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Part Two Systems Thinking in the Social Sciences 61 5 From Platonic Forms to Open-Ended Systems: The Search for Truth and Objectivity Philosophers and theologians in Western civilization have always sought to determine what is objective and true in the world around them. One sees this passion for objective certitude, for example, in Plato’s celebrated analogy of the cave in the Republic in which he asserts the priority of the Forms or transcendental Ideas over the confusing data of common sense experience. 1 Truth and objectivity are to be found in the unchanging world of ideas, not in the ever-changing phenomena of sense experience. Aristotle in his Metaphysics continued this line of thought with his claim that physical entities are composed of form and matter, with the unchanging substantial form serving as the principle of order and intelligibility for all the contingent material attributes of the entity in question.2 Medieval theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas in his multivolume Summa Theologiae , likewise began their systematic reflections on life in this world with a set of a priori rational arguments for the existence of God the Creator who from all eternity orders everything in heaven and earth to its predetermined end. 1. Plato, The Republic, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), bk. VI, 509D–511B; bk. VII, 514A–521B. Further discussion of Plato’s philosophy and of all the other philosophers mentioned in the first half of this chapter can be found in my recently published book Subjectivity, Objectivity, and Intersubjectivity: A New Paradigm for Religion and Science (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2009), chapters 1–7. 2. Aristotle, Metaphysics, in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, vol. 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), 1031a–1032a. 62 Part Two: Systems Thinking in the Social Sciences Aquinas, for example, at the very beginning of the Summa claimed that God’s essence or nature is identical with his act of existence.3 But this is to confuse existence in the conceptual order (the highest and most comprehensive perfection) with existence in the real order of things (that which happens to be the case here and now). That is, by not distinguishing between God as the Supreme Being and Being as what is in fact the case here and now, one risks the charge of pantheism; God is everything and everything is God. Aquinas solved this problem, to be sure, by claiming that creatures participate in God’s unlimited or infinite act of existence by exercising their own more limited or finite act of existence.4 But the logical consequence of this line of thought is that Aquinas’s thought system is grounded in religiously based faith claims, which are not empirically verifiable. How, for example, can one prove or disprove on empirical grounds, first, that every material being is a combination of matter and form and, second, that God and angels are immaterial realities with God alone fully in act by nature? This is unquestionably an interesting philosophical argument, but there are still other conceptual alternatives: for example, that matter is an illusion and only spirit exists (as in certain forms of Hindu thought) or that only matter exists with its own intrinsic principle of self-organization (as in the Buddhist notion of dependent co-origination). Moreover, if one objects that at the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae Aquinas sets forth five empirically grounded proofs for the existence of God as in different ways the Uncaused Cause of everything else that exists,5 one should remember that Aquinas simply assumes that this Uncaused Cause is the God of biblical revelation. Likewise, he presupposes the Aristotelian understanding of cause and effect relations whereby the cause necessarily exists prior to bringing into existence the effect. But this philosophical claim can be challenged both by the Buddhist understanding of dependent co-origination and, as we shall see in the next few chapters, by the assumptions of contemporary systems theory. That is, within complex systems it is often very difficult to isolate one-on-one, cause-and-effect relations in the functioning of the system; much as with Buddhist dependent co-origination, everything seems to condition the existence and activity of everything else. Aquinas, of course, was not the only major Western thinker to engage in this type of implicitly a priori philosophical reflection, nor was he the 3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger, 1948), I, q. 3, a...


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