March 8, 2005

(Probably) Simple Questions

I feel like an infant joining this discussion -- I'm not working on the same level as you, Gregg, and it's going to take me a while to catch up. But I haven't been idle: I've been playing with these ideas seriously enough to have (for one brief and fleeting week) announced to Bill Doherty that I was changing the direction of my graduate work and that I'd do a theoretical dissertation on an idea which systemically addressed an intersection between quantum physics, interrelationality, and living systems. I had even started assembling a committee around it (Liz was very interested), when friends from other institutions cornered me at a conference and told me I was talking about life's work, not a dissertation. Or at least not one which could be completed in my life time. Maybe yours, Gregg, but I'm SOOO much older than you.

Bill was very relieved when I changed my mind.

I'll begin to start dialogueing with you both about this paradigm shift I'm playing with, but not today. I thought I'd start with really basic issues, like how systems connect.

It seems from my reading that systems are often presented in a vertical or hierarchical manner. If I could be sure this would tranfer correctly, I'd try to diagram it for you, but I think I'm stuck with a written description, so here goes:

Take a single individual. Call him System 0. Move upward, or outward (if you'd like to think of shells rather than stay on a linear plane): above System 0 are increasingly larger systems (say, System 1, System 2, System 3, etc.). These macrosystems have a commonality in that each has the individual (System 0) as a member. For example, System 1 may be a dyad with his wife, System 2 his nuclear family, System 3 extended family, System N community, or society, and so on. There may be macrosystems which do not include all members of other macrosystems in which System 0 is a member, such as one macrosystem being his church, another his workplace; hence, a shell scheme. But still, they are all of increasing size and complexity, and all have System 0 as a member.

Now, we'll work in the inverse direction. Back to System 0: He is comprised of microsystems, each of smaller composition, each a member of System 0. So, we've got the respiratory system (System -1), bronchioli (System -2), lung cell (System -3), cell organelles (System -4), proteins (System -5), and so on. Again, there is decreasing size and complexity, but all have System 0 as a level of the hierarchy.

Am I seeing this correctly? Making sense?

Now, my question is if Systems Theory addresses lateral relationships, one in which there may be a connection to System 0 at some distant macro level, but there is none in linear proximity at the point of connection.; rather, one can view these more as lateral or horizontal connections. Let me explain more, as I struggle to language this. Take System 0 and a germinating grass seed (another System 0). Research has been done to indicate that a human can project a sense of wellbeing onto a germinating seed and there is an observable increase in the rate of plant growth. How can you explain this is System Theory terms? Would one say that the human is part of the seed's ecosystem (on a macrosystem level) and that is where the interrelation takes place? Or can independent, vertically unconnected systems impact each other? (Duh. Of course they can, as I reread this. But how to describe it correctly within the theory?)

As I write this, I'm beginning to see it a little more clearly, but I'd surely appreciate some input. Thanks.


Mary, you are grappling with the deepest levels of the systemic paradigm. First, I concur with your friends that defining ultimate reality is a bit ambitious for a doctoral dissertation. I was warned in graduate school (and I needed the warning) that I probably should not try to write my magnum opus in a dissertation; it was a struggle, but I managed to become more cirumspect over time. Nevertheless, the issues you raise can--and will--inform your graduate work throughout, as well as future professional endeavors. There are two REALLY BIG issues reflected in what you have written. First, the ontological one: Are systems "arranged" hierarchically--and, by extension, what is the "real" nature of relations between systems in the universe? Second, the epistemological one: How can we know (understand), language, and depict the relationships between systems? I studied with Paul Tillich at the University of Chicago, and he had a very tightly argued dialectical ontology that talked both about "dimensions" of life and "levels" of reality. I would be glad to loan you a couple things that you might find interesting. The epistemological issues have been addressed primarily by Bateson, and, more recently, by Humberto Maturana. I also have a prepublication article I have been working on for a decade on "Depicting Ecosystems." I have presented it at a couple of conferences and to classes here in the Department. But it has never seemed "complete" and ready for publication (I think I will always feel that way, so I have decided to give it one more edit and then submit it; if no one understands or likes it, I can say it reflects my senility now that I'm retired). One other simplistic comment: Systemic relationship seems to be most commonly presented as some sort of concentric circles (you might remember the sexual development diagrams by Robert Francoeur that I handed out in the couples course). I do believe that such depictions are more useful that a diagram of "levels," although they have some limitations, too; ie., that systems on the outer rings are "larger" than those on the inner rings.

Posted by mkellehe at 3:41 PM