Biology 202
1998 First Web Reports
On Serendip

A First Look at Unity, Duality, and Complexity

Daniel Casasanto

Science, as we understand it in Western culture, arose during the Golden Age of Greece. Greek mystics in the sixth century B.C. did not distinguish science from philosophy and religion, but combined them in an endeavor to discover the "essential nature" of things, which they called Physis. (Capra, 1975) Heraclitus of Ephesus proposes in Concerning Nature (ca. 500 B.C.) that all things are in a continual process of "Becoming"; (Capra, 1975) He depicts a world composed of paired opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry, etc.) which struggle eternally to dominate one another. Each pair of warring opposites simultaneously exists as a unity, which contains and transcends them. (Capra, 1975) Heraclitus uses Logos, the Greek word for reason, to describe the principle of order and intelligibility which governs the interplay of opposing forces. He compares his universal principle to fire, and uses fire to symbolize "the continuous flow and change of all things." (Capra, 1975)

The dynamism which Heraclitus propounds was opposed by Parmenides of Elea, who believed "Being" to be something unique and invariable. (Capra, 1975) Whereas Heraclitus taught that whatever appears to be static is deceiving, Parmenides considered change to be impossible, and apparent changes to be illusions of the senses. (Capra, 1975) Philosophers in the Periclean Age sought to reconcile the Heraclitian and Parmenidian views. They concluded that Parmenides' "Being" implies certain indestructible and invariable substances, which would soon be termed "atoms." These indivisible units moved, but they were not responsible for their own motion; their mixture and separation was the result of forces first described as Heraclitus' "Becoming." This distinction between an object and its mover gave rise to the division between "matter", the "building blocks" of which are atoms, and "spirit", a force fundamentally different from matter. From this distinction arose the duality of mind and matter, body and soul. (Capra, 1975) Twenty-five hundred years later, we have yet to restore their unity.

Aristotle's organization and codification of Greek science and culture became the basis of the Western view of the universe, and underscored the line between body and spirit indelibly. Aristotle advanced the preeminence of spiritual concerns, subjugating the bodily and material. This attitude has been propagated and exploited by the Christian church since its inception. The most extreme philosophical formulation of the mind/matter duality was developed by Descartes, in the seventeenth century. Descartes based his view of nature "on the fundamental division into two separate realms: that of the mind (res cogitans) and that of matter (res extensa)... Descartes' famous sentence 'Cogito ergo sum' -- I think, therefore I exist -- has led Westerners to equate their identity with their mind, rather than with their whole organism." (Capra, 1975) Newton furthered Descartes' idea that matter is separate from the "self." In explaining his elementary physics, he proposed a mechanistic world -- a machine which ran according to laws imposed by a distant and monarchical God. (Capra, 1975) The nineteenth century industrial revolution gave rise to the most pronounced sociological illustration of mind/body fragmentation. Millions were asked to give up decision-making, to relinquish individuality, and to submit their bodies to becoming cogs in the world- machine. The disembodiment of the worker has led to the individual's disconnection from his environment, which has resulted in its abuse. The advancement of science and technology has increasingly widened the fissure between body and spirit. Paradoxically, it is the advancement of science which promises to overcome their fragmentation.

Scientists and mathematicians are developing theories of complex, non- linear, dynamical systems to explain and describe observations made in the context of quantum theory and relativity. With these systems comes the opportunity -- and the necessity -- to fundamentally redesign the models on which science has depended for two millennia. Four pillars which have supported science through the ages have recently begun to crumble: Duality, Causality, Objectivity, and the Hierarchy of forms. These principles intertwine in ways which make it difficult to discuss one without invoking the others. This will be the case until a new vocabulary develops -- one which will reflect new scientific paradigms.

The era has ended in which time could be thought separate from space, and matter separate from energy. Relativity has shown this, yet the popular conception (and even the intuitive notion of scientists) persists. Since matter and energy are not only interconvertible, but constantly in the process of interconverting, they must be considered to be different aspects of the same phenomenon: matter-energy, for now. It is difficult to think this way, since our experience of energy is very different from our experience of matter. Energy seems intangible and ephemeral, while matter seems tangible and comparatively permanent. Light, one of the most easily observed forms of energy, cannot be felt, even if heat that accompanies it can. Furthermore, light seems to cease to exist at the instant that it ceases to be generated. Imagine turning off a flashlight. It is, of course, absurd to conclude that light no longer exists once we can no longer observe it, but most of us think this way! In contrast, we think of matter as behaving far more reliably. We can touch our skin, a desk, a wall, and we can feel reasonably certain that these objects will persist indefinitely in the same form that we experience them. Nevertheless, if matter is equivalent to energy, and energy is inherently dynamic, objects will certainly not be the same from one instant to the next, despite our perception of them. What we consider concrete objects are specific patterns of matter-energy which appear to have some permanence, and to occupy a finite space when we observe them in our time-frame. This is a disconcerting notion if you start thinking too hard about the chair you're sitting on, but an exhilarating one in many respects. Our understanding of the biology involved in touching an object, and processing the sensation, is that of an energy- requiring physical process. How must we redefine the act and perception of touching a "material" object once we have concorporated matter-energy? Once we have accepted the synonymy of matter and energy, there is no longer any need, nor any justification for the separation of body and mind.

Logic: pursued and revered by scientists since the Golden Age. Invariably, whether the chop-logic of Seneca, the metaphysical logic of Hegel, or the empirical logic of Mill, arguments rest upon cause and effect. Indeed, the scientific method is a disciplined means of determining cause and effect, and it is this method which Complex Systems challenge. Phenomena in complex systems can be described as "orderly ensemble properties", which can be "understood in terms of the properties and interactions of sub-phenomena" or "elements" (Grobstein, 1997) One characteristic of complex systems is that "the behavior of ensembles is both influenced by and influences the behavior of elements." In other words, "there is a reciprocal causal relationship between parts and wholes." (Grobstein, 1997) This reciprocal, or bi-directional causality has been indicated in neural function. It is possible, however, that the idea of reciprocal causality may require revision. Perhaps a more accurate description of the brain and other dynamical systems is a web of mutual causality. If all forms are continually composed and dissolved, reciprocity breaks down as soon as the sender and/or the receiver cease to exist in a recognizable form. It may be time to revise our notion of causality further, or it may be necessary to do away with causality altogether.

What's wrong with causality? Two things: it implies an observer, and it implies a hierarchy of patterns or events. The observer is necessary to evaluate cause and effect. Physicists have known for decades that the act of observing alters the observed. Bi-directional causality indicates that the observer, too, is changed by the process. A dynamic web of interdependence would suggest that it is presumptuous even to call one's self the "observer" since it is not possible to know one's relationship to the experimental conditions, nor one's own place in the web at any instant.

It is unfortunate that we are constrained by our incrementally evolving language to describe the new in terms of the familiar. Our best descriptions are still encumbered by linear, pre-quantum-relativistic constructs. Even Gestalt Psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels, who asserted the Complex idea that "the whole is more than the sum its parts" continued to search for the "single irreducible pattern" of perception. (Capra, 1996) We have tried to fathom all of the levels in the hierarchy that we keep hoping will describe the universe. We have searched two thousand years for the "uncuttable" -- the truly fundamental building block from which everything else is made. Perhaps there are no "building blocks."

There is a problem with describing Complex "ensemble properties" in terms of "sub-phenomena" or "elements." Sub-phenomena implies that these patterns of matter-energy are somehow less important than others: inferior in size, scope, complexity, or permanence. The idea of something "elemental" suggests a static entity, rather than a part which is itself a dynamical system, and itself a whole. "Wholes" and "parts" are not much better descriptions, at least not without much qualification. The problem is that these words imply a relationship which is inconsistent with the emerging idea of a network of parts that exhibit "self-consistency" : a web in which "things exist by virtue of their mutually consistent relationships...[which] follow uniquely from the requirement that the components be consistent with one another and with themselves. In such a web, there won't be anything primary or secondary, and there won't be any foundations." (Capra, 1991)

Reciprocal causality implies that communicating parts become alternately primary and secondary to one another. This is a step in the right direction, but it still suggests a linear, mechanistic model in which (shifting) hierarchies determine outcomes. We assume causality because we observe phenomena preceding and following one another. The perceived sequential relationships among phenomena may be illusory: the products of a limited conception of space-time. The language of causality ties us to our obsolete predisposition to think that change only occurs when something is acted upon. The words we use to describe Complexity impede our progress toward seeing the universe as a mutually-and-self-consistent web of patterns. Perhaps this Complex, non-mechanistic web will prove to be the "mechanism" of Heraclitus' dynamic unity.

Selected Bibliography

Capra, F., The Tao of Physics. Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1975

Capra, F., The New Physics Revisited. Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1991

Capra, F., The Web of Life. Anchor Books, New York, 1996

Crystal, D., The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia. New York, 1995

Grobstein, P. Insights From Complex Systems.

Grobstein, P. From the Head to the Heart.

Grobstein, P., Variability in Brain Function and Behavior.

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