Edgar Morin on Systems and Complexity

By Gerrit Van Wyk

“We need a kind of thinking that reconnects that which is disjointed and compartmentalized, that respects diversity as it recognizes unity, and that tries to discern interdependencies. We need a radical thinking (which gets to the root of problems), a multidimensional thinking, and an organizational or systemic thinking”. Edgar Morin.

Edgar Morin’s work is marked by its independence, which often makes him unpopular with those who value conformity and protecting their ideologies. He immersed himself in biology, cybernetics, and systems theory while on a sabbatical at the Salk Institute, and what he has to say about systems and complexity is worth paying attention to. Morin’s work is well known in Europe and Latin America, but less so in the English-speaking world. As always, what follows is an interpretation of his work, and not necessarily a true reflection of what he meant when he wrote it.

Morin argues systems theory falls short in terms of the epistemological importance of the complexity of the notion of a system. It seeks to explain the whole, rather than the parts, as in the reductionist mechanistic perspective, but reducing what is of interest to wholes, itself is a reductionist perspective, which is what it tries to avoid.

The concept of system is fundamental to explaining the relationship between the parts of a whole, but becomes significant when it changes the definition of a system as something with a form and substance that can be reduced to its primary parts, to something subject to the laws of nature.

The first point Morin makes, is a whole only exist as a simplification. A whole is greater than the sum of its parts (emergence), but also less than the sum of its parts, because some properties of the parts are constrained by how the whole is organized, and a whole is more than a whole, since the whole affects its parts, which feeds back to the parts affecting the whole. Key concepts such as being, existence, life, etc., are not qualities, but emerge from ongoing feedback processes. It means you can’t reduce phenomena to the process that generates it, nor the whole to its parts, instead you must attempt to understand the processes whose products bring about a return to the initial state as a feedback process.

Hence, parts are both less and more than the parts, parts can be more than the whole; a lot of progress doesn’t come from how a whole is put together, but from the actions of the parts, a whole is less than the whole; parts don’t know or are aware of the whole, and the whole is unaware of the purposes of its parts. Hence, a whole is not enough by itself, there is uncertainty within a whole; you can’t isolate parts from others, and there is conflict in a whole; all systems contain forces creating instability. Hence a concept of system must be founded on a concept of non-whole and a non-hierarchical concept of whole. Simplifying a system to a whole lead one into the trap of reduction and attempting to manipulate its parts to manipulate the whole, as opposed to a system as a complex entity, which requires a different approach.

Approaching a system as a whole overlooks two important issues, interactions and organization.

Most systems consist not of parts, but of their interactions and interactions within the parts themselves, and the system is organized by the sum of the interactions. Organization is what makes the interactions coherent, creates order, regulation, structure, etc. It means a system consists of a system (the complex entity and character of the phenomenon as a whole and complex relationships between the whole and its parts), interaction, or the interrelationships, actions, and reactions collectively creating the system, and its organization, or the interactions as forming, maintaining, protecting, regulating, governing, and regenerating the system.

In science, organization refers to order, which is a simplification ignoring the influence of emergent phenomena, and the whole on organization. In the latter, organization creates both order and disorder, which are inseparable, and includes interactions with what’s around it, and contributes to organization. Organization does not eliminate uncertainty and contradiction; it makes us aware of it.

A paradigm of simplification forces you to choose between a perspective of reality in which a system is something real that can be described, or of a system as a model created for pragmatically understanding what is of interest to you. The latter means the observer is part of, and cannot be separated from what is observed.

It follows a meta-system of understanding is needed, in which the observed system itself is observed from within the system. Consequently, the mode of perceiving or conceiving reality becomes complex, and the connection between knowledge of organization and the organization of knowledge needs a reorganization of knowing through second-order reflection, or knowing of knowing. The dissociation between the physical sciences and sciences of mind must be reconnected to connect the observer to the observed system, which creates immense complexity.

We experience complexity as complicated, entangled, and confused, and because of its many parts and interactions struggle to describe it. Some believe complexity can be explained via a few simple principles, but fail to reflect how inadequate explanations based on simplification are. Complexity is not just an observation of reality, it is the principle, and the physical basis of what we call reality is not simple, it’s complex.

The moral of the story for the systems paradigm is, complexity cannot be simplified, because from a simplification, reductive perspective, it forces you to combine ideas that are mutually exclusive. The systems paradigm is complex, because it connects ideas that traditionally are disconnected, such as part-whole, order-disorder, observer-observed, etc., and introduces a complex concept of cause and effect. It means the General System Theory is insufficient for living and social systems, and a system is better understood as a generic concept that can be applied without the need for a general theory of systems.

Morin’s approach seeks to see a phenomenon of interest from multiple perspectives, to recognize the forces involved in it, test it at strategic points, open it through inquiry, and questioning actions, what is being said, and what’s involved. The relationship between researcher and what is being observed is a fundamental problem to all methods, and what one inquire into, is both object and subject, hence one cannot escape the inter-subjective nature of human relationships.

His approach is multidisciplinary and motivated by his own experience, and need to make sense of lived experience.  It is not an escape from reality, or an attempt to control it through intricate theoretical frameworks, but an effort to immerse himself more deeply in it, and provide science with a tool to account more adequately for the lived complexity of life. As such, it is an attempt to develop a method that does not mutilate, fragment and abstract, and does not do violence to life.

To me, Morin’s contribution to systems and complexity is nuanced and supported by a complex interrelated argument from which one can learn a lot. It certainly contributed much to my own learning journey.