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Dear Visitor of the Primer on Systems Science site,
you are entering a highway of thought with many turn-offs.
Systems Science originated in the first half of the 20th century as a backlash against the growing specialization of the sciences, and against the loss of overview, of philosophical perspective, concomitant to this. This motivation is visible in all the different approaches. But the ways and methods chosen to deal with this problem differ vastly. All are called systems science or systems theory or systems approach.
For that reason, on the systems science highway, you can reach a number of quite different destinations. If you don't have a clear idea of what your desired destination is, you may err around and risk to get frustrated. So we advise you to consult the list of destinations and to make your choice, before you spent a lot of time reading texts that are expounding ideas that do not fit into your fields of interest.
Different destinations sought-after by different advocates of systems science:
(Author: Eberhard Umbach)
The subsequent paragraphs, by the same author, outline destination 1.
Our lives are dominated by specialists. Specialists' knowledge and methods affect more and more the lives of organizations and of ordinary people: different technologies from automobile to computer, medicine, law, business, economics. And the majority of people in modern societies earn their living by exercising a specialized activity. Most of us are specialists, and we all to a large extent depend on specialists.
No one specialist can have a sufficient overview of problems of large entities like an industrial corporation or of problems of the whole society, like social security or unemployment or foreign policy or the protection of resources and the environment. The persons being in charge of managing these entities call again on specialists. In all domains, specialists are making suggestions on the basis of their partial views. The integration of these suggestions can be complicated and often demands an appropriate philosophy and appropriate intellectual techniques.
Systems science offers both, ¨
The heart of systems science is the concept of system.
The simplest definition of a system is:
A system consists of at least two parts or elements and one or more relations between these elements.
Example: A married couple (system) consists of at least two persons that maintain a cooperative relationship among them. “Relation(ship)” is often overlooked as the decisive aspect of a system, but it is clear from the example that two persons that just met in a train and have a conversation, have no ressemblance whatsoever with a married couple. If at all, the two strangers make upt a completely different system. Thus: The special relationship makes a system out of the elements. This is expressed by the often cited phrase: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
I give more illustrations to this basic idea:
Technical systems show the decisive importance of relationships also. The parts of an automobile, as long as they are separate (all of them or only some of them) in the plant, do not form an automobile yet. Once they are all fixed in their intended position, then the parts form an automobile with completely new properties compared to the properties of the disconnected parts.
Other examples of systems are the solar system, the planet Earth, nations like Germany or the United States of America, the economic system of a nation, an ecosystem, a machine, an atom, but also a work of art, a language, a text written in a particular language, like a drama or a letter or a computer program. A typology of systems is given in the accompanying text, section 2.2.(see link at the end).
The examples given last are fairly easy to grasp as systems. But problems of real life, be it the peronal or the public or the world sphere, are wicked: what the important elements and relations are, is difficult to discern. Each specialist has his focus and denies the importance of other elements and relationships that are outside his focus.
The often-heard statement in this kind of situation is: We have to take the “Whole” into account. Holistic thinking is the motto then. But what is the whole in a given situation ? To determine this is part of the work of systems scientists.
To take a holistic approach means: By all scientific and pragmatic methods, hard and soft, the problem situation is analyzed to find out what are the relevant elements and relationships.Once this is done, one has to decide which of them are more important than others and have to be included in the further treatment of the problem.
An example may make that clearer: In Germany, in he 1990s, extraction of resources from household waste was seen as a technical problem by decision makers on the level of the Federal Ministry of Environment. They wanted to gradually develop facilities and counted on the citizens to use them. They had overlooked the eagerness of a majority of Germans to recycle the abundant plastic waste. The limited facilities for recycling in the year 1993 were swamped by the huge masses of material collected. The responsible body could not handle that adequatly, which in turn aroused distrust among the citzens. A holistic approach at the beginning, e.g. comprising a representative survey, could have avoided that.
Once the idea of systemhood, of wholeness, is understood, two question arise very often:
This is the first: The systems concept applies to practically all phenomena of our world. Isn't the systems concept too general to allow for meaningful statements ?
The answer is: We need a very general concept, if it is supposed to be applicable to hopefully all domains of the world. The system concept shares the property of generality with other inventions of the human mind that enable us to gather, process and communicate information. The most important of these instruments is '''language. This is a mental instrument that allows us to describe diverse aspects of reality. “System” is basically a word in a language, and it shares this generality with other expression like “thing”, “object”, “phenomenon”, that can designate anything in the outer world.
In the context of language, the number system is equally applicable to phenomena of most diverse character. You can count galaxies, planets, people, cars, animals, atoms etc.. The number system is equally universal as the concept of “system”. Despite the generality of the concept, we use numbers without any doubts as to utility and epistemological soundness. The systems approach is equally useful and scientifically sound.
The second question refers to the character of systemhood:
Is the statement “A given set of elements, e.g. the biosphere, form a system” a statement of objective fact or a statement of subjective interpretation, of imagination, something that is only relevant in the sphere of ephemeral human observers ?
The answer is contained in the modern analysis of the relations between humanity and the world. Two interlinked approaches analyse in a cogent way this field:
An introduction to both is contained in chapter 3 of the accompanying text (see link at the end).
An integrative summary of both concepts follows:
In the course of the evolution of life, organisms, especially animals, have developed more and more efficient sens organs to process emissions (understood by the organism as signals) from their surroundings and form models of their world. These models contributed to survival in a hostile environment. Humanity (the species Homo sapiens) owes its domination of the planet Earth to its greatly increased mental capacities to think rationally (to use logically and empirically sound models). The capacities for that are located in the frontal cortex. They allowed us to develop language, culture, and science as cumulative systems of models of the world and of norms of behaviour. (“Cumulative” in this context means: altered by individuals in their lifetime or by cultures in the course of their spread, and optimized with the intention of making it fitter to the incumbent challenges.) Thinking rationally with humans also means that they developed a culture system, on the basis of language, that allows for optimization during millenia. Especially in the last 500 years, efficient techniques of development, conservation and mass communication of such models gave new dimensions to human lives that were unthinkable before. The overall effects of that on the future of this planet are not at all accounted for yet.
These models have a double character:
The answer to the above question on the character of a system statement is therefore:
To call e.g. the biosphere a system is mostly a matter of humans observing, analyzing, generalizing. But the evidence from hundreds of years of science and from personal experience make it plausible that a homomorphy with Reality exists.
In sum, systems science, systems theory, systems concepts, with their corollaries, are a type of philosophy, terminology, and methodology appropriate to deal with the most diverse domains of the outer and inner world of human beings. Due to this generality, systems science is capable of networking specialized sciences and fields of knowledge, and integrate concrete knowledge about specific situations into complex problem solving processes.
Common sense does the same, but in a much cruder way, much more prone to oversimplification and to error.
A more detailed account (66 pages) on the topics treated here can be found under: