Vienna 2001 | Bertalanffy’s 100 Anniversary Conference (BAC 2001)

Bertalanffy Anniversary Conference 2001

The very first call to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Bertalanffy’s Birthday were essentially concerned with the conceptual of General Systems Weltanschauung as an indispensable framework needed for helping the humans to search how to make sustainable the dynamics of their civilization. The first announcement was diffused in the following terms:

The prevailing civilization is proclaimed nowadays as if it were a conclusive proof of wonderful achievements attained by humans learning successfully to industrialize everything through superb advances of scientific knowledge and magnificent technological innovations carried out by means of their intelligent performances.

Besides, it is announced as the definitive evidence of the human supremacy, which in practice, encourages many decision makers to organize their affairs according to utilitarian aims, taking advantage of all kinds of things and phenomena (located or happening on the planet), as if everything (billions of humans comprised) were no more than resources available.

This kind of performance has created a new, but a rather paradoxical perspective for the future development of humankind. The intelligence that has been making possible every day more scientific and technological advances, until now, seems to be unable to deal with the many and very complex problems that are arising as side effects of the same civilizing process:

pollution by means of pesticides, chemicals, sewage and garbage that causes damages to vital properties of natural elements: water, air, soils; which together with massive deforestation and destruction of animals habitats are causing the extinction of many species, holes in the ozone layer, and climate’s changes due to green house effects. Waste of valuable resources, which is the cause of depletion of non-renewable mineral reserves & energy reserves. Export of capitals from less developed nations to highly industrialized ones, export of inflation & recession and unfair trade that increase wastage & underemployment of human potentiality, unemployment,… that generate not only poverty, but also social situations ‘infected’ with xenophobia, racism, non declared apartheid de facto, religious & ethnical intolerance…; weakening of human motivation, lack of ethics, poor social solidarity; increasing drug-addiction & neurosis; which altogether increase the misery of billions of people affected by new diseases and the aggravation of ancient ones. This dramatic panorama being tragically worsened by arms’ traffic employed for destroying cultural accomplishments, social ambiances and natural environments in order to make monetary profits.

These are old problems that cannot longer be ignored. In fact many scientists and professionals are already convinced that collective endeavours organized through co-operation are strictly necessary for comprehending the terrestrial circumstances and tackling them knowing in advance the human possibilities. Such kind of efforts would create the necessary circumstances for finding out a way forward that should aim at making sustainable the development of a new kind of civilization, which must be supported by humanitarian commitments in order to maintain the terrestrial circumstances that are making possible the presence of life, to support the harmonious evolvement of biodiversity everywhere and to allow every human to develop his/her humane potentiality.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy as a biologist was the first to undertake a mathematical rigorous approach to the understanding of biochemical synergies, which led him to develop the concept of SYSTEM. The idea of system, though it seems to be intrinsic to human thinking, started to be employed explicity and effectively after Bertalanffy, Boulding, Gerard and Rapoport constituted the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory in 1954. Since then, the concept of system has been spread quickly among people engaged in actions related to various scientific domains & technological fields, dealing with diverse human concerns.

At present thousands of professionals are using the systems approach, presumably for improving functionally factories, enterprises, public and private organizations and all kinds of entities that have been created in order to deal more efficiently with all kinds of human concerns. At the same time the number of increasingly difficult global problems continuously grows. Such a contradictory situation has arisen and won’t disappear while the decision making continue being organized for maintaining the civilization trends though they have become frankly unsustainable

Bertalanffy around the 1960s claimed that this civilization was on the verge of collapse, as it had been already commented by Herbert G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Lewis Mumford, Arnold Toynbee,… Until today, in the year 2002, the new set of values, based on a General Systems WELTANSCHAUUNG as it was suggested by Bertalanffy, has not been rejected by the scientific community, but neither has been adopted for being implemented.

How much risky has become the perspective for 6 billion of human beings at the turn of the 3rd millenniunm? Nobody knows how much time is left for avoiding the collapse of the prevailing civilization and even less is known when and how the human species might disappear after the happening of such a disruption.

Anyhow every systems practitioner might start immediately to examine how every human could contribute to find out what are the planetary commitments of the human species.

The very first proposal for this celebration was presented (*) as a “Transdisciplinary Workshop about the need of learning to cope with the global crisis that faces humankind at present”. It was derived from thoughts expressed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy:
“…the overall fate of the world depends on the adoption by humanity of a new sort of values based on a general systems Weltanschauung.  “We are seeking another basic outlook: the world as organization. This (outlook) would profoundly change the categories of our thinking and influence our practical attitudes. We must envision the biosphere as a whole…with mutually reinforcing or mutually destructive interdependancies. We need a global system of mutually simbiotic societies, mapping new conditions into a flexible institutional structure and dealing with change through constructive reorganization.”

This proposal assumed that the celebration would be essentially concerned in searching how to answer:

Why, how and what for should we create a WELTANSCHUUNG (worldview)?

as criteria generated by Bertalanffy’s Systems Thinking in order to determine what system science should be for.

Then, it was suggested that the whole event might become explicitly a renewed endeavor of the Systems Community toward the development of a General Systems WELTANSCHAUUNG (worldview), needed as an indispensable framework for continuously searching how to make sustainable the presence of humanity in time and in space. Such a suggestion arose necessarily after being recognized that during millennia humans have been involved in an unconscious adventure without realizing that their world have been always growing disorderly.

A second proposal considered that this celebration would comprise:
Bertalanffy – personality and research;
Methodology – the General Systems Approach;
The Tools (Dynamic Systems, Beyond Dynamic Systems, Cybernetics, Second Order Cybernetics),
Ideas from Application Fields (Physical Systems, Biological Systems, Social Systems) and
Future Perspectives (A Unified View? and Lessons from Specialists?)
BAC 2001 took place despite there was not time enough to evaluate properly these two appraisals. Neither have the organizers the resources needed for organizing them consistently and harmoniously.

Besides other difficulties emerged from time to time during some necessary inquiries and exchange of views causing some uncertainty about the whole celebration, which looked as if it were a risky meeting.

After all it can be argued that altogether this celebration was again another confrontation between the two main contradictory interpretations that have been determining the features of the Systems Movement:

* The BOTTOM ==> UP approach which evolved from the “systems analysis”, engendered by the relatively ancient analytical way of thinking conceived by Galileo Galilei through his “Metodo Resolutivo”. This stream has in fact determined the trajectory of the Western civilization along the last four centuries while being diversely developed, though it has been inconsistently implemented. This approach has been recently reinforced by the whole set of technical methods known as “operational research” whose pragmatic features have been causing numerous incoherent conditions.

* The TOP ==> DOWN approach derived from the organismic or gestalt assumption, which led Bertalanffy to confirm first of all the validity of a reconceived holistic way of thinking needed unavoidably for comprehending how living beings perform as open systems. An approach that in addition has become indispensable for conceiving properly and making functional any social system that were considered necessary for cooperatively organizing diverse human performances. It is an approach that aims at clearly seeing the forest for the trees, in order to identify first the whole before trying to recognize its parts and the way these parts are dynamically interrelated.

BAC 2001 never intended to recognize every aspect of the whole Bertalanffian thinking, mainly because it would be impossible to examine in four days what he thought from the 1920s until 1972. However, most participants started to recognize “though not necessarily to agree“ what might be the impact of Bertalanffian Systems Thinking in the seriously troubled situation of the human society, which Bertalanffy forecasted more than 30 years ago.

Anyhow, BAC 2001 was an ideological confrontation supported by the following claim:
“The trend we have spoken of appears to be toward science, that is, appropriate conceptual models of reality, without neglecting or denying human concerns. If this is so, science is more than the accumulation of facts and technological exploitation of knowledge in the service of the Establishment: it may still be able to present a grand view and to become deeply humanistic in its endeavour. If we achieve as much as contributing a bit toward humanization of science, we have done our share in the service of society and civilization”. [Bertalanffy, L. von: “Robots, Men and Minds. Part One: Toward a New Image of Man ” (page 114) 1967]”

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