20 January 2006

Philosophy in the Web of Life: Fritjof Capra’s unsung meta-model

The Web of Life, a book written by Austrian physicist turned Eco-Literacy champion Fritjof Capra is a cogently argued case for defining the concept of life in a new way that reflects the insights of several scientific disciplines that have only come into existence in the last 50 years or so. But, the more important point for philosophical consideration is the fundamental insight into the universe upon which the argument is based; namely that there are four principle aspects that must be explained in order for any understanding of the world to be complete. The four principle aspects of any understanding of the world are structure, process, pattern and the scale of the holons involved.

Capra did believe he was making a contribution to philosophy, but he was focused on the specific philosophy of deep ecology which he addresses in the first part of the book. I am not especially concerned with deep ecology; I suppose I might be aligned with it as a movement, but don’t identify myself with it. The greater value of his work in my opinion is the more basic philosophical assumptions he made in order to arrive at his insights into biology and by extension, his support of deep ecology as a philosophy.

Capra portrays the historical context for his insights as arising out of a synthesis of the two competing definitions of life that have historically dominated the field of biology and have been competing with each other as if they were each complete definitions that must be mutually exclusive of the other. In fact, Capra tells us, they were each only partly complete and require a third leg to stand up, plus, a proper floor to stand on. Only when the whole stool was built would we have a solution for sitting on our laurels. The two main competitors in the contest to define life were mechanism, which emphasized the study of biological structures versus holism, which emphasized the study of biological patterns. These two competitors both generally overlooked process and even if they did see it they would still have been unlikely to create a stool out of those seemingly disparate pieces. Essentially the real problem was that they each had a good solid stick in their hand and they each thought that their stick was the best way to prop yourself up, but failed to realize that what was really needed was a place to sit.

The sitting place that Capra proposes will allow us to take a load off and really get down to the business of improving the human condition. At least that’s what I get from it by taking from his book, not the biological insight, but the philosophical insight that he built his biology upon. Let’s consider the four principles and then see where they take us in philosophical terms.

Structure is the most obvious principle. It is embodied in the objects that we can touch, feel and grasp. Structure is one of the most literal concepts we have because it is one of the most fundamental to our experience of the world. Objectivity is most solidly grounded in the study of the structure of the physical universe. No matter what other beliefs you have we can all agree on the things of the world, the things that we all touch and share the experience of touching.

Pattern is the next most obvious principle. Pattern is what happens to structures through time. If we have a seed and we take a picture of it then we have recorded the structure of the seed at that moment in time. If it is moist and warm then a few days later when we come back and take another picture it is no longer merely a seed, but a seedling with a shoot sticking out of it. And if we take another photograph a while after that we have a plant with roots, a stem and leaves. If you were to compare the original photo of the seed to the final photo of the plant without knowing anything else about how the photos were taken and never having experienced that particular kind of plant before it would be impossible to know that the seed structure was a previous incarnation of that plant structure. But when seedling photos show you the split seed casing and then the emergence of similar leaves then you have more insight about the progression of events. We all know and can agree that pattern is a consistent and fundamental aspect of our experience.

Process is much more subtle and difficult to comprehend. If we want to know exactly how the photos connect to each other then we take a lot more photos to fill in the gaps, we make a movie. But when we make a movie we just get more detail about the unfolding pattern before us and the truth is that if we remain at the same level of scale then watching a plant grow in slow motion is going to get really boring and will not reveal any new information. The trick to our coming to understand process was the advent of microscopy and the ability to see the cellular structures that make up the plant at very small scales. This was a great achievement, but it then presents a problem with our ability to connect what we learn at the scales of cells, or more recently molecules, with the original movie of a whole seed/seedling/plant.

We know logically that each of the photos is a moment in time that had to have preceding and proceeding moments that connected it to each of the other photos and to our present moment. We innately understand that when you put a lot of small things together they add up to a big thing. But what we have discovered about the very small is that it doesn’t just add up (and the same is also true about the very big.) There are some things at the scale of the very small that occur in ways that we are still struggling to comprehend, genetics is a great example. We know a lot about the structure of the DNA molecule and we know a lot about its patterns, but we are just barely beginning to figure out how the process works whereby the molecular structure changes the cellular body from moment to moment as it causes the pattern of a living thing to unfold over time and at scales of many magnitudes larger than the DNA molecule itself.

So structure is essentially the stuff of the universe, pattern is how the stuff occurs through time and process is how the stuff that occurs in time gets from one arrangement to another. These are the three legs of our stool. But the problem is that two of the legs are intuitively easy while the third is a potential mind bender and sometimes completely defies our intuitive understanding of how things are supposed to work. It’s like we are holding the three pieces of wood up and since one looks a lot shorter than the other two we don’t yet see them as anything other than a bunch of sticks.

The key to bringing it all together is understanding the similarities between a seat and a floor so that the legs can be arranged to support a seat. The concept of holons is a necessary element in this meta-model of how our universe occurs because we need to be able to talk sensibly about how to tie the different scales of our universe together when our innate understanding of our own scale of normal boldily perception fails to accurately describe reality. There is an old concept of the universe that it consists of some very small basic material units, once called atoms, and that these basic units comprise everything in the universe. Once they found atoms, then they looked closer and found sub-atomic particles, and ever since they have consistently found and more recently confidently theorized ever smaller units. Arthur Koestler reframed the problem by saying that the universe is, in fact, made up of holons which are not material entities, but simply units defined by wholeness and simultaneous partness such that every holon consists of smaller less complex holons and at the same time makes up larger more complex holons. An atom simultaneously consists of subatomic particles and can make up part of a molecule. We are each made up of cells and make up families, businesses, and other groups that act as a whole unit in the world. Both atoms and people are holons.

One of the keys to understanding holons is that they have emergent properties that are unique at each level of scale. Knowing the properties of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms does not give us the ability to predict the properties of water, one of several molecules formed by the combination of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. The properties of water are an emergent phenomenon of the molecular scale of our universe. Similarly the behavior of organizations are not predictable based on an understanding of the individual people who belong to it. Because there are unique emergent properties at every level of scale then it is important to distinguish what scale of holons are under consideration in any discussion about the world.

The problem of the stool is in how we fit the parts together to achieve a platform for comfortably sitting our butts down without risk of injury or indignity. And the fact is that we are stuck with the materials at hand, so we have to arrange them so that we create a very floor-like surface in miniature perched on top of the three sticks we have available (now transformed into legs). Once we have created the idea of legs and a seat (a pattern), then we can use these concepts as an approach (a process) for creating seats (structures) in a vast array of styles and utilize ever more creative structures to manifest the basic pattern. Thus we kick-off a seating revolution.

To get back to the Web Of Life, the most important part of this work is the meta-model of the universe that allows these four elements (structure, process, pattern and holons) to fit together to create a new understanding of the nature of the universe itself. When looking through the lens of structure, process, pattern, and holons then we can analyze the world in new ways to arrive at more complete solutions.

My goal is to use these fundamental elements to assemble a new way to conceive of sustainability across the levels of scale that humans are most experienced with. Up until now we have all been standing around, lying around, propping ourselves up on sticks, or sitting with our butts on the floor. Using these four principles I will propose that we can also create a way to sit comfortably on a seat of sustainability that is essentially a small reflection of the world (floor) that has always supported us.

The advantage of sitting off the floor is the new opportunities that come from imagining and then creating ever more interesting and beautiful ways to realize this new pattern. What I propose is not going to be functionally different from our metaphorically sitting on the floor throughout all previous history, but it will be aesthetically different. Not everyone will want to sit this way and no one has a fundamental need to sit this way, but for those who choose this way it provides another option that might serve as a comfort when we are tired or ill at ease. And it will certainly provide more opportunities for every individual who embraces it to express themselves in new and unique ways. The way of sustainability is an aesthetic decision, not a survival decision, for individuals like us. It may or may not be a survival decision for organizations and/or societies, and since I am writing for individuals that is not my concern right now. I plan to develop this line of thought further, so I appreciate feedback that will help in that development process.

[This previous post discusses sustainability. Or here's a post that lays out how I became fascinated with the idea of context.]

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