Organization and Process: Systems Philosophy and Whiteheadian Metaphysics

by James E. Huchingson

James E. Huchingson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 226-241, Vol. 11, Number 4, Winter, 1981. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author explores the philosophical visions of Whitehead and Ervin Laszlo, finding similarities and some serious differences. However, they both seem to agree on a pattern of meaningful organization.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, it becomes both possible and appropriate to identify pathfinding figures and schools of thought which have contributed significantly to the spirit and style of the times. Since the recognition of change or process is a prominent feature of the intellectual pursuits of the century, one would expect the name of Alfred North Whitehead to be prominent in a list of figures for whom process is reality. This roster may also include such names as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Ervin Laszlo, and Ilya Prigogine. Except for Prigogine, whose recent achievements have won him international awards and considerable publicity, these individuals are perhaps not as readily recognizable as Whitehead to philosophers and theologians. Yet they may well be as influential as he in framing a world view based on a clear and general understanding of process.

Bertalanffy and Laszlo are unfamiliar because they represent a relatively new school of philosophy which takes its insights from the theoretical perspectives of contemporary science and technology rather than from the mainstream of professional philosophy. "Systems philosophy" or the "systems approach" is very much a philosophy from below. It arose in consequence of the discoveries of dynamic interaction and wholeness in the life sciences and cybernetic technologies. Bertalanffy1 himself was a theoretical biologist who employed holistic concepts in the study of organisms in a time when the prevailing biological paradigm was exclusively analytical and reductionistic. He identified a number of organizational essentials of life forms. These, he discovered, could also provide a framework for understanding complex processes in any domain of experience, including human societies. He called his paradigm "General System Theory."

This approach was boosted by parallel developments in the technological sciences of cybernetics and information theory. Brilliant minds of the order of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver, John Von Newman, W. Ross Ashby, and Stafford Beer, among many others, provided the conceptual structures for the multidisciplinary methodology of the systems approach.2 Incredible advances in computers, in league with sophisticated instruments of systems analysis, play an ever increasing role in shaping the life style and the world view of contemporary society along the lines suggested by systems theory.

Ervin Laszlo is a philosopher of science whose cast of thought is toward a position which both recognizes the discoveries of science and accounts for the fundamental structures of the world. Under the influence and tutorship of Whitehead3 and Bertalanffy, Laszlo has developed a unitary vision of systems which falls within the general conceptual framework of western philosophy.4 Despite his acknowledged position as the founder of systems philosophy, no school has developed around his efforts. This is primarily due to the fact that the systems approach continues to be deeply rooted in science and technology, from which it draws much of its nurture. It is also due to the eclectic attitude of systems practitioners. The concept of system is a crossroads; many ideas converge there to be applied in whatever ways are most fitting. Laszlo himself left professional philosophy and has worked for the past decade applying his approach to global issues as a Senior Fellow of the United Nations Project of the Future at UNITAR.5

A comparison of the essential concepts of Whitehead’s philosophy of process and Laszlo’s philosophy of systems can prove constructive. Each position has its unique terminology permitting the thorough and precise articulation of fundamental concepts. The identification of similarities would encourage further efforts to augment one position with insights taken from the other. The identification of differences might assist to eliminate ambiguities or inconsistencies and encourage creative resolutions. While modern science has made deep impressions on both philosophers, systems thought is more directly indebted to its idiom. If significant correspondence can be found, yet another avenue of relevance may be opened for the application of Whitehead’s ideas to contemporary issues.

Futhermore, Whitehead and Laszlo both intend to offer a conceptual scheme that will apply universally and help make the cosmos intelligible as a whole to human thought. Strong correlations between these major world models should increase significantly our confidence in the explanatory power of process cosmologies. As Whitehead observed, in times of profound cultural crisis the creative formulation of persuasive philosophic visions of great generality is a very practical pursuit (AI 16). It is my contention that, as we approach the year 2000, the "Bimillennium," this enterprise becomes ever more urgent. My intention here is to encourage further conversation in the development of such a consensus cosmology.

Sections of this essay will be devoted successively to methodological issues, the nature and influence of environment, and the application of systems cybernetics to Whitehead’s account of actual occasions and the functions of God.

The Furnishings of Reality

Whitehead intends to avoid the pitfalls of previous metaphysical schemes in his singular pursuit of an account of the elemental entities which characterize reality as we experience it. His task, therefore, is one of analyzing, as clearly and completely as possible, the irreducible unit of process, the actual occasion. Laszlo launches his program of inquiry on a similar keynote: "What is real? Or what are the principal furnishings of reality? receives a simple unequivocal answer: natural-cognitive systems. If any set of events in the microhierarchy constitutes a non-summative, self-sustaining and self-evolving dynamic structure, it is ‘real’" (ISP 173).

The essential types of systems are inorganic, living; and living-thinking systems. These may be individuals or they may be societies such as ecosystems or human institutions. A system is a whole whose parts functionally integrate and give rise to a unity. All species of wholes qualify as systems despite their considerable differences because they fall under this minimal definition of the real.

In their pursuit of the question, "What kind of things are there?", Whitehead and Laszlo arrive at a common supposition, namely that the res verae are respectively actual occasions or actual systems. A full accounting of the structures of the world is simultaneously a full accounting of the fundamental entities of its constitution. It follows that to search for an explanation of things anywhere else but in these fundamental entities is to quest in vain. This, of course, is the ontological principle applied variously to actual occasions and to natural systems.

With this agreement the similarity ends. Whitehead requires that the ontological principle apply to a ubiquitous kind of entity which is incapable of division into more fundamental components. The actual occasion is not compound; it is rather the ultimate simple. It would make no sense to speak of a complex actual occasion as composed of lesser occasions. Laszlo, however, applies the category of system to entities of widely varying composition. Indeed, a system may be constituted by other systems and these of yet smaller systems, and so on.

The approach employed by both thinkers is hypothetical-deductive. As Hall explains it, this method follows certain procedures.: "The categorical notions are axiomatically organized, allowing for relevant deductive procedures which define the limits of applicability and the mutual coherence of the categorical notions within the scheme itself" (CE 12). It should be noted that the categorical notions are a product of imagination informed by and tested against experience. Whitehead is forever conscious of the insidious tendency of thought to slip into abstractions while examining concrete realities. His writings exhibit a continuous awareness of when he is describing a living thing and when he is describing a concept, principle, or category. However, one receives the impression that systems theorists, including Laszlo, are more at ease in their manipulation of the conceptual apparatus of a general theory of systems. The conceptual elements of the theory are examined in their own right before being applied, grid-like, over the multitudinous systems inhabiting the world at large. One reason for the highly abstract conceptual mapping of systems concepts is found in the procedural recommendations of the hypothetical-deductive method, with its emphasis upon the axiomatic approach.

A second reason is the overt attempt to overcome insulated bubbles of concentrated attention found in the numerous specialized disciplines of contemporary science (GST 36). The reversal of the fragmentation process of knowledge can be achieved only in an integrating idiom applicable to all of the more particular kinds of phenomena investigated by the sciences. Since these phenomena have in common the fact that they are systems, a classification of the features to be found unexceptionally in all natural systems would provide a unifying perspective and language, a new queen of the sciences, reintegrating this babble of specialized discourse. This ideological program of unification is a source of motivation for the highly abstract conceptual schemes found in the writings of many systems theorists.

The categories of systems philosophy, however, are derived from the discoveries of these same sciences in alliance with a phenomenological analysis of our experience of things in the world. All natural or artifactual systems exhibit certain fundamental features of structure, behavior, and interaction shared in common by virtue of the fact that they are systems. These characteristics, which include the nonsummative nature of a system, adaptive self-stabilization, adaptive self-organization, and hierarchical ordering, are called in-variances (ISP 11). A complete description of a system must include an account of its particular and concrete embodiment of each categorical invariance. The conceptual approach of systems theory is not a specific description of some ideal or metaphysical "general" system. Rather, it is a general survey of those features displayed by any and all systems to be found in our experience.

The systems approach endures the tension between its allegiance to the empirical spirit of modern science and its ideological dedication to resolve the predicament of conceptual segmentation in the sciences. Laszlo himself hovers between monism and pluralism. He criticizes methodological pluralism for its operating presupposition that the parts of the universe "are isolable enough to permit independent exploration in conventional disciplines" (ISP 175). Yet, he wants also to avoid a monism that fails utterly to take seriously the many phenomenally distinctive entities of experience. He settles, therefore, on an "integrated pluralism," "an ontology that proclaims both the diversity and unity of the world" (ISP 175). The world is populated with vast numbers of specific systems acting in accord with unique structures and diverse purposes. Each specific system, however, is netted within a larger whole or environmental context in which it plays a constitutive role. This component system is itself composed of subsystems which, when taken together with their respective interrelationships, constitute its unity.

With qualifications, Whitehead’s organic philosophy tolerates being characterized as an integrated pluralism. Actual occasions gather into weak clusters called nexus, or they may be found displaying stronger relationships and referred to as societies. The macroscopic aspect of the world is built on such clusters and clusters of clusters. This emphasis is balanced by an equal emphasis on the dynamic internal event of an actual occasion coming to be a unique individual unifying the world through a synthesis of its feelings.

There is no corresponding primary, concrescing occasion to be found in Laszlo’s version of a systems philosophy based on an integrating pluralism. I suspect that, despite wide-ranging similarities in both methods, a fundamental distinction is to be found between the perspectives of Laszlo and Whitehead at this point. It is that, while Laszlo centers upon patterns of structure and relationship which are reiterated throughout the hierarchy of entities of the world, Whitehead focuses on a primordial type of entity, the actual occasion, whose basic processes are found only in its kind and not reiterated in larger arrangements such as nexus and societies. Certainly such arrangements display systemic properties, but the explanation of the world lies not in such properties but rather in the life-span of the essential components which give rise to the properties.

Despite the numerous resonations between systems and process philosophies, this distinction is crucial. Each posits a prototypical reality and proceeds to build an ontology upon an elaboration of that type of being. The ontological fundament for Laszlo is the system; for Whitehead it is the actual occasion. A natural system corresponds closely to a Whiteheadian society. It is important to recall that a complex society of occasions has no agency of its own. Rather it depends upon its high-order presiding occasions for its directive capacity. A system, however, may well exhibit emergent properties of self-directedness which are the consequence of the strong coordination of its diverse parts generating organic integrity. In systems thought the whole itself possesses agency; the many move as one.

A further distinction arises when attention turns to a discussion of the fundamental "stuff" out of which the entities of the world are ultimately formed. For Whitehead, the "universal of universals" (PR 21/31) is creativity. His view of creativity is qualified so as not to violate the ontological principle. Having no form of its own, creativity is intuited from the flux and restlessness of things as exemplified by the "creative advance into novelty" (PR 349/529) which describes any actual occasion. Laszlo’s equivalent of creativity is his cosmic matrix or primordial continuum defining space and time and providing the absolute potential from which systems emerge, take their places, and build hierarchical relationships through evolutionary development (ISP 292). Since it undergoes modification by accumulating characteristics and generating systems entities, the matrix resembles Aristotle’s prote hyle. It is not itself a system, but a homogeneous field of relational potential. It is therefore exempt from the universal in-variances specified for every concrete entity it generates. Whether or not Laszlo wishes to attribute causal priority to the matrix is unclear. He devotes little attention to developing the concept and obviously does not wish to assign it a central position in his philosophy. As it now stands, however, the matrix idea appears to be an insufficiently examined incoherence within the categorical scheme of systems philosophy.

The Individual and its Environment

Central to both process thought and systems philosophy is the idea of environment. An account of a concrete entity must include extensive reference to its context as the major factor of its being what it is. The two positions share a common criticism of the analytical approach to knowledge. Modern science has often sought to explain a whole by examining its parts serially and independently. The analytical removal of beings from their prevailing circumstances simply destroys the complex mutual causal relationships that inhere between the components of a dynamic system (ISP 6). Any particular entity has an environment by virtue of its participation in a larger whole and its character is a function of its fit in that context. The structures of environment are important to Whitehead and Laszlo. Questions of freedom, value, the nature of experience, and causality arise in any discussion of the impact of environment upon individual entities. We now turn to a consideration of each of these issues.

All creatures are enmeshed in a context of ever-widening character and influence. Actual occasions are related as nexus and societies. Systems, likewise, are located within larger wholes or supersystems. Since there exist societies of societies and systems of systems, the general structure of environment takes the form of a hierarchy. Neither Whitehead nor Laszlo intend hierarchy to be understood as a stratified arrangement of power or authority. It consists rather of ever more inclusive spheres of influence and shared properties. This is clear in Whitehead’s description of the natural social order: "In reference to any given society, the world of actual entities is to he conceived as forming a background in layers of social order, the defining characteristics become wider and more general as we widen the background" (PR 98/ 150). Specifically, the current cosmic epoch exhibits a set of levels moving inward from pure extension through regions of geometrical and electronic occasions, giving rise to atoms and their inorganic and organic combinations. Finally, it culminates in the bodily hierarchy of living individuals and the collection of individuals into societies of various order and complexity (PR9O/ 138). In addition, a society embedded in the hierarchy is both inclusive and included. "A structured society as a whole provides a favourable environment for the subordinate societies which it harbours within itself. Also the whole society must be set in a wider environment permissive of its continuance" (PR 99/151).

Laszlo, too, describes the arrangement of the world as a set of Chinese boxes of systems within systems. Any specific system may be located with reference both to the parts which, when taken together, constitute the system itself, and to the system in its role as a part of some larger system. This is Koestler’s "holon": a Janus-faced entity with two identities -- one as a supersystem in relation to its included parts, the other as a subsystem in relation to its inclusive whole (GM 4Sf.). Systemic, contextual invariances are the more general features which prevail as the radius of inclusion widens. This sweeping vista of cosmic systems within systems is the common perspective of Whitehead and Laszlo.

Given this account of environment, how is it possible to speak of an enmeshed entity as possessing freedom, that is, the power to be self-causing, self-defining, and unique? With respect to societies and systems, the answer proposed by both positions is that freedom is primarily a function of organization and complexity. High-order entities exhibit a hierarchical internal structure. Their subsystems are rich in the sheer immensity of their numbers, the variety of types, and the complexity of interconnectedness between them. Laszlo, echoing a basic tenet of Teilhard de Chardin, observes that the level of spontaneity, flexibility of strategy, and aggressiveness exhibited by a living system in response to its environment is proportional to its organization. The greater the complexity, the greater the context-independence or freedom manifested by a natural system.

A similar account is advanced by Whitehead. Actual occasions range hierarchically from those dominated by the physical pole to those dominated by the mental pole. Such hierarchies are often found in structured societies, that is, living organisms. Corpuscular societies populated with low-grade occasions show little originality. However, the structured collective of such societies arranged in ascending order of intensity provides the support, both in terms of massive order and variety of data, for high-grade living occasions. The mental pole of complex presiding occasions permits great individual initiative to be expressed with unrivalled intensity, originality, and depth, all because their dominant strands are nestled in a structured subservient hierarchy of societies. Freedom or context-independence arises in consequence of this complex integration of societies at many levels (PR 105f./ 160f.).

All actual occasions, wherever they fall along the vast spectrum from physical to mental dominance, are composed of feelings. Mere matter, dead material, does not exist. Laszlo has no similar theory of entities which are experiential in their essence. Hence, he must deduce life or feeling as he finds it in correlation with systemic complexity. We have it from the sheer immediacy of the evidence, our undeniable personal experience, that some very complex, highly organized natural systems are psychophysical. These systems possess inner experiences which correlate with external observations. "Such systems," suggests Laszlo, are not "dual" but "biperspectival":

they are single, self-consistent systems of events observable from two points of view. When "lived," such a system is a system of mind events, viz., a "cognitive system." When looked at from any other viewpoint, the system is a system of physical events, i.e., a "natural system." (ISP 154)

Given the continuous nature of the natural hierarchy, any effort to demarcate between living natural systems (those above a specific level of complexity) and nonliving systems (those below that level) is a totally arbitrary procedure. A natural system of whatever minimal complexity possesses a rudimentary subjectivity by virtue of that complexity. Thus, Laszlo, like Whitehead, believes that dead matter does not exist.

Having said this, however, we must also recognize that the two positions are at odds about just exactly where subjectivity is to be found. Whitehead clearly locates it within the actual occasion. Societies exhibit subjectivity because their component occasions possess it. Laszlo sees subjectivity as a function of emergence. Emergence is the appearance of new, often unforeseen properties generated by the co-activation of entities at one level of complexity to form a larger, unified whole at the next higher level. The properties of the whole are not merely the sum of its parts. The network of mutual influences between parts has its properties as well. Subjectivity is a feature of wholes per se and is not necessarily to be found initially in their primordial components (ISP 174).

The issue of freedom and that of the existence of inner states arise at least partially out of a prior understanding of causality. Modern science has simply dismissed the notion of final causality in its efforts to apply unilaterally the concept of efficient causality to explain all natural phenomena. Whitehead and Laszlo do not wish to deny the importance of efficient causality, but neither do they wish to dismiss teleological explanation. The problem then becomes one of relating the two under a larger paradigm. In the theory of actual occasions efficient causality appears in the impact of the physical data supplied by the actual world in the initial phases of concrescence. Final causality is what occurs within the various phases of the occasions internal movement towards satisfaction, primarily in its efforts to arrange the many of its various feelings into a complex unity under the guidance of a subjective aim (PR 47/ 75). Corpuscular societies consisting of low -- level occasions, such as rocks and billiard balls, display little originality, thereby providing ideal instances of efficient causality for mechanistic science. Very complex structured societies which harbor presiding, high-grade mental occasions may move with great originality toward the fulfillment of uniquely defined, clearly entertained goals. Such societies are intractable to explanation by an appeal to efficient causality alone (PR 47/ 75).

For Laszlo, causality, like experience, is a function of complexity. Inner, structured organization determines the degree of a system’s autonomy, its context-independence. Systems of very low complexity are subjected blindly to the external forces of their circumstance. In systems parlance such entities are closed systems. Very complex open systems, however, are capable of recording and reordering the impress of experience, thereby generating alternate programs of action in response to, and often in spite of, environmental stimuli.6 Such imaginatively envisioned goals or purposes may then provide the impetus even to alter the prevailing context to favor their realization (ISP 266).

What, then, is the general telos towards which the basic entities, natural systems or actual occasions, strive? Laszlo, here betraying his indebtedness to evolutionary thought, maintains that the most valued state of a natural system is to be adapted to its environment. "I shall consider normative values to be correlates of certain states of a system within the system’s environmental continuum, defined by degrees of adaptation of the system to the environment" (ISP 263). Adaptation entails survival. The very purpose of adaptation is to secure the persistence of the natural system over time; the system survives. He further suggests that high-order or living systems experience satisfaction in the harmonious match of their internal or psychic states with the actual facts of their environment. In the case of lower organisms, satisfaction is achieved by the successful removal of environmental irritation or by the reduction of a biological urge such as hunger. In cognitive systems, however, satisfaction may be enjoyed not only viscerally, but also in a rational, aesthetic, or religious mode (ISP 267). Still the subjective experience of satisfaction is the result of the interaction of the system with its environment and signals the successful adjustment to environmental circumstances.

Whitehead’s answer to the question of valued goals seems to be in variance with satisfaction through adaptation. The universal value for the world is found in God’s aim for it, and God’s purpose "in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities." And again, "The primordial appetitions which jointly constitute God’s purpose are seeking intensity, not preservation" (PR 105/160). Such intensity is in consequence of the concrescing of an actual occasion toward satisfaction, which is the arrangement of its many feelings into a complex and novel unity. The satisfaction of the actual occasion is that of the artist. It is the "adjustment of aesthetic emphasis in obedience to an ideal of harmony" (PR 102/ 155). At the macroscopic level societies of occasions are preserved in their dominant patterns through adaptation to their environment.7 This adjustment is pursued ultimately not for its own sake, but for the sake of providing a stable actual world in which the constituent occasions may be nurtured toward the achievement of greater intensities of self-realization. This environing world is ordered only insofar as it provides the "givenness which is compatible with the dominant ideal" of the society. Disorder is present when the inclusion of certain components of the actual world interferes with the full attainment of the ideal and hence reduces the intensity enjoyed in the final satisfaction. Since ideals vary, one society’s order may be another’s chaos.

By applying this account of the relativity of order to structured societies possessing high-grade mental occasions, an agreement with Laszlo’s notion of adaptation is possible. Here order appears as a state of affairs in which the supportive structured society is adapted to prevailing circumstances such that the dominant ideal of its personal strand of mental occasions is least frustrated by the actual world of its environment. The degree of satisfaction then corresponds to the level of adaptation. Maximal adaptation would signify maximum order as verified in the successful achievement of the dominant ideal.

Systems Cybernetics, Actual Occasions, and God

Systems theory and process thought share a fundamental interest in the nature of dynamic interactions. The patterned flows which we clearly experience in the world are best explained under the working principle that order arises and is sustained because of continuous mutual influence between entities. Systems cybernetics, including information theory, provides fruitful concepts for clarifying the nature of complex and dynamic organizations. These concepts can likewise be applied usefully to process thought. But before this application can proceed, it is first necessary to deal briefly with several elementary notions of information theory.

Communication takes place when influences, transmitted as signals or messages, alter the behavior or structure of a receiving system. Messages have to do essentially with information. We normally understand information in terms of the intuitive appropriation of communicated content which conveys existential or rational meaning. This semantic form of information is highly anthropocentric and limited mostly to verbal and symbolic discourse (CW 234). The technical definition of information is far more significant for our discussion. Selective information, as opposed to the semantic form, is a measure of communication processes regardless of their content. It has nothing to do with the implicit meaning of a message, but deals only with the effectiveness of the process itself. Significantly, the word "form" appears in "information." This is accurate, for information, carried in "bits," is the quantitative tabulation of the amount of formal patterning or complexity exhibited by a processing system.

Information is always related to a set of possibilities. If, by a process of determination, some elements in the set of possibilities are realized or selected out and the remainder eliminated, then the uncertainty of the situation has been at least partially removed.8 Before the process of selection begins, our observer has no knowledge about which elements will be favored. His uncertainty is his ignorance. As the process proceeds, however, and the range of choice becomes more and more restricted, he gains in his powers of predicting the final outcome. Selective information is the measure of his knowledge. With the completion of the process, a definitive and unique decision has been made and all uncertainty is removed. The information content is thus said to be maximal. If the original possibilities are perceived as being totally random and chaotic, that is, equiprobable, the observer possesses the least possible information or the greatest possible uncertainty. In such cases of complete disarray, the set is in a maximum state of entropy (IC 121f.).

As indicated above, information has much to do with the presence of formal patterning, of arrangement, order, and complexity. Information expresses the power of organization of a system as contained in the richness and texture of its consolidated parts. It is related to activities as well as states. An agent who acts to design, plan, select, systematize, and arrange, acts to generate or increase information or to decrease disorder, ignorance, indistinctness, randomness, homogeneity, and entropy of a state of affairs (ITB 4).

Information is clearly related to the integrity or wholeness of a being. A system consists of parts which are coupled by their complex interactions. The behavior of any particular component is related to a set of possible states which it might assume. If the other elements of the system work together to restrict the component’s ability to realize equally all available states, then organization is present. The part is subordinated in some extent to the prevailing demands of the whole. Restrictions range from "zero" to "total" coupling. Zero coupling is the complete autonomy of the part to assume any possible state available to it. The presence of such radical freedom means that the part ceases to play any role in the configuration of the whole. Zero coupling entails maximal entropy since the motion of the parts is essentially chaotic. Autonomy is absent in a state of total coupling where there exists a very strong interaction between parts. Total coupling is the expression of maximum information. The background set of possibilities for a specified component has been reduced to one. All uncertainty vanishes in the explicit definition of the association (COS 34f.).

When the absolute variety of an ensemble of alternatives is limited, constraint is present. For a die, this ensemble is six, in accordance with the number of faces on the cube. If, upon repeated casts, the die discloses a bias in the uneven frequency of occurrence of a numbered face, constraint is suspected. Constraint indicates that some influence is at work limiting the set of alternatives that might be reasonably expected in a system to some smaller number (IC 128).

Our experiences of the world suggest that constraint exists everywhere. In fact, learning about the world would be impossible without the operation of constraints which we perceive as the order and consistency to our environment (IC 130). Science is concerned with elaborating universal constraints operating in natural phenomena which it calls laws. Human society represents the attempt to create institutionalized systems of constraint on individual conduct which promote common well-being. We may understand that all systems properties or invariances are restrictions upon pure possibility giving rise to specific configurations of mutually constraining elements.

With this primer of elementary information processes, we are in a better position to examine certain aspects of Whitehead’s thought in the light of systems theory. These aspects include especially the concrescence of actual occasions and the idea of God.

An actual occasion is a discrete information processing system. Indeed, if we may understand prehensions as signals, and the ingression of prehensions as the initial phase in a selective process of self-actualization, then an actual occasion consists purely of information. As it moves through the process of becoming a specific and complete something in the world, the actual occasion exhibits the character of a decision system. The initial data entertained in this act of unification through decision is composed of a multiplicity of impressions conveyed by the past state of the world. To become actual a selection process must occur concerning which signals to entertain and which to eliminate as well as how the signals, once admitted, will be arranged to achieve maximum satisfaction. The ensemble of possibilities provided by the actual world and by God, contains the variety out of which an occasion arranges itself as a specific entity. Decisions are rendered in the selection process and information is thus generated. Since "the satisfied actual occasion embodies a determinate attitude of ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ " all uncertainty has been eliminated (PR 212/ 323). When complete, the occasion contains information, the stuff of order.

Whitehead stresses that the process of concrescence generates the order of the world as the entropy-laden and disjunctive many attain unity in the determinate form of the completed occasion. Because their prehensions are limited to a narrow range of signals, low-grade occasions are radically constrained in their potential for integrating the rich givenness of the world. The data these slight occasions transmit contain negligible originality but guarantee maximum order detectable as highly redundant pattern. High-grade occasions do not suffer from this internal austerity. They select liberally from the vast range of possibilities. Yet, because of this openness, they often suffer from the ingression of mutually obstructive feelings. The presence of these feelings thwarts full integration and yields entropy in the final state.

One could reasonably expect the entropic effects of repeated failures to be cumulative, despite the heroic efforts of actual occasions to generate novelty and completeness. Increasing "noise" would lead eventually to a general decline in the order of the world, and its replacement with increasing randomness and atomicity, that is, movement in the direction of zero constraint. Whiteheadian metaphysics contains an entity, God, which functions both to sustain and replenish this organization and to supply a field of potential that will serve to build the novelty and variety of the world.

Desperately little is to be found in the literature of systems thought which addresses the idea of God. There is no mystery in this fact. Laszlo and others hold a "Semite" model for God (PR 95/146), in which God is understood as absolutely transcendent of the world and, thanks to omnipotence, the determiner of its destiny. Laszlo readily admits that a notion of God can be developed using systems categories (ISP 295), but he insists that, by proceeding "from the nonperceivable continuum toward increasingly discrete particulars," the universe orders itself causa sui (ISP 294). The Laplacean spirit prevails; no transcendent agency need be gratuitously introduced to complete the account.9

There is actually little disagreement between Laszlo and Whitehead on this point. God is a constituent entity of the world, an actual entity, as must he the case if the ontological principle is to hold. One may emphasize God’s unique primordial character or the presiding role God plays in the cosmic process, but these in no way give the privileged status of independence from the remainder of the world. God and the world are mutually implicated in the everlasting process which makes absolute transcendence for either impossible (PR 242f./ 368f.).

Whitehead sees the "religious problem" as "the question whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss" (PR 340/517). In the function as an actual entity generating order, God is the metaphysical answer to the religious question. God strives to guide the world of actual occasions between chaos and rigid, innocuous repetition, between pure randomness and pure redundancy, between zero and total constraint. God is therefore the supreme steersman, the kubernetes, and hence available in principle for analysis by systems cybernetics.

In Science and the Modern World Whitehead offers an argument for the inclusion of God as an element in his system (SMW 173f.). His argument is consistent with the cybernetic and information concepts discussed earlier. The world displays an obvious constraint on possibility. The number and variety of possible things are vastly greater than the number and variety of actual things. Why, then, this particular order of nature and no other? Why not "an indiscriminate model pluralism apart from logical and other limitations?" (SMW 177). Systems cybernetics operates with an identical mode of inquiry when it examines particular systems or populations of systems in relationship: "Cybernetics looks at the totality in all its possible richness, and then asks why the actualities should be restricted to some part of the total possibilities" (IC 131). These observations suggest that some "unique categorical determination" (SMW 178) or agent of selection is at work imposing the limits we detect. Where restriction or constraint exists, two or more systems are involved in communication processes. Definite patterns of structure and behavior emerge from the mutual influence thereby restricting the larger range of activity to a narrower ensemble compatible with the established interactions. God and world are just this sort of coupled system, with God limiting the absolute field of pure possibility to that region or order compatible with the actual world.

If God functioned only as an agent of constraint upon the range of possible states which the world could be envisioned to take, the God-world coupled system would be essentially closed. Vast as the actual world is, and insistent as actual occasions are upon realizing novelty, the potential variety contained in the actual situation is finite. A finite ensemble of signals is capable of generating a maximum state of information and no more. Indeed, as transformations occur, variety is driven down, thereby diminishing the available information required to maintain and build order. Entropy inexorably grows toward the maximum in any finite and closed system.

However, Whitehead provides God with a second role in addition to that of the agent of limitation. God is the ground of possibility and the generator of variety. If the world were truly a closed system, potentiality would be limited to the sum of all possibilities contained within it. Any actual occasion would be required to take its prehensions from the giveness of the situation and nowhere else. Whitehead maintains that, in addition to the "real potentiality" of the given world, there is a "general potentiality" provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects as envisioned in the primordial nature of God’s character (PR 65/ 102). The realm of eternal objects does not suffer from limitation, save for that imposed upon it by God as God orders the infinite potential to reflect a graded relevance suitable for employment in the actual situation. Eternal objects are provided for concrescing occasions, enabling them to achieve truly novel realization and replenishing the variety of real potentiality. God functions to keep the cosmic system open by transporting variety into the world, where it is realized as information in the complex determination of actual occasions.

As "the founder of order and the goal toward novelty," (PR 88/ 135) God steers the world somewhere between chaos and rigorous structure, between fire and ice. God supplies the optimal amount of arrangement which maintains the formal pattern and yet permits the free play of novelty. It has been noted in the cybernetic analysis of music that this orchestrated balance between pattern and spontaneity offers "the highest degree of aesthetic value attainable" (CO 203). This, with appropriate qualification, is Whitehead’s claim exactly.

God and world form a coupled system rich with feedback. God in God’s wisdom rescues the world from rigidity or chaos by reinforcing and preserving favorable trends in the flux while dampening those which would prove damaging to God’s overall aim. The world, in turn, supplies God with physical prehensions qualifying God’s process of concrescence and consolidating God’s involvement in its destiny. God and world co-create each other by engaging in a perpetual dance of synergy. Through this dynamic state of "interexistence" (ILM 60) each fulfills the other and is fulfilled in return.


Our excursion into the philosophical visions of Whitehead and Laszlo has disclosed significant parallels in their thought. These include similarity of methodological approach, emphasis upon environment, and postulation of a free milieu intérieur for all entities. We have also realized at least partial success in the exercise of applying systems-cybernetic invariances to process entities. Actual occasions do resemble discrete information processing systems, and God does function to constrain and originate variety for the world in God’s capacity as one element in a system with transaction.

We have also come across differences, two of which appear to be serious. The first is in the identification of the most real constituents of the world, an account of which would lead us to an interpretive metaphysics of great power and generality. For Laszlo the significant entity is the system, while for Whitehead it is the actual occasion. Actual occasions cannot be easily understood as systems. Systems resemble societies. They are therefore less than fundamental from the perspective of Whiteheadian metaphysics. The second real difference follows from the first. Agency, be it mechanistic, organic, or mental, is an emergent property of wholes, or so the systems approach maintains. Process metaphysics asserts that agency is found only in the complex internal workings of an actual occasion. Mentality is not the novel capacity of a complex living society which is absent in its constituent occasions. Rather it is to be found in a high quality version of the same processes of feeling and decision exhibited in some degree by all occasions.

Despite these substantial issues, the common task of the systems approach and process metaphysics is that of "describing the present order of the world in terms of principles which are the special exemplification of the most general" (MN 124). Both schools tend to converge on what seems to be a consensus paradigm of dynamic organization. This vision is alone sufficient to encourage further discussion.



CE -- David C. Hall. The Civilization of Experience. New York: Fordham University Press, 1973.

CO -- Monroe C. Beardsley. "Order and Disorder in Art," in Paul G. Kuntz, ed., The Concept of Order. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

COS -- J. Rothstein. Communication, Organization, and Science. Indian Hills, Cob.: Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958.

CW -- Abbe Mowshowitz. The Conquest of the Will: Information Processing and Human Affairs. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1976.

GM -- Arthur Koestler. The Ghost in the Machine. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1967.

GST -- Ludwig von Bertalanffy. General System Theory. New York: George Braziller, 1978.

IC -- W. Ross Ashby. An Introduction to Cybernetics. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1961.

ILM -- Ervin Laszlo. The Inner Limits of Mankind. New York: Pergamon Press, 1978.

ISP -- Ervin Laszlo. An Introduction to Systems Philosophy. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1972.

ITB -- H. Quastler. Information Theory in Biology. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1953.

KWPR -- Donald W. Sherburne. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1956.

MN -- David Ray Griffin. "Whitehead’s Philosophy and Some General Notions of Physics and Biology," in John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, eds., Mind in Nature. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1977.

NS -- Nature and System, 2/1 (March, 1980).



1 Bertalanffy’s basic works include: General System Theory (New York: George Braziller, 1978) and Robots, Men, and Minds (New York: George Braziller, 1967).

2 For an excellent survey of the history and basic concepts of systems thought, see Joël de Rosnay, The Macroscope: A New World Scientific System (New York: Harper and Row, 1979) or Bertalanffy, "General System Theory -- A Critical Review," in Systems Behaviour, edited by John Beishon and Geoff Peters (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

3 Early in his career Laszlo was impressed with Whitehead’s thought. His first book, Essential Society: An Ontological Reconstruction (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff 1963), was considerably influenced by process metaphysics. However, as his thought developed, Laszlo experienced increasing difficulty in accepting the "Platonic Correlates" of Whitehead’s system. Most of his references to Whitehead found in Introduction to Systems Philosophy are critical.

4 Laszlo’s writings are extensive, including over thirty books and a hundred articles. His more representative works include: Introduction to Systems Philosophy (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1972) and the readable layman’s version, The Systems View of the World (New York: George Braziller, 1972).

5 Laszlo defends his praxis approach against his critics in a review essay, "Some Reflections on Systems Theory’s Critics" (NS 49f.). Here he documents his application of systems theory to world order by listing his contributions in that area, including: A Strategy for the Future (New York: George Braziller, 1974), a Report to the Club of Rome called Goals for Mankind (New York: New American Library, 1977), and its short summary, The Inner Limits of Mankind (New York, Pergamon Press, 1978). His most ambitious task is to complete a seventeen volume collection on world economics in collaboration with ninety-eight research institutes and teams worldwide. This project is the UNITAR-CEESTEM Library on the New International Economic Order to be published by Pergamon Press.

6An open system is in permanent relation with its environment. It responds in complex ways to environmental input by altering that input before expressing itself uniquely in response. An open system and its environment together constitute a coupled system of mutual address. A closed system has no such responsive capabilities. It is unable to replenish lost energy or recover lost complexity due to entropic degradation. Most often, a closed system reacts passively to environmental forces.

7 Concrescing actual occasions, of course, do not adapt since they cannot respond objectively to the world. Societies, however, are enduring objects in which the process of transition is significant. Consequently, they can be said to adapt over time through self-modification (PR 150/ 228).

8 The amount of information available in a set of equipotential elements is the numerical equivalent of the yes-no decisions required to identify one element uniquely by successive acts of division. For example, a set of 8 objects is divided into 2 subsets of 4 objects each, and one subset is discarded. The procedure is repeated with the remaining subset, giving a further subset containing 2 objects. Again, one of these is discarded, resulting in a final selection of 1 unique object. The entire process of specifying 1 object from an initial group of 8 has required 3 yes-no decisions, generating 3 bits of information. Information is indicative of the powers of discrimination. Only 15 bits of information are needed to determine a unique answer to a question that has more than 30,000 possible answers.

9 Laszlo is frankly concerned with what he considers to be Whitehead’s penchant for excessive speculation. In regard to Whitehead’s introduction of God and eternal objects to explain human freedom he says: "If explanatory principles are available which could account for the sensation of freedom without at the same time taking us beyond the bounds of the actual world, we should explore them, and, if they prove to be consistent with the facts, adopt them in preference" (ISP 246).