The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

General Systems Theory

"General Systems Theory" was born before Cybernetics, and cybernetic systems are merely a special case of self-organizing systems; but General Systems Theory took longer to establish itself. It was conceived in the 1930s by the Austrian biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. His ambition was to create a "universal science of organization". His legacy is to have started "system thinking", thinking about systems as systems and not as mere aggregates of parts.

The classical approach to the scientific description of a system's behavior (whether in Physics or in Economics) can be summarized as the search for "isolatable causal trains" and the reduction to atomic units. This approach is feasible under two conditions: 1. Thatt the interaction among the parts of the system be negligible and 2. That the behavior of the parts be linear. Von Bertalanffy's "systems", on the other hand, are those entities ("organized complexities") that consist of strongly interacting parts, usually described by a set of nonlinear differential equations. Systems Theory studies principles that apply to all systems, i.e. properties that apply to any entity qua system. 

Basic concepts of Systems Theory are, for example, the following: every whole is based upon the competition among its parts; individuality is the result of a never-ending process of progressive centralization whereby certain parts gain a dominant role over the others.

General Systems Theory mainly studies "wholes", which are characterized by such holistic properties as hierarchy, stability, teleology.

General Systems Theory looks for laws that can be applied to a variety of fields (i.e., for an isomorphism of laws in different fields), particularly in the biological, social and economic sciences (but even to history and politics).

“Open Systems Theory” is a subset of General Systems Theory.  Because of the second law of Thermodynamics, a change in entropy in closed systems is always positive: order is continually destroyed. On the other hand in open systems (such as living systems) entropy production due to irreversible processes is balanced by import of negative entropy (as in all living organisms).

A living organism can be viewed as a hierarchical order of open systems, where each level maintains its structure thanks to continuous change of components at the next lower level. Living organisms maintain themselves in spite of continuous irreversible processes and even proceed towards higher and higher degrees of order. 

The "theory of natural systems" of the Hungarian philosopher Ervin Laszlo is a theory of the invariants of organized complexity. It is centered on the concept of "ordered whole", whose structure is defined by a set of constraints. Laszlo adopts a variant of the principle of self-organization formulated by the British neurologist Ross Ashby, according to which any isolated natural system subject to constant forces is inevitably inhabited by "organisms" that tend towards stationary or quasi-stationary non-equilibrium states. Natural systems sharing an environment tend to organize in hierarchies.  The set of such systems tends to become itself a system, its subsystems providing the constraints for the new system.

In Laszlo's view, the combination of internal constraints and external forces yields adaptive self-organization. Natural systems evolve towards increasingly adapted states, corresponding to increasing complexity (and negative entropy). 

Order emerges at the atomic ("micro-cybernetics"), organismic ("bio-cybernetics") and social levels ("socio-cybernetics"). 

The system-oriented approach can also address a particular class of natural systems: cognitive systems. The mind, just like any other natural system, exhibits a holistic character, adaptive self-organization, and hierarchies, and can be studied with the same tools used for all other natural systems (“psycho-cybernetics”).

Laszlo views the dynamics of the universe as driven by “third-state systems”. First-state systems are systems in equilibrium. Second-state systems are systems in near equilibrium. Third-state systems are non-linear systems that are farthest from equilibrium.  Third-state system must import energy in order to survive, and, in doing so, they end up creating new order, at higher and higher levels of complexity. These systems tend to form hyper-cycles, and Laszlo calls this tendency “convergence”. It is convergence that led to the formation of galaxies, to the evolution of more complex forms of life, to the birth of consciousness. Laszlo’s convergence seems to act like a universal force that endlessly destroys order and rebuilds it at a higher level.


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