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Philosophies traditionally start with a metaphysics: a theory of the essence of things, of the fundamental principles that organize the universe. Metaphysics is supposed to answer the question "What is the nature of reality?" (see Metaphysics, introduction). But we cannot answer this question without first understanding what is the meaning of metaphysics, if any, and in what respect metaphysics differs from science, which tries to answer similar questions but through more concrete methods. Metaphysics is traditionally subdivided in ontology, the theory of being in itself, and cosmology, the theory describing the origin and structure of the universe.

In a traditional systems philosophy "organization" might be seen as the fundamental principle of being, rather than God, matter, or the laws of nature. However it still begs the question where this organization comes from. In our evolutionary-systemic philosophy, on the other hand, the essence is the process through which this organization is created. Therefore, our ontology starts from elementary actions, rather than from static objects, particles, energy or ideas. These actions are the primitive elements, the building blocks of our vision of reality, and therefore remain undefined. Actions are in not general not deterministic but involve an element of freedom. A sequence of actions constitutes a process. Our ontology is thus related to the process metaphysics of Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin. Its historical origin can be traced back even further to the development from Kant to Schopenhauer.

Relatively stable "systems" are constructed by such processes through the mechanism of variation and selection. This leads to the spontaneous emergence of more complex organizations during evolution: from space-time and elementary particles, to atoms, molecules, crystals, DNA, cells, plants, animals, humans, and human society and culture (see the history of evolution). This developmental sequence provides us with a basis for our cosmology. Because of this self-organization of the universe, there is no need to posit a personal God, distinct from the universe, as an explanation for the observed complexity.

Events of emergence are the "quanta" of evolution. They lead to the creation of new systems with new identities, obeying different laws and possessing different properties. In such systems, the behaviour of the whole depends on the behaviour of the parts (a "reductionistic" view), but the behaviour of the parts is at the same time constrained or directed by the behaviour of the whole (a "holistic" view). (see downward causation)

A fundamental type of emergence is the "meta-system transition" , which results in a higher level of control while increasing the overall freedom and adaptivity of the system. Examples of metasystem transitions are the emergence of multicellular organisms, the emergence of the capacity of organisms to learn, and the emergence of human intelligence.

See further: Turchin's paper on Cybernetic Metaphysics.

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn, V. Turchin,

Sep 10, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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Metaphysics, introduction

The meaning of metaphysics

From Kant to Schopenhauer

Knowledge and will



Basic Concepts of Science

Determinism vs. Freedom



  • metaphysical books, Comment by Skip Whitson
  • No, no, no! You've got it all garbled. , Correction by Aaron Agassi

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