have been many other contributors. To date, its principal application has been in the popular fields of business, the environment, and psychology, but it is equally applicable to human nature and society.

A system comprises a collection of inter-related components, with a clearly defined boundary, which work together to achieve common objectives. Within this boundary lies the system, and outside lies its environment. Systems are described as being either open or closed. In the case of a closed system, nothing can enter it from, or leave it to, the environment. It is a hypothetical concept, therefore. In reality, all systems are open systems comprising inputs, processes and outputs to the environment. In a closed system, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies, entropy will steadily increase, and the system will fall into disorder. However, in an open system, it is possible to resist decay, or even to reverse it and increase order.

In summary, an open system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. In the case of an individual human being, our inputs are satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, our processes comprise our needs, contra-needs and decision-making, and our outputs are our behaviour.

The basis of General Systems Theory is causality. Everything we regard as being a cause or effect comprises components, which can also be regarded as causes and effects. Ultimately, causality has its foundation in particle physics, therefore. Furthermore, every cause or effect is a component of yet greater causes and effects, up to the scale of the universe in its entirety. Similarly, General Systems Theory regards everything from the smallest particle to the entire universe as a system. Thus, every system comprises components which are also systems, and every system is a component of yet greater systems. A system, a cause, and an effect are all one and the same thing, therefore.

In causality, events of one type cause events of another type by passing matter, energy or information to them. These are the equivalent of the inputs and outputs of a system. As Einstein explained, matter is organised energy. Information is also conveyed in the way that matter or energy are organised. So, causality is the transfer of energy, in an organised or disorganised form, from one system to another. This transfer can be regarded as an output from the cause, and an input to the effect. Causes and effects form chains or loops, and so create recurring, and thus, recognisable patterns of energy flow. It is such recognisable patterns that enable us to understand and predict the world in which we live, and which are of interest to General Systems Theory.

Causes can, of course, be necessary or sufficient. For a system or system component to carry out its function, several inputs from the environment or other components may be necessary. Only together may they be sufficient for the system to function. Furthermore, inhibitors also have a part to play in preventing effects on processes. Thus, the relationships between a system and its environment, and the relationships between the components of a system can be complex and chaotic.

A feature of systems is that they often display emergent properties. These are characteristics that the component parts of a system do not have, but which, by virtue of these parts acting together, the system does have. In other words, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. This concept dates to at least the time of Aristotle. The classic example is consciousness. A human being experiences consciousness, but his or her component cells do not. Similarly, systems also display vanishing properties. These are properties that a system does not have, but which its component parts do. For example, individual human beings may be compassionate but an organisation comprising such people may not. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be related to the way that energy is organized and flows in a system. They are recognizable patterns of energy flow.

Continuum changes of state occur when a variable characteristic of something alters. For example, when a child puts on weight or grows in height. System complexity is one such variable characteristic. Changes in a variable characteristic can be imperceptible in the short term but aggregate over time until we can perceive them. For example, in the longer term, a person can change his or her state from that of being a child to that of being an adult, but the changes which occur in a week are imperceptible. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be continuum changes of state which occur as the complexity of systems grow. They can be identified by comparing things that are similar, but either more or less complex than one another, e.g., a chimpanzee and a human being.

We tend to think of systems as falling into categories which are organised hierarchically, e.g., the popular categories:  animal, vegetable, and mineral. The best way of categorising the levels in a hierarchy of systems is via emergent properties. This is because with new properties, new rules also emerge. One emergent property of particular importance is self-maintenance. This appears in life, beginning with replicative molecules and moving up through viruses, bacteria, and multi-cellular organisms, to ourselves. This self-maintenance property is the same as life’s struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of entropy.

Self-maintaining systems are characterised by two types of feedback loop. One is internal and the other external. The internal feedback loop is known in systems theory as the command feedback loop. It gathers information from within the system and modifies its operation. The external feedback loops are particularly relevant to human society. They comprise the system interacting with its environment, through its outputs, to create circumstances conducive to the supply of its necessary inputs. The goal of both is, of course, to ensure the continued survival of the system in changing circumstances.

Individual human beings, organisations, and societies can be regarded as systems. So too can the natural environment in which we live, for example, the weather and natural ecosystems. However, their behaviour can be chaotic rather than deterministic. We can predict them to a limited extent, but the probability of any prediction proving correct diminishes as distance into the future increases.

m. Perspectivism and Poly-perspectivism

Perspectivism and Poly-perspectivism

No-one has the mental capacity to fully understand the world. Each of us is only capable of a partial understanding. This concept is known as perspectivism. It is possible, however, to expand and improve our worldview through interaction with those of others. This is known as poly-perspectivism. To give an analogy, when we look at a statue, we see only one side or perspective. Two people at diametrically opposite positions see entirely different perspectives. However, each is a part of the truth. Walking around the statue enables us to see all perspectives and, thus, the whole truth. Individually, we lack the mental capacity to do this for the whole of reality, of course, but it can be done for relatively limited topics.

Poly-perspectivism means understanding other perspectives. It does not mean abandoning our own, but rather building on it and correcting it where necessary. Unfortunately, each worldview is partially true and partially false. The proportion varies from individual to individual, and from worldview to worldview. Thus, other perspectives will almost certainly include beliefs which are objectively false. Furthermore, beliefs can deliberately be falsified in the interest of their proponents. This means that the techniques for identifying truth, described in my previous article, must be used when considering other perspectives.

Advice on how to engage with other perspectives is given in Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement here and, diagrammatically, here. As a rule, the lower a person’s behaviour is on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, the more defensive they are of their worldview.

One major advantage of poly-perspectivism is associated with “holism”. This term was coined by the South African statesman, Jan Smuts, in 1926, and means that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Holism is another way of describing emergent properties, i.e., properties which are not held by the individual parts of a system, but only by the system acting together as a whole. Our personal perspective may enable us to see part of what emerges from the whole, but it is unlikely that we will see all of it, or understand how and why it emerges. However, the more we adopt truths from other perspectives, the more we can:

  1. see the relevant topic as a whole;
  2. see errors in our own perspective of it;
  3. see fully what emerges from it; and
  4. understand how and why those things emerge.
b. Consciousness


The English philosopher, John Locke, (1632 – 1704) described consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind”. He was, of course, a man of his age and, today, we would understand this definition to include all genders and some animals. More recently, Locke’s definition has been extended to include awareness of the external world but, unfortunately, this is a red herring. Even bacteria respond to stimuli in the external world and, so, are aware of it. However, we would not regard them as being conscious. Furthermore, the unconscious human mind is aware of the external world, which is why, for example, a noise will wake us from sleep. Finally, it is possible for a human being to be conscious in the complete absence of external stimuli. Locke’s original definition seems more apt, therefore.

As mentioned in the previous article, consciousness is probably an emergent property of our complex brains and caused by feedback loops. A highly simplified model of the human mind might be:

These “functions” and the concepts of the “conscious and unconscious mind” do not, of course, refer to specific regions of the brain, but rather to processes that it follows.

We perceive the consequences of our actual behaviour with our senses, and this provides external feedback. For example, when driving a car, we continuously observe our position in the road and correct it when necessary. With sufficient practice, this can be done almost unconsciously. However, we can also “know” proposed behaviour before we act. For example, we can “hear” words that we might speak before saying them, “hear” music that we might play without playing it and “see” actions that we might take before taking them. Sensory processing functions are, therefore, connected to and aware of behaviour processing functions. Awareness of our own minds and awareness of the external world can be similar because both are processed by the same sensory processing functions. This creates the potential for feedback, and it is this feedback which, in the author’s view, leads to the emergence of consciousness.

This is supported by Francis Crick and Christof Koch who, in their paper “A Framework for Consciousness”, note that there is substantial evidence that a top-down flow of neural activity from the frontal cortex, which governs behaviour, to the sensory areas, is more predictive of conscious awareness than the reverse, bottom-up flow. This top-down flow is labelled “internal feedback” in the diagram above.

Experiments carried out, in the 1970s by the American neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet (1916 – 2007), provide further support for this model. Libet found that unconscious electrical processes in the brain preceded the conscious decision to perform an act. Significantly, however, he also found that the conscious mind could veto those decisions.

Such internal feedback loops have several evolutionary advantages:

  1. They allow us to review the likely consequences of potential behaviour before engaging in it. For example, in the case of language, the internal oral/aural feedback loop enables us to review and refine the information we would communicate, and assess its potential impact on any recipients. The cognitive processing and decision-making function passes a form of words to the behaviour processing function. The sensory processing function hears these words internally. It then passes them back to the cognitive processing function, which reviews them from the standpoint of the recipient. In effect, this is a form of empathy, one of the skills that we have as social animals.
  2. The logical rules that we have learnt and that the cognitive processing function employs in arriving at its conclusions are reflected in the structure of spoken language, and vice versa. This enables us to pass these rules on subliminally.
  3. Short term memory can be regarded as residing in the conscious mind, i.e., in the feedback loop. Long-term memory, on the other hand, resides in the unconscious mind and is strongly linked to the cognitive processing function. Internal feedback enables us to internally “rehearse” a wide range of information and behaviour which, in turn, serves to reinforce long-term memory..
  4. In a feedback loop, the emergent property regulates the components. Thus, the loop which causes consciousness may regulate the mind and enable us to concentrate on specific problems. This includes regulation of the unconscious mind but, as we are unaware of this, it cannot be regarded as “conscious regulation of the unconscious”.
  5. When we relax our conscious efforts, the unconscious mind operates more freely and, for example, solutions to problems that we have been working on come more readily.
  6. Finally, it can offer a degree of control over intuitive behaviour, providing we think before we act.

There is a question over where consciousness resides in the brain. I am of the view that it resides in a large part of it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that parts of the brain can operate either consciously or unconsciously depending on how the various parts are interacting with one another. The most notable evidence is the fact that our unconscious minds are not as good at producing ideas when, consciously, we are very heavily focussed on a problem. We must let go of conscious thought to allow unconsciously generated thoughts to flow and, very often, it seems that this is necessary to solve a problem.

Where feedback loops come in is the way in which parts of the brain interact with one another. Going back to the analogy of a microphone in front of a loudspeaker, it cannot be said that the howl it produces lies in any one part of the system. Yes, there is a loud sound in the air between the microphone and the speaker. However, there is an equally strong electrical current within the microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker. In a way, the whole system can be said to be howling. This is an emergent property of the system and the way that its parts interact and is analogous to consciousness. However, if we turn down the volume control on the amplifier, the emergent property disappears and the whole system becomes quiescent – both the sound and the electrical currents. This is analogous to unconsciousness.

The audio analogy cannot be taken too far, however. Firstly, because whatever happens in the brain is probably far more complex. Secondly, unlike the audio system, which is either howling or not, we appear to experience degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness.

It is certainly the case that some parts of the brain only act unconsciously. For example, even when conscious, we are not aware of what takes place in the cognitive processing and decision-making function. It is a part of the unconscious mind. Rather, we are only aware of how the decisions that it passes to the behaviour processing function are interpreted. Knowing the information on which these decisions are based we can, to a limited extent, deduce the processes behind them. However, this is not the same as being consciously aware of them. Such deductions can be coloured by our needs and are, therefore, often a rationalization of our true decision-making process.

When we are awake, the feedback loops are on, and we are conscious. While we are asleep, they are off, and we are unconscious. However, unlike the audio analogy, which is either howling or not, we experience degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness. Consciousness is at its strongest when we are concentrating on a problem and at its weakest when we are in the depths of sleep. Neither state prevents the cognitive processing function, from receiving input from the sensory processing functions. Nor does it prevent it from passing instructions to the behaviour processing functions. We are unconsciously aware of the external world and can wake or give it our conscious attention when necessary. We can also sleepwalk and act on “autopilot”. This implies that our level of consciousness is regulated by communication between the behaviour processing functions and the sensory processing functions, which is consistent with Crick and Koch’s findings. Notably, parts of the prefrontal cortex are deactivated during sleep. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are where consciousness resides. Rather it may only mean that they are analogous to the volume control and regulate the feedback loops. In the absence of regulation by consciousness, the cognitive processing function behaves more freely. We will, for example, dream. When we wake, we catch the tail end of dreams because that is what has been fed by the cognitive processing function to our behaviour processing functions while we slept. However, as soon as consciousness returns it regulates the cognitive processing function, and so, such dreams may become extinguished.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it has the following implications:

  1. Animals that use tools or simple forms of communication may be conscious.
  2. The strength of human consciousness must surely vary from individual to individual.
  3. We may be able to strengthen our conscious skills by practicing activities which require a high level of concentration.
  4. Due to its advantages, greater consciousness may still be evolving in humans and other creatures.
  5. Using similar feedback processes in machines of sufficient complexity, it might theoretically be possible to replicate consciousness.
  6. We can take in information or knowledge subliminally, i.e., without being consciously aware of it. This can occur when our consciousness is at a low level, when it is distracted by more pressing concerns, or when the information does not appear to require a response. Such knowledge can also be reinforced subliminally through repetition. It can then affect our beliefs and, also, our behaviour when faced with a relevant situation.

Cognitive processing relies, of course, on knowledge. In my next post I will, therefore, discuss the nature of our knowledge.

b. Basic Theory of Evolution

The Basic Theory of Evolution

Mankind is a consequence of evolution through a combination of random mutation and natural selection. Charles Darwin first postulated this process in 1858 and published it in his 1859 book “On the Origin of Species”. At the time, DNA and its role had not been discovered and Darwin referred to a more general principle of inheritance. DNA was first discovered in the 1860s by the Swiss chemist Johann Friedrich Miescher but its central role in the evolutionary process was not understood for almost a century thereafter. In the early 1950s Rosalind Franklin produced an Xray photograph of DNA which, in 1953, enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to discover its double helix structure. This in turn enabled them to explain how it carries and replicates genetic information. Since that time, a substantial amount of scientific evidence has accumulated in support of Darwin’s theory.

An organism’s genes are sequences in its DNA which either directly or indirectly enable the manufacture of molecules whose function determines the organism’s characteristics. These characteristics, in turn, determine the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce within its environment.

Random mutations are changes in the DNA sequence and, thus, in the organism’s genes.  They are an example of the impact of entropy on life. They can be caused by errors in DNA replication, by exposure to damaging chemicals, by exposure to radiation or by the insertion or deletion of segments by mobile genetic elements such as viruses. Mutations are entirely random and are not in any way pre-determined to benefit the organism. Most mutations (about 70%) are, in fact, harmful and the remainder either neutral or weakly beneficial.

Natural selection means that organisms with hereditary characteristics most suited to their environment, i.e., the fittest, are most likely to survive and reproduce. Organisms which are poorly adapted to their environment are less likely to do so. Thus, the genes of the fittest organisms are those most likely to be passed on to offspring, to propagate through the population and, thus, predominate. It is through this selection process that life resists entropy.

It is important to note that mutations are not a consequence of changes in the environment. Rather, they pre-exist within a species’ variable genome and cause diversity in its population. When, the environment changes, most of a population may find itself unfit and die off. However, a small proportion carrying certain mutations may find itself to be fitter in the new circumstances and may, therefore, survive and propagate more successfully than it had in the past.

Most evolutionary biologists agree that, for the majority of species, natural selection operates at the level of the individual organism, i.e., inherited characteristics will cause the organism to behave in a way which maximises its own, and only its own, chances of survival and reproduction. However, there are a small number of species in which individuals display what has been referred to as “altruism”. That is, they will suffer a degree of disadvantage to their own survival and ability to reproduce to improve that of other members of their species. This has given rise to a number of competing theories of natural selection that I will discuss in my next post. However, before moving on to that topic, I would like to mention three important points.

Firstly, there is a difference between the meanings of “altruism” and “co-operation”. When an individual behaves altruistically, it acts in a manner which benefits the survival and reproductive chances of some other individual or individuals. This may disadvantage the former and there is not necessarily a payback. However, when an individual behaves co-operatively there is a payback. This is a subtle difference but of great significance in evolutionary theory. Do the small number of species referred to above behave altruistically or do they behave co-operatively? If the latter, then what is the payback?

Secondly, human beings differ from other species in several important ways. We have large brains with highly advanced cognitive skills which, among other benefits, enable us to identify opportunities and risks and to predict outcomes. We are also social animals and form groups. These groups have diverse cultures, i.e., ways of organising themselves, and we pass aspects of our cultures from one generation to another and from one group to another through social learning.

Finally, as systems grow ever more complex, they display emergent properties, i.e., properties of the system which are not held by its individual parts. Life is a collection of systems of increasing complexity, e.g., cells, multi-cellular organisms, groups of organisms, species, and eco-systems. As the level of complexity increases it can be expected that system properties will emerge. Thus, it is not necessarily the case that a property governing natural election at the cellular level will be the only property governing it at more complex levels. Other, emergent properties may come into play.

Natural selection, particularly in the case of human beings, is not a straightforward process therefore as will be discussed in my next post.