Robert Rosen’s Anticipatory Systems Theory: The Art and Science of Thinking Ahead

Judith Rosen


Science, at its best, is supposed to be a set of tools, constructed by humanity for use in improving our quality of life, our chances for survival, and the survival and welfare of our progeny. In all of those pursuits, sustainability really is not optional; it is required. Sustainability must be the cornerstone for any kind of planning for future outcomes that we want to use our science to achieve. To do other than that is both irresponsible and foolish.

However, even when our intentions are planted firmly on the tenets of sustainability, we still need to be able to trust the tools we intend to use to do the jobs we are asking of them. Chief among those jobs is scientific modeling and prediction. Any proposed therapy we want to consider implementing in local or global ecosystems, for example, will need to be tested in models first—before we decide to risk implementing such a therapy in the natural world. We need to know that the models used are actually capable of accurately predicting what would happen in ecosystems, in social systems, physiologies, psychologies, etc. All of these systems involve living organisms and/or interactions between living organisms in critically important ways.

Currently, our science is based on a presumption, buried deep in the foundational theory upon which all science rests, that all systems in the universe are “just like machines” and, therefore, have only the behavior potentials that machines have. All machines are purely reactive in their behavior potentials: In such a world, causality flows from past through present towards future—just as time is also presumed to do—in a linear, unidirectional fashion. In that scenario, there is no way for the future to act, in any causal way, on the present. But, that is clearly not how life works (The fact that this paper is being written now, months before the conference it is to be presented at, offers one proof of that.)

If life is not “purely reactive”, what does that mean for science? Do we hold on to our scientific presumptions about the universe and conclude that aspects such as life and the human mind must therefore be supernatural in origin and potential? Or do we turn around and take a hard look at our tools, instead. What happens if we discard the notion of “The Machine” as an appropriate model for all systems in the universe? The reactive paradigm of science need not be discarded: It will remain just as applicable to certain types of systems as it ever was— BUT—we are no longer limited to ONLY that. We are then free to expand our scientific capacity in order to study relations between interacting “things”, study the impact of changes in such relations on causal outcomes, and to develop some new tools that will be capable of helping us truly learn about the anticipatory nature of living systems. This will allow us to build far better models of them, as individual organisms or as populations within environments, which can accurately represent their true capabilities in interactions of myriad types, in the natural world.

Only then will we really have a hope of being able to trust in the predictions our tools offer us as we try to decide how to proceed. In short: We need to think ahead, individually and collectively—more so now than ever before in human history. The margin for error is growing thinner as our population increases. The old dictum from carpentry applies: Measure twice, cut once. Just as importantly, we will need the right tools for the job. It is a salient truth that the issue of “sustainability” is not a reactive concept; it is an anticipatory one.


Robert Rosen, anticipatory systems

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