The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies respect, honour, and cooperate with Nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The first step in this endeavour, naturally, must be to understand how Nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a whole new conception of life. Indeed, such a new conception has emerged over the last 30 years.
In our new book, The Systems View of Life, we integrate the ideas, models, and theories underlying this new understanding of life into a single coherent framework. We call it “the systems view of life” because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context – which is known as “systems thinking”, or “systemic thinking”. We offer a multidisciplinary textbook that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions; and we discuss the philosophical, social, and political implications of this unifying vision.
Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, beginning with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, we chronicle the evolution of Cartesian mechanism from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the rise of systems thinking in the 1930s and 1940s, the revolutionary paradigm shift in 20th-century physics, and the development of complexity theory (technically known as nonlinear dynamics), which raised systems thinking to an entirely new level.
During the past 30 years, the strong interest in complex, nonlinear phenomena has generated a whole series of new and powerful theories that have dramatically increased our understanding of many key characteristics of life. Our synthesis of these theories, which takes up the central part of our book, is what we refer to as the systems view of life. In this article, we can present only a few highlights.
One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Wherever we see life, we see networks. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
Closer examination of these living networks has shown that their key characteristic is that they are self-generating. Technically, this is known as the theory of autopoiesis, developed in the 1970s and 1980s by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis means “self-making”. Living networks continually create, or recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. In this way they undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web-like patterns of organisation. This coexistence of stability and change is indeed one of the key characteristics of life.
In our synthesis, we extend the conception of living networks from biological to social networks, which are networks of communications; and we discuss the implications of the paradigm shift from the machine to the network for two specific fields: management and health care.
One of the most rewarding features of the systems view of life is the new understanding of evolution it implies. Rather than seeing evolution as the result of only random mutations and natural selection, we are beginning to recognise the creative unfolding of life in forms of ever-increasing diversity and complexity as an inherent characteristic of all living systems. We are also realising that the roots of biological life reach deep into the non-living world, into the physics and chemistry of membrane-bounded bubbles — proto cells that were involved in a process of “prebiotic” evolution until the first living cells emerged from them.
One of the most important philosophical implications of the new systemic understanding of life is a novel conception of mind and consciousness, which finally overcomes the Cartesian division between mind and matter. Following Descartes, scientists and philosophers for more than 300 years continued to think of the mind as an intangible entity (res cogitans) and were unable to imagine how this “thinking thing” is related to the body. The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realise that mind and consciousness are not things but processes.
This novel concept of mind is known today as the Santiago theory of cognition, also developed by Maturana and Varela at the University of Chile in Santiago. The central insight of the Santiago theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life. Cognition is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks. Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected. Cognition is immanent in matter at all levels of life.
The Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: process and structure. At all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected.
Cognition, as understood in the Santiago theory, is associated with all levels of life and is thus a much broader phenomenon than consciousness. Consciousness – that is, conscious, lived experience – is a special kind of cognitive process that unfolds at certain levels of cognitive complexity that require a brain and a higher nervous system. The central characteristic of this special cognitive process is self-awareness. In our book, we review several recent systemic theories of consciousness in some detail.
Our discussion also includes the spiritual dimension of consciousness. We find that the essence of spiritual experience is fully consistent with the systems view of life. When we look at the world around us, whether within the context of science or of spiritual practice, we find that we are not thrown into chaos and randomness but are part of a great order, a grand symphony of life. We share not only life’s molecules, but also its basic principles of organisation with the rest of the living world. Indeed, we belong to the universe, and this experience of belonging makes our lives profoundly meaningful.
In the last part of our book, titled Sustaining the Web of Life, we discuss the critical importance of the systems view of life for dealing with the problems of our multi-faceted global crisis. It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, environment, climate change, poverty – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent, and require corresponding systemic solutions.
We review a variety of already existing solutions, based on systems thinking and the principles of ecodesign. These solutions would solve not only the urgent problem of climate change, but also many of our other global problems – degradation of the environment, food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, and others. Together, these solutions present compelling evidence that the systemic understanding of life has already given us the knowledge and the technologies to build a sustainable future.