Events seem to involve more than just individual decisions and actions and to be determined more by socio-cultural “systems,” be these prejudices, ideologies, pressure groups, social trends, growth and decay of civilizations, or what not.
The tendency to study systems as an entity rather than as a conglomeration of parts is consistent with the tendency in contemporary science no longer to isolate phenomena in narrowly confined contexts, but rather to open interactions for examination and to examine larger and larger slices of nature.
The basic assumptions of our traditions and the persistent implications of the language we use almost compel us to approach everything we study as composed of separate, discrete parts or factors which we must try to isolate and identify as potent causes. Hence, we derive our preoccupation with the study of the relation of two variables. We are witnessing today a search for new approaches, for new and more comprehensive concepts, and for methods capable of dealing with the large wholes of organisms and personalities.
Mathematics essentially means the existence of an algorithm which is much more precise than that of ordinary language.
We presently “see” the universe as a tremendous hierarchy, from elementary particles to atomic nuclei, to atoms, molecules, high-molecular compounds, to the wealth of structures (electron and light-microscopic) between molecules and cells, to cells, organisms, and beyond to supra-individual organizations.
Structure (i.e., order of parts) and function (order of processes) may be the very same thing: in the physical world matter dissolves into a play of energies, and in the biological world structures are the expression of a flow of processes.
The fundamental problem today is that of organized complexity. Concepts like those of organizations, wholeness, directiveness, teleology, and differentiation are alien to conventional physics. However, they pop up everywhere in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences, and are, in fact, indispensable for dealing with living organisms or social groups. Thus a basic problem posed to modern science is a general theory of organization.
General system theory, is a general science of “wholeness.”
Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components, never being, so long as it is alive, in a state of chemical and thermodynamic equilibrium, but maintained in a so-called steady state which is distinct from the latter.
In all irreversible processes, entropy must increase. Therefore, the change of entropy in closed systems is always positive; order is continually destroyed. In open systems, however, we have not only production of entropy due to irreversible processes, but also import of entropy which may well be negative.
Living systems, maintaining themselves in a steady state, can avoid the increase of entropy and may even develop towards states of increased order and organization.
The general notion in communication theory is that of information. In many cases, the flow of information corresponds to a flow of energy.
Entropy is a measure of disorder; hence negative entropy (or information) is a measure of order or of organization, since the latter, compared to distribution at random, is an improbable state.
A great variety of systems in technology and in living nature follow the feedback scheme, and it is well-known that a new discipline, called Cybernetics, was introduced by Norbert Wiener to deal with these phenomena. The theory tries to show that mechanisms of a feedback nature are the base of teleological or purposeful behavior in man-made machines as well as in living organisms, and in social systems.
The meaning of the somewhat mystical expression, “the whole is more than the sum of parts” is simply that constitutive characteristics are not explainable from the characteristics of isolated parts.
From the viewpoint of thermodynamics, open systems can maintain themselves in a state of high statistical improbability, of order and organization.