Address to the Society for General Systems Research
At time time Ludwig von Bertalanffy conceived of a general system theory (that was over half a century ago), the world was a very different place. The First World War still seemed in retrospect as the most traumatic event in the history of civilization. The war clouds were somewhat dissipated for a few years after the armistice in the wake of a general revulsion against war, but they were gathering anew. But the fear of war at that time was not different from the fear of any large scale unpleasantness of comparable magnitude. In fact, we were already in the midst of a large unpleasantness, the Great Global Depression of the 1930s.
The most conspicuous difference between the fear of immediate threats then and our present fears is that the activities of scientists at that time were not seen as the principal source of the threat as they are seen today. Science was still regarded at least in the technologically developed societies as a fountainhead of blessings – emancipation from drudgery, a weapon against the scourge of disease and of poverty, the philosopher’s stone become a reality.
The sobering thought in the 1930’s was the fractionization of science resulting from bifurcating disciplines. The philosophically inclined scientist, one who saw science not merely as a dispenser of goodies but also as a source of inspiration, an exciting human enterprise, an inexhaustible source of profound insights, was dismayed at witnessing the rise of barriers between specialists in disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines, who no longer understood each other’s jargons, threatening to turn the edifice of science into an unfinished Tower of Babel, That was one of Bertalanffy’s concerns.
The other source of his concern stems from an even earlier time, the all-but-forgotten controversy between the vitalists and the mechanists. Many of us recall Bertalanffy’s input into that controversy. H. Driesch, an outstanding vitalist, who flourished in the early decades of our century, thought he provided incontrovertible refutation of the mechanist view. He cut a sea urchin embryo in half and saw it develop into two normal embryos instead of into two halves of an embryo, as the two halves would have presumably done if their development were guided by “mechanical laws.”
Driesch maintained that his experiment established the so-called principle of equifinality, a teleological principle characterising living matter but not non-living matter. In refuting Driesch’s argument, Bertalanffy pointed out that equifinality was not confined to the behaviour of living matter, that it characterized many types of open systems, thus revealing a most fundamental difference between such systems and closed systems. Another argument of the vitalists, namely, that living systems violated the Second Law of Thermodynamics was likewise shown to be invalid, since a rigorous formulation of this law in terms of non-decreasing entropy of a system presupposes a system isolated from its environment, which living systems obviously are not.
Bertalanffy argued that these fundamental differences between “open” and “closed” systems pointed the way toward a new development of science – the investigation of properties of systems in general, i.e., toward the construction of a general system theory.
These two ideas, central to Bertalanffy’s thought, namely, the fractionization of science, perceived as leading to eventual sterility of scientific thought, and the opportunity offered by the vitalist-mechanist controversy for the construction of a general system theory which could serve as an integrating force, are clearly connected. The effective refutation of the vitalist position served to erase the sharp boundary between the world of matter obeying mechanical laws and the living world exhibiting quasi-teleological causality. The outline of a general system theory held the promise of providing a common language for disciplines concerned with diverse contents.
It was this bright prospect that motivated some of us who met at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in California to found the Society for General Systems Research. This was done at the 1954 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.
The idea took and the Society flourishes. However, let us face it. The original concerns that sparked the idea of a general system theory are no longer central to the philosophy of science. Or perhaps I should say ought no longer be central. Other, far graver concerns have displaced them. Or perhaps I should say ought to have displaced them.
Let me spell out my meaning. Surely the old controversy between the vitalists and the mechanists is now a dead issue. And even the problem of breaking through disciplinary barriers is no longer an acute one. While interdisciplinary enterprises in the early years of our society were still controversial and had to be “sold” to the university bureaucracies, they are now run-of-the-mill activities. Think of the proliferation of hyphenated disciplines, filling, as Robert Oppenheimer used to say, the “interstices” of science. Think of the penetration of mathematical model building into fields where mathematization used to be regarded with amused scepticism. Surely mathematics has become the lingua franca of all rigorous science and so an integrating factor. Think what the phenomenal development of cybernetics and information science has done for system thinking. Finally, think of the think tanks, the cartels of the scientific enterprise.
It is clear that the original malaise about where science is going is no longer justified. System thinking has come to stay. But this by no means justifies complacency. There are other sources of malaise – extreme malaise, and I need hardly spell these sources out. We all know what they are.
Very soon after the end of World War II, when the dangers inherent in the unleashing of atomic power began to be realized, George A. Lundberg, a prominent American sociologist, published a pamphlet entitled, Can Science Save Us? The motto Lundberg chose to convey the principal thesis in a nutshell was the interchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland,
“Cheshire Puss,” Alice began, “would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” answered the Cat.
A reasonable answer but not very helpful to someone who doesn’t know anything about the available destinations.
Lundberg, however, took the Cat’s answer as revealing the very essence of Science as a mode of cognition. Science, in his view, is never in a position to tell us where we ought to go. Science can only tell people who know where they want to go how to get there. Somewhere there is an answer based on solid scientific knowledge (perhaps not yet gained but in principle attainable) on how to secure the impoverished areas of the globe from devastating famines. There is also reliable knowledge (in fact, already available) about how to destroy everything humankind has created in the past several millenia in a few hours. You pay your money and take your choice.
The disavowal of responsibility for the way scientific knowledge is used rests on presumably a very sound principle of cognition, namely, the recognition of a sharp distinction between questions in the form “What is?” and questions in the form “What ought to be?” According to this view that science by its nature is and ought to remain value-free, science can answer the former type of question but not the latter. Science can describe reality. Science can uncover connecting links between events, something that philosophers from antiquity on called “causes and effects.” Science can specify procedures that enable us to distinguish truth from falsehood, logical consistency from logical error, likelihood from unlikelihood, efficiency from inefficiency, stability from instability. But science, according to this view that insists on separating science from values, does not enable us to distinguish good from evil or justice from injustice, except with reference to prior definitions of what is good or bad, just or unjust. And such definitions, according to the same view, are not the scientist’s concern.
I believe it is this view, as much or more than the actual evil perpetrated by the use of war technology, that has given science a bad name. The view that science is morally neutral suggests the standard defence against charges of crimes against humanity: “I was only doing my job.” If the Nuremberg trials have set any precedent, it was the rejection of this defence. Yet the “I am doing my job” syndrome persists. It becomes a justification for wearing blinders. And it has given science a bad name.
There is, therefore, a strong case for the view that science is in need of redemption. But of course this view is held only by those who deplore the alienation of ordinary people, especially of the very young or of women from science. I am speaking of human beings in whose psyche affect plays an important role – of women because of their deeper preoccupation with rearing children, an activity where affect plays a dominant role, of very young people, because the establishment of relations based on affect still plays an important role in their lives, before, that is, that role shrivels in the world of competition and of hypertrophied value placed on technical competence. For people who live entirely in that world, which, with some justification can be called the man’s world, where business, politics, and war are the most prestigious occupations, affect is something to be concealed and, if inadvertently revealed, to be ashamed of. The scientist who has been co-opted into that world feels himself part of it, aspires to success in it, adopts the attitude that affect has no place in serious business, proper as it may be for women and children. This sort of scientist is not expected to feel that science is in need of redemption, because the people who have come to view science with repugnance and fear, the people in whose estimation science got a bad name, are not important to him.
There are two ways of defining science. Each can be justified by selecting certain salient aspects. What aspects we select depends, of course, on what we regard as important. Here values already enter the very definition of science, because what we regard as salient is what we value. One way of defining science is in the way Lundberg and many scientists conceive it, namely, as an organized body of instrumental knowledge. This is knowledge of how to get from here to there, knowledge of what to expect under given observed conditions, what to deduce from given premises. Note the common factor. Something is given, hence is not to be questioned while its implications are being investigated. Only on the basis of what is given, whether an observable state of affairs or a hypothesis or a system of assumptions, or rules of deduction, or a paradigm of cognition, can knowledge be established. The format of this sort of cognition is “If … then …” It extends also to the attainment of goals. The goals are given. It is the scientist’s job to find the means to attain them. If the goal is to increase agricultural output, the scientist ought to be able to tell you how to proceed. If you want to prevent small pox, the scientist can tell you how. If you want to kill people efficiently or painlessly or horribly or with impunity, trust science to find a way.
Another way of viewing science is as an enlightened way of thinking. It is not easy to define enlightenment except by example. The intellectual climate of eighteenth century France was called the Enlightenment. Its main thrust was directed against ways of thinking about the world and about society handed down from the Middle Ages and obstructing the dynamics of the human cognitive process spurred by the blossoming of natural science. Especially the dogmas of the Church came under fire. The effect of the Enlightenment on Europeans is best described as emancipation, specifically emancipation from superstition and from the stifling tyranny of institutionalized authority.
To see science as the way of enlightenment is to see it primarily as an emancipating activity. The conventional instrumental conception of science which, incidentally, is rooted in deep antiquity, because primitive science was entirely instrumental, also contains components of emancipation, specifically emancipation from drudgery and from devastating diseases. But the emancipatory potential of science is now broader. It provides means of breaking the stranglehold of conventional wisdom, of hand-me-down prejudices, of veneration of authority backed by power.
Recognition of this potential must lead to the conviction that science, viewed as a way of emancipation, cannot possibly be value-free, primarily because freedom is a value inherent in science itself. And it is not the only value inherent in science. Truth is obviously such a value, because by definition science is concerned with the search for truth, which makes no sense unless one values truth more than falsehood or delusion. Objectivity is another value inherent in science, and objectivity demands that cognition be freed from the predilections of individuals. Empirical truth, for example, is established by consensus among independent observers about what has been observed. This criterion, in turn, implies a basic commitment to equality. Except for differences due to different degrees of competence induced by training, one observer is not more authoritative than another. Science, as we know it, has transcended national and cultural boundaries as no other human activity, with the possible exception of sport. Therefore transnationalism, transculturalism, globalism, recognition and the reinforcement of these eminently humane values are inherent in science, viewed not primarily as a source of know-how in manipulating things or people but rather as a source of wisdom, as a spiritually inspired human enterprise which has transcended its purely instrumental origins.
To elucidate the difference between the instrumental and the enlightening role of science, I will resort to two analogies – one between science and religion, the other between science and art. Primitive religion, like primitive science was pragmatic. Its practice consisted largely of techniques (called rituals) believed to be effective in placating angry gods or bribing reluctant ones. Not so long ago, religion was used to keep masses of people in submission. Along with these manipulative functions, however, another dimension of religion developed – the spiritual, providing a basis for expanding the individual consciousness to include others via an affect called empathy. The concept of universal brotherhood underlies several of the so-called world religions. And it is worth noting that this spiritual aspect of religion is frequently at loggerheads with the pragmatic (residing mostly in magic) or the manipulative or the ritualistic aspects, which instead of integrating humanity tend to split it into hostile groups.
Another analogy can be drawn between science and art. Art was once also, like religion, fundamentally instrumental. The spiritual dimension of art developed much later and has been at times incompatible with the instrumental aspect, e.g., the uses to which commercialized art is put, such as treating feminine pulchritude as a salable commodity.
In sum, the spiritual content of science, religion, and art stems from conceptions of the true, the good, and the beautiful characterized by a universalism. Neither science nor great religion, nor great art can be parochial. It is this virtue of universalism that confers on science (as it does on religion emancipated from superstition and on art emancipated from vulgarity) the potential for integrating humanity. The realization of this potential is what I mean by the redemption of science.
Can general system theory play a role in this redemption? Here I am referring to general system theory not as a substantive scientific theory (which it is not) but as an orientation, an outlook, a framework of thought, a commitment. The system view of the world can contribute a great deal toward restoring the good name of science among those whose faith in science as an emancipating activity has been shaken.
The system view of the world in a nutshell is the conviction that everything is related to everything else. This sounds like an inane truism but is nevertheless a profound truth, which is by no means internalized in the mainstream of thought, let alone translated into action such as wise use of technology or ethical guidelines in policy. For if it were, the dominant superstitions of our age would be untenable.
One of the most pernicious of these superstitions is the faith in the technological fix. This superstition is rooted in the linear view of causality. Having established that A causes B, which causes C, etc., it is tempting to believe that in order to control C we need only control B and to control B we need only to control A. In fact, however, though not in primitive thought about causality, causes and effects form a network rather than a chain. Most important, causal networks contain feedback loops, which produce not only homeostatic effects, as they do in stable systems, but also anti-homeostatic effects, manifesting themselves in medical, ecological, and political disasters.
It is through the traumatic side effects of technological fixes – of drugs, of pesticides, of burgeoning industrial growth – that people are becoming aware of non-linear causal networks and of previously unsuspected relationships. The unwanted effects of pesticides are particularly instructive. By destroying insect populations, many pesticides also decimate the bird population by depleting the birds’ food supply. As their predators disappear, the insect pests come back with a vengeance and, along with the mutant variants resistant to the pesticides, create a problem worse than the original one. Timely internalization of the systemic outlook might have spared humanity many disappointments and might have precluded the growing ambivalence or outright hostility toward science.
Nowhere is the blind belief in the technological fix more pernicious than in the defence policies of the superpowers which have brought the planet to the brink of irreversible disaster. Military doctrines have usually reflected lessons learned from the immediately preceding war. Napoleon’s slogan, “Les gros battallions ont toujours raison” led to the doctrine that victory on the battle field is achieved by massive infantry attacks and so led to the massive slaughters on the Western Front of World War I. The lesson of World War I were incorporated in the primacy of mass production of war materiel, a doctrine particularly congenial to business circles in the United States, which paid off in World War II. The lessons of that war were internalized as the worship of science as a source of power, frankly speaking the worship of death-dealing technology, the de facto religion of our day.
It is this form of idolatry (I call it technolotry) that makes people impervious to the systemic outlook. Every new advance in war technology, every new linkage between the most abstruse scientific theories and high tech with military potential is hailed as a contribution to “national security.” What is completely lost sight of, ignored, dismissed, swept under the carpet is the obvious link between one’s own pursuit of “security” and the presumed enemy’s. What is seen as a contribution to one’s own security is seen by the perceived enemy as a contribution to his insecurity. The result is the global analogue of the dollar auction.
Probably most of you have heard of the dollar auction experiment. The conventional auction is modified by requiring the second highest bidder to pay what he last bid when the highest bidder acquires the item auctioned off. This item is a dollar bill. By the time the highest bidder has bid 90 cents, the second highest bidder stands to lose his 80 cents (his last bid) if he gives up. He is, therefore, strongly motivated to bid $1.00, hoping to break even if the erstwhile highest bidder gives up. But now the latter stands to lose his 90 cents if he gives up. He is therefore strongly motivated to bid $1.10, and so it goes. The first time this swindle was pulled off, the dollar was “auctioned off” for $3.40. I understand the experiment has since been replicated and even higher prices were paid for the dollar bill.
The driving force of the dollar auction is exactly analogous to the driving force of an arms race. As they say in the American air force, “There is no second prize in an arms race.” The driving force of the arms race is generated by decoupling in the minds of people the awareness of the positive feedback effect. The participants in the dollar auction and in the arms race behave as stupidly as the horse who chases the carrot tied to a stick dangled in front of him.
Of course nothing has changed since the crude pursuit of quantity was replaced by the refined pursuit of quality, inspired by the ever increasing sophistication of high tech. What is still lost sight of is that the pursuit of advantage of whatever nature by one side stimulates the pursuit of advantage or at least of parity by the other. The gains inevitably cancel each other, but addiction to “progress” conceals this inexorable fact.
The system outlook, being an integrating outlook should also counteract another kind of de-coupling, which is even more pernicious than the blindness to feedback effects. Recall that the original concern of general system theorists was the insulation of specialized disciplines from each other. The goal of the early workers of general system theory was the development of a common language of science in order to break down the barriers between the specialized disciplines. With the hypergrowth of the global war machine and the cooptation of scientists into its service another form of insulation developed as a consequence of integration within the war system. This integration was enthusiastically pointed out by Colin S. Cray, an influential intellectual in the American defence community. Cray wrote that because of the openness of American society,
… it is possible for individuals with relative ease to have “mixed careers” involving occasional periods of official service, university teaching (or affiliation at least), “think tank” research, private counselling, and possibly employment in the defence industry.
Here is real integration, the weaving together of varied interests and competences into a vast cooperative enterprise. This enterprise, however, serves only itself. There is a widespread belief that it serves the society in which it is imbedded. But that belief is paradoxically coupled with another belief incompatible with it, namely, the belief that the defence community serves society by preventing the means of total destruction from being ever used, the very means of total destruction which the defence community produces, distributes throughout the world, maintains in working order, and keeps “improving.” The burgeoning activity of developing systems that serve as “protection” only if they are never used is called “deterrence,” a buzz word which along with “defence” and “security” serves to justify maintaining the planet on the brink of catastrophe.
The absurdity of the belief that the war machine functions properly only as long as it does not function in the way it was designed to function does not escape the custodians of the machine. One must believe that the machine may be called upon to function. For this reason, the machine must be maintained in a state of readiness. Its activation must be constantly rehearsed if only in the form of computer simulations. This maintenance of constant readiness requires internalization of habits of thinking about the unthinkable, and this can be done only if thought is completely insulated from human reality. This is the insulation I spoke of in connection with the internal integration of the defence community.
The esoteric and, at times, ghoulish language of the defence community has been repeatedly pointed out as both the means and the manifestation of this insulation. It is a language replete with euphemisms whose function is to conceal the unspeakable reality of what is being prepared. It also shows some predilection for faint suggestions of obscenity, which, as some feminists have pointed out, serves to weld the brotherhood of cynicism and power addiction, presumably typical vices of male chauvinism. Completely excluded from this language and from the concerns of people for whom the language has become the analogue of a mother tongue are concepts that describe either human empathy or human suffering. Tens of millions of incinerated, irradiated, poisoned, or blinded human beings become “collateral damage.” Population centres become “targets,” design of operations which will inevitably result in mass murder becomes “strategy.” Pugnacity and arrogance are euphemized as realistic stances or “maintaining a posture.”
The mentality and ethos of top decision makers of today are indistinguishable from those of absolute monarchs of 18th century Europe – the Louises, the Fredericks, the Catherines, for whom the human reality of the common soldiers, the pawns in their games was excluded from awareness just as the fate of children in a “controlled” nuclear war is excluded from the awareness of the strategists of our day.
In this exclusion of ordinary human concerns from the thinking of those who serve the war system, we see insulation through specialization far more ominous than the insulation of disciplines with which the early workers in general system theory were concerned.
Let us now look at some principal methodological tools of general system theory. One of the most important is the creative use of analogy, a mode of cognition often looked down upon by self-styled custodians of scientific rigour. Bertalanffy, in an overview of general system theory published in the early 1960s, quotes a critique of general system theory published in 1956 by one Buck, who poked fun at the emphasis in general system theory on structural analogies, linking phenomena of widely different content. Buck offered an example of what he called a sterile analogy. The rate of formation of frost in a refrigerator is the same as the rate of carbon deposit in an automobile motor. The similarity of mathematical expressions, according to Buck, is “sheer coincidence” — it does not prove that a refrigerator is an automobile or vice versa.
Buck could have gone further. He could have pointed out that although the numbers of lethal kicks of horses in Prussian cavalry corps in the 1880’s and the breakdown of atoms of a radioactive substance as recorded by a Geiger counter are both described by a Poisson distribution, this does not prove that horses are radioactive. Bertalanffy’s reply to Buck:
Buck’s criticism is, in principle, the same as if one would criticise Newton’s law because it draws a loose “analogy” between apples, planets, ebb and tide and many other entities; or if one would declare the theory of probability meaningless because it is concerned with the “analogy” of games of dice, mortality statistics, molecules in a gas, the distribution of hereditary characteristics, and a host of other phenomena.
Mathematical isomorphism as a unifying principle of scientific cognition is so well established that Buck’s criticism can be ascribed to a lack of understanding and dismissed. But I want to dwell on another kind of analogy, more specific to general system theory and more relevant to the present discussion.
There are two major approaches to general system theory – the analytical and the organismic. Bertalanffy straddled both and in this way was instrumental in bringing about the sort of intellectual fertilization that launched the subsequent development of general system theory. The basics of analytical general system theory are rooted in the definition of a system as a collection of elements and interactions among them. In principle these interactions can be described by systems of differential equations. The way the elements are connected constitutes the structure of the system. The trajectory of the states of the system constitutes its behaviour. Slower secular changes in the parameters of interaction constitute its evolution.
The foundations of organismic theory are spelled out in the work of Jim Miller and Ralph Gerard. The basic idea is a hierarchy of generalized living systems. The fundamental conception of a system in this approach is that of a portion of the world which, although it is in a state of flux, i.e., undergoes continual change, nevertheless maintains its identity as evidenced by the fact that it is recognized as “itself.” Living organisms are the most obvious examples of systems of this sort. But there are others, for example, subsystems of organisms, their cells, organs, and tissues; also more or less integrated collections of organisms, especially of social animals, e.g., ant hills, beehives, flocks, and herds; among humans families, work teams, organizations, institutions, societies; on a larger scale ecosystems, finally the entire biosphere.
The constant change within these systems is conspicuous. The molecules of our bodies are constantly replaced; yet except in cases of severe mental disorder, each of us is conscious of his/her identity through the years. The inhabitants or the buildings of a city or members of an organization may be continually replaced, but Rome is still Rome, the Bank of England still the Bank of England, and I am sure the Society for General Systems Research will still be around after all of us are gone.
The analogies singled out for attention by organismic general system theory are the unifying principles that justify viewing organismically conceived systems as entities preserving their identity. These are not confined to living organisms or collections of organisms, not even to material systems. Obvious non-material systems are languages. They not only maintain their identity in spite of the fact that the speakers are continually replaced but also evolve in ways strikingly similar to the evolution of living organisms, complete with vestigial parts as evidenced in the peculiarities of English spelling.
Another striking example of evolving non-living systems are artifacts. You can actually see their reconstructed evolution in any technological museum.
Of special relevance to our discussion is the evolution of institutions, especially the striking examples of adaptation of evolving institutions to changing social environments. Here we can see analogues of natural selection at work. Some institutions adapt to changing social environments even if the adaptation entails a complete transformation of function. Others fail to adapt and become extinct. In Europe the authoritarian monarchies – Russia, imperial Germany, and Austria-Hungary perished. Those that survived completely lost their authoritarian character. Those are the monarchical European democracies – the Scandinavian countries, Britain, and the Netherlands.
The same laws of survival or extinction apply to all institutions. Chattel slavery, the Holy Inquisition, human sacrifice, the feudal system – all became extinct. They could not adapt to changing social and economic milieus.
Our present predicament, the fact that humanity itself is threatened with extinction appears to be the consequence of the way a particular institution has successfully adapted itself to a changing social environment. I am referring to the institution of war. In pursuing the implications of this idea I suggest that we think of war not as an event with a beginning, a duration, and an end but as an on-going institution like banking, like an educational system, like the penal system. Like any other institution, war has a continual existence. Outbreaks of specific wars are just active phases of its existence. The institution itself transcends these periodic stretches of activity and dormancy.
At the present time the institution of war has permeated the entire fabric of societies, most conspicuously of the superpowers. It comprises not only the armed forces but the entire infrastructure that nurtures the war machine and promotes its growth and its spread into all facets of human life.
Like any other system, the war machine has evolved, and it owes its robustness and its growth potential to a sequence of successful adaptations to its social environment.
There was a time when wars of conquest were means of survival, for example, conquests of arable land. When exploitation of land necessitated irrigation projects, a demand for labour arose, and slaves became an important part of war booty. The dynastic wars of 18th century Europe led Immanuel Kant to assume that with the abolition of monarchies wars would disappear. But just then in the wake of the French Revolution, patriotism and nationalism were invented and war got a new lease on life.
The massive bloodletting of the two world wars might have put an end to the institution had not nuclear megatonnage made the mobilization of massive armies unnecessary. It is all but impossible now to sell war, at least in developed countries, by trumpet blaring, drum beating, flag waving, and bond selling. But neither is this necessary. Nor is it necessary to inculcate hatred of the enemy to launch a nuclear war. The final war, if it comes, will be the culmination not of aggressiveness, not of xenophobia but of creative scientific research and technological virtuosity, devoid of any hostile affect. The scientists and technicians working on lethal nerve gases look no different in their laboratories from scientists and technicians working to produce life saving drugs. The offices of the Pentagon look no different from the offices of an insurance company. As a consequence of total war, i.e., of routine indiscriminate mass slaughter of civilians, a normal by-product of nuclear war, a deep aversion toward war developed in human beings and the heroics of war became debunked. For this reason, the preparations for war (without which the institution could not survive) must be completely insulated from the reality of omnicide. This was the latest adaptation of the war system to the changing social conditions.
The systemic view is relevant to our present predicament because of the opportunity it offers for enlightenment – for recognizing the war system as a quasi-organism that lives within human societies. Its organic functions are salient. It takes nourishment, is, in fact, insatiable. It resorts to protective measures against political attack. It has tremendous potential for growth, being nurtured by a burgeoning technology. It has found social acceptance by simulating positive social values, for example, by mimicking a protective function although it is quite obvious that weapons of total destruction cannot protect anyone or anything; they can only destroy everyone and everything. The war system mimics economic vitality, although a sober analysis shows that fewer jobs are created per dollar invested in the war system than in any other major economic activity or public service. It attracts scientists into its service by providing tempting baits, not only career opportunities but also, for the creative scientist, interesting and challenging problems, in other words, ego trips.
In this way, the war system masquerades as a functional subsystem of society, thereby resembling a cancerous growth more closely than an invading parasite. A body can often rid itself of a parasite by utilizing defences against it based on the recognition of the parasite as a foreign body. This is the way antibodies are produced. The reason malignant growths are much more difficult to combat than invading parasites is that they masquerade as the body’s own tissues and so do not stimulate the production of antibodies.
Here you have an example of analogical thinking of the sort inspired by organismic system theory. The picture I have attempted to project is not based on a scientific theory. I have not formulated hypotheses, much less suggested ways of corroborating or refuting hypotheses. Nevertheless I believe that thinking of this sort is in harmony with scientific thinking. The analogy between the global war machine and a parasite or a malignant growth is not a mere figure of speech. The parallels are stark and consistent. Like a parasite, the war machine deflects the resources of its host to its own nourishment and growth, giving nothing in return. Like a cancer it mimics the host’s own tissues and so protects itself against the host’s defences. Like a cancer it grows, metastasizes, and penetrates whatever tissues it can reach. Like both a parasite and a cancer it eventually kills the host unless it is killed first.
Is there a cure? There is, but it does not entail a technological fix. There is no invention, no gimmick that will free us from this constant threat of extinction. The threat is not external. We ourselves have created it by our predilection for nurturing delusions and superstitions, by our addictions, particularly to power (affecting the powerful) or to vicarious experiences of power (affecting the powerless).
Therefore the cure must come from the inside. I am not referring to a spiritual rebirth of the human individual, because I do not believe that the roots of our present predicament reside in the individual psyche. I reject the idea (taken for granted by many) that the human being is essentially “aggressive” as I reject the idea (fashionable in the Age of Enlightenment) that the human being in the “state of nature” is essentially “good.” Human nature cannot be reduced to an adjective. It encompasses all the properties one can think of. Are humans cruel? Of course! There is ample evidence to prove it. And they kind? Of course; there is as much evidence to prove that too. Are humans heroic, cowardly, honest, devious, trusting, suspicious? Yes, yes, yes, yes! So the way out cannot be “changing human nature.” The way out is much more practical: dissipating delusions, inducing people to recognize the essential features of the war system, how it succeeded in adapting itself to the changing environment. This awareness may suggest ways of creating social conditions to which the war system can no longer adapt.
I believe the systemic view can provide a powerful impetus to such enlightenment. For example, the systemic view is an antidote to the delusion that one of the two war machines protects one superpower from the other. The fact is that both war machines are a single machine, which threatens both superpowers and everyone else. They are one because they are linked by tight feedback loops. Neither could continue to exist without the other. Recognition of this obvious fact (made salient by the systemic view) reveals the absurdity of deterrence. If deterrence means anything, it means that the global was machine deters itself; in other words that it would be activated if it did not exist. How absurd can you get?
It is just such dissipation of delusions and superstitions that Albert Einstein had in mind when he insisted that only a change in our way of thinking can stop our drift toward an irreversible catastrophe. The change of thinking entails giving concrete meaning to the inane-sounding slogan of general system theory, namely, that everything is related to everything else. The concrete meaning is that the oneness of the world is now not just a dream or a rhetorical device or pious lip service but reality. No part of humanity can survive if another part dies. No part can prosper for long if another part suffers deprivation. No nation can be secure at the cost of insecurity of another. For millennia the great world religions reiterated this fundamental principle of human existence. The triumphs of analytic science and of the technology it produced deflected the attention of humans from the larger truth. General system theory through the synthesis of analytic and organismic modes of cognition, can contribute to the synthesis of knowledge and humane values.