Weiss, part two
From analysis to synthesis
By looking from single objects to their interrelations with others,
one reverses his direction from analysis to synthesis. By doing this,
one discovers simple rules which describe the interrelations between
such entities and keep one's basic conviction that those entities can be
regarded as having primarily an isolated existence of their own,
and becoming just secondarily coupled, depending on "circumstances".
"Circumstances", however, is merely a substitute term for "environment".
This is a deliberate abstraction, but one which has brought science
tremendous success over the last two millennia.
“We have learned that if a finite series of modifications of an entity A
is regularly associated with a correlated series of modification in another entity B,
a rule can be established from which all future correlations between the two
can be extrapolated without further experience. We then proceed to study A
in its relation to C, and C again in its relation to B", and so in serial order, "to learn
how different parts of the Universe, erstwhile mentally dissected and separated,
hang actually together.”
This artificial, but fruitful method of analysis, “adhering to the atomistic
concept of Democrit, can thus be partly reversed by putting two and two together
- either physically or mentally in our imagination - linking by way of
consecutive synthesis such coupled pairs into complex chains and cross braces,
constructing compound real or ideal structures, the way a child builds bridges
with an erector set.”
The point is this: biological thinking entails the idea that, given
time, it “will succeed in describing and comprehending, by the consistent
application of this synthetic method, all that is within the Universe
in entities and properties and processes that are knowable to us,
including the phenomena of life.”
Modern physics has already departed from “such a micromechanistic, naive picture
of the outer world”, but we are concerned not with physics but with living
organisms. On the basis of empirical investigation, we can assert that
“the mere reversal of our prior analytic dissection of the Universe by
putting the pieces together again, whether in reality or just in our minds,
can yield no complete explanation of the behavior of even the most elementary
The living organism: a system
Life is process. “A living system is no more adequately characterized by an
inventory of its material constituents, such as molecules, than the life
of a city is described by the list of names and numbers in a telephone
book. Only by virtue of their ordered interactions do molecules become
partners in the living process; in other words, through their behavior.”
This involves vast numbers of disparate compounds,so “all living
phenomena consist of group behaviour, which offers aspects not evident
in the members of the group when observed singly”.
This fact is generally put aside by referring to living systems as "complex"; but
the term "complex" need “imply no more than a haphazard conglomeration,
whereas in the living system we find distinctive orderliness
of the complexes”. While there could be an infinite number of possible
interactions and combinations among its constituent units in a mere complex,
“in the living system only an extremely restricted selection
from that grab-bag of opportunities for chemical processes is being realized at
any one moment - a selection which can be understood solely in its bearing on
the concerted harmonious performance of a task by the complex as a whole.”
This is the feature that distinguishes the living system from a dead body, or a
functional process from a list of parts involved in a process, or “a sentence
from an alphabet, or in biological terms, ecology from taxonomy.”
“The rules of order which rigorously restrain componental interactions in such
co-ordinated fashion as to yield a harmonious group performance of the
collective can only be recognized, appreciated and properly described once we
have raised our sights from the element to the collective system”.
This means passing to a higher level of conceptualization.
Hierarchy of wholes and parts
The mention of "levels" brings Weiss to “the fundamental distinction
between atomistic, micro-mechanistic terms of explanations on the one
hand, and hierarchical concepts of organization on the other.
The difference is that the latter imply some sort of discontinuity
encountered as one crosses interfaces between lower and higher orders of
magnitude”. In the former approach one tries to reduce all phenomena to
the properties of ultimate elements in their various combinations; that view is
based on “the premise of a continuity of gradations all the way up from the
single elements to infinite numbers of them”.
To decide which one of these two contrasting views of nature represents the
reality of biological phenomena is “not to be left to a priori conviction,
but is a matter of empirical study”.
“If co-ordinated group performances of a high order of regularity can be proven
to be the blind resultant of a multitude of concurrent linear bundles of chain
reactions minutely pre-set in spatial distribution and pre-scheduled in duration
and sequence, then the former theory could hold sway”. If not, then systems
theory would have to be granted a primary role for the treatment of organized
systems; for the systems concept is the expression of the experience that there
are patterned processes “which owe their typical configuration not to a
prearranged, absolutely stereotyped, mosaic of single-tracked component
performances”, but rather “to the fact that the component activities
have many degrees of freedom, but submit to the ordering restraints exerted
upon them by the integral activity of the "whole" in its patterned systems dynamics.”
Weiss has put his finger on the sore spot which has hurt the protagonists of
analytical-reductionist orthodoxy for a long time: the concept of
The reductionists have refused to look beyond their ultimate and most extreme
abstraction, namely, the presumption of truly "isolated" elements in nature.
They ask: what else could there be in the universe other than elements and
interactions?. Weiss answers: “The interaction between a positive and a negative
electric charge, or between the earth and a falling stone, can certainly be
described, at least in first approximation, without paying attention to
what happens in the rest of the universe. And if one watches a multitude
of stones falling to earth, the total result can still be represented as
the sum of all the individual events.”
“But there is also another class of interactions, which of
necessity escapes the elementarian observer in his preoccupation with the
smallest samples, because they pertain to properties peculiar to larger
samples only of the universe, ignored in the communitive process which
led to the concept of elements in the first place.
It is in that latter class that the empirical dichotomy arises between simple
conglomerates and the type of ordered complexes which we designate as systems.
In other words, systems are products of our experience with nature,
and not mental constructs, and whoever without being privy to that primary
practical experience would try to abrogate them, could do so only by
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