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EMCSR 2012

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

discussions in the coffee breaks – not the least important ones at the European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research 10-13 april in Vienna. Rainer E. Zimmermann, member of the international programme committee, symposium co-chair, phd day reviewer, presenter of two papers, laudatory speaker for Edgar Morin, and attendee of the International Federation for Systems Research reflective session (photo: emcsr)

one step further in the systems movement. by the term “systems movement” i do not want to exclude any approach that is, actually, related to it. from the outset, it seems cybernetics has been the engineering-oriented twin of systems theory. informatics and computer science were closely interweaved with them. and, not to forget, evolutionary theory and evolutionary thinking, in particular, in austria. nowadays the field of complex adaptive systems is coming of age, while seemingly forgetting about its roots. computer simulations and philosophical deliberations in complexity are obviously different. network analysis is another field whose relationship with systems thinking is unclear. agent-based modeling is another tool – but how does this tool link to systems? life sciences have been discovering their predilection for systems – they call it systems biology. the more the term “system” has been used throughout sciences, the less clear is its meaning.

do we need clarification? yes, we do. all of the mentioned schools, theories, methodologies, are transdisciplinary in nature. thus it needs a consistent picture of how they are related to each other. all of them relate to “systems”. hence “system” as key to the understanding of the bigger picture. and transdisciplinarity is not an end in itself. transdisciplinarity is required, if civilisation attempts to master the crises we entered.

one step further – a very humble one, but not insignificant, and hopefully helpful to, if not decisive for, some of EMCSR’s participants.

i was so happy to be able to welcome two of the first and until today most important system philosophers – Edgar Morin and Ervin László. both of them delivered a keynote speech that addressed the fate of our civilisation. Edgar is going to celebrate his 92nd birthday this summer. when receiving the Ludwig von Bertalanffy Award in Complexity Thinking, and, in addition, the certificate for having become a member of the International Academy for Systems and Cybernetic Sciences (IASCYS), he joked that’s too much honour for him now – that’s rather an honour one receives only posthumously. however, we are glad that he is still alive and with us. another touching moment was when Matjaz Mulej congratulated Ervin after his talk in which Ervin summarised all his efforts for changing the world – so far in vain. Matjaz said he was glad that during his IASCYS presidency he was able to elect an academician such as Ervin.

Edgar Morin responding to questions after his keynote (photo: emcsr)

Ervin László next to the president of the International Academy for Systems and Cybernetic Sciences (IASCYS), Matjaz Mulej, who resigned at EMCSR 2012, next to the current president of the IASCYS, Robert Trappl, 40 years chair of the EMCSR in Vienna (photo: emcsr). it was the second conference i had the honour to invite Ervin after the Foundations of Information Science conference in 1996

thanks to Stefan Blachfellner and his co-workers we had new media presence.

Stefan presents journalists in training (photo: emcsr)

for details see my report on the Bertalanffy Center website.

for a variety of videos taken at the conference see here.

are we social scientists prepared to stop the self-fulfilling prophecy?

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

margaret archer and ismael al-amoudi as hosts of the workshop “from  modernity to morphogenesis” at epfl (photo: wolfgang hofkirchner)

margaret archer has put it in wonderful words:

“What is it that depends on human intentionality but never conforms to anyone’s intentions?

What is it that relies upon people’s concepts but which they never fully know?

What is it that depends upon human activity but never corresponds to the actions of even the most powerful?

What is it that has no form without us, yet which forms us as we seek its transformation?

What is it that never satisfies the precise designs of anyone yet because of this always motivates its reconstitution?”

that quote from her book Realist Social Theory: the morphogenetic approach, 1995, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.165, describes the dialectic of agency and structure in sociology. margaret archer, british sociologist, first ever female president of the isa (international sociological association) years ago, heads now a centre for social ontology at the école polytechnique fédéral de lausanne (epfl). there she pursues her morphogenetic project aimed at elaborating her morphogenetic approach.

from 12 to 14 january she invited to a workshop. what does “morphogenesis” mean? it means change in society and the question is what is the generative mechanism of social change and another question is whether or not it is justified to call the society of today, in particular, a “morphogenetic society” because change seems to be more and more unbound.

“morphogenesis” sounds like a metaphor from biology. archer, however, denies the scientificity of metaphors, in particular, when they insinuate transpositions of concepts from natural sciences to social sciences. she even exaggerates her position to the claim that social order is only like itself. in my view, the social is a product of the natural that needs to be looked upon in an evolutionary context. thus it bears features that can be traced back to their origins such that – in a very abstract sense – they appear as common to both the natural and the social, that is, as general features (found by epistemic constructive activity of ourselves but nevertheless belonging to the ontology of reality, be it natural or social).

archer is famous for her criticism of anthony giddens’ structuration theory. like bourdieu, giddens locates structure within the social agent, which makes it resistant to sociological analysis. archer calls that “conflationism”. i call it reductionism, in case a thing, a property or a relation of higher order is reduced to one of lower order and shall be explicated in terms of lower-order entities only; and i call it projectivism, in case the higher-order entity is projected onto the lower one to make the lower one explicable in terms of the higher one.

archer showed already in her earliest works on the british educational system that there is a dialectic of structure and agency: there is 1) structural conditioning, 2) social interaction, and 3) structural elaboration or reproduction.

how does structure influence agency?

i’m used to making that dialectic more concrete by resorting to system-theoretical concepts like self-organisation. by citing somebody who says there is no agreed-upon definition of self-organisation – which is true – archer subsumes, however, self-organisation concepts under methodological individualism. yes, there are approaches like that using the term self-organisation. but there are also others that talk about “downward causation” to signify the influence of the higher level on the lower level.

in that respect, tony lawson, economist from cambridge, makes a strong case for differentiating between the whole and the structure of the whole. unlike dave elder-vass who accepts a causal power of the whole vis-à-vis its parts, lawson holds that it is the structure that can be said to exert an influence on the parts but not the whole itself that has causal powers only vis-à-vis its environment, co-systems, and so on.

this is something i am very sympathetic to. in “general system theory” i’m writing about ludwig von bertalanffy making a distinction between the organisational relations that are characteristic of the whole and the interaction of the elemenents that is characteristic of the parts.

also the opposite dynamic of upward causation is doubtful.

how do emergents come into being?

kate forbes-pitt, co-worker of archer in lausanne, contends that you need an intermediate level between A and B with their respective causal properties ψ and φ, on the one hand, and the emergent C with its causal property θ, on the other. she tries to identify this intermediate level – as she says,  according to physicists dealing with systems in the perspective of self-organised criticality – in the connectivity AB that has its own causal property β. but to me it is not clear how this intermediate level would be of any help. as in itself it is not reducible to A or B and their respective ψ or φ, the connectivity seems already to be an emergent. furthermore, there seems no step conceivable from the connectivity to C and θ.

in my view, this problem relates to the problem above: AB is the interaction of the elements A and B, whereas C either is the structure of the whole or the whole itself that has a structural property and the structure or the structural property is supposed to be on another level than the level at which the interaction is located.

– as somebody who was educated as political scientist in the 70s, it struck me when colin wight who is teaching in sidney gave a critical overview over his discipline: international relations: still the dominance of so-called “realist” theory: egotistic states compete in chaotic anarchy for getting power: nothing has changed until today. no discussion about transforming “international relations” into “transnational relations”.

wight raised an important question: are we social scientists prepared to stop the self-fulfilling prophecy? we belong to the agents that meet in interaction from which another structure might emerge than that to which emergence is given from those agents that believe in ”realist” assumptions…

mini workshop on information and systems…

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

at the university of applied sciences munich on 18 january.


topical new book on financial capital (in german)

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

in the book series Selbstorganisation sozialer Prozesse a new volume has been published (2012):

Heinz-Dieter Haustein, Zeitenwechsel, Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Geldkapitals in der Geschichte

austrian arbeitskreis information studies founded

Monday, December 19th, 2011

peter fleissner, retired professor from the vienna university of technology, my former chief, with whom i made the first steps in the second half of the 90s toward a unified theory of information, franz ofner, associate professor at the alpen-adria university of klagenfurt, lecturer at the vienna university of technology, who was collaborator in the project on evolutionary systems after the turn to the new millennium, and me founded a working group at the austrian computer society. its focus: “information studies”. by that we understand research efforts revolving around the information concept used throughout the disciplines. quantum information, bioinformatics and information in systems biology, biosemiotics, cognitive sciences, consciousness studies, communication, media studies, information and communication technologies, technologies for co-operation – all that and more is part of information studies and might partake in a transdisciplinary attempt at contributing to a single integrated science of information, information society and information technology. there is a trend toward leaving behind Shannonian information that is not adequate, and never has been so, to the challenges of our time. we want to be part of that trend. see here.

systems thinking: what’s it for?

Monday, November 28th, 2011

the Bertalanffy Center held its very first international experts meeting on 10 november 2011 in Vienna.

here you find a report.

symposium “Systems thinking: what’s it for”. on the left Birgit Zehetmayer speaking (photo: Günther Ossimitz)

Vernadsky project

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

on 17 November the Leibniz society Berlin held – together with the scientific society of the jewish community Berlin – a seminar on Vernadsky and his contribution to the science of the world.

the co-convenor of the seminar, Heinz Kautzleben, reminded us of Vernadsky’s trend-setting definition of the biosphere, which is distinct from earlier definitions. Süsskind who came up with the concept in the 19th century defined it in terms of space, whereas Teilhard de Chardin at the time of Vernadsky’s defined it as the mass of living beings. Vernadsky made the decisive step to combine both definitions and coined the term as one that fits environmental sciences (the biosphere is made up of living beings and all the matter with which they are in exchange).

from the left: Heinz Kautzleben and Klaus-Dieter Jäger (photo: Valery Tatarskiy, Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft WiGB bei der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin)

the importance of Vernadsky is not only related to his founding of the new discipline of biogeochemistry the origins of which date back to 1917. as Peter Krüger pointed out, already 4 years earlier another idea of Vernadsky’s matured: the idea of humans as geological factor, which finally lead Vernadsky to conceive the noosphere.

in that context, Klaus-Dieter Jäger raised an important question: which geological age is it we do currently live in? in the 60s, researchers in Czechoslovakia defined our geological age as “anthropozoicum”. Jäger’s criticism is that the anthropozoicum would include the whole pleistocene and thus times in which the footprint of humans can not yet be found. another classification agreed upon by geologists characterises our geological age as holocene. if a “noocene” is to be cast – when would holocene close and when would noocene commence?

in my view, evolutionary systems theory can help clarify. a new phase is characterised by a dominating feature. that feature might have been there before that phase but as a feature only that did not yet dominate. as soon as it becomes dominating, it can lend its name to the new phase. Berlin critical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp applied this methodology when writing about anthroposociogenesis. we are witnessing an ever increasing influence of humanity on planet earth. by means of division of labour, human language and reflexion as properties distinct from properties that pertain to living systems on prehuman stages, human social systems emerged that possess an innate tendency toward penetrating and reworking the biosphere. science, which was very important for Vernadsky (and i learned from Rose-Luise Winkler that Vernadsky can be regarded as pioneer of empirical science of science), is just one step in that unfolding of the process of shaping the earth. – the question is which feature can be considered to be the dominating feature for which evolutionary phase? if we want to draw another distinction between ratio as powerful means and reason as reflection upon the ends, then we have to admit that in the course of civilisation a radical change of the surface of our planet has been set in motion due to the powerful means science and technology have provided; however, no success so far can be attributed to attempts to shift the development of social systems onto a sustainable path in order to guarantee a future for all. if we want to reserve the notion of “noos” for the second distinction, the noocene has not yet commenced but it is an idea whose time has come!

Rose-Luise Winkler communicating with participants (photo: Valery Tatarskiy, Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft WiGB bei der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin)

what we can concede is that the technological infosphere is a precondition for the advent of the noosphere and there are germs of the noosphere like the IPCC, as Klaus Fuchs-Kittowski pointed out. it is up to us to intervene and shape the process. to paraphrase Boris Schapiro, it’s our task to make sense of the point of evolution we have reached.

Klaus Fuchs-Kittowski (photo: Valery Tatarskiy, Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft WiGB bei der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin)

Boris Schapiro (photo: Valery Tatarskiy, Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft WiGB bei der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin)

read more about the meeting in the context of the Vernadsky project (in German). here you find data about Vernadsky’s life (Peter Krüger’s presentation in german).

systems movement organisations agree on strengthening cooperation

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Pierre Bricage is secretary general of the International Academy of Systems and Cybernetic Sciences (IASCYS). from him i learned about the European Union for Systemics (UES). while preparing the 21st European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research (EMCSR) i felt the necessity to contact UES. due to his intervention Andrée Piecq, the then president and now secretary general of the UES, invited me to take part in the 8ème Congrès International de l’Union Européenne de Systemique in Brussels from 20 to 22 October.

a great event! the thematic orientation of the congress converged to a great extent with what i have in mind for EMCSR 2012!

the bulk of participants revolve around french-speaking system communities. i belonged to a negligible minority needing headsets for simultaneous translation (a shame i can’t speak french!).

as also Matjaz Mulej who is president of IASCYS intended to take the opportunity to have common talks and Gerhard Chroust from the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) and Raúl Espejo from the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics (WOSC) (both are secretary general of their respective organisation) happened to be present, Pierre organised 2 meetings.

i attended only the first one. the topic was coordination of conferences. the second one focused on coordination of other activities of the systems movement organisations.

in short, a step was taken into the right direction. concrete measures will yet have to be designed.

the bertalanffy center will hold a symposium this week about the history and future of the systems movement. at this symposium most of those having attended the two meetings in brussels will have the opportunity to resume these talks.

(a report on the meetings can be found here.)

what can systems biology learn from the legacy of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Paul Weiss?

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Manfred Drack gets support for a stand-alone project on exactly that question. a 2 days workshop was held as kick-off meeting 27–28 october.

it goes without saying that one focus was on questions of reductionism and holism. i, for my part, was very intrigued with weiss’s dictum that the variance at one level of living systems is much less than the total sum of variances of the components at a lower level. the diagram below gives the formal expression of that at the bottom line. besides it shows an example: in an embryo’s development the location of a single cell, given a certain location at t1, may vary widely at t2, while the shape of the whole organism may not do that (compare the upper part of the picture on the right with the lower part).

from the presentation of Manfred Drack on Paul Weiss’s systems approach (slide 11)

i wonder how agent-based modeling (or cellular automata), for which local rules are given to result in a global pattern, can cope with that. Weiss’s idea is opposite: for him on the higher level there is order and determinacy and on the lower level rather “freedom”.

in that context another issue much debated concerned the concept of cause, in particular, the so-called “downward causation”.

one point of discussion was the concept of mechanism. i insisted on featuring mechanisms not as mechanical (= working strictly deterministically) – in order to avoid falling back in a mechanistic paradigm – but rather as mechanisMic (as Mario Bunge does) and not using the term mechanisTic.

the group of international researchers that were invited comprised: Olaf Wolkenhauer from the University of Rostock and his PhD student Tobias Breidenbacher, Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein from Tufts University, Jan-Hendrik Hofmeyr from the University of Stellenbosch, and Anders Strand from the University of Oslo. from the University of Vienna Gerhard Müller took part.

from the left: me, Strand, Hofmeyr, Soto, Wolkenhauer, Breidenbacher, Müller, Sonnenschein (photo: Manfred Drack)

the project is carried out at the Department of Theoretical Biology (University of Vienna). the Bertalanffy Center is cooperation partner of the project.

(here is my presentation.)

systems thinking: what’s it for?

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

due to funding, the Bertalanffy Center is now in the position to hold its very first face-to-face experts’ meeting. it’s a symposium to be held on the outskirts of vienna, a place which provides shelter but room enough so as to leave behind the plains of everyday life and let a bigger picture emerge. the place is also famous for good vines and a cuisine with traditional austrian roots. about a dozen international guests have confirmed their participation. the Bertalanffy Center, set up for facilitating reflection upon the development a variety of systems schools have taken, organises that event on the occasion of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s 110th birthday.

another event is a talk given by the author of Bertalanffy’s ultimate biography on how the General System Theory was constructed.

for both events click here.

– distinguished academics joined recently the scientific council of the Bertalanffy Center: Mario Augusto Bunge, the most important representative of “emergentist systemism” (so Poe Yu-Ze Wan in his “reframing the social”, ashgate 2011);

Mario Bunge (photo: McGillReporter 40, 06)

Klaus Kornwachs, a systems philosopher who is famous for his pragmatic information concept;

Klaus Kornwachs (photo: Jürgen Bauer)

Gerald Midgley, well-known author of a 4 volumes anthology of systems thinking, now in hull;

Gerald Midgley (photo: Gerald Midgley)

and Rainer E. Zimmermann, the most prominent representative of onto-epistemology working in the field of evolutionary systems.

Rainer E. Zimmermann (photo: Rainer E. Zimmermann)