Don Mikulecky

Professsor of Physiology

Virginia Commonwealth University



Introductory remarks:

(This is my first attempt to write a real hypertext document. Please let me know how it goes for you)

This course is an attempt to formulate a synthesis of recent works, old works, and some thoughts I've been nurturing over the years. The central question is "Why has it been so difficult to communicate ideas about living systems in any other manner than to reduce them to machines?" I have a tentative answer that will unfold as we go on, and that answer is what has made this course emerge.

Our guide on this tour will be Robert Rosen, who has laid much of the foundation. We will also consult others and, hopefully, each of us will contribute. I will have to take responsibility for the failings of the course and the shortcomings in the tentative answer, since, as a clear example of the "modeling relation"; I will be sharing my models and percepts of the "real world" with you. I mention the modeling relation very early for a purpose. It has been my contention for some time that this aspect of Rosen's work is inescapably the central idea upon which everything else rests. I have had enough experience discussing these matters to have seen every discussion which went into a "knot" (in the sense of R.D. Liang) do so because participants did not understand this concept. We will spend quite a bit of time trying to understand the modeling relation; and in so doing, try to understand our own understanding. This notion of self-reference is a central one also and we will spend some time with it as well.

As in any attempt to communicate, jargon will be a necessary hurdle. In this case, since the thoughts created by Rosen and the others make up an entirely new set of concepts, our language did not contain the jargon needed. This is true in every case of new ideas being disseminated; language was made for old ideas, not the new. It is difficult to overestimate the magnitude of this problem. It will require conscious effort to overcome the problem. The way it is done is to reread the old words until their gestalt can break through to the new meaning. This can be painful, and, since one never knows when it has happened, one can easily stop the process before the magic transition to understanding has occurred and still think they are there.

We are often criticized for being dogmatic and unimaginative in discussion because we do not sacrifice the definitions and conclusions we have learned from Rosen. I can only say that after you spend sufficient time mastering these new ideas, you might want to share the desire to have concrete, well-defined terms to work with. You may also find that what passes for scientific discussion, especially in discussion groups, is more often hand waving.


One goal of this course is to see if we can explore ways of bringing things together. If that sounds vague it is because we need to see some of those things first. To try to give a glimpse, imagine that we have been unaware of some new way of looking at nature, for instance quantum mechanics. Then we discover quantum mechanics and the temptation is to "throw the baby out with the bath water" and see every problem as needing to be dealt with by quantum mechanics (this might be seen as an application or extension of the "law of the instrument" which states that if you give a small boy a hammer he soon learns that everything he encounters needs pounding. Eventually, we rediscover that different methods work for different problems in a complex world. This will also make us contemplate the important differences in ways of viewing what science is, since a science of method is very different from a science of content.


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