Belonging Together in Nature – Deepening our Sense of Systems in the World

When we develop empathy with people and nature, we are able to develop a deeper understanding and experience of how we perceive the world. This deeper ability to perceive wholeness rather than fragmentation is central to the way in which we can develop systemic solutions to the systemic problems facing us in the world today.

The central focus of our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter relates to how the dynamic way of seeing relates to systems thinking and how we create models of both our environment and economic systems. For this reason, I wanted to provide this key extract from it which relates a conversation I had the pleasure to participate in between philosopher Henri Bortoft, and Stephan Harding and Philip Franses, both holistic scientists based at Schumacher College, which took place at the college in 2009.

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College

Henri was a vocal critic of General Systems Theory – in that he felt that it could fall into a trap of modelling counterfeit wholes. However,  could his criticism also apply to the mathematical models of Gaia Theory? Or could, in fact, the opposite be true; that systems models could, indeed, somehow model the belonging together of parts? The concept of ‘belonging together’ comes from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and for a long time Henri had felt that General Systems Theory had missed this subtle concept.

…..

Henri: I used to have an obsession that there was something deeply wrong about systems theory. In a way, it coloured my whole attitude for quite a long time. For me it was quite easy to see that what people did in systems thinking was to tie things together, and that there may be ways in which things belong, which in systems theory are coloured over. I felt this very strongly in my personal life, and in human relations in organisations.

I did feel that people who came in, with their diagrams, and their grids, and their management tools, and personality tools and so on were doing something that was very coarse, and there was something more subtle there. They were just obliterating this with their approach.

Philip helped to explain the difference between the subtle ‘belonging together’ and the more coarse ‘belonging together’.

Philip: In a watch, the parts are brought together and that is how the watch works. In a plant, the stem, the leaf, and the flower, you can only imagine them; they don’t have any existence except in their belonging as a plant, the whole plant.

So in a watch, parts belong together, but in a plant, the parts belong together. Stephan asked Henri about the relationship between his dynamical way of seeing and the systems models of Gaia that he had developed. The questions help us to understand the difference between what Henri refers to as ‘dogmatic annunciation’ and ‘constructive conception’:

Stephan: Can you go from one to the other? Thinking of Gaia, it looks at the interrelationships between phosphorous, nitrogen and carbon; you make a model of that, and you have got a systems model. In my experience, that model, if used in the right way, can bring you to the belonging together. You would not have got that type of belonging together if you didn’t have the systems model to begin with. You couldn’t have possibly seen it all. It happens at such a large scale, where some of these cycles are happening very slowly and invisibly. I think there is a way of bringing it together where you are conscious of what you are doing. You have created a system, but you are doing it to come to this more subtle form.

Henri: I can see that that could be the case. What you are doing, therefore, is that your more systems approach, the belonging together is not dogmatic. It is a ‘constructive conception’.

Stephan: You know what you are doing. You are aware of it.

Henri: This is the key thing.

Stephan: There is feedback between the two. They can inform each other. The better able I am to get into the belonging together, the better my systems model is going to be, the more correct it is going to be. And then that will inspire my belonging together. So you can do a kind of feedback. They help define each other. I think of this particularly in relation to Gaia.

Henri: What comes across is that it is not a ‘dogmatic annunciation’. This is what you get in systems thinking – ‘dogmatic annunciation’. What you are working with is what I would call a ‘constructive conception’. The idea of a constructive conception is that it is not the truth. A dogmatic annunciation says it is the truth. A constructive conception has in it sufficient truth for it to be useful to take you on [forward]. What you said, that you need to be aware that you are doing it, needs to be underlined in red many times. It is the most important thing of all. You do things in full awareness of what you are doing. Our problem is that we don’t. We do things without being aware of what we are doing. That’s when things become dogmatic and we become trapped in them. We can do all sorts of reductionist things, and they can be jolly useful. But you need to be aware when you are doing it that that is what you are doing.

It is important not to think in a dogmatic way when developing a model. The better you can see ‘belonging together’, the better your model will be. There is, therefore, a feedback loop between the two aspects. You become more aware of your own thinking, and also aware of mental processes and experiences that would otherwise be hidden from you. Modelling should only really be done once you have this level of self-awareness – aware of what you are thinking and doing. When this happens, you are able to work more fully in a reductionist or mechanistic manner, but you do not become so entranced by your models that you confuse the models with the deeper truths of reality, the totality of which cannot be modelled explicitly.

Systems thinking can be limited by an analytical mode of consciousness which is only able to comprehend belonging together. If we expand our mode of consciousness to a point whereby we begin to be able to see belonging together, the systems models that we develop will be enhanced. We should, though, avoid falling into the trap of assuming that the belonging together in a system is fixed. If we do this, then we run the risk that the systems which we develop will no longer be creative, and we stop anything new from emerging. When you develop a counterfeit system, you try to bring the parts together by connecting them together. But when you see that the whole ‘comes-to-presence’ within the parts, whereby each part is an expression of the whole, and that the whole can only be the whole because of the parts, and the parts can only be the parts because of the whole, then you can see the deeper kind of belonging together.

[Extract taken from Holonomics Business Where People and Planet Matter, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson, Floris Books, 2014. You can find out more about their Holonomics approach to implementing profound organisational change at holonomics.co.uk and their blog Customer Experiences with Soul cxwithsoul.com.]

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