A Brief History of Systems Theory


Because the notion of systems appears so often throughout this book, I would like to offer the following brief review of the development of logical and scientific thought, as an introduction to the concept of systems. It is based on the excellent ideas presented in Peter Checkland’s excellent book, “Systems Theory, Systems Practice,” which I highly recommend to anyone who would like a fuller treatment of this material. Although the more analytically-minded reader will find this information very fascinating, some may find it overly technical, and choose to skip it.

The central concept “system” embodies the idea of a set of elements connected together, which form a whole, thus showing properties, which are properties of the whole, rather than properties of its component parts. (The taste of water, for example, is a property of the substance water, not of the hydrogen and oxygen, which combine to form it.)

The concern of systems is not a particular set of phenomena (as chemistry and physics), nor does it exist because of a problem area that requires different streams of knowledge (town planning, for example.) What distinguishes systems is that it is a subject, which can talk about other subjects. It is not in the same set as the other disciplines, it is a meta-discipline whose subject matter can be applied within virtually any discipline. The systems outlook assumes that the world contains structured wholes (soap bubbles, for example), which can maintain their identity under a certain range of conditions and which exhibit certain general principles of “fullness.”

Systems thinking notices the unquestioned Cartesian assumption: namely, that a component part is the same when separated out as it is when part of a whole. The Cartesian legacy provides us with an unnoticed framework (a set of intellectual pigeonholes to which we place the new knowledge we acquire.) Systems thinking is different because it is about the framework itself. Systems thinking does not drop into its pigeonhole, it changes the shape or the structure of the whole framework of pigeonholes.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is defined in terms of three characteristics: reductionism, repeatability, and refutation. Complexity, in general, and social phenomena in particular, both pose a difficult problem for science; neither has been able to tackle what we perceive as “real world problems “ (as opposed to the scientist-defined problems in the laboratory). These are frequent problems of the teleological kind, concerned with ends and means.

The Systems Approach

The core concerns of systems thinking are the two pairs of ideas: emergence and hierarchy, communication and control. The system concept, the idea of a whole entity, which under a range of conditions maintains its identity, provides a way of viewing and interpreting the universe as a hierarchy of such interconnected and interrelated wholes. Western civilization is characterized by the Judeo-Christian tradition, specific arts and crafts, and technologies. Especially unique is its having developed and organized human activity in a way unknown before “science.” The reason for this involvement has social, economic, and intellectual aspects.

The Root of Science and Its Driving Impulse

Science is an invention of our civilization, a cultural invention. It’s probably the most powerful invention in the whole history of mankind. Our world in the twenty-first century is essentially the world created by the activity of science: in cities, transportation, and communication systems and in our political and administrative procedures (the way we organize society).

Rationalism and empiricism, twin outcomes of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, have created enormous changes in all of our civilizations. The fruits of modern science are now all-pervading in their influence. It has provided us with at least the possibility of material well-being, even on a planet with finite resources, and it has also given us the means of destroying all life on our planet.

The impulse behind science (scientia, episteme) is the itch to know things, to find out how and why the world is. This is different from the drive behind technology (techne), which is the itch to do things, to achieve practical ends. The urge to know and the urge to do are different motives.The urge to know came from the Greeks who gave us the art of rational thinking. After the Greeks came the Dark Ages (5th to 10th centuries), then the recovery in medieval times, when scholastic philosophers brought Aristotle’s thought within the orbit of Christian faith. The medieval world view, based Aristotelian science, survived until the Renaissance of learning led to its replacement by the new world view created by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, the worldview that is still recognizably our own.

The Quest for Truth

What is important is the spirit in which Greek speculation was proposed, and the critical debate in which they were discussed.   They argued for the sole purpose of arriving at the truth, with argument as to their chief weapon; used deliberately, consciously, and carefully developed into an effective tool.
Newton created a completely new worldview out of Kepler ‘s astronomy and Galileo ‘s mechanics. Urged on by Halley, the astronomer, published “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, “ the most celebrated scientific work ever written.
Newton stated the three laws of motion. He proposed a testable mathematical model, with the workings of the universe conceived as an elegant, ingenious, and majestic clockwork.   Animistic and teleological explanations were demonstrably no longer necessary, it seemed. (It is an argument out of Checkland ‘s book, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, that in the last 30 years systems thinking has rehabilitated teleology as a respectable concept.)
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), not a practicing scientist, was a prophet of the exploitation of science to transform the physical world.

The Cartesian Influence

Descartes was a lucid exponent of scientific rationalism, the methodologist whose principle of reductionism has deeply permeated science for 350 years. (The Systems Movement may be seen as a reaction against just this principle.)
Descartes emphasized, not the facts of science, but the scientific way of thinking.   He rejected the untested assumptions of scholastic philosophy.   He sought the truth by deductive reasoning, from basic irreducible ideas.
He starts from the position of extreme skepticism, of absolute doubt.   The world he perceived, for example, might be a dream.   The one certainty is that I doubt, and this remains true even if I doubt that I doubt.   I think, therefore I am.   This is the only certainty.   He thought that by analyzing the process by which he had become certain of his own existence, he can discover the general nature of the process of becoming certain of anything.   In his second discourse, he gives four rules for properly conducting one ‘s reason:

1. Avoiding precipitancy and prejudice
2. Accepting only clear and distinct ideas
3. Orderly progression from the simple to the complex
4. Complete analysis with nothing omitted

The second rule is most significant: to divide each of the difficulties that he was examining into as many parts as might be possible and necessary in order to best solve it.   This is the principle of analytic reduction, which characterizes the Western intellectual tradition.   The core of his approach to science was reductionist, in the sense that science should describe the world in terms of “simple natures “ and “composite natures, “ and show how the latter can be reduced to the former. He says that finding simple natures in complex phenomena is what he meant by analysis.   He excluded any explanation that included terms of purpose.
The reductionist ideal is found in virtually all science of the 18th to 19th centuries.   Not until the 20th century have significant challenges to reductionism been made.   The Systems Movement is the most serious of these challenges.

The Death of Reductionism

The downfall of Newton ‘s model came in the 20th century through the work of Einstein, which can yield all of Newton ‘s results and more.
Experiments proved Einstein ‘s model better than Newton ‘s, although Newton ‘s is good enough for terrestrial calculations, and even for moon flights.
The results of scientific experiments are not absolute; they may be replaced by later models that have greater descriptive and predictive power.   Scientifically acquired and tested knowledge is simply the best description of reality that we have at that moment in time.

The Method of Science

Science is the human activity which is “the origin of the modern world view and mentality” and within which the systems movement has emerged within the last 30 or 40 years.
Science is a system, an institutionalized set of activities, which embody a particular purpose, mainly the acquiring of a particular kind of knowledge. It is an inquiring or learning system, to find things out about the mysterious world we live in. The Greeks invented rational thought, breaking with the idea of the irrational authority which is not to be questioned; medieval clerics started the conscious development of methodology, providing the beginnings of the experimental approach; the age of Newton united empiricism and theoretical explanation in a way that dealt with necessity and contingency at the same time and made the real world comprehensible through ideas. The 20th century reminds us that knowledge gained is always provisional.

An account of science as an activity: a way of acquiring completely testable knowledge of the world characterized by an application of rational thinking (to experience observations, experiments, concise expression of the laws which govern the regularity of the universe, expressing them mathematically if possible). Three characteristics define the patterned activity: reductionism, repeatability, and refutation. We reduce the complexity of the real world with experiments whose results are validated by their repeatability. We build knowledge by the refutation of hypotheses. These are the three senses in which science is “reductionist.” The world is messy. To define an experiment is to define a reduction of the world, one made for a particular purpose. The second way which science is reductionist; much is to be gained in logical coherence by being reductionist in explanation, using the minimum explanation required by the facts to be explained. Thirdly, breaking down problems to analyze piecemeal, component by component. In this sense, scientific is almost synonymous with analytic thinking.

Hierarchy and Emergence

The reductionist ideal is expressed in terms of a hierarchy of the sciences physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and social science, each dependent on the preceding.  No one would ever argue that the place for psychology is between chemistry and biology. We see here levels of complexity. Laws, which seem to operate at one level, seem to be higher order with respect to those of lower levels. This is the kernel of the concept of emergence, the idea that at a given level of complexity there are properties characteristic of that level (emergent at that level) that are irreducible.

The debate of reductionism vs. emergence is a prime source of systems thinking. The second characteristic of science is repeatability of experiments. You might think that D.H. Lawrence or a particular kind of music is good or bad, depending upon the literary or musical tastes of society at a particular time, and ourselves. Knowledge of this kind remains private knowledge in the sense that the choice is ours to accept it or not.

Scientific knowledge is public knowledge. We have no option but to accept what can be repeatedly demonstrated by experiment. The inverse square law of magnetism is the same all over the world. What has to be accepted is the happenings in the experiment, not necessarily the interpretation of the results! It is the repeatability of experimental facts, which places science in a different category from opinion, preferences, speculation (that iron filings are attracted because they are iron, not because of their shape). Connected with the repeatability criterion for science is the importance of measurement. Measured values can be repeated and recorded more easily than qualitative findings.

Paradigm Shifts

Kuhn (1962) refers to the body of currently accepted knowledge which makes particular experiments as “a paradigm, “ and describes science as periods of normal science carried out under the influence of a particular paradigm interspersed by revolutionary shifts in the paradigm. He sees a paradigm as an achievement or set of achievements which a scientific community “acknowledges as supplying the foundation for its further practice” achievements which “attract an enduring way from competing modes of scientific activity” and are “sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to solve.”

The Scientist Decides What Section
of the World ‘s Variety to Examine

Newton and Einstein were responsible for revolutionary paradigm shifts. This is what happens when a piece of scientific work is planned and carried out: The scientist decides what section of the world ‘s variety to examine. He makes his reduction, designing an artificial situation within which he can examine the workings of a few variables while others are held constant. The experimental design makes sense in terms of some particular view of or theory about that part of the world’s variety that he is investigating, and his particular experiment will constitute the testing of a hypothesis within that theory.  The question the experiment poses is: Will it pass the test?

In logic, we are more interested in the refutation than corroboration. This is because it is not possible to prove anything by induction. With deductive argument, there is no problem; we can prove that Socrates is mortal. But we cannot prove that the sun will come up tomorrow. Multiple confirmatory observations do not, in logic, get us nearer to truth. Thus, a hypothesis refuted is a more valuable result.

Science and the Systems Movement

The present cult of unreason is not a surprising reaction to the astonishing success of the cult of reason as embodied in modern science, especially as to certain fruits of science and technology are to be seen at the material level only. Descartes’ dividing of problems into separate parts assumes the components of the whole are the same when examined singularly as when they are playing their part in the whole, or that the principles governing the assembly of the components into the whole are themselves straightforward.

Coping With Complexity

The interesting question: To what extent can the method of science cope with complexity?   Where does it fall down and why?

Cursory inspection of the world suggests that it is a giant complex with dense connections between its parts. We cannot cope with it and are forced to reduce it into separate areas we can examine. Thus we get subjects and disciplines. Because our education is, from the start, conducted in terms of this division, it is not easy to remember that the divisions are man-made and arbitrary.

Nature does not divide herself into physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth. Yet these concepts have been hammered into us, and are so ingrained in our thinking that we find it hard to perceive the unity that underlies them. Our need for coherence, therefore, demands that we arrange the classification of knowledge according to some rational principle. Systems thinking gives us a way to escape this trap and evolve more inclusive paradigms for understanding ourselves and our world.

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