Development through Alternation

3.5. Observer entrapment and micro-macro complementarity

Anthony Judge

The question of "containers" and "containment" calls for a better understanding of the function of the observer called upon to respond to the elements of any duality (for which he may also be conceptually responsible).

As Ilya Prigogine notes: "There is always the temptation to try to describe the physical world as if we were not part of it." (39, j. 44). This is even more true of the social world and for most researchers on human and social development. It corresponds to the classical Galilean view of science in which an attempt is made to see phenomena "from the outside as an object of analysis to which we do not belong. But we have reached the limit of this Galilean view." (39) To progress further, we must have a better understanding of our description of the physical universe. This does not mean that we must revert to a subjectivistic view of science, but in a sense we must relate knowing to characteristic features of life." (39, p. xv)

This breakthrough in perspective was triggered by Einstein's work on relativity and the constraints on communication between observers within different frames of reference moving with respect to each other. By invoking the active role of the observer, the nature and limitations of measurement processes are clarified. For Prigogine "The incorporation of the limitation of our way of acting on nature has been an essential element of progress." (39, p. 214) It is somewhat extraordinary that no equivalent to relativity theory is available to remedy the flabby weaknesses of "relativistic" perspectives in the social sciences which justify the lack of attention accorded to them.

Introducing the active role of the observer enriched physical science with the concept of complementarity which, as with relativity, has no central role in the social sciences. Prigogine clarifies the concept by the musical analogy noted above:

"...the world is richer than it is possible to express in any single language. Music is not exhausted by its successive stylizations from Bach to Schoenberg. Similarly, we cannot condense into a single description the various aspects of our experience." (39, p. 51)

In this sense particular descriptions ("answers") do not become wrong, even though each may be considered fundamental; rather they correspond to idealizations that extend beyond the conceptual possibilities of observation (39, xviii). But as idealizations they each lack essential elements and cannot be studied in isolation (39, p. 212) This is equally true for the extremes of micro and macro description of human and social development.

The main thesis of Prigogine is associated with the constructive reality of irreversible processes which appear as particularly coherent on the biological level. Irreversibility emerges once the basic concepts of the extreme idealizations cease to be observables. It is inseparable from measurement. It corresponds to the embedding of the micro perspective within a vaster formalism which permits a non-reductionist transformation to coordinate various levels of description (12, p. xiii-xiv). Irreversibility is then a manifestation on a macroscopic scale of "randomness" on a microscopic scale (12, p. 176). It is the modern theory of bifurcations and instabilities which provides a bridge between the micro and macro levels of description, as well as between the geometrical world of physical descriptions and the organized, functional world characteristics of biological and social systems. It is this bridge which is Prigogine's "third" perspective (39, p. 56 and p. 196).