Blog, Philosophy + Systems

Thinking Like an Intellectual Giant: A Tribute to West Churchman

In my office at USC, I have a Photostat copy of an 1896 letter written by William James, arguably America’s greatest philosopher and one of the principal founders of Pragmatism, to the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. James’s letter recommends Edgar Arthur Singer Jr. for a position in Philosophy at Penn. James writes that in his 30 years of offering instruction in Philosophy at Harvard, Singer is the best all-around student he has had.

Singer was one of West Churchman’s most influential teachers at Penn, where West received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (in modal logic) in 1938, the year I was born. When I was studying for my Ph.D. in Engineering at UC Berkeley, I took a three-and-a-half-year minor in the Philosophy of Social Sciences from West. Thus, William James is my “intellectual great grandfather.”

Of all the philosophers I have studied, West and James have exerted the greatest influence on me. To study directly under a great philosopher, or to be deeply influenced through his or her writings, is an incredible experience. It is literally life altering. The ways in which one thinks are transformed drastically. To understand a great philosopher, it is not enough merely to know his or her works. One has to go beyond them.

Strangely enough, one of the best ways of doing this is to internalize their thought patterns, their modes, and their styles of thinking and writing so thoroughly that one is literally able to think as they do. Thoughts almost come directly from them. Let me illustrate this.

Some of James’s most important ideas are those concerning what today we would label as “spiritual.” In a famous passage, James proposes the following hypothetical conversation between humans and God, or the Creator of the Universe. I paraphrase:

“Suppose the Creator were to put to you the following choice at the moment of the creation of the Universe. ‘I can give you a Universe completely devoid of Evil. It will be completely fixed or determined so that your actions will not make a bit of difference in its outcome. Or, I can give you a Universe in which your actions will make a real difference. It will be a real heroic game of risk, the outcome of which is uncertain. There is no guarantee that it will win through. But your actions will make a real difference. Choose carefully.’ ”

Now, there is no doubt whatsoever what “choice” James or West would make. For both of them, we are not “passive passengers or spectators” in an already determined and completed Universe. Instead, we are active co-creators in an incomplete, unfinished Universe. Furthermore, we are, or we should be, ETHICAL co-designers. The idea of the ethical design of systems is the key to the understanding of West’s and James’s work.

The point is not that James’s hypothetical conversation proves the existence of God or establishes His or Her properties. Rather, it expresses James’s idea of the kind of Universe he wishes us to live in and to help bring into being. In effect, James presents us with one of the strongest ethical choices we could ever confront or contemplate, i.e., the design of an ethical Universe. Now surely this is a prime example of large-scale systems thinking if there ever was one!

Furthermore, the point is also not that James or West has a monopoly on what is “ethical.” Rather, they wish to engage us in a deep conversation regarding the nature of ethics. They wish to do this by having us engage with some of the greatest minds that have pondered the nature of ethics.

One of the things that puzzled West throughout his entire life was why more people were not curious about ethics. Academics use curiosity as a God-given right or justification to study almost anything they wish. But why aren’t more curious as to how to preserve, to enhance, and to guarantee the curiosity of future generations? Why isn’t this regarded as an important research question?

I was pondering these ideas about a year ago as I was walking the streets of London when I had a sudden epiphany. It suddenly came to me how James and West would react to, in their words, “some of the silly thinking” of today’s physicists. Modern physicists speculate that our Universe is just one of an infinite number. They also speculate that Universes are constantly and continually being created, and dying. They further contemplate that every time a new Universe is created, the fundamental constants of Nature, such as the ratio of the mass of the electron to the mass of the proton, are randomly “reset.” This affects whether stars and black holes will be formed, life created, etc. In this way, “God” is constantly conducting large-scale experiments! As I was walking around London and thinking about all of this, a thought flashed through my head: “What if every time a new Universe is created, the ratio of Good to Evil is altered fundamentally?”

Once again, the point is certainly not that this is a proof for the nature of the Universe. Rather, it is a challenge for us to think and to ask the most challenging questions about our existence.

Why do we leave speculation as to the nature of our world mainly to physical scientists? Why shouldn’t social scientists and social thinkers speculate as well on the grandest scale imaginable? Why leave speculations mainly to one group or type of specialists? Is it because we still put physical scientists at the “top of the academic prestige heap?” Is it because we still believe that some disciplines are “better” than others?

Let me bring these thoughts back to James and to West. I believe that James and West would respond to my speculation as follows: “Let’s suppose for the moment that every time a new Universe is created, the ratio of Good to Evil is altered. What follows from this? Why, no matter what Universe in which you find yourself, act as to do everything in your power to increase the ratio or the amount of Good as much as you can. Nothing more; nothing less! In the spirit of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, this is the Supreme Categorical Imperative or ethical challenge that Nature places before us. Indeed, the lower the initial ratio, then the greater the heroic task, the call to ethical arms, the challenge that is placed before us.”

James and West challenge us to make the world a more ethical place than we found it. They also challenge us not to take ANY discipline as more basic or more fundamental than any other. All disciplines presuppose one another. All disciplines are on an equal footing.

The realization of this is the true beginning of systems thinking.

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