The Dilemma of Differentiation and Culturally Mature Systemic Understanding

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

I’ve proposed that the language of systems provides the best way to talk about the new kind of truth that results from these cognitive changes. But I’ve also included one very large caveat. I’ve emphasized how we need a new, more sophisticated kind of systems perspective than we most commonly encounter. We need to get beyond the engineering language common with more formal systems conception if we are to think in the needed, more dynamic and complete ways. And the limitations that come with engineering language are not the only way systems thinking can leave us short when it comes to our new-truth task.

Systemic understanding is unusual for the diverse—even opposite—worldviews it can be used to justify. I’ve noted the importance of describing living systems in ways that reflect that we are dealing with life and the difficulties doing so presents. A question imbedded in this conundrum helps frame the systemic challenge: How do we think about difference if our ideas are to honor the fact that we are alive? Creative Systems Theory calls this the Dilemma of Differentiation. The simple fact that culturally mature truth requires that we make distinctions puts us immediately in a pickle. Differentiation, the ability to say “this as opposed to that,” is ultimately what makes thinking work. But usual ways of describing difference can’t address the required dynamism.

The Dilemma of Differentiation alerts us to two opposite sorts of traps. We encounter each of them with advocates of systemic thought. The most obvious trap is the one I just noted. A person depicts difference in traditional engineering terms—that is, in terms of parts that interact in a mechanistic manner. Such systemic formulations can be highly detailed, but no matter how subtle and sensitive our delineations, when we put the parts together, we end up back in an engineering, machine world.

Less frequently we encounter an opposite, yet just as deadly, kind of trap. Many popular writers who use systems language—particularly writers of a more humanist or spiritual bent—often largely ignore parts and focus only on relationship. Often the result is ideas that reduce to little more than elaborate ways of saying “all is one.” Recognizing connectedness can be comforting—and it identifies a truth just as important and accurate as the “all is many” claims of mechanistic belief. But ignoring the question of parts makes for impoverished conception at best. Worse, it makes for misleading conception. Real relationship (connectedness in the systemic sense that we have interest in)—whether personal or conceptual—requires difference. Certainly life requires it.

Ideas that are systemically complex in the sense of simply being complicated, and those that arise from notions that in the end collapse complexity into a reassuring oneness, each fail to address the Dilemma of Differentiation. We could say that each view is simply wrong, or we could frame what we see more developmentally. Developmental perspective suggests that the fact that we might encounter these opposing kinds of systemic formulations is exactly what we would expect looking back. Each stage in culture is most defined by a particular kind of polar juxtaposition. Modern Age truth at its most basic juxtaposes more rationalist/reductionist/positivist truth-claims on one hand with more romantic/idealist/holistic beliefs on the other. We can think of the two kinds of systemic formulations I’ve just described as vestiges of our most recent contrasting assumptions about what ultimately makes something true.

For systemic language to help us going forward, we need to fundamentally rethink what makes something a system. A defining characteristic of culturally mature systemic truth is that it reconciles—finds a way past—the Dilemma of Differentiation. We can see this in how Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes help us “bridge” the polar assumptions of times past and think in more whole-ball-of-wax ways. The needed new sort of systemic perspective is a simple product of more consciously getting our minds around the whole of our human cognitive complexity.

We don’t have a perfect language for the needed kind of systemic perspective. We can similarly speak of such systems thinking as “dynamic,” but mechanical systems can be quite dynamic. (For example, relativity in physics remains ultimately mechanistic.) We could refer to it as “living” systems thinking. But not all the systems we have interest in are alive. (Quantum mechanical systems are integrative in our “bridging” sense.). And differences in how this level of systemic reality manifests with conscious systems as opposed to biological systems more generally are clearly significant. Creative Systems Theory proposes that the term “creative” may provide as direct a language as we have for addressing such systems, certainly in the human sphere (and at least a useful metaphoric reference for such systems more generally).

I find a simple—but, in fact, ultimately quite sophisticated—image particularly helpful for representing this more complex creative result. Take a box of crayons. We can think of the needed more dynamic systemic understanding as what we get when we consciously and effectively use the whole box. The box represents the needed more expansive awareness; the crayon’s diverse colors signify the new and deeper engagement with human life’s complex nature.