Copyright © by Barnabas D. Johnson

No subject intrigues me more than synergy, synergetics, or synergism. These words are essentially interchangeable, and relate to a phenomenon that raises deep questions about causality: what makes things "happen" the way they do, especially when what is happening has a history reflecting evolutionary and hence coevolutionary relationships.

Synergetics "allows" much but "causes" nothing. Put differently, much is allowed, but through accompanying cybernetic processes much of what is allowed will not get far before being modified or squelched by negative feedback, etc. For example, the sun and moon exert influences upon our planet providing energy and tidal periodicities, etc. and these allow much, perhaps life itself; yet this is not the same as saying they cause life. For life to occur, something else is needed, including a winnowing out of "almost life" that cannot, or does not, survive due to processes having little if anything to do with the sun or moon (except in the sense that it is hard to imagine much of anything on our planet being unaffected by the sun and by our sibling planet, the so-called moon).


In its modern formulation, synergism asserts that the behavior of whole systems is unpredicted on the basis of (an understanding of?) the behavior of constituent sub-systems.

R. Buckminster Fuller devoted much effort to this subject. I had an opportunity to discuss it with him during his six-week "Boston World Game" conference in 1970, which I attended shortly after writing my "Third Year Written Work" (a requirement for getting a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School) entitled Cosmic Synergism and the Global Village Discontinuity.

I thought then, and continue to think, that Fuller's work in this field was pioneering yet flawed. Specifically, Fuller denigrated the role of what he dismissively called "politics"; what he dismissed, I revered … in essence, the Cybernetics of Society.


In its earliest formulation, synergism denoted a Christian heresy: the belief that "the work of Creation" requires the cooperation of "Man" with "God" — and that, in this sense, we humans must "help the world along" towards a future that improves upon the past. This earliest glimmering of the "modern" Idea of Progress started (to the extent that "starting points" can ever be determined) with the Eleventh-century's "deliberate revolution" back to a glorious past; this is ironic, of course; yet many reformers cast their ideals in terms of a mythical, superior past. See Note on the Idea of Progress.

The first "revolution" of Western civilization is often referred to as the Gregorian Reformation, having started during the papacy of Gregory VII. It led to what is often called the "rediscovery" of Justinian law and Aristotelian philosophy, which — together with the synthesis of Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology it relied on — spawned scholasticism (reasoning bounded by foreordained conclusions). This, in turn — as I discuss elsewhere, for example in The Origins of the Western Legal Tradition and the Foundations of Constitutional Democracy — spawned both common-law jurisprudence and, later, the scientific method: open-ended, empirical inquiry which, still in its infancy, now challenges all foreordained conclusions.

To be continued.


Note on Idea of Progress: The Idea of Progress is rooted in ancient concepts of natural and cultural evolution. A superb work on this subject is Robert A. Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (1980). The following passage from the subsection entitled "Roman Philosophers on Progress":

"Perhaps the greatest description (in the sense of a systematic and developed awareness) of human progress to be found in all of ancient thought is the Roman Lucretius' On the Nature of Things written in the first century B.C. It is an Epicurean account of complete sciences — astronomy, physics, chemistry, anthropology, psychology. In very modern fashion, Lucretius explains the beginnings of the world through atoms in the void forming clusters which then become tangible matter, and the eventual development of the world with all that grows and lives on it. Book V of this general evolutionary treatise is concerned solely with mankind's social and cultural progress. It commences with primitive man living naked and shelterless, dependent upon his cunning and ability to join forces with other men in order to find safety from larger and more predatory beasts, in constant fear of the elements. To assuage this fear mankind generally formed religions for mental protection, and step by step (pedetemtim progredientes) advanced to huts, then to houses and ships, diverse languages, the arts and sciences, medicine, navigation, improvements in technology, making for an ever richer existence. And, Lucretius is careful to tell us, despite the grandeur of all that man has achieved on earth through his own efforts, the human race is still in its infancy, and even greater wonders may be expected."

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