Paul Cilliers: A tribute
Jan-Hendrik S. Hofmeyr
Professor of Biocomplexity and Biochemistry, Centre for Studies in Complexity and Dept. of Biochemistry, University of Stellenbosch
In the week and a half since Paul died I have talked and written so much about him that it feels as I have no words left to express my grief and loss. I made my tribute to Paul as friend last Thursday at his funeral. Suffice it to say that personally I have lost my best friend and colleague, someone who had an incalculable influence on my own thinking about our world, how to understand it and how to live a life of quality in it. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I shall miss him for the rest of my life.
Today I want to make a tribute to Paul as my travelling companion in the world of ideas. I would like to convey something of the intellectual excitement of our relationship over the best part of three decades, which culminated in our realising our mutual dream of creating a Centre for Studies in Complexity, now one of the university's Hope Projects, a formal structure across faculty boundaries where the natural sciences and the humanities could meet and merge.
Much has been said and will be said about where Paul came from as philosopher and complexity thinker. However, to understand how a philosopher and a biochemist found common ground I must say something about where I come from. Very early on in my career as research scientist I started worrying about the extreme reductionistic way my discipline approached the study of living organisms. By necessity, in order to study life at the level of molecules, our first act was to kill our subject, thereby immediately losing the very thing we want to study and understand. Long before the metaphor became fashionable I said that we were pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall and what was needed to put him back together again was glue, glue in the form of new theoretical frameworks. So I became what is now called a systems biologist. I used mathematical modelling and computer simulation to develop an understanding of how the myriad of components of the living cell work together in a harmonious and integrated way. Paul, with his engineering background and work at the Institute for Maritime Technology in Simonstown, had expertise in neural network modelling and we spent many evenings trying to see whether we could talk these two approaches to understanding systemic behaviour together. Despite the help provided by the numerous bottles of wine consumed during these late-night discussions, we did not succeed. We now know why. Both of us were still working within the constraints and limitations of what has come to be known as the Newtonian paradigm. Both of us needed a kick in the butt that would propel us over the fence, some would say to the "dark side". Paul's buttkick came when he switched to philosophy, discovered Derrida and other poststructuralist thinkers, and developed in his PhD-studies a platform from which to launch his unique take on complexity and complex systems. Mine came in the middle nineties when I walked into the little German bookshop in Andringa street and found a most unlikely book on the shelf: The theoretical biologist Robert Rosen's book Life Itself: An inquiry into the Nature, Origin and Fabrication of Life. Rosen's description of what he called relational biology, using a new type of mathematics called category theory, radically changed the way I looked at life from a biological point of view. Up to then biology had, in his words, thrown away the organisation of living systems and studied the matter, whereas, to understand life, we have to throw away the matter and keep the organisation. And with organisation he meant the nonlinear functional relationships between the components of the system. And it was with these ideas that Paul and I realised that we had within our grasp the stirrings of a common language, the beginnings of a new way of looking at the world, a view that we now call the relational worldview.
Any philosophy must inevitably be based on a conception, a model, a view of what it is to be a human being in a complex and inherently unpredictable world. How could it then have happened that humankind, especially the Western variant, had got stuck with a worldview that, despite the many wonderful things humanity has accomplished — science, art, music, literature, to name the obvious ones — has still managed, in Paul's words, to "reduce humanity to an instrumentalised, commodified, superficial thing, isolated in a very real sense from the rest of life on earth?"
We talked about this a lot. We asked ourselves whether it is possible for us humans to transcend our natures, to bootstrap ourselves from what we have become to what we should be, to stop being a disruptive cog in the physiology of our planet, to discard the arrogant notion that we are caretakers or custodians of this planet, or, worse, that the planet is ours to exploit. It was clear to us that we need a new perspective, a new worldview, a new science perhaps, that transcends the boundaries that we have created between disciplines, between bodies of thought, and between ourselves and the rest of our world. We need to regard the relations between things as more important than the things themselves, ourselves of course being a part of those things. We need to emphasise the whole rather than the parts, connections rather than objects, functional organisation rather than material structure. We need, in short, to cultivate a relational view of the world and our place in it.
One question continued to bother us. Why does it not seem to be our natural inclination to adopt a relational worldview? This was something else Paul and I discussed a lot in recent times. It has become fashionable to blame our apparent inability to think relationally or systemically on the reductionistic and deterministic heritage of Newtonian science, but Paul and I thought the problem went much deeper than this. It could very well be that the current, predominant worldview, especially that of the Western world, has its origins in the way we perceive things. Spencer-Brown in his Laws of Form, identifies the drawing of a distinction, distinguishing a “this” from “everything else but this”, as the root of cognition. This extrapolates naturally to our perceiving ourselves and the world around us as discrete entities that can be grouped or subdivided. We naturally classify things: dangerous or not dangerous, us or them, human or non-human, black or white, Christian or Moslem. Ervin Laszlo, in his book The Systems View of the World, makes a similar point when he argues that what he calls the classical worldview is atomistic and individualistic: objects are viewed as separate from each other and from their environments.
Consider that most human of natural sciences, m
Mathematics. It is telling that the mathematics that we have developed since Newton mirrors this apparent imperative to group things into classes. Modern mathematics is grounded in set theory, in which the most fundamental attribute of an object is membership of a set. Given a set, set theory uses the notion of equivalence classes to construct new sets using an equivalence relation, which groups together objects that share some common property. For example, given the set of all humans the equivalence relation “belongs to the same sex” divides humanity into two equivalence classes: male and female. Minka will mention Paul's two favourite human equivalence classes.
We therefore posit that our propensity for perceiving and classifying objects, seeing the world in, for want of a better word, an “atomistic” way, is an innate propensity of humankind, one which we cannot escape and one which is apparently stronger than our innate propensity for perceiving relations among objects. A relational view of the world does therefore not come naturally and must be actively cultivated. Again this is mirrored in mathematics. It is only in the last half of the 20th century that we seen the development of an alternative foundation for mathematics called category theory, the one that I mentioned Rosen uses, where the most fundamental concept is that of a mapping or morphism, which describes a relationship between two objects. In category theory it is even possible to do away with elements of sets completely, casting everything in terms of mappings. In a real sense, category theory provides a calculus of organisation, and, thereby, a formal basis for describing and understanding complex systems in relational terms.
The active development of the sciences of systems and complexity in the domains of both the natural and human sciences shows that there is a generally perceived need for a relational view of the world and that there is an active striving towards it, despite our predilection for atomistic thinking. Paul's contribution to the development of a philosophy that could underlie the relational worldview was of fundamental importance.
Now Paul is gone and leaves behind an empty space which seems impossible to fill. But, he also leaves behind a host of inspired students and young colleagues who, given time, are more than capable of growing into this space. It is up to us, the Centre for Studies in Complexity, the Department of Philosophy, and the wonderful group of people that join us in our weekly colloquium on complexity to protect that space and allow Paul's intellectual heritage to bloom.