Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Embodying discontinuity: Order through chaos

Global Strategies Project


1. Non-equilibrium structures

Prigogine obtained the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his investigation of non-equilibrium systems which, in the words of the Nobel Committee, "created theories to bridge the gap between biological and social scientific fields of enquiry" (1976, 1980). It is evident that the world system is far from being in an equilibrium state or even near it. As Holling notes, for example: "An equilibrium-centred view is essentially static and provides little insight into the transient behaviour of systems that are not near the equilibrium... The present concerns for pollution and endangered species are specific signals that the well-being of the world is not adequately described by concentrating on equilibria or conditions near them." (1976, p.173).

Unfortunately the tendency has been to focus on equilibrium research and, in the case of social systems, on visions of desirable societies formulated in equilibrium terms as "peaceful" utopian end states. This is only realistic when dealing with closed systems exchanging nothing with whatever can be described as an "external" environment. As Jantsch notes "Equilibrium is the equivalent of stagnation or death" (1978, p.10). In the more realistic case of open systems, it is the high degree of non-equilibrium due to the presence of such exchanges which can maintain self-organizing processes that give rise to "dissipative" (non-equilibrium) structures.

2. Dissipative structures

Dissipative structures are associated with an entirely different ordering principle called "order through fluctuation". Such structures can in effect arise from the amplification of fluctuations resulting from instabilities which, in the case of the world system, for example, are perceived as the curse of orderly planetary policy-making and global programme management. Open systems in a state of sufficient non-equilibrium endeavour to maintain their capability for exchange with the environment by switching to a new dynamic regime whenever entropy production becomes stifled in the old regime.

Order may therefore increase, and the response to fluctuations is the less random the more degrees of freedom the system has (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976). Fluctuations on a sufficiently small scale are always damped by the medium. Conversely, once a fluctuation attains a size beyond a critical dimension, it triggers an instability (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976, p.119). There is no longer a consistent macroscopic description (Ilya Prigogine, 1980, p.141). In the formation of dissipative structures, it is the fluctuations that drive the system to a new average macroscopic state with a different spatio-temporal structure.

Instead of being simply a corrective element, the fluctuations become the essential element in the dynamics of such systems (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976, p.9396). Dissipative structures can therefore be considered as giant fluctuations whose evolution over time contains an essentially stochastic element (1976, p.93).

Fluctuations play this critical role in macroscopic systems in the neighbourhood of bifurcations where the system has to "choose" between alternatives (Ilya Prigogine, 1980, p.132). Given the situation of the world-system in the face of such alternatives, Prigogine's work merits careful attention.

3. Unexpected global relations

Prigogine argues that dissipative structures present precisely the global aspect, the aspect of totality, which has been ascribed to the object of the synthetic sciences, including sociology (1976, p. 95) This macro view is important both in the temporal (historical) sense as well as in the usual spatial (structural) sense As Jantsch notes:

"In a nonequilibrium world of self-realizing, self-balancing systems, process and structure become complementary aspects of the same overall order of process, or evolution. As interacting processesdefine temporary structures - comparable to standing wave patterns in physics - so structures define new processes, which in turn give rise to new temporary structures. Where process carries the momentum of energy unfoldment, structure permits the focusing and acting out of energy. Only a macro view is capable of providing a perspective of history, or evolution of space-time structures; our current microscopic paradigms (e.g., quantum mechanics) do not deal with space-time coincidences." (1982, p.39).

Dissipative structures are very sensitive to global and historical characteristics that influence in a decisive way the type of instabilities by which the structures are engendered. For example, the occurrence of dissipative structures generally requires that the system's size exceed some critical value - a complex function of the parameters describing the interaction-diffusion process. Far from equilibrium, therefore, an essentially unexpected relation exists between the dynamics and the space-time structure of such systems. Instabilities near the critical point involve long-range order through which the system acts as a whole in spite of the short-range character of the interactions (Ilya Prigogine, 1980, p.1034). The distribution of interactants is no longer random (1980, p.132). Chaos gives rise to order (1980, p.142), a phenomenon explored by Atlan (128). The oscillation frequency now becomes a well-defined function of the state of the whole system. Any instability then develops over time the periodicity of the limit cycles of fluctuation (1980, p.99). The determining importance of these global and historical dimensions recalls the preconditions for an adequate world-system type analysis (I Wallerstein, 1976).

4. Complementarity of determinism and fluctuation

In order to be able to take form from instability, a dissipative structure requires a non-linear mechanism to function. It is this mechanism which is responsible for the instability amplification mechanism of the fluctuation. Dissipative structures thus form a bridge between function and structure (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976, p.95, Ilya Prigogine, 1980, p.100) as portrayed by the triad: function/space-time structure/fluctuations. Determinism and fluctuation then play a complementary role in any description. In Jantsch's words, as applied to social systems: "Process (or function) and structure, deterministic and stochastic features, necessity and chance (or free will), become complementary aspects in the self-organizing dynamics of "order through fluctuation' which may also be graphically depicted as a nonequilibrium system "stumbling forward" and crossing by its own force the ridges separating "valleys" of global stability". (1976, p.72)

Jantsch sees this essentially dualistic description as itself complemented by Rene Thom's topological model seen as constituting the first rigorously formulated monistic model of life. Here instabilities (catastrophes) are responsible for mutations such that the deterministic and finalistic aspects are understood as complementary links in a temporal feedback cycle. Causality and finality become expressions of a pure topological continuity of self-balancing processes, viewed from opposite directions (1975, p.41). In commenting on Abraham's (1960) application of Thom's work, Jantsch notes:

"A complementary approach, the theory of catastrophe..., focuses on the existence of multiple globally stable regimes (called macrons, and equivalent to dissipative structures) and the transitions (catastrophes) between them. Macrons are, at the present stage of the theory, represented by mathematical descriptions of their equilibrium state (attractors). Therefore, catastrophes appear as sudden quantum jumps, as if due to "pushes" by and outside force, comparable to a golf ball being propelled over a ridge by a single stroke. What is of central interest in this approach, is the landscape of new forms, the "epigenetic landscape", beyond the ridge." (Erich Jantsch, 1976, p.72).

Such a landscape is of special interest in perceiving the relationship between "answers". Each answer is then a macron (attractant)which determines the flow of attention. Answer domains are thus separated by "ridges", which prevent the effective flow of information from (or to) neighbouring "valleys". (The focus and preoccupation of other valleys is considered "irrelevant".) Answers can then be usefully seen as distributed over the landscape such as to ensure the most economic distribution of attention, or psycho-social tension, in a social system.

5. Organization self-renewal: autopoiesis

The basic conditions for the dynamic existence of non-equilibrium structures are therefore:

The dynamics of such a globally stable, but never resting structure, has been called "autopoiesis" (Archie J Bahm, 1977), namely self-renewal regulated in such a way that the integrity of the structure is maintained. It is typical of biological and social organization. According to Jantsch: "Autopoiesis is an expression of the fundamental complementarity of structure and function, that flexibility and plasticity due to dynamic relations, through which self-organization becomes possible." (1980, p.10). According to Zeleny and Pierre:

"Autopoietic organization can be defined as a network of interrelated component-producing processes such that the components, through their interaction, generate recursively the same network of processes which produced them and thus realize the network of processes as an identifiable unity in the space in which the components exist. The product of an autopoietic system is necessarily always the system itself, its organization being continuously realized under permanent turnover of matter and energy". (1980, p.150)

Whereas: "Allopoietic organization, in contrast, can be defined as a network of interrelated component-producing processes such that it does not produce the components and processes which realize it as a unity" (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976, p.150).

It would seem that there is much to be learnt from this perspective with reference to human and social development. In Jantsch's words again: "...human systems with all their tangible and intangible aspects might then perhaps be regarded as dissipative structures, arising from the interaction of strong and highly nonequilibrium flows of ideas and actions. Their spatial organization would then be the result of processes of self-organization, or in other words the forms of periodicity built into human systems. This organization would be physical as well as psychic. Indeed, the borderline between both becomes blurred in the light of the emerging insight that information itself may have a self-organizing capacity, that a seed of information may engender more information and thus more order". (1975, p.60)

4. Self-renenwal

The self-renewal of the autopoietic system is achieved, in the words of Zeleny and Pierre, "through a series of oscillations between rupture and closure. Its very existence as an autopoietic system is based on this rhythmical opening and closing.... We might preferably talk of pulsating systems, since neither permanently closed nor permanently open systems are autopoietic; they are not "alive"." (E Jantsch and C H Waddington, 1976, p.153).

5. Need for closure

The theory of opening and closing in relation to social systems has been explored by Orrin Klapp (1978), to whom Zeleny and Pierre refer. Klapp argues that opening to variety, whether for learning, progress, evolution, or control, has been over-emphasized to the point of bias. Because of this modern society has wandered into a crisis of social noise and failure of resonance, thus impairing communication and making it harder to find meaning. He interprets a variety of psycho-social phenomena according to the theory that individuals and societies normally open and close to information and communication. Opening is scanning for desired information and the new, whereas closing is a natural response to too muchunusable information, broadly conceived as social noise. Opening and closing are therefore part of a shifting optimization strategy of living systems to get the most of the best information and the least of the worst noise:

"From such things, we see that what we call aliveness - resilience, adaptability - is not continual intake, nor any constant policy, but sensitive alternation of openness and closure. The mind listens alertly, then turns off to signals. The natural pattern is alternation, and the more alive a system is, the more alertly it opens and closes. In such a view, closing is not, as some suppose, merely a setback to growth and progress, but evidence that the mechanisms of life are working, that the society has resiliency... A perpetually open society would suffer the fate of a perpetually open clam." (1978, p.15).

6. Need for alternation

Openness or closedness is not a fixed policy or structural characteristic but a changing life strategy of organisms and groups. Communication fluctuates in cycles requiring sensitive alternation (1978, p.16). The "conventional" bias in favour of openness, the more information the better, has been reinforced in recent years by liberal theorists pleading for open-mindedness (Rokeach, 130) or an open society (Popper, 40). More recently this view underlies the Club of Rome report on "No Limits to Learning". The view is challenged by the extensive evidence information overload on the one hand, and by what Klapp calls "spasms of closing among ethnic, religious, and other groups", from which academic and other specialization should not be dissociated. "When a lot of people feel too much entropy as a crisis to collective identity, they close to protect the net, exclude noise, intensify signals affirming common values, and perhaps define more clearly an enemy." (1978, p.16).

Klapp argues that if all societies are naturally subject to cycles of openness and closure, some revisions in current assumptions about progress and the "free market of information" may be necessary. He asks whether it is possible to get too much of a good thing, when system theorists recognize that unlimited increase of anything good is not better, and no living system takes an unlimited input of anything.

7. Relevance to an information society

Is information exempt from this, or is it also subject to overloads and entropic effects comparable with overproduction in economic markets and polluting side effects of growth ? If closing is as necessary to human systems as opening then they should be placed on a par, rather than being presented as "bad" and "good" respectively.

In amending the open society model, Klapp cautions against a purely mechanical interpretation of the advocated oscillation between relative openness and closedness. There are inherent risks in either strategy: "Scanning for news, discovery, or growth runs the risk of excessive noise and other costs of bad opening; closing for redundancy, memory reinforcement, or cohesion risks narrowness, ignorance, and stifling banality". (1978, p.20).

He therefore distinguishes moves in an information game corresponding to bad opening, good opening, bad closing, and good closing (1978, p.19). Furthermore, what are conventionally called "open" societies close in different ways from "closed" societies, and at different points on a range, one end of which might be an authoritarian system allergic to small increases of information, and the other an ideal liberal society with a progress ideology emphasizing the modern and devaluing the old - hence vulnerable to crisis from information overload and loss of redundancy. (1978, p.12).

8. Gateway for an answer "container"

These considerations suggest that the "container" for answers should embody characteristics which ensure that it "opens" and "closes" in some way - not an unusual requirement for containers which are to be of practical value.

9. Third-perspective "container" alternation

Prigogine (1980), Jantsch (1980), Attali (1981) and, in effect, Feyerabend (conclude 1978) that it is necessarily impossible, if not anti-developmental, to define an organized, rational structure to bridge across discontinuity. The only "solution" being to adaptmore spontaneously or aesthetically to the processes in relation to discontinuity. In effect what is being said is that, even in mathematical terms, it is impossible to discover a space whose form (a "meta-answer") validates every argument ("answer"). In Bateson's terms: "The question is onto what surface shall a theory of aesthetics be mapped.... a map of the region where angels fear to tread" (1979, p.210214). But even if such a form could be discovered, it would presumably be too abstract to be of any value in society.

The difficulty is one of handling essentially incompatible answers which cannot co-exist passively (e.g. "science" and "religion"; "industry" and "environment"). In order to be hospitable to the discontinuities they represent, it would be necessary to somehow encompass or "contain" the non-rational character of the disagreement between them. This implies a distinctly non-linear relationship between them. The most accessible indication of the possible nature of such a relationships is that between right- and left-hemisphere modes of thinking (Erich Jantsch, 1975), and the essential difficulty of integrating the perceptions to which they give rise. The functional "solution" used in daily life by all is an oscillation between the two modes according to the task to be performed. Integration, namely the meta-answer, is here represented by the pattern of oscillation between the distinct modes.

The question is whether this is relevant to the wide range of answer domains and the modes of action/perception they represent. It has been used as a basis for an experimental ordering of the range of preoccupations of international organizations in a "chequerboard" matrix classification scheme based on right and left-hemisphere modes. Such a classification scheme (criticized below) is a minimal pattern of interrelationship (namely a "container") between answer domains, reflecting the discontinuities between them. This suggests, as stated there, that the present pursuit of "alternative models" may be proceeding in an unfruitful direction. The point is not simply to discover some magical alternative model of value to development but of limited appeal. It is rather to discover "models of alternation" (or oscillation) to contain the development process in relation to different alternatives which may be periodically adopted. Institutions could useful consider the value of an alternation policy (e.g. centralization/decentralization), rather than having it forcefully imposed upon them periodically by their environment or pursuing a schizophrenic policy using departments with alternative approaches which are impossible to reconcile. Each alternative becomes a boundary condition. The challenge is to use a configuration of such alternative models in such a way as to constitute a "container" for the development process.

10. Revolutionary cycles of alternation

The fact that social conditions are very much subject to cycles (e.g. Kondratieff), and that policy "breakthroughs" (such as centralization or decentralization) are periodically rediscovered with enthusiasm, suggests that alternation should be explored as a cyclic phenomenon. In fact, as any physical model will illustrate, a pattern of oscillation is not stable unless it is accompanied by some form of revolution of which the observed alternation is often a consequence (e.g. night/day on the revolving Earth; seasons on the Earth revolving around the Sun). Control of the "revolutionary process" is absolutely basic to the generation and use of electrical and other forms of energy (e.g. generators and motors).

Cyclic processes are also characteristic of many biological phenomena (e.g respiration, reproduction, metabolic cycles). They are also evident in many socio-cultural phenomena (R. Buckminster, 1975, 1979), not to mention various symbolic and mythological cycles. But in the non-physical cases, humanity has gained little effective control of the revolutionary process. In fact the significance of social "revolution" is limited to the superficialities of discontinuity which are thus reinforced.

It has proved difficult to give operational content of any value to the non-disruptive dimensions of the "permanent revolution" advocated by marxists. This may well be due to the fact that it does not involve cyclic alternation between incompatible modes,because of the emphasis on an essentially linear series of dialectically superseded modes. Such linearity is a Western cultural concept of change which is not married to the valuable Eastern insight into change as recurrence. In metaphorical terms the marxist stress is on the struggle of abandoning "winter now" for "spring tomorrow" without any additional recognition of the revolutionary process whereby a new "winter" (with similar characteristics) will necessarily be encountered (or brought about) or of the importance of the ecological role of "winter" in a cycle. If there is any significance to the importance of the revolution-based design of generators for the industrial revolution, there should be some insights of relevance to the current problem of designing a meta-answer to the present socio-cultural condition. In fact, in Attali's terms (1981), such physical designs may well have prefigured the socio-cultural design problem of the present.

Designs appropriate to Attali's "third world" or Toffler's "third wave" could seemingly only emerge following recognition of the validity of a "third perspective". Integrated comprehension of the revolutionary cycle is only possible through a conceptual relationship to the axis that stabilizes perception of the cyclic processes with reference to it. Without this third perspective, the revolutionary cycle can only be confusedly comprehended as a linear process in one or two dimensions. It is in terms of this third dimension that the required meta-answer designs may well be possible.

Humanity does not function in terms of one mode alone, just as it is difficult to hop (or limp) forward on one foot - although this may well be what history will see as characteristic of this period. The "struggle" between two feet is avoided by a third "walking" perspective. Switching metaphors, it is though the vehicle conveying humanity forward that the spokesmen of antagonistic groups struggling on the driver's seat for control of the steering wheel. Those closest to the left-hand window (and the abyss on that side) shout "turn right", and those on the right-hand side (seeing the abyss there) shout "turn left". Luckily the vehicle has so far remained on the road because their over-corrections counter-balance each other. A more balanced third perspective is required to allow the vehicle to follow a road with both left and right-hand curves and abysses on either side (not to mention on-coming traffic).

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential