“Living” Systems and the Dilemma of Differentiation

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future


The most specific language for talking about our complex natures draws on the concept of systems. Systems thinking emphasizes the need to consider all the pieces; that connections are as important as differences; and how, when what we are considering is in fact a system, the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.

But systems thinking, too, at least as conventionally conceived, cannot help us as much as we might hope. For just the same reasons, most systemic thinking confronts major obstacles when it comes to the kind of understanding the future will increasingly require. The challenges we face today require that we think systemically in ways that are quite new.

One way systems ideas must be of a new sort provides perhaps the most direct way to describe how complexity’s picture—and understanding’s picture more generally—must be new: Concepts must better reflect the fact that we are alive. Until very recently, our models, even for ourselves, were, mechanistic.

Descartes’s familiar words from his Discourse on Method articulate the Enlightenment vision: “I wish you to consider, finally, that all the functions which I attribute to this machine, such as … waking and sleeping; the reception of light, sounds, odors …, the impressions of ideas in the memory; the inferior movements of the appetites and passions …; I desire, I say that you consider that these functions occur naturally in this machine solely by the dispositions of its organs , not less than the movements of a clock.”

Conventional systems ideas appreciate intricacies and interconnections, but the assumptions are most often those of a machine world. Even when the system of interest is a human body or an ecosystem teeming with organisms, the language remains that of a good engineer—hydraulics and forces, gears and pulleys.

Ideas able to fully address human experience (and human complexity) must somehow reflect the fact that we are alive—for the simple reason that we are and that few things about us are more important. Ultimately, as we shall see, our ideas need to do something more beyond just this. They must somehow reflect the particularly choice-filled and audaciously innovative kind of life we are by virtue of being human. Culturally mature perspective both highlights each of these requirements and helps make visible ways they might be addressed.

Appreciating the importance of bridging polarities in our thinking provides a start toward the needed more “living” perspective. Examine any conclusion that begins to bridge polarities—ally and enemy, Left and Right in the political sphere, mind and body, objective and subjective, masculine and feminine—and we find thinking that is of a more vigorous—we could say “living”—sort. Bridging offers that we might understand all sorts of complexity, not just that which pertains to ourselves, in deeper and more complete, “living” ways.

As long we recognize that the kinds of systems we have interest in are of this “living” sort, we can usefully apply systems language as a shorthand. The needed new values and new ways of thinking can be described as systemic values and Whole Systems ways of understanding. Similarly, the needed new maturity of human connectedness—whether in relationships between nations, with leaders or lovers, or with the natural world—becomes a newly Whole Person/Whole System kind of relating.

That little of significance about us can be reduced to the language of machines is hard to deny. This is not to say that it cannot be denied. Those of more positivist/behaviorist ilk commit their lives to doing so. But nothing about our human experience beyond maturity’s threshold can be explained in such language—not the need for maturity’s changes, nor anything about where they takes us.

Ultimately this conclusion applies not just to ourselves, but also to understanding more generally. This is most clearly so with our larger animate world. Biology may be the study of living things, but press a classical biologist not just to describe something that is alive, but to tell you what ultimately distinguishes a rock from a turtle, and he or she will only look confused, or perhaps refer you to a philosopher (who in the end would do no better). Earlier I noted the work of systems biologist Gregory Bateson. Bateson was fond of placing a live crab before his students and challenging them to tell him how they knew it was alive. Inevitably they would fail. Do we know because it moves? Tractors move. Do we know because it responds to stimuli? So does your garage door opener. Do we know because it reproduces? Crystals reproduce. The “what is life” conversation—and controversy—was important throughout the last century—and today very much continues.

While less obviously the case, the need for this leap applies just as inescapably to the simply physical. Physicist Neils Bohr famously observed that “the great extension of our experience in recent years has brought to light the insufficiency of our simple mechanical conception.” This is explicitly not to suggest that the nonliving is somehow alive (a common New Age sort of fallacy). But the best of thinking about our physical worlds today similarly “bridges” polarities—matter with energy, observer with observed. Quantum mechanics describes how, at the level of the very small, reality as a whole is as impervious to mechanical interpretation as the creaturely, or ourselves.

The “life” conundrum provides a simple way to get at a quandary  at the core of the new-truth challenge that confronts us directly with any effort at mature “pattern language” conception. It concerns how we best think about difference. Creative Systems Theory calls it the Dilemma of Differentiation.

The simple fact that culturally mature truth requires that we make distinctions puts us immediately in a pickle. Differentiation, the ability to say “this as opposed to that” is ultimately what makes thinking work. But usual ways of addressing difference have us falling off of one side or the other of the epistemological roadway. And we won’ find our “living” quarry on either side.

We can depict difference in traditional parts terms—that is, in an atomistic, mechanistic manner with parts separate analyzable entities in causal relationship. But if we do this, no matter how subtle and sensitive our delineations, when we put the parts together, we end up back in a machine world. Another option is to come at things with an opposite strategy, ignoring parts altogether, and talking only in terms of relationship. But in the end, this approach gets us no closer. It leaves us with notions that, however sophisticated their language, become nothing but elaborate ways of saying “all is one.” Recognizing ultimate unity can be comforting—and it identifies a truth just as important and accurate as the “all is many” claims of atomistic or mechanistic belief. But begging the question of parts makes for impoverished conception at best. Worse, it makes for misleading conception. Real relationships (unity in the systemic sense we have interest in)—whether personal or conceptual—require difference. Certainly life does.

A defining characteristic of culturally mature thought is that it reconciles—finds a way past—the Dilemma of Differentiation. Success at this task follows from awareness’s new role. Any concept that effectively “bridges” propels us beyond both parts in a simple mechanistic sense and a unitary denial of difference.

The Dilemma of Differentiation challenges the more common of systems perspectives just as much as it does more everyday thought. Systemic understanding is unusual for the diverse—even opposite—worldviews it can be used to justify. Mechanistic systems ideas can be used to justify machine models of existence. More spiritually framed formulations can be used in ways that do little more than support all-is-one conclusions. Neither gets us up to Cultural Maturity’s threshold, much less over it. If our interest is “living” systems, we need a more dynamic sort of systems thinking. We need parts. And in this case, the word part can no longer refer to separately analyzable parts—or categories thereof. Parts become systemically interrelated, and in the particular sense needed to support life.