Self-Organizing Systems

— giving us a universe of surprise

1. Paradigm Change Toward Holism


Paradigm - a collection of understandings constructed and shared by members of a given community; the set of beliefs, concepts, and procedures that a particular group of people have accepted.

Reductionism - the concept that the behavior of a whole is reducible to the behavior of its constituent parts.

Holism - the concept that parts can cooperate and function as a coherent unity with characteristics different from any of the parts; the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


To many of us, most of the time, the real world seems to exist outside ourselves. But when considered more carefully, as Kant insisted, we actually know only the world that we perceive with our senses and our brains. Our world may differ dramatically from the reality of other human beings since they perceive the world from different points of view. Our points of view are conditioned by our culture and shared within it. What we think to be external reality can only be an internally constructed concept of something we call reality - a paradigm.

This is not to deny the existence of an external reality but only to remind us that our conception of it may be influenced by the paradigm we share. As for example, compare a paradigm of the external world that includes the existence of ghosts with one that does not.


Paradigms are important and useful. They help to define and describe the world we live in and thereby assist us in making sense of phenomena. For good or bad, they also can unite groups of people to a common world-view. Paradigms also enable us to investigate and manage the phenomena around us. But paradigms can also be confining. By implication, paradigms define and limit those problems and methods of inquiry which may legitimately be pursued by practitioners, as the following example will show.

There was a time when the dominant paradigm was that the Earth and all things therein were created for the benefit of humans. The world was simply a stage upon which human beings were to work out their own lives and destinies so that they could achieve salvation or fall to hell. Included in this paradigm was the concept that crystalline spheres carried the moon, the planets, and the Sun in their paths around the Earth. The Earth and the human beings that inhabited it were at the very center of the universe.

A paradigm change: from geocentrism to the pale blue dot

We are all aware of how wrenching and difficult was the change from that comforting paradigm to one of a universe in which the Earth is a small planet revolving around a third rate star. The evidence that astronomical observations brought to rational minds forced the abandonment of the Earth-centered view. This appeal to nature itself as the final arbiter of what was correct or incorrect was the shift in paradigm that ushered in the modern scientific approach to the study of the world. The new paradigm which developed included the idea that the universe is ruled by rigid mathematical law. Overjoyed that the motion of the heavenly bodies could be accurately predicted, Newtonian scientists extended the paradigm and began to view all of nature as a vast clockwork mechanism.

Another example of how a paradigm can influence our view of things was the shared belief of early experimenters that electricity was some kind of fluid; a fluid that could flow through wires as water flows through a pipe. Containment experiments could then be performed in which electricity was poured into Leyden jars (containers) and stored there. The language of that paradigm is retained when we use the term electrical currents.

There are, of course, many different varieties of paradigms dealing with different areas of human life. Several of them can be in operation simultaneously and one may be in conflict with another. For example, the dominant economic paradigm is the belief that continuous technological advancement is not only beneficial but is necessary for the well being of society. For some people this paradigm is in conflict with the environmentalist one which holds that excessive exploitation of resources puts the natural world in peril.

The current paradigm of science - reductionism

In this view complex systems are simply complicated collections of simpler systems. To understand them it is necessary to break down the complex system into its constituent parts and study those parts. For example, to a reductionist the essence of thought will eventually be made known by studying the brains biochemistry and its neural interactions.

Reductionism has been justified because many systems in nature can be understood by isolating and studying one part at a time. The process has brought us to our present state of knowledge. However, when the functioning of complex systems is reduced to the actions of relatively simple parts the result is often a mechanistic view of phenomena.

The triumph of Newtonian physics encouraged a mechanistic view of everything. Both the weather and human body are still often referred to as machines. The ultimate expression of the reductionist point of view was that given by the French mathematical physicist Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) who declared that if an intelligence knew the location and the velocities of all the particles of matter in the universe and all the forces that acted on them then nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. In that view the future is completely determined by the past.

Psychology has not been immune from the influence of the reductionist paradigm. Under behaviorism, for example, living organisms are considered as only stimulus/response units whose behaviors, with the proper conditioning, can become regular and predicable. While this view has had some experimental success, it is now generally held that living systems are much more than simple reaction machines.

We are beginning to understand that much can be left out when we maintain that the whole is simply the sum of its parts. Another major criticism of reductionism is that it leaves us uncertain of how novelty enters the world. Reductionism tells us nothing about how properties at one level emerge from those at lower levels.

The process of paradigm change

Paradigms change because our knowledge is incomplete and as new discoveries are made contradictions or anomalies arise. These call into question an existing paradigm. At first the contradictions are challenged by the old guard. The new view is crazy it does not fit. But as the contradictions accumulate or, as an increasing number of investigators confirm them, a new vision of reality emerges. A paradigm change is in the making. The rise of quantum physics or the Einsteinian view of the curving of space are examples.

The discovery of the structure of DNA was a triumph of reductionist molecular biology. It was heralded as the master molecule of living organisms and began an ongoing revolution in biology the results of which are impossible to forecast. But biology is the ground in which the seed of holism flourishes. How is the origin and the development of living organisms to be accounted for? Can molecular biology explain migratory patterns? Can the functioning of an ant colony be discerned from a study of ant DNA?

The holistic paradigm

In this view the proper study of nature is not the effort to analyze it into its simplest constituents. It questions the intellectual approach that what is most fundamental in the universe are the elementary structures of which it is made. Holism holds that this approach misses what is of most importance. It misses the interrelationship among things. To understand the structure of things is to know only part of nature. Understanding the dynamical principles that change and influence those structures are also necessary.

Reductionism plus holism

This new perspective treats systems as wholes and searches for new tools and laws to understand complexity and the sudden emergence of new properties. If these laws of organization exist, they would not contradict well-established physical laws but would rather compliment them. The analysis provided by reductionism would be aided by the synthesis of holism to produce a deeper understanding of nature.

Changing times - changing paradigms

For the first half of the 20th century the dominant paradigm in science stemmed from the study of physics. Exciting discoveries in the subatomic realm and in astronomy dominated the scientific news. The ultimate reality was seen to be in the blind collisions of elementary subatomic particles. The origin of the living cell was believed to be an accidental combination in a primordial warm organic soup. Random mutations and environmental fluctuations made the evolution of living forms a matter of chance.

In contrast, the paradigm that includes the self-organization of matter into more complex configurations reduces the role of chance in the origin of living things. When a pre-biotic chemical system increases its molecular diversity beyond a certain threshold of complexity and there is an input of energy, an organization that has the property called life spontaneously emerges. The possibility of microbial life on Mars is a discovery which does not fit the paradigm of life as merely a lucky, highly improbable accident. Rather, if true, it would support the notion that there is a natural tendency for matter and energy to spontaneously form new and more complex combinations with new and unexpected properties.

There are indications that what seemed to be an absurd paradigm is becoming more acceptable. Ecological studies are moving us toward a more holistic view of the world. That new behaviors and properties emerge out of the interactions of parts of complex systems seems reasonable. We acknowledge this holistic point of view when we speak of the personality of an athletic team or refer to the mood of a piece of music as the property of the whole. The often repeated phrase everything is connected to everything else is another example of the changing point of view.