Plotinus: The Inventor of Open Architecture?

Ancient philosophy is gaining popularity – and attracting audacious statements. For example, did Aristotle ‘invent’ the U.S. Constitution? If Professor Steven B. Smith at Yale can ask that question, I can ask one of my own: did Plotinus invent ‘open architecture’? The answer depends on whether the ontology of open architecture owes a debt to the ontology of metaphysics.

The Metaphysics that survives in writing got going with Plato. To Plato, the physical world was one of speculation based on the untrustworthy senses. He was never completely sure if an apparent swan was really a swan: or Zeus appearing as a swan in pursuit of Leda. Plato was more confident about Pythagoras’ Theorem; mathematics represented a more fundamental reality.

Plato developed the world-view of classical Western philosophy in which temporal reality, the ever-changing universe of time-space, was a manifestation of a deeper transcendental reality of eternal forms or ideas. This deeper reality was accessible to philosophers: ideally philosopher-kings. Plato expressed his ideas in incredibly subtle dialogues with layers of exoteric and esoteric meaning that danced between skepticism and dogmatism, reflecting the wisdom and humility of his relationship with knowledge.

The Neo-Platonists of Late Antiquity were more certain and detailed in their metaphysics than Plato. In the Enneads, Plotinus worked Plato’s world-view into a dogmatic ontology that inspired the great traditions of the Middle Ages. So is there something analogous to Neo-Platonism in today’s open architecture? It is a provocative claim, of course, but perhaps open architecture and metaphysics will have parallel histories. In the long view, are we entering the open architecture Middle Ages?

The Enneads (in translation) are difficult texts, but a suggestive analogy of Plotinian metaphysics is this. Plotinus described a ‘reality stack’ where each level was a consequence of the level above and the cause of the level below.

At the bottom of the stack is temporal reality. An open architecture system in time-space is the hardware and the software objects and threads that are bound to that hardware. It is the only reality that matters to users. Without the designer’s insight, the higher realities of the architecture can only be speculated. In the Defense Acquisition System, Performance-Based Acquisition (PBA) focused on this lowest level, to the exclusion of the others, constraining system requirements to ‘testable’ specifications.

Following the Plotinian analogy further, the open architecture system is a consequence of successively higher layers of ‘metaphysical’ reality, which do not exist in time-space. The lowest, least-abstract layer corresponds to software code, an image of which is bound to each physical system. Before the advent of model-driven approaches, this code was typically ‘shipped’ as a monolithic block with perhaps notional documentation beyond the source code.

The paradigm of open architecture is recent, and properly applies to the level above the source code. This realm of conceptual models aligns with the next level of reality in Neo-Platonic metaphysics. In our analogy, the software code in open architecture is a consequence of what Plotinus called the ‘Nous’ or Intellectual-Principle, which has sub-levels that are borrowed from the Pythagoreans and Platonists.

The Platonic forms are analogous to the architectural concepts that inform the software code. These concepts exist as functional domains, service participants, and conceptual data models in an open architecture. They are abstract in that their existence might only be inferred in the lower reality of the code; they are real in that they cost money and cause friction between architects. It is interesting that an implicit schism occasionally surfaces that mirrors a schism in metaphysics that has existed since perhaps Hobbes, or Nietzsche, or Jean-Paul Sartre. It is ‘existentialism’ versus ‘natural law’. An architectural ‘existentialist’ would insist that conceptual models are an invented utility and no more. A ‘natural law’ architect would insist that the conceptual models represent a discovered universal truth about information – a truth that can unify systems. The latter will tend to hold up their conceptual models as the ‘first class citizens’ of the architecture. The former will focus on concrete contractual interfaces. A ‘natural law’ architect is a Neo-Platonist.

Included in the concepts expressed in models, there is the Pythagorean concept of modeling itself. This is analogous to the architecture framework of architecture description languages, their metamodels, and their meta-metamodels.

Beyond the Nous, Neo-Platonism has one last level of reality: the ineffable, indivisible ‘One’, which gives rise to the Nous. As the users of the system in time-space might only speculate about the open architecture, so the users of the architecture might only speculate about the ‘architecture of the architect’. So begins a potentially infinite stack of transcendental realities.

So what happened to Neo-Platonism and what does that tell us about where open architecture might be going? Neo-Platonism and the other dogmatic schools were worked into complete systems of scientific and philosophical thought first in the Near East and then in the West, reaching its highpoint with the Scholasticism of the 14th Century. It is sometimes tempting to look at current DoD initiatives in open architecture as parallel to the great intellectual project of the Middle Ages to unify everything under a single ontological realm. That is until a new, unforeseen technological shock will render it obsolete. Scholasticism did not survive the invention of the telescope. What emerged eventually through Machiavelli and Hobbes was not the ‘natural law’ of Plotinus, but the ‘law of nature’.

There is no single ontological realm that pervades philosophy today, and certainly no dogmatic ontology. If open architecture does indeed have a parallel history to metaphysics, perhaps we can expect to see in the long term a federation of different architecture frameworks and conceptual models that are ‘existentialist’ in nature. Individual architectures will be multi-ontological and there will be no unifying conceptual data model. As Plato discovered in the failed government of the Greek colony of Syracuse, there will be no philosopher-kings in open architecture.

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About the Author

Douglas Gregory

Doug Gregory is the principal engineer for open architectures and UAVs at Neya Systems. He is currently chair of the OSD Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Control Segment (UCS) Working Group and co-chair of the UCS/FACE Alignment Advisory Group. He is former chair of the Avionics Systems Division of SAE Aerospace, and has chaired three ad hoc NATO subgroups on open architecture. Doug reads ancient philosophy in his spare time.