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Transcending an Asystemic View of Life

Review of The Systems View of Life: a unifying vision (Part #1)

Inadequacy of conventional systems thinking
Restrictive comprehension of "life" and "death"?
Asystemic organization of unifying vision?
Uncritical asystemic selectivity?
Unexamined methodological constraints
Beyond promotion of "our plan"
Mapping complementary and contrasting views
Transcending sterile meta-patterns of explanation

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A truly remarkable analysis of why things ought to work in theory is provided in a magnum opus by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi as The Systems View of Life: a unifying vision (2014). It is however also a remarkable example of why the global system is in such dire straits -- through failure to apply systemic insights to why they do not work in practice.

It is for this reason that this review is titled to suggest that there is a contrasting perspective that merits attention -- of the very quality that the authors offer, and yet seemingly consider to be beyond the mandate of the systemic perspective as they define it. The consequence is that the analysis and conclusions of the opus can be considered fundamentally asystemic through the pattern of themes considered in relation to those avoided. The further consequence is that the vision articulated is necessarily unilluminating for those in quest of understanding as to why the global system is in the state of crisis that is both only too evident and widely documented.

As the jacket of the book notes, the volume integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework. Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, the authors examine the appearance of key concepts such as autopoiesis, dissipative structures, social networks, and a systemic understanding of evolution. The implications of the systems view of life for health care, management, and our global ecological and economic crises are also discussed. It provides excellent coverage of these matters.

Given the lead author's renown as a physicist for his early work on The Tao of Physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism, 1975),), it is appropriate to frame this review in terms of a stanza from a Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub.
It is the centre hole that makes it useful...
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

With respect to the current work, the "spokes" are the 18 chapters. However it is what is missing that makes it useful -- especially in the light of the analysis by Terrence W. Deacon (What's Missing from Theories of Information? 2010; Incomplete Nature: how mind emerged from matter, 2011). It is the framing of what is not there, the "hole" in the argument, that makes it useful. There is indeed profit to be gained from what is in the "unifying vision". However usefulness is to be gained from "what is not there". Appropriate to this argument, the cover image echos the sense of a hole framed by spokes.

In a previous study, Capra himself has given attention to what is seemingly missing (The Hidden Connections, 2002) in which he extended the framework of systems and complexity theory to the social domain, using that framework to discuss critical issues of the times.

In adopting a critical perspective here, the point to be made can be further highlighted by quoting another classic Taoist author, Chuang Tzu, to the effect that:

The wise man therefore... sees that on both sides of every argument there is both right and wrong. He also sees that in the end they are reducible to the same thing, once they are related to the pivot of Tao. When the wise man grasps this pivot, he is the canter of the circle, and there he stands while "Yes" and "No" pursue each other around the circumference. (The Way of Chuang Tzu, interpreted by Thomas Merton, 1970)

Somewhat ironically, this well-known reference to "pivot" can be usefully understood as fundamental to an earlier work of Capra (The Turning Point: science, society, and the rising culture, 1982). Although a natural scientist, like Capra, as co-author Pier Luigi Luisi has a particular preoccupation with the cognitive implications of the systems perspective (Mind and Life: discussions with the Dalai Lama on the nature of reality, 2009). This justifies extending the concluding argument of this review to consider this dimension.

This review therefore explores what is "not there", as a means of complementing an asystemic opus in order to point to possibilities of eliciting a system perspective of higher order -- perhaps to be understood as a meta-systemic perspective, as separately argued (Metascience Enabling Upgrades to the Scientific Process, 2014). The perspective follows from arguments developed with regard to lack of attention to remedial capacity -- even when conventional systemic insights are available (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action: constraints on ensuring a safe operating space for humanity, 2009). The approach is consistent with an earlier review (Tomorrow, Who Will Govern the World? Commentary on Jacques Attali's "Demain, qui gouvernera le monde?", 2011).

A particular concern in this review is how original is the systems view as presented, given the variety of "save the planet" reports produced in past decades -- few of which are cited in this new opus. The concern relates to whether its originality lies in its difference from other reports -- therefore defined as irrelevant to its preoccupations -- or whether this failure is significantly indicative of an asystemic cognitive framework through which the planet is to be saved.

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