Systems Thinking and Logic of Tao Philosophy


The purpose of this work is to discuss the relationship between systems thinking and the logic of Tao philosophy. We show that Tao philosophy, along with many other ancient philosophies, may be understood in terms of systems. Systems view is another good way to understand the logic in Tao philosophy.

Systems thinking has become a platform to discuss science, living organisms, sociology, and psychology, and philosophy. Reality may be considered as a complex system of various concepts. Both systems and reality are based on the concept of wholeness. A reality is self-making and self-preserving like a living system.

Systems thinking is a complex issue and has been recently reviewed in great details by Capra and Luisi. The theme was first introduced by Bertalanffy and Bogandov in the 1920s. Readers may refer Capra and Luisi for the complexity of systems thinking. We shall only be interested in the very basic characteristics of systems thinking. We are concerned only with the logic in the way we think of nature and the systems.

A systems theory starts with the function of a system and then identifies the network of the subsystems to support the function. This is rather similar to the philosophical inquiry about reality, where we think of a reality and identify the propositions that can support the reality.

In philosophy, the study of reality is called ontology. Reality has the goal to sustain as a living system. Both reality and living systems have a common goal of survival and rely on the networked subsystems to support this goal. Both have to support the wholeness of the system.

Philosophical subsystems are the underlying propositions that can be used to support the argument for a reality. Therefore, a reality is also a complex of networks of subsystems of many levels. The bottom level is the abstracted objects of knowledge (i.e. words) used to express the ideas used in our communications. These words form ideas and these ideas are networked together to describe a reality. These objects are parts and the reality is the whole, so the philosophical system is a logic network of objects that support the reality.

Therefore, a reality and systems have a common feature: both strive for “eternal” and independent existence. Existence of an entity means it has wholeness or Oneness – i.e., it is independent and free of external interactions. These entities are like living organisms. We shall discuss their common logic structure.

Scientific thinking on the surface may look different. It tries to validate the existence of the objects and then show the properties of the system in terms of the properties of the objects and their relations (interactions). However, we shall show how the core concepts of systems and scientific thinking are interrelated.

Reality must be whole. The wholeness is based on Oneness, which is a coherent complex of highly-interconnected phenomena. The fundamental principle for both systems and scientific thinking is the Principle of Oneness. This principle ensures  that our thinking is kept within the scope of reality. Systems thinking is an alternative way of looking at nature. We were driven to this direction by the paradoxical words of Lao-tzu.

In systems thinking, a reality is a complex system that has a set of objects which together form the patterns of organization. Each reality is represented as an organic form or pattern consisting of objects. The patterns can represent the system.

We first encounter the principle of Oneness in the logic structure in Tao philosophy as a way to overcome the traditional dualistic interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Tao philosophy may be considered as an ancient version of systems thinking. We may also find similar thinking in the Pre-Socratic and the Indian philosophy.

The logic structure of Tao philosophy is not new. It may be shown as the structure of Square of Opposition that was discussed by Aristotle.

The tradition of dualism in Western philosophy can be traced back to Plato’s Theory of Forms, but the modern tradition of dualism begins with Descartes. In sciences, dualism dominated all fields for hundreds of year. There have been controversies between systems thinking ad Cartesian thinking, but we shall show that they are both valid and equivalent.

We often say that systems thinking in sciences started when we realize that the subatomic particles may have no meaning as isolated objects. The reality can be understood only as interconnections, or correlations, among various processes of observation and measurement. Nowadays, systems thinking has been applied to holistic thinking in a living system, philosophy of nature, social sciences, and complexity, etc. In this book, we shall only discuss the basic logic structure of this type of thinking.