TRITA-MMK 2005:10 ISSN 1400-1179 ISRN/KTH/MMK/R-05/10-SE

Views on General System Theory
by Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury

MMK Technical Report Mechatronics Lab, Department of Machine Design Royal Institute of Technology, KTH S-100 44 STOCKHOLM

Stockholm 2005

Technical Report TRITA-MMK 2005:10 ISSN 1400-1179 ISRN/KTH/MMK/R-05/10-SE

Views on General System Theory

Machine Design KTH Mechatronics Lab April 2005

Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury {olal;}

This report is the result of a literature study course work on the General System Theory (GST) performed by Jad Elkhoury and Ola Larses at the Mechatronics Division of the Department of Machine Design at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). The study was initially performed in the fall of 2004 and concluded in the spring 2005. The structure of the report consists of two major parts. The first part provides a general overview of this broad field of science. It gives a short summary and overview of the General System Theory is, as well as a reflection on how GST relates to current meta-modelling efforts exemplified with the UML-MOF. The second major part of the report is a set of four book reviews covering very different books about the area: One original work of von Bertalanffy (1967), two books from authors providing their views on GST (Weinberg 2001, Checkland 1999) and one text book covering several theories on the subject (Skyttner 2001).

GST, Cybernetics, General System Theory, Skyttner, Bertalanffy, Checkland, Weinberg

Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory

1 2 INTRODUCTION ....................................................................................................................................... 5 A SUMMARY OF THE FIELD OF GENERAL SYSTEM THEORY (GST)....................................... 5 2.1 HISTORY OF GENERAL SYSTEMS THEORY (GST) ................................................................................. 5 2.1.1 Current references, communities and courses ................................................................................ 7 2.2 CONCEPTS OF GST ............................................................................................................................... 9 2.3 A GENERAL SYSTEM MODEL - RELATING THE CONCEPTS OF GST ..................................................... 11 2.3.1 A Criticism of Bertalanffy ............................................................................................................. 12 2.3.2 The Analysis-Synthesis system method.......................................................................................... 12 2.3.3 The goal orientation of systems..................................................................................................... 13 3 4 5 GST AND THE MOF................................................................................................................................ 14 REFERENCES .......................................................................................................................................... 16 APPENDIX – BOOK SUMMARIES....................................................................................................... 17 5.1 BOOK REVIEWS ................................................................................................................................... 17 5.1.1 General Systems Theory – Lars Skyttner (2001) ........................................................................... 18 5.1.2 General System Theory – Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1968)............................................................ 21 5.1.3 Systems Thinking, Systems Practice – Peter Checkland (1981/1999)........................................... 24 5.2 EXTENDED BOOK REVIEW: AN INTRODUCTION TO GENERAL SYSTEMS THINKING – GERALD M. WEINBERG ........................................................................................................................................................ 28 5.2.1 The Problem .................................................................................................................................. 28 5.2.2 The Approach ................................................................................................................................ 30 5.2.3 System and Illusion........................................................................................................................ 33 5.2.4 Interpreting Observations ............................................................................................................. 37 5.2.5 Breaking down Observations ........................................................................................................ 41 5.2.6 Describing Behaviour ................................................................................................................... 45 5.2.7 Some Systems Questions................................................................................................................ 47 5.2.8 Further readings ........................................................................................................................... 48


Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory


1). 2 A summary of the field of general system theory (GST) This summary first gives a historical reference to the origins of GST and an overview of some GST related communities today.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 1 Introduction This report is the result of a literature study course work on the General System Theory (GST) performed by Jad Elkhoury and Ola Larses at the Mechatronics Division of the Department of Machine Design at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). the basic concepts of the theory are given followed by a discussion of how the concepts relate. the focus in this report is on the study of systems as such (box 2. Then.3 Soft systems thinking Figure 1 A map of the Systems Movement activities (Checkland 1999) System ideas have influenced several disciplines such as biology and economics as indicated by box 2. Checkland (1999) provides a map of seven enumerated subactivities in the systems movement.2 Application of systems thinking in other disciplines 2.2. and what the core of the theory actually is. as well as a reflection on how GST relates to current meta-modelling efforts exemplified with the UML-MOF.1 History of General Systems Theory (GST) To understand the history and aspects of system related activities a good start is to provide a classification framework.2 Problem-solving application of systems thinking 3. The second major part of the report is a set of four book reviews covering very different books about the area: One original work of von Bertalanffy (1967). The study was initially performed in the fall of 2004 and concluded in the spring 2005.2 Decision making systems 4. The most commonly referred father 5 .1 Theoretical development of systems thinking (formulation of GST) 4. The general systems theory (GST) was established as a field of research in the 50’s.1 Hard systems thinking – Systems engineering 4. two books from authors providing their views on GST (Weinberg 2001. 1 The Systems Movement 2. specifically the branch of theoretical development (box 3. The first part provides a general overview of this broad field of science. shown in figure 1. It gives a short summary and overview of the General System Theory is.1 Study of systems as such 3.1). Checkland 1999) and one text book covering several theories on the subject (Skyttner 2001). The structure of the report consists of two major parts. 2. However.

and still others develop systems engineering. 6 . The basic ideas of SST are summarized by Flood (2000). The hard systems thinking approach (box 4. The more applied problem oriented systems thinking (box 3. Director of Systems Engineering at Bell. The organization is today known as the “International Society for the Systems Sciences” (ISSS) and celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2004. Some discussions still focus on the development of GST such as the journal of Systems Research and Behavioural Science. However. there are however a range of contemporary scientists who contributed in the field. Bell labs performed major applications of systems engineering during World War II. methodology-driven and intervening with the system (as hard systems thinking). California. in the introductory retrospective section of his book he is content with separating hard and soft systems thinking. (Buede 2000) Today.2) is given three branches by Checkland (shown in figure 1). and also for some human-made systems where there exist conflicting goals and purposes. and the Systeemgroep Nederland. situation-driven and in interaction with the system. This branch also has old roots. 1954 in Berkeley. The target for Checkland is mainly human activity systems and social systems but the ideas seem relevant also for the engineering of complex technical systems with conflicting requirements. Gilman.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory of GST is Ludwig von Bertalanffy. they are goal-oriented.3) is the approach developed by Checkland himself. such as the rapidly growing INCOSE. The founders emphasized their desire to promote the unity of science at the very first meeting which took place in December. In 1956 the organization was renewed as the “Society for General Systems Research”. The term systems engineering dates back to Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1940s. SST is related to social sciences. A mapping of the mentioned organizations and journals to the framework of Checkland is provided in figure 2. System theories are still a topic of high interest discussed in academia. According to Checkland SST should be used iteratively. “Hard” methods like systems engineering assumes that the system have a clear purpose and is optimized towards this purpose. GST have strong bonds to Cybernetics. The exact details of the model describing the system are in focus. with the name later changing to the “International Society for General Systems Research”. A related organization is the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) also established through the Society for General Systems Research in 1980 together with the Österreichische Studiengesellschaft für Kybernetik. Bertalanffy founded the “Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory” together with Kenneth Boulding in 1954. not sequential. This assumption holds for human-made systems in general but breaks down for human activity systems. In this problem oriented approach model building (capturing abstract activities and issues) is in focus. For these problems Checkland proposes a “soft” methodology. Other communities have adopted the application of systems thinking. The soft systems thinking (SST. box 4.1) is known as systems engineering and tries to arrange and describe the real world in a systemic manner in order to be able to perform proper engineering. systems engineering is promoted by the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) formed in 1990. The first significant systems engineering was performed for telephone systems to ensure that all the different parts of the phone system interoperated reliably. Information theory and Control theory. The actual details of the model are of less interest. The first attempt to teach systems engineering as we know it today came in 1950 at MIT by Mr.

Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory The Systems Movement Development of system theories Formulation of GST Cybernetics Information Theory Contemporary Organizations: International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) Journals: Systems research and Behavioural Science (Wiley) Problem solving approaches (application of system theories) Soft Systems Thinking Soft Systems Modelling Social sciences Peter Checkland Hard Systems Thinking Systems Engineering Contemporary Organizations: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) Journals: Systems Engineering Figure 2 Some active players in the systems world 2. writers. we invite you to join our efforts and become a contributor. The ISSS is a broadly based professional society of scientists. deepens. communities and courses Looking for the current activities in the systems movement a few communities with immediate references to GST can be found. and will never be really finished. -homepage- International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) 7 .v The project has started in 1989. A selection of web-sites related to GST is provided in table 1. Thus. and its first implementation ub. http://www.1. and many other professionals from diverse endeavors. org philosophers. Table 1 General Systems Resources Site name Principa Cybernetica Web Organization Principa Cybernetica Project Link Brief descriptions from the sites http://pespmc1.isss. and the webpages discussing the different components of our philosophy have been regularly expanded and updated. educators. Looking at the different communities and their varying angles on the subject shows the dispersed body of theory and the lack of consensus. Of course. Also. our conceptual system gradually as a website happened in 1993. who are drawn together by a common interest: understanding and interacting systemically with reality. Since then. business and policy practicioners. artists. the task is enormous. there are several web-based sources of information regarding the subject. If you are interested in our Project. The links were accessed April 2005. futurists. humanists.1 Current references.

is a a non-profit. do?projectId=35 8 This course is a beta test for a subsequent course to be arranged for February 2006.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Site name -homepageOrganization American Society for Cybernetics Link Brief descriptions from the sites http://www.asc.msi. manage a ProjectSyllabus. -homepage- International Federation for Systems Research Project: General Systems Theory A Harward Law Also. conducts seminars on the fundamentals of cybernetics. org/ founded 1981. Pending that. and 'soft' systems in which the structure of the system is less well defined and generally involving some form of human activity.cfm?action=detail &subjectid=004601&year=2004 New In this course. courses are held at different deparments across universities throughout the world. http://w3. http://www. and the Language School of Systems University Theory. General System Theory. http://www. we will contrast three schools of systems Mexico theory: the naïve US school of systems theory.h arvard. DC who were interested in the then new field of cybernetics. The International Federation For Systems Research (IFSR).html University This subject explores a general framework for understanding of Canberra diverse kinds of systems. the course text is von Bertalanffy. New York: George Braziller.vxu. constituted of member organizations from various countries. The practical application of systems theory is in advanced problem-solving in systems. Law & Information Sciences System Theory - Department of Management Syftet med kursen är att de studerande ska: • kunna använda ett generellt systemteorietiskt synsätt vid analyser av verksamheter och design av informationssystem • känna till centrala begrepp inom systemteorin • känna till olika systemklassifikationer • kunna förstå och analysera konsekvenserna av att använda olika systemindelningar. including 'hard' systems such as those found in engineering applications. The Society now holds an annual conference.5p systemtekniska ECTS institutionen Brief description General System Theory 4p Business.) Editor comment: The page provides a good overview of several communities. The links have been accessed April 2005. (Chapter 2 in General System Theory is the major read. scientific and educational The overall purpose of the Federation is to advance cybernetic and systems research and systems applications and to serve the international systems community.htm 8 .edu/~dboje/655/ and maintains contacts with cyberneticians in other countries. To provide a broad backround a selection of courses are referenced in table 2.canberra. Table 2 General Systems Courses Course name Cts 5p Generell Systemteori Department University Matematiska Växjö och Universitet 7. The founding members of the Society wanted to follow and to encourage the development of this interdisciplinary field. by a group of people in Considerable arrangements need to be made first (with student input necessary). journals and other GST resources.nmsu.The American Society for Cybernetics was founded in 1964 cybernetics. the General State Systems Theory School.ifsr. Ludwig (1969).a way of finding out about the world first described by Lewin and refined and diversified by a number of authors and researchers including Checkland. The main question which will be pursued during the semester is whether the techniques and ideas of so-called 'action research' .

planning.orst. etc. Attention is given to the implications for information management that are derived from the general systems analysis Concepts of GST Table 3 lists a collection of the key terms & concepts found in the General System Theory In this course. discussing. documents. laws. meeting in groups. The modern manager faces exceedingly complex Administrat systems that cannot be adequately analyzed using formal ion mathematical decision-making. decision-making. http://web.ocs. or the environment. are usable by either the system itself shaping. different communities focus on various concepts in this list. This table is mainly borrowed from a review of Gillies (1982). broadly founded Technical methodology of Systems Theory to gain a sufficient insight in University general systems principles and their theoretical limits.html 2. processing of technical. Table 3 General System Concepts Term Input Definition The energy & raw material transformed by the system Examples /f300/subjXE33OTS. social. money. assistance. http://emac3.lsu. sorting. The in Prague course aims a wrapping up knowledge from other special classes and giving a common frame for many special engineering problems encountered in practice. financial & human input. decisions. etc. It is dealt with such concepts like identification.html Czech In this class students will learn the general. conceptualizing and modeling macro systems is emphasized. with a few additional concepts. clothing. The goal is to explore some of the old and new ideas in this field and their possible application in basic and applied research. hammering. Special attention is given to the dynamic interaction between system structure. http://www. energy. understand and to conceptually model complex Business systems. Output The product or service which results from the system's throughput or Software programs. rules.cof.htm Ourso This course is designed to expand each student's ability to College Of analyze. the system dynamics approach to examining. & raw material of some kind The processes used by the system to convert raw materials or energy from Thinking. cars. decomposition and selforganization. especially as they relate to emerging issues such as ecosystem management and global environmental change. bills. melting. 9 . Throughput the environment into products that sharing information. The informational feedback characteristics of living systems are studied and methods to evaluate the productivity and effectiveness of industrial and governmental systems are addressed. Since no consensus among the communities exists about GST. constructing. individual effort. money. time.cvut. intuiative or experiential techniques. time delays and information structures in decisions and actions that determine system behavior and performance. policy.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Course name Cts 1p Systems Theory Department Department of Forest Science University Oregon State University Brief description Seminar in General Systems Theory and Strategic Modeling - Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department General System Theory 5p - The course is inspired by the increasing importance of interdisciplinary perspectives.

the occupational therapy department. health care agencies use TQM or Quality Assurance programs. The reason for To educate students. governmental bodies. body systems. and test results. or wall. a rigid. etc. banks. families. the information system. Open systems Boundary The line or point where a system or subsystem can be differentiated from its environment or from other The nursing unit. family. a fence permeable or some point in between. sales reports. to make money. roles. automatic relationships among A rock is an example of the most closed system. & capable of growth. A system which is a part of a larger system. the managerial system. Feedback Subsystem Static system Dynamic system Closed systems Neither system elements nor the system itself changes much over time A rock in relation to the environment The system constantly changes the environment & is changed by the environment A healthy young adult grows more independent. & recreational is an example of how hospitals are doing with certain diagnoses. They can work parallel to each other or in a series with each other. The finance department. interdependent. approved The tendency for a system to develop & communicated to staff. The overall purpose for existence or the desired outcomes. policies & protocols are written.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Term Definition Information about some aspect of data or energy processing that can be used to evaluate & monitor the system & to guide it to more effective performance. Examples How many cars were produced? How many had to be recalled to correct errors? How many mistakes were made? Why were mistakes made? HealthCareReportCard. The disorganization after a hurricane. the subsystems. teachers grade papers & give students grades on exams. associations. the renal system. development & adaptation. a new business has no forms or protocols for handling consumer complaints. Rules are made. Accreditation reports are an example as are patient satisfaction surveys. laws are enacted & violators are held accountable. ect Systems or subsystems will engage in boundary tending. etc. a person. to support people during illness & being. throughput & output cybernation in order to make corrections 10 . Can be rigid or elementary school. Pilots use instrument panels & devices to constantly evaluate & make course corrections. employee health nurses review records to see who needs immunization updates. & self-sufficient & self-directed in response to stimuli from peers. an agency or business. a marathon runner in training gradually is order & energy over time. able to run farther. manufacturing plants. businesses. the workflow system (such as the conveyor belt). people. Goal Entropy The tendency of a system to lose Negentropy energy & dissolve into chaos The activities & processes used to Control or evaluate input. Fixed. frightened family produces a child who is unable to think independently or leave home. work. Hospitals. take with the environment Interacts with the environment trading energy & raw materials for goods & services produced by the system. many organizations restore them to health. They are self-regulating. etc. to create social put their goals into a mission order. We may system components & no give or encounter families that are isolated from the community & resistant to any outside influence. statement. school. the political system. Currently. parents measure their children's height & weight & may adjust the child's diet.

A model of a system in which the system can only be known through observing its behaviour. plane. However. etc. The on/off states of a lamp The quality of mass defined by the states in which masses are the same or different. providing a meta-model of the world. These ideas can be used as a core of a system model describing a system.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Term Definition Examples A nursing assistant assigned to empty catheter bags on a unit could begin in the middle of the hall. These concepts apply for both physical as well as for abstract systems. that observer. at the front or back of the hall & still end up with all the bags emptied. The objects defining a system come from the mind of an observer. An approach to understanding the system in which the inside of the system is revealed. A traveller could take the interstate or back country roads & still arrive at their destination. An observation is the act of choosing an element from a set of The programmer. Further. in the literature of GST there are some core ideas that are repeated and seem to be established in the theory. on the left side. readings from instruments.3 A General System Model . enabling analysis and synthesis of systems. A way of grouping states of a system Analyzing a electronic circuit by understanding the workings of its internal components such as resistors. on the right side. Also. attribures. etc) are the undefined primitives of systems thinking. bus or car & still arrive at desired location. System A set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes. A particular situation of the system that the observer can recognize if it occurs again. each of the parts may be seen as a system of their own. Equifinality Objectives can be achieved with varying inputs & in different ways. An observer makes observations such as sensations on the sense organs. The objects See subsystem set (parts. user. it is commonly recognized that systems perform a transformation process and may have inputs and outputs. however decide on the scope and range of observation. The observer can An astronomer studying the universe. The system concept can be applied recursively at any level of aggregation. transistors. without looking inside of it. parts and relationships.Relating the concepts of GST At the core of GST is the system definition. elements. The traveller could go by train. The ontology of any system theory contains three principal constituents: unity. owner or maintainer of an possible observations of that type for information system. based on what is believed to be the important features of the system. and so a system is relative to the point of view of an observer. With a proper meta-model a foundation for knowledge creation is provided. 11 . Unfortunately there is no common definition of systems and every other author (including ourselves) adds a new definition. Observer Black box White box State Quality (property) 2. etc.

if unity is seen as a system boundary then what is outside that boundary is called the system environment. The problems pointed out by Dubrovsky also explain the lack of a structured core in the books of GST (Skyttner 2001). 2. The criticism of the concept of system.3. it must have properties of its own. (Guberman 2002) “If. However. For the concept of unity to be justified. thus being general. parts and relationships according to figure 3 in line with the ideas of von Bertalanffy. as the system is interacting with the environment. Kant emphasizes the priority of unity over the relationships of parts. Skinner avoids the paradox of environment by claiming that an organism is not a system but rather a “locus of behaviour”. (Dubrovsky 2004).1 A Criticism of Bertalanffy Beginning with the view of Bertalanffy. however. According to Shchedrovitsky (1966) (as referenced by Dubrovsky). as defined by Bertalanffy. but equal to the sum of its parts and the relations between the parts. A metaphor is provided by Dubrovsky (2004): 12 . A well formulated and interesting criticism of GST is given by Dubrovsky (2004).” (Bertalanffy 1969) System unity Part relationships Part Part Figure 3 Ontological picture of system in GST (Dubrovsky 2004) It is possible to arrange the concepts relating to unity.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 2. the paradox of emergence and the paradox of system environment. the system and the environment must be two separate entities and thus the system is outside the environment (The paradox of system environment). but rather a theoretical model or ‘schema’ determined by the combination of system principles and the subject matter. and the parts are defined in a process of analysis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Thus unity is dependent on the parts and becomes a redundant concept. Dubrovsky points out that the core of GST fails to formulate a single systems principle applicable to all systems. if unity is the sum of the parts and their relationships then unity ceases to exist if any of the parts are removed. is contained in two paradoxes.3.2 The Analysis-Synthesis system method Kant provides an interpretation of unity that avoids the emergence paradox. However. A system is not a matter of empirical observation. focus is placed on the properties of the whole. He finds the origin of this problem both in the system concept of GST as well as in the related methodology applied. we know the total of parts contained in a system and the relations between them. Further. Bertalanffy claims that there is no such thing as emergent properties of systems. the behavior of the system may be derived from the behavior of the parts. Unity is not emergent but exists prior to the relationships of parts. Unity is represented as an entity of its own. in the Activity approach the relationships are created in a process of synthesis.

System unity Part Analysis Synthesis Part Part Part Part Parts and relationships Part Figure 4 Logical relations among System constituent according to Kant (Dubrovsky 2004) Further. opposed by the extraction of an element out of the structure.3 The goal orientation of systems Bertalanffy claims that systems are teleological. Based on these oppositions three system procedures are found. Jordan. Designed physical and Designed abstract systems.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Suppose one drops a teacup (unity). as referenced by Checkland (1999). so it breaks (‘analysis’) into pieces (parts). The second is the measuring of aspects of parts and wholes that is the opposite of configuration. but had to be added in order to restore the cup. A mountain range is non-purposive while a road is defined as purposive. He classifies five types of systems: Transcendental. that they are goal-oriented and strive towards some end. three oppositions are defined as form-content. is illustrated in figure 4.3. Natural. builder and user of the road and not intrinsic in the road itself. 2. In this metaphor. 13 . Human activity. Checkland notices that the purpose is in the eye of the designer. distinguishes purposive and non-purposive systems. One then glues the pieces together (‘synthesis’) in such a way that one can drink tea from it again (restored Unity). He then proposes more useful distinctions that can be used to further clarify the goal orientation concept. This system definition. The first procedure concern decomposition of an object into parts and is the opposite composing. the glue symbolizes a new addition (Relationship) that was not present in the teacup before it was broken. The goal-orientation of systems has been criticized. complex-simple and external-internal. with unity as a complementary representation to parts and relations. The third is the insertion of an element into the object’s structure.

inherent in the system in the Bartalanffy version.4). and formed by the beholder in the Kantian version. Checkland makes a clear distinction between activities (or systems) that simply serve a purpose. The generalization between Model Element and Namespace and the ‘DependsOn’ association can be seen as instances of the ‘relation’ association in the GST model. The difference lies in how the Unity and Parts are formed.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Transcendental systems are beyond knowledge. relation Unity contains 1 * * Unity/Part * contains (b) 1 * * Part * relation (a) Figure 5 A UML class representation of the GST Figure 6 shows the definition of the MOF (version 1. This simple model does not however model the recursive definition of each part. In this model. This model is valid for both Batalanffy’s and Kant’s system view. Bertalanffy’s GST model as interpreted by Dubrovsky are visualised in the class diagram shown in figure 5a. It is possible to compare the two and find the GST concepts in the MOF. Figure 5b further develops the model. Natural systems can be analyzed. Checkland chooses to label the first type serving a purpose as purposive. and designed systems can be analyzed and redesigned. The ‘contains’ aggregation between Unity and Parts in GST maps to the ‘contains’ aggregation between Model Element and Namespace in MOF. The decomposition and relations are. and the latter. The models are represented as UML class diagrams (OMG 2002). 3 GST and the MOF In this section. illustrating the recursive nature of the system definition. and activities (or systems) which are the result of a willed choice by human beings. The similar reasoning can be applied for the other abstractions in the MOF model. the MOF. A designed system has a function designed for a purpose. according to Dubrovsky. unknown to man and can be ignored for our purposes. human activity systems can be analyzed and influenced. as a unit with its own decomposition into parts and relations. the composition of Parts into a Unity is represented using the composition relation “contains”. we compare the ideas presented in Dubrovsky (2004) with the meta-metamodel of the UML language. 14 . This model is obviously more elaborate than the GST model. when conscious human action is involved purposeful.

aggregation/composition is used to describe a decomposition property inherent in the system itself. with the assumption that the generalisation and aggregation relationships are seen as special types of association relationships between classes. implying that a class model is a meta-meta-meta-model (Level 5 model). which is handled in the GST using the ‘contains’ relation. since the former is used in GST to manage the complexity of the system model.4) It is an interesting to note that the MOF model is defined using a class Diagram. The problem generally encountered in class diagram is the flat structuring of the system. This is the exact criticism addressed to Bertalanffy by Dubrovsky.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Figure 6 Key abstractions of the MOF model (v1. while in the latter. The GST model is very close to that of a simple Class diagram. while a relation maps to association. A unity/part maps to a class. 15 . This ‘contains’ relation should however not be confused with the composition/aggregation association in class diagrams.

(1981) Systems thinking. P. Philadelphia: W. (2003) A Living Systems Approach to Product Design and Development. Systems practice: Includes a 30-Year Retrospective. Inc. Vol 21. (2001) An introduction to general systems thinking (silver anniversary ed. Dubrovsky V. Development. 153-166. New York: Brazilier. (2001) General Systems Theory. Wiley & Sons. (2002) Reflections on Ludwig von Bertalanfy’s “General System Theory: Foundations.. ISRN/KTH/MMK/R-03/41-SE. G. (2000) A Brief Review of Peter B. Loureiro. Flood R. No. (2000) The Engineering Design of Systems: Models and Methods. John Wiley & Sons. & Hodgson M. World Scientific Publishing.G. Systemic Practice and Action Research. 2001 16 . pp 109-122. P. p723-731. Saunders Company. Systems Research and Behavioural Science. (2004) Toward System Principles: General System Theory and the Alternative Approach. NY. OMG . Guberman S. Vol. B. D. P. KTH. Leany. Buede. Crete. 2002. (1998) IEEE Standard for Application and Management of the Systems Engineering Process. John Wiley & Sons. IEEE-Std 1220-1998. (1999) Systems thinking. A.4. TRITA-MMK 2003:41. 2004.. Doctoral thesis. Skyttner L. ISBN 981-02-4175-5 Weinberg. OMG. Checkland. Checkland’s Contribution to Systemic Thinking.Meta Object Facility.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 4 References Ahari P. General Systems 11. Nursing management a systems approach. no. New York. D. Checkland. G. John J. Systems practice. L. Dorset House Publishing Co. dec 2003 Bertalanffy. Vol. Applications” Proceedings of the 5th European Systems Science Congress. 2. ISSN 1440-1179.L. Systems Engineering. 13. 1998. (2004) A Systems Engineering Framework for Integrated Automotive Development. 2000. October 2002 IEEE. IEEE. Department of Machine Design. April 2002. p. 7.). v1. Gillies. Singapore. 6. New York.. (1982). (1966) Methodological problems of system research. von (1969) General System Theory. 56-74. Shchedrovitsky GP.

Skyttner and Checkland) share a common format. Checkland targets systems that are hard to analyze due to complexity or with unclear purposes. The chosen books should give a good overview of the field. and the material in his book contains many of the original sources of GST. or possibly a combination thereof.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 5 Appendix – Book summaries 5. providing a deeper insight into the general system ideas. At the end of each section some concepts and ideas of the book is summarized by keywords. system theories and system design. Further. 17 . In this chapter a range of books about systems in the widest sense are reviewed. which is rather rare in the field of general theories. and then a summary of the book according to the structure of the contents is posted. Weinberg is an older introduction more focussed on content than on providing complementary theoretical views. Three of the book reviews (Bertalanffy. different literature targets either the description or the analysis or the synthesis of systems. Ludwig von Bertalanffy is seen as one of the fathers of the theory. providing a methodology labelled the soft system methodology (SSM).1 Book reviews There are many books written about systems. while others deal with general system theory with a generic definition of system. 32 000 titles were found at Amazon in 2003 (Ahari 2003). The fourth review is a more comprehensive summary of the book by Weinberg. Skyttners book is a recent textbook covering several theories. Some of them define systems in a narrow sense and in a domain specific context. First they give a short evaluation of the contents.

The first part of the book. The emergence of the general systems theory (GST) in the 50’s is mentioned. Summary of the contents The first chapter of the book provides a historical summary of the view on science since the 15th century. usually inspired/guided by the physical size of the systems. but it includes more detail in application specific topics than necessary and less insightful generalization and details of general system theories than expected. 18 . for example from the subsystem definition of Millers Living Systems Theory. Some of the classifications seem very adapted to popular notions of science. Skyttner states that it is impossible to be efficient with one theory and that several views are necessary.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 5.1. Many of the described system theories fit into one proposed distinct classification hierarchy defined by the respective authors. and occasionally quite ad hoc. For my taste this would have been more valuable than a chapter with 14 different theories. The concept of general systems theory remains unclear after reading the book. some interesting general ideas can be extracted. Singapore. instead of the prior reductionist method of breaking down problems into parts. The confusion may be attributed to the deficiency of a clear conclusion in the book. especially for people collecting curiosities. ISBN 981-02-4175-5 (467 pages) The book of Lars Skyttner provides an overview of the main original ideas related to general systems theory as well as a summary of common ideas. generalizations and conclusions related to any of the general theories. The second part of the book is astonishingly application specific with very few relevant parallels. titled “The theories and Why”.1 General Systems Theory – Lars Skyttner (2001) World Scientific Publishing. the taxonomy of Jordan and the recursive application of the Viable System model of Beer. In the end a summary of methodologies is given but the methodologies are too shallowly described in order to provide further insight into general systems theory. and avoiding generalizations. gives a good overview of related thinkers and the historical development of more abstract and general theories. Much of the material here is immediately derived from the work of von Bertalanffy. This lack of generality seem a bit contradicting to the title and also the final chapter where a general systems theory is seen as the next paradigm of science. the typology of Checkland. It is however nice to read. He introduces a range of definitions and concepts of systems that are used throughout the book. and Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Kenneth Boulding are specifically referenced in this context. theorems and hypotheses are also posed. Skyttner summarizes some basic ideas in GST. The book may be a nice introduction for people looking for an overview of system theories and inspirational for further research. Some general laws. the contents are very descriptive and the author does very little to generalize the described theories which would be expected after such a thorough coverage of the topic. which make them feel less relevant and useful. What is interesting in this collection is that many of the theories lack generality and instead apply specific layers of system types to describe the world. However. Many of the theories aim for a classification system of systems. We are placed in the system age where problems (in theory) are addressed in a holistic and interdisciplinary way. this may be true and also explains the general impression of the book as probing much into the details of the applications. The third chapter provides a summary of 14 existing system theories. In the next chapter. principles. What is lacking in this section is a proper conclusion.

especially as the book lacks a good bridging section in the text. The chapter includes nice trivia on the definition of life and futuristic visions including a recollection of current research topics in the field of AI. The chapter provides theories on what decisions are. 19 . The distinction between soft and hard methodologies based on the ideas of Checkland is established and the described methodologies are classified accordingly. Here another nice historical recollection of a theoretical field is given but the attempt to summary of “a systems approach in ten points” is less clear. At first this dispositions feels strange. The next. The general points of information are then elaborated in the next chapter in a human application context discussing theories of brain and mind. Theoretical concepts and definitions Even though the book contains much application specific information. The overview and points made are relevant. “decision-making and decision aids”. but as the contents develop the chapter feels highly relevant and important for a wider understanding of systems. Some useful concepts and categories are introduced. and how computers can be used for supporting decisions. This chapter concludes the first part of the book titled “The theories and Why”. how they are conducted. the methodologies are however too briefly described to be well understood. The inclusion of the chapter seems highly relevant and provides some guidelines on how to cope with the increasing uncertainty of increasingly complex systems in a fast changing environment. The only interesting content is a short summary of a suggested lifecycle model for evolutionary development of information and communication networks. The process of decision making is central both for management and engineering. chapter details the theory of organization and management. The hallmarks of a general systems theory according to Skyttner. The chapter brutally begins with defining the difference of communication and information. In the end the system theories will prevail as the only sustainable way to implement science. The idea that information only exist in the eye of the beholder is repeated and the nature of information as an abstract entity is discussed. Soft methodologies are best applied to ill-structured problems with unclear objectives and purposes. The second part called “The applications and How” begins with a chapter about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Life that smoothly links to the last chapter of the first part about theories of brain and mind. Chapter ten returns to the general theories and summarizes the application of a few system methodologies. Holism – Some properties exist only at system level and cannot be detected by analysis of the components of the system. The ninth chapter on informatics is again very application-specific and full of technical details that add very little value for the informed reader. however the role and process of decisions is usually not equally clear in engineering compared to management. Interrelationship and interdependence of objects and their attributes – Unrelated and independent elements never constitute a system. Hard methodologies are goal-oriented and solve well-defined structured problems. The final chapter is a political manifest that suggests systems thinking to be a new paradigm struggling to make a break in a world of critics.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory After the overview one chapter is spent on describing the communication and information theory. and seventh. chapter 2 “Basic Ideas of General Systems Theory” provides a range of useful concepts and definitions. specifically referring to Bertalanffy and Litterer are summarized in a list of 10 points. A management related topic is covered in the next chapter.

For example. Chapter 2 provides a filtered summary of the collected work in systems theory and provides a toolbox for system reasoning. Black. 20 . Differentiation – Specialized units in the system performs specialized functions. which is very good. The concepts are highlighted in the text. Besides the summary of the general systems theory a set of useful classification frameworks and concepts are provided.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Goal seeking – Systems strive for a final state or equilibrium. and can obtain different mutually exclusive goals from a similar initial state (divergence). Static or dynamic – Based on the activity of the system. systems can be: Concrete (living. Entropy and negentropy – All systems tend toward disorder. A hierarchy of systems exist. Open. Regulation and feedback – All systems have regulatory mechanism. Decomposable. feedback is a requisite for effective control. but a good structuring or overview of the concepts are lacking. conceptual or abstract – Depending on the tangibility of the system. grey or white box – Depending on the knowledge of the internals of the system. closed or isolated – Depending on the relation to the environment. Equifinality and multifinality – systems have alternative ways to achieve the same goals (convergence). Unfortunately the presentation of the material could have been more structured. Inputs and outputs – Open or closed to the environment of the system. Hierarchy – Systems exist of subsystems. near-decomposable or non-decomposable – Based on the dependence of subsystems. that in turn are systems of their own. A living system can for a finite time use energy to create order (negentropy). Transformation process – Systems transform inputs into outputs. non-living).

A harsh interpretation of the work is that is only says that entities and relationships should be represented by mathematics.1. Also. qualitative models which is seen as an intermediate step in the theory building process. the contemporary science is referred to as mechanistic and only working with causality. but he also strongly acknowledges the use of soft. the theories presented need more elaborate contents. is introduced by a preface where some additions are made on the background and at the time current flows of the theory. and only a few hints of what these mathematics should look like is given. For summative characteristics the system is no more than the sum of its parts. especially at higher levels of abstraction. The second chapter details the shortcomings of disciplinary science and introduces some basic concepts. Summary of the contents The book. A mathematically based GST is expected to be developed. The constitutive characteristics concern properties that depend on specific relations to other entities. In addition. by von Bertalanffy referred to as organization. which Bertalanffy acknowledges and motivates by claiming that this is the first steps towards a more rigorously defined theory. The first chapter. but the system definition and ontology with related general system principles is not that clear and crisp. It is noted that contemporary science only works with closed systems and theories must be developed also for open systems. The ideas of Bertalanffy are surprisingly focused on mathematics.2 General System Theory – Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1968) George Brazillier. repeats some of the historical background and the motivation of the field.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 5. also an introduction. a simple example is the total weight of a mechanical system. However. New York. The models and concepts are rather soft. The core of the theory is given in chapter 3 based on a paper authored in 1945. the distinction of information as a complement to energy is necessary for some theoretical constructs. the idea of an open system consuming energy remedies this conceptual problem. also titled “General System Theory” is a collection of papers and book excerpts by his hand. being a revised edition. Mathematics is acknowledged as a general theory as it can be applied to a variety of problems. first published in German with the translated title “An Outline of the General Systems Theory”. however the use of soft and verbal models should not be underestimated. The usefulness of differential equations for this purpose is developed and some basics of mathematics and control theory are given. the references to trends and people in academia in the 50’s and 60’s also make the section hard to read. Summative properties are independent of other entities. The summative characteristics concern properties independent of relations. in order to be useful. Further. 21 . Bertalanffy brings out a range of concepts related to general systems. The third chapter expands the mathematical content of the theory. goal orientation and purpose are concepts that must be added. With some previous background on the subject the introduction becomes somewhat long and tedious. ISBN 0-8076-0453-4 (295 pages) Von Bertalanffy is considered one of the founders of the general system theory and the book. It contains some of the original formulations of some basic system concepts. In the expression “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” the difference refers to the constitutive characteristics. The constant increase of entropy is contradicting the possibility to build organized complex systems. First an important distinction between summative and constitutive characteristics of elements is introduced. The book has good value as a collection of papers from one of the named “fathers” of GST.

The fourth chapter expands the advances in GST and exemplifies how several fields of theory introduce system concepts like organismic analogies. There is also true finality or purposiveness. It is also mentioned that the same final state can be reached from different initial conditions and through different paths. entropy may be reduced by import of matter. The process is referred to as progressive centralization. possibly based upon the structure of the system. The first type is static teleology or fitness. The machine-like behaviour of the sum of the independent chains is referred to as progressive mechanization. This is a direction of events toward a final state. The individuality and the leading role of the leading entity. feedback and mathematical relations are suggested to be complementary and equally important theoretical contributions. A few applications in biology and their maturity in developing mathematical models are referenced. Bertalanffy recognizes two methods of general systems research: the empirico-intuitive followed by himself. Open systems. Bertalanffy also make a warning for oversimplification in the models. Negative entropy (or negentropy) is identified as information. Chapter eight details the benefits of using a system model in the social sciences. Systems will be arranged in a hierarchical order of centralized systems. which means that a given system seems to be useful for a given purpose. this is labelled equifinality. from wholeness to independent. This leading entity defines the individuality (from indivisible) of the system. First it is established that the contemporary theories of man as a robot is 22 . Mathematical models are shown to be useful but not conclusive. Then there is dynamic teleology indicating a directiveness of processes. and the deductive developed by Ashby. This is followed by an interesting note that in biological. and if predictions of yet unobserved facts can be derived from the theory. Then a case showing the development of a mathematical description for metabolism and growth exemplifies the reasoning.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Then a range of system concepts are established. A decrease in entropy of a system means that more information is available in the system in the sense that a complete system description requires a more elaborate content. specialized causal chains. Another related interesting note is that systems often have a leading entity. where the system properties are the dependent properties that make the whole more than the sum of its parts. increases as specialization of entities progress in the system. The deductive approach begins with a definition of system and from this definition general laws are deduced. but recognizes that for an open system. called “the model of open systems” discusses how most (contemporary) theories are based on closed systems without import and export of matter. all models are said to be approximations of what they describe. The next chapter. Then the concept of finality and types of finality is introduced. Equations are representing a theory if all parameters of the equation can be confirmed by independent experiment. The last section of the chapter lists a set of theories and relates them to the previously described concepts of general system theory. psychological and social systems interactions among elements decrease over time. In the fifth chapter the mathematical parts are expanded with definitions of equifinality and concepts related to open systems. It quotes the laws that entropy is always increasing. Chapter seven is a case study of general systems theory in biology. A discussion on dependent and independent properties of entities is given. By this specialization the dependencies among the entities increase and over time a system becomes more bound together. and interdependencies of entities rather than causality. for example in man made systems where it is fitness and structured working of machines due to a planning intelligence. The emprico-intuitive approach looks for laws in each discipline and then compares the results to find laws that hold across systems in general. Chapters eight and nine continues to exemplify applications of the general systems concepts through the sciences of man.

This is in line with the levels of Maslow. Also.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory incomplete. In chapter nine. and is exemplified by the evolution of creatures in nature. An example is given with a table. In an open system entropy may increase locally due to the inflow of material. This property is referred to as isomorphism. specifically from the Eskimo Hopi culture and American Indian cultures. Bertalanffy again warns about oversimplification and interpreting models to strictly. different backgrounds and domain knowledge also influences our view of a system. and even in how time is treated are given. Homeostasis (feedback) – Systems strive for a desirable steady-state through regulating itself based on feedback of information. They are not necessarily mere causal machines. Below are a few of the core ideas: Isomorphism – Along the disciplines of science there exist common ground. adding higher layers of behaviour with each layer including a leading entity. The ideas of progressive mechanization and the development of leading entities are repeated. It is also implied that the brain may perform such changes. Open system – Systems where material flows in and out are open systems. and must be replaced with a view of man as an active open system interacting at the social system level. Progressive centralization – In the process of mechanization each system is organized around a leading entity. Goal orientation (active systems) – Systems may actively strive for a goal or final state. Progressive mechanization – Systems strive towards specialized entities. Any model only captures a few aspects of reality and the categories and models of our experience and thinking are determined by biological and cultural factors. possible to cover by a common theory. system theory in psychology and psychiatry is discussed. Theoretical concepts and definitions Being an overview of the early theories of GST several concepts and definitions are introduced. and can obtain different mutually exclusive goals from a similar initial state (divergence). for example. higher layers can be introduced with new leading entities and subsystems also have leading entities. The model of man as an active organism is further extended and exemplified. time and space. The final chapter widens the scope by posting that most of the published theories are based on the mindset of the western world and our notions of organizational structures. This does not imply that mathematical laws are useless. Hierarchical Layers – Each leading entity creates a system layer. a system of wood by the biologist and a unit of capital by the economist. Equifinality – systems have alternative ways to achieve the same goals (convergence). seen as a system of atoms by the physicist. 23 . however. historical events can often be explained by applying a law of social behaviour. Examples of cultural differences in the number of existing words for a given phenomenon.

Systems Practice – Peter Checkland (1981/1999) John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Checkland proposes that soft problems should be explored by modelling the transformation in focus. SSM advocated by Checkland is seen as complementary to systems engineering to deal with complex situations. However. exploring the underlying process. and makes 24 . begins by discussing the notion of hard and soft systems.1. a systems thinking part and a systems practice part. Then the first chapter in the main book begins with an introduction that places systems theory side-by-side to science. Studying the ideas reveals a loosely defined methodology that occasionally seem arbitrary and non-systematic. A scientific approach breaks down a problem. (This can be applied to social systems but also architecture design and similar situations. situation-driven and in interaction with the system. Chapter two is the first of the systems thinking part and gives a thorough and well told walkthrough of the development of science.K.. Summary of the contents The 30-year retrospective. Checkland underlines the methodology aspect of soft system methodology (SSM). the selection of extended language is left as an open issue. methodology-driven and intervening with the system. giving a brief outline of the soft systems methodology (SSM) comparing it to hard systems engineering. graphical models to visualize parts of the system and create a common ground for discussions. The general idea is to draw simple. ISBN 0-471-986 062 (66+330 pages) The book was first published in 1981 and in the 1999 edition it includes “a 30-year retrospective” a paper also published elsewhere. Chichester U. but the book places nice bounds on the domain of systems engineering. guidelines for performing this modelling is given. in fuzzy situations with unclear entities and where the objectives are uncertain and contradicting soft systems thinking can be useful to clarify the picture.3 Systems Thinking.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 5. This section is one of the most interesting parts of the book.) After an historical overview of proposed methodologies from the author. The main text is divided in two parts similar to the title. A methodology is a collection of methods from which you choose the appropriate ones for a given situation. Checkland points out that hard systems thinking have been successful in engineering technical systems with clear purposes and objectives. The target for Checkland is mainly human activity systems and social systems but the ideas seem relevant also for the engineering of complex technical systems with conflicting requirements. It is concluded that SSM does not replace but rather extends the traditional and existing system engineering approach. it is a metatheory that can be applied in the same way as science. which is the first part of the volume. the current modelling methodology is outlined. formulates it mathematically. For technical systems with clear requirements a hard systems engineering approach is suggested. However. The book gives a nice perspective on the benefits and limitations of system ideas in practical application for undefined problems. Systems theory is not a science. The actual notation in the models is very simple but elaboration of modelling is suggested if it improves understanding of the system. Ultimately SSM should be used iteratively. not sequential. this is maintained as one of the strengths of the methodology as it enables a discovery of the actual underlying processes. from the Greeks (as always) to Einstein. The purpose of the model is either to implement change or to understand a complex process.

The information is a view of the system that allows entities within it to react. Checkland produces and overview of the systems movement where he recognizes three problem solving applications related to the theoretical development of systems thinking. relationships/coherence. for higher level systems like social systems it is difficult. These definitions together with a short conclusion on basic systems thinking summarize the first part. The second part “Systems Practice” begins with an overview of “Hard” systems thinking. A third problem is the issue of management where decisionmaking is an instant interaction and the situation is rarely repeated. (2) decision-making problems and (3) ‘soft’ systems. is underlined. Further. Natural systems are evolutionary made. and its’ limitations. Communication and Control are introduced as an important systems concept pair. Systems are hierarchical. not to say impossible to properly measure and repeat experiments. First Checkland introduces the concepts of Emergence and Hierarchy. In a system not only energy but also information is flowing. A systems description is always related to an observer. human-made abstract systems. according to Checkland. In technical systems this control is designed by the control engineer. large. Then the typology of Checkland himself is described. Some entities exert control on others with respect to given control variables. occasionally using purposive designed systems as tools. The scientific approach has problems to cope with complex. Systems belong to one of five types: natural systems. for biological systems this control exists and can be modelled by a systems approach. Applied systems thinking is performed in (1) ‘hard’ systems. Each layer contains systems or ‘holons’ that are organized and linked. “Hard” methods like systems engineering assumes that the system have a clear purpose and is optimized towards this purpose. lacking in Jordans model. Second.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory repeatable experiments to verify the validity of predictions. The theory of Boulding’s hierarchy and Jordans’ taxonomy are referenced and the importance of the observer in a system description. The description itself contains entities. This background serves as a foundation for the discussions of the systems approach covered in the next chapter. Next. human-made physical systems. For these problems Checkland proposes a “soft” methodology which is elaborated in the next chapter. 25 . and also for some human-made systems where there exist conflicting goals and purposes. This assumption holds for human-made systems in general but breaks down for human activity systems. Human activity systems are. The one shot nature of monitored events inhibits a scientific approach. The fourth chapter “Some Systems Thinking” begins with describing some basic ideas that are recurring in different theories. layered arrangements where some properties emerge at a given layer of abstraction and each layer contains laws that need to be studied separately. they are goal-oriented. Human activity systems are made up of purposeful activities. These problems call for a different approach to cope with some human activities. defined by the information content. a boundary. The third chapter introduces some problems for science. The value and usefulness of this approach are appreciated as monumental. Monitoring a system changes a system which means that results depend on the method of measuring (compare the uncertainty of Heisenberg). while the human-made systems are designed for a purpose. human activity systems and unknown transcendental systems. distinguished by the free will which makes humans unobservable and unpredictable. a control mechanism (defining the entity’s identity) and is part of a hierarchy. multi-variable problems where it is impossible to isolate a small set of variables for analysis.

the conceptual model is an account of the activities the system must do in order to be the system of the root definition. In this chapter Checkland places his theory and methodology in the context of social science and related work of other authors. Root definition – A position in a means end hierarchy of Why(R). It is always possible to go up or down in this hierarchy. to capture diverging views of the system. according to Checkland. stage 6 contemplates feasible and desirable changes and stage 7 implements changes through action. Based on the root definition a conceptual model is developed. What(P). The eight and final chapter is presented as a third part of the book containing conclusions. Do the activities of the conceptual model fit the existing system or what are the differences? Based on the results. First the importance of understanding the Weltanschauung (viewpoint) of the root definition is discussed. the root definition is a formulation of the function of a given system (a ‘what’). In phase 5 the derived conceptual model is compared to reality.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory The soft systems methodology has seven stages. The importance of understanding the difference between what a system does and how the system does it is also important. The importance of elaborating the initial study is underlined. and understanding of the power and politics derived from roles. norms and values are rated as highly important for the success of a study and the development of a useful conceptual model. The conceptual model derived from the root definition is an abstract formulation of what the system does. and further examples are given in chapter seven. In the stage of mapping between the two the link must be understood. Human-made abstract systems – Conceptual systems like mathematics. In the soft systems methodology a root definition must be formulated. the root definition can be focused on a given primary task or a more general issue of a system. Models. Further. the comparison with reality reveals how the desired function is performed. chapter seven introduces some conclusions from the research. The root definition is an account of what the system is. In stage 3 a root definition of relevant system(s) are formulated. The mnemonic CATWOE elaborated below is given to support the construction of root definitions. Depending on the viewpoint of the person formulating the root definition the contents of it will be different. At the end of the book are two appendices with some hands-on advice on the topic. this is one of the purposes of the root definition. Stages 1 and 2 concerns expression of the problem. A root definition should meet the requirements of including the six elements of CATWOE: Customers – The beneficiaries or victims of the system. Trancendental systems – Systems yet unknown to man. How(Q). collected under the headings “building conceptual models” and “a workbook for starting system studies”. as much information as possible is collected from a variety of sources to make the richest possible picture available. Theoretical concepts and definitions In the typology of Checkland there exist five types of systems: Natural systems – Found in nature and developed by evolution. Related to the logical hierarchy is the law of conceptualization that states that a system which serves another cannot be defined or modelled until a definition and model of the system served are available. consist of verbs specifying activities which actors carry out. The methodology is illustrated by an example. After the examples. 26 . Human-made physical systems – Tools and machinery existing in the real world. Human activity systems – A purposive system which expresses some purposeful human activity.

Weltanschauung – The viewpoint of the person formulating the definition. Ownership – The guarantee of the existence of the system. Transformation – The core process of the root definition. 27 . especially its main transformation. Environmental constraints – Impositions that the system takes for given.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Actors – Agents who carry out the activities of the system.

This is the reason a GS thinker is interested in simplification – the science of simplification. This works for 2 or 40 parts such as bridge. In practice. Mechanism and Mechanics Page 3: Physics does not endeavour to explain nature … it endeavours to explain the regularities in the behaviour of objects … called the laws of nature.1 The law of computation is not only about the limits of computing devices. they build a common model that can be applicable by all sciences. What is science? To answer this. To be able to formally solve large systems. we examine physics/mechanics. etc.1 The Problem The Complexity of the World Science and engineering have brought about an unprecedented speed of change. idealise and streamline the world so it becomes tractable to the brain. The brain is also a computing device and we need to handle the amount of information given. So. and then apply science/quantitative work. Page 3: The GS movement has taken up the task of helping scientists to unravel complexity.. why not use GST? 1 28 . why use this model for science? Because it allows us to reduce our complex systems to simpler ones. we need simplifications and assumptions..2. In other words. New York. General Systems Theory is brought about because science has been a success. but is a problem for too many parts. you start qualitatively to get your model. there is a limit to how much computations we can do in money and time. the amount of computation increases at least as fast as the square of the number of equations. That is. NY. assumptions. Inc. Need to be able to simplify. Isn’t this what we are trying to do in AIDA2? Build a common model that all specialists understand and can base their specific models on? So. Square Law of Computation Without simplification. Science and technology have revealed a complexity that it could not deal with. the mechanical model of the world implies that “the whole is completely equal to the sum of its parts … parts were never modified by each other … “. we informally reduce them to simpler ones first by ignoring insignificant parts. The general system thinker’s task is to understand the simplifying assumptions of a science.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 5. By studying GS thinker produces a set of tools of simplifications that are common enough to be useful for all scientists. As expressed by Karl Deutsch. technologists to master it and others to learn to live with it.2 Extended book review: An Introduction to General Systems Thinking – Gerald M. 2001 ISBN:0-932633-49-8(279 pages) 5. The Simplification of Science and the Science of Simplification When getting your model – building your assumptions – how do you know what to ignore? Why ignore force of personality when calculating forces between bodies? It is because when we try the assumptions. we get satisfactory results that match observed data. without being able to control its effects. Hence. Weinberg Dorset House Publishing Co. He goes through the process by which a scientist forms his model and uses this to suggest useful models for other sciences.

” (Anything that can happen. forests. (Computers. There is a lack of means to deal with systems between the two extremes – systems of medium numbers. Maybe that is why we can use GST in our engineering work? 29 .” A more useful rule of thumb is the Square Root of N Law. The technology of machines has drawn its inspiration from mechanics. We need not look at the specific molecules. we can expect that large fluctuations. The concept of “randomness” is most important for systems thinking. creating simplicity by dealing with people in the structureless mass. the more likely we are to observe values that are close to the predicted average values. The Law of Medium Numbers states that “for medium-number systems. irregularities and discrepancies with any theory will occur more or less regularly. Randomness is the property that makes statistical calculations come out right. humans. Statistical mechanics deals with “unorganised complexity” – complex systems. fruits of 2 This is also what we are interested in! To produce some simplification techniques that allow the designers to handle the complexity of the systems to be built 3 Modern machinery is moving from I to III as computer technology is introduced. we can handle complexity. “Simplicity” is as slippery a concept as randomness. which states that “the inaccuracy in an average statement is in the order of the square root of N. To a first approximation. The technology of government has drawn upon statistical mechanics. II Randomness I III Complexity I – organised simplicity – machines II – unorganised complexity – populations III – organised complexity – systems III is too complex for analysis and too organised for statistics.”. pressure and temperature. hence we resort to systems theory. but its fruits are simple fruits. where N is the number of the population on which the study is performed. etc. dealing with complexity by reducing the number of parts. but can study average properties such as volume. Consider the properties of a gas in a bottle.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory the methods of simplification that have succeeded and failed in the past. the number of objects is a measure of complexity – the complement of simplicity. taking averages. System theory came about as knowledge moved from the mechanical view (I) to the organised complexity world (III)3 Law of Medium Numbers The philosophy of technology is usually drawn from scientific philosophy of its time. The law of large numbers states that “the larger the population. that are sufficiently random in their behaviour so that they are sufficiently regular to be studied statistically.) The importance of this law lies in its scope of application since we are surrounded by such systems. will happen.2 Statistical Mechanics and Law of Large Numbers Scientists may sometimes be interested in average properties rather than exact proprieties of a single item.) Science is a very useful tool.

Compare to the organismic approach that turned to living systems for analogy to handle complexity. many overt categories of thought exist. Then. though its success with systems of its own choosing mislead many into thinking of science as a way of dealing with ALL systems. This separation of function is useful. is to focus on the parts of the system. that he notices the different category Isn’t that what we are also experiencing when designing a truck? The parts (disciplines) are very clean but the connections are getting weak. Science is the study of things that can be reduced to the study of other more primitive things. Page 22: Perhaps we are reaching the useful limits of science and technology whose philosophical underpinnings are techniques restricted to systems of small and large numbers. but they must be supportable by vigorous operations on vigorously defined models. Need to synthesise. it is recognised that a system is not merely a collection of parts. Page 20: Science is unable to cope with MNS. The Scientist and his Categories Page 32: One manifestation of ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is ‘superior’ to that one does not understand. a new level of technology is reached. while paying less attention to the connections between these parts and to the rest of the system.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory simplifications. The problem is pushed from the parts to the connections. Many ills of society came from a too good an application of these fruits. one must master the internal category of thought. the set of primitives cannot be too small or too large. What is important is not to stop at the analogy and to render it into a precise. GST is not going to yield the kind of control expected over MNS. leading to multidisciplinary engineering (Mechatronics). Only when difficulties arise. Mechanists explain everything in the primitives of physics.2 The Approach Organism.4 5. (Explaining everything through god is not scientific. This may be carried to great extremes. GST is scientific in its thinking. These laws are stated informally to aid understanding. Thinking is done in completely personal. The organismic thinking – the use of analogy – is not to be discarded. but it should not be carried to extreme. Page 28: Every model is ultimately the expression of one thing we think we hope to understand in terms of another that we think we do understand. idiosyncratic terms. However. One method of simplification applied in technology.2. Revolutionary movements recognise the importance of the connections and synthesise them into a new field of knowledge (new part) such as electromagnetism. For it to be a science. but a collection together with the relationships between them. To be part of the group. the vital essence. Animistic religions explain the behaviour of everything by referring to its unique spirit. This is to avoid previous mistakes by other approaches. so much so that how it is done is incommunicable. A physicist generally possesses the thoughts of celestial mechanics as well as that of auto mechanics and have no problem switching between them. By possessing a common set of standard categories of thought – symbolised by special words or phrases – groups can simplify the process of internal communication. and it is expected that a scientist have faith in them.) These primitive things are not questioned. etc. its contribution is to be in limiting the excesses of other approaches to complexity. Even scientists still use it to simplify thinking. predictive model. 4 30 . This new technology becomes in its turn a ‘component’ in the new way of thinking and the connections to it become the weakest part of the system. Similarly. physical chemistry. Organismic thinking explains things through analogy. They may reduce everything to a single primitive. Analogy and Vitalism GST aids thinking about Medium number systems (or organised complexity) by finding general laws. From time to time.

When he does. The primary way of discovering GS laws is by induction. Each approach has its errors. Each time this succeeds. but it is taken from a much higher vantage point. 7 The order of the engineering thinking should be lifted to a second degree order. The advantage of being a mechatronics is that we already know a bit about many disciplines so we have better chances of finding similarities. we may often be wrong. 7 A generalist approaches a system with a certain naïve simplicity.” A generalist finds laws about laws. while the latter knows many things. and all people also understand that no one is superior. will also use this attitude when generalising engineering. the general law is strengthened. engineers are also expected to have this believe and try to have this high vantage point. ‘Revolutionists’ create new ones and destroy old ones. (When lost in slightly familiar territory. And. but at least we shall find out soon. but this only diminishes his chances of making a revolution or moving to another discipline. The induced laws can then be used to draw conclusions about cases not yet observed. so that they can identify the source of miscommunication quickly. It may be essential for a scientist to have faith in the truth of his discipline. but obscured by different languages. But this does not always work since induction does not always work. But we still need to move from interdisciplanarians to generalists. In aida2. The slow-but-sure method of analysis may only guarantee that we cannot possibly arrive on schedule.5 Scientific disciplines. We guess and hope to be right. One should be careful in assuming that one paradigm is more ‘real’ that another. These categories may change while ‘normal scientists’ work within a given scheme or paradigm. 5 31 . We form a general impression of the whole before going into the details. GS approach simply replaces one set with another. ‘Interdisciplinarians’ differ from ‘generalists’ in that the former knows one thing that they apply over and over again. we are exposed to certain errors.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory schemes. But we are willing to take the risk of error since there is an explosive growth of knowledge. we use general impressions as guides to In Aida2. be it analytical or synthetic. have category schemes to facilitate internal communication. This same revolution may be performed by ‘interdisciplinarians’ on many different disciplines by carrying the change intact from one to the other. as opposed to the colonist who imposes his paradigm on the cultures he needs to live with. search for similarities and then announces the new law of law. Every article of faith is a restriction on the free movement of the generalist among the disciplines. The generalist jumps to conclusions based on insufficient evidence. and even try not to blame the foreigner a better engineering world if we are all equal. On what basis does it promise to be useful? The answer lies in the main article of GS faith: “The order of the empirical world itself has an order which might be called order of the second degree. it should be ok to jump to conclusions. from which all the disciplines are seen to be alike. For this to work. 6 In aida2. he will identify the ‘foreign’ language of auto mechanics as the source of difficulty (ethnocentrism). He adapts to the other paradigms instead of applying his paradigm on the new discipline. as long as we do not get ashamed and are willing to back away from conclusions when proven wrong. in the hope of being more useful. we want to make the engineers aware of these categories. can guarantee flawless search. By taking the grand leap based on the faith in the order of the second degree. No approach. one should not have faith in anything. like social groups. Like the anthropologist that adopts to live with many different cultures. a belief in the unity of these disciplines is needed. The Main Article of General System Faith Nobody can live without faith.6 Page 35: To be a good generalist. constantly making a fool of himself. How is that done? They too have a single paradigm. The generalist starts with the laws of different disciplines. but by foregoing detailed analysis.

we may miss dinner. So. The fewer the if-clauses. and hence can afford to be wrong. define terms. studying special systems.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory more familiar territories. He implies that there are 3 sorts of activities involving models: 1. called GS research. the Composition law: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts. In this framework. the paradigm of a scientific assertion is of the form “if so … then so”.”8 While these laws apply to any generalising behaviour. This leads to the law of Happy Particularities: “Any GS law must have at least two specific applications”. the Law of Conservation of Laws: “When the facts contradict the law. but can also be applied to the models of GS.” and the Decomposition law: “The part is more than a fraction of the whole. instead they yield insight. remind us to look for things we have not noticed and predict behaviour. Don’t have to follow laws strictly. This is demonstrated by seeing how a generalist approaches a new subject. category schemes. 2. generalisation are tools of GS thought. each law should be followed by at least two ‘happy particularities’ in order to demonstrate it. it’s what we know that ain’t so. 3. If we are mistaken. We often forget the condition nature because assertions are stated in short hand format. Before explaining the use of laws in GS thinking.” (These laws seem contradicting. but it is an advantage since he is not afraid of the unfamiliar. A second type of GS activity is the application of it in different fields or special systems such as biology. these laws can help us avoid the grand fallacy on the way to an exact prediction “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble. which makes them hard to forget!) Of what use are GS laws? Since they are very general and since systems are complex. The GS movement did not start as a discipline but is 8 We will use these laws in that spirit also. Improving the thought process. there are laws applying to the typical ‘systems’ part of GS thinking. A third activity is the creation of new laws and refining old ones. In scientific laws. look at scientific laws. the more general and useable the law is. etc. But because they are general and because systems are complex. They will never be used for precise analysis. (Few people might be engaged in creating new GS laws (3)). the laws will be stated in the more memorable definition rather than the accurate version. In order to avoid hollow generalisations. 32 . but never throw away the law” GS laws are not designed to yield answers. Laws play the roles of guides to measurement. as opposed to GS thinking and GS application. they will not be helpful at making exact predictions. The content that maybe understood from the new discipline might be small. the last thing to be changed is the law itself. since otherwise the statement becomes too long. the GS approach’s largest contribution is to improve thought processes. engineering. He uses the general paradigms for thought and communication. For example. we can readily correct.) The Nature of General System Laws Analogy.” Varieties of System Thinking Page 43: The main role of models is not so much to explain … as to polarise thinking and to pose sharp questions… fun to invent and play with … This quote was originally applied for mathematical models by Kac. It is also necessary to avoid under-generalisations and excess caution and hence the law of Unhappy Particularities: “Any law is bound to have at least two exceptions. (Contrary to the believe that one negative case invalidates a scientific law) We formulate a GS law. When measurements are found incompatible with a well-established law. If we insist on reading every house number. creating new laws and refining old ones. reject the facts or change the definitions.

knowledge is ‘reality’ and to speak of systems in this way is not to acquire knowledge.The conviction that there is only one way of interpreting the visual pattern in front of us. would I tell lies” or “If I were nature. it is not because we perceive them as real. This concept is egocentric. This is generalised to the ‘banana principle’: “Heuristic devices don’ tell you when to stop.2. let us see what we can learn if we occasionally suspend the belief in independent reality. There exists a complementary tool: “relational thinking”. When 2 different people look at the same thing and realise they see different things they want to establish which of the 2 views the real one is and which is fooled. law. While it was originally intended to overcome overspecialisation. It is a point of view – natural for a poet. The further along the scale we go. terrifying for a scientist. Mechanics alone cannot tell which systems will yield to mechanical analysis. a system is a way of looking at the world. the less we notice that it is a device. reality. our strong belief in their existence may be preventing their discovery. would I throw dice?”. but if there are. rule. the more likely to suffer an illusion . How would we know how nature (reality) feels? Such thoughts have barred the way to scientific progress. Knowledge is ‘truth’. like all heuristic devices. (Isn’t that what most people believe about science? That is provides the truth. There may be ‘real objects’ out there in the world. We can get insight into the ideas of force and motion from our internal response to situations. But. If 2 scientists viewing the same scene have different ‘systems’ then science will be no better than poetry. Absolute and Relative Thinking Statements in a language only have a meaning in relation to certain accepted meanings of the words in them. ‘Accepted meanings’ implies that somebody is doing the accepting – the 33 . there maybe ‘real laws of nature’. but that the belief in it is essential. So. Scientists have worked hard to get rid of animism/vitalism and thoughts such as ‘If I were a planet. the more sure we become and the more sure we are. sailing through space. They believe in the concept of observer independent truth. concept. the ultimate heuristic device. Perception responds to both illusion and reality.3 System and Illusion A System is a Way of Looking at the World Page 52: as any fool knows. Belief in an external world is a heuristic device. and we can make progress in science by believing in the reality of the external world. Hence the realist will quote Einstein: ‘The belief in an external world independent of the percipient subject is the foundation of all science” (objective observations) but note that Einstein did not say ‘An external …’. yet they are not totally without use. it is becoming a specialisation itself.) The belief in an external world is one of the most powerful thinking tools we have and we don’t intend to discard it. We forget the Banana Principle and think we can use it forever. a mental tool to aid in discovery. Yet. it cannot tell us when and where it can be successfully applied. 5. This too is a heuristic device. The more success we have. but if there are. depending on how far you can go before you must stop: idea.” There is a scale of ascending values of heuristic devices. he put the relativity theory which rocked the scientific world because it was based on the premise that we could only know the external world through our perceptions. truth. how would I be attracted to the great mass of the sun?” or ‘If I were nature. Similarly.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory becoming one. Egocentrism is a form of animism which is a form of vitalism. since it has been so successful. principle. He did not say that an external world is essential.

for purpose is a relation that depends on the observer. How can we avoid fallacies of absolute thought? Always remember the human origin of our models. The reading actually measures the difference in expansion between mercury and glass (relative expansion. though we may learn something if we examine the relative nature of some seemingly absolute statements. A simple example of absolute thinking is seen in answers to the question: ‘What happens to the reading on a thermometer if we suddenly plunge it into hot water?’ A simple answer is: ‘the reading must rise because the reading measures the expansion of mercury and the mercury expands when heated. just like the public agreement on the meaning of a word. we understand that properties will emerge when we put together complex systems. yet to the junk dealer it is there to put out scrap metal. is an instrument for understanding the world. We just do not need to highlight this all the time.’ There are 2 concealed absolutisms in this statement. rather than relationships between a system and an observer. When we use it for simple things. the thermometer actually drops first before it starts rising. A system has ‘no purpose’. The property of ‘emergence’ no longer emerges for us. We can find cases where a property is emergent to one observer and predictable to another. there are several types of observers designing a system. So. It is more forceful to speak in absolute terms. Most of the time. properties that did not exist in the parts. These reasons are the source of order that makes systems thinking possible. not absolute. One has to do with the time scale of the observation. we narrow our attention to non-arbitrary systems. absolute speech will not get us in trouble. The second lies in the ‘expansion of mercury’ statement. since it seems to imply instantaneous expansion. The good/bad is based on the purpose of each of the types of observers. A thermometer. Whether our view – or their view – is good or bad can only be judged according to the purposes which the system is designed to satisfy. Others attack this idea. instruments and techniques. 34 . Absolute thought is a simplification that serves well at certain times. as if the ‘emergence’ were stuff in the system. Non-arbitrariness has two sources. Properties emerge for a particular observer when he did not or could not predict their appearance. They support their arguments with examples of emergent properties that turned out to be perfectly predictable. on a certain scale of observation and for certain purposes. but more or less an official public reason. we can use simple language to describe what it does. It could be ‘out there’ in the real physical world. By recognising emergence as a relationship between the observer and whatever he observes. for more advanced applications. but are found in the whole. like a language. for the way 9 In AIDA2.9 A System is a Set Even though any arbitrary way of looking a the world can be a system. Page 62: … any system is the point of view of one or several observers. System writers speak of ‘emergent’ properties of a system.) and because the glass. saying that these properties are but another name for vital essence. we may need to refine the view of the thermometer. being on the outside. A system will consist of several points of view. though it surprises those who take the absolute view. Both arguments are right. expands first. We note that any way of looking at the system do not form an arbitrary system. A system does not have a reason to exist. But. in conventional situations. forcing attention to the reaons for the non-arbitrariness. It works as long as we work following conventional patterns. We focus on the observer for the moment. General Motors to a user exists to put out cars. or in the observer. but they are in trouble because they speak in absolute terms. The appearance of absolute meaning in certain statements comes because there is an almost universal agreement on the meaning. words. we could not say anything about truly arbitrary sytems.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory observer.

For example. This diversity of names suggests that the members of a system set are one of the undefined primitives of system thinking. Once we set up a correspondence between the mathematical argument and something ‘real’. we are no longer talking about systems in general. set theory and its notations would be of great convenience. The hyper-mathematisation. The role of the observer is ignored in systems writing by. etc. engineers. 12 In aida2. moving into a mathematical representation of the system – without saying how that representation was chosen. our theorising is strictly contentless – mathematical. attributes. 11 In Aida2. In fact. the set of all possible observations of that type for that observer. but about a particular system. Too narrow if we exclude some of his scope or fail to make the grain sufficiently fine. Range}. So an observer can be characterised as a set of sets {Scope. While they emphasise the relationships as essential parts of a system concept. We know that they come from the mind of the observer. The mathematics of sets (set theory) tells much about the properties of sets.’ No clue is given to where did the objects come from. Arbitray systems are hard to find since as soon as we think of one. readings from instruments. it becomes non-arbitrary. The choice is based on the observers’ own expertise. It has to make sense first. Valid means it is internally consistent. The characterisation of an observer may be at once too narrow or too broad. 35 . an observer may be characterised by the observations he can make. Others speak of parts. made no bones about saying it was a set of objects. we just talk in general. A mathematical argument cannot be ‘true’ or ‘false’ but ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’. once we say what they are. components or variables. This implies that nobody knows. but never say what they are. Hall and Fagen. We avoid using mathematics unless we intend to use it more than once. In other words. such as sensations on the sense organs. we can speak of the argument as being true for that correspondence. we will use math once we have the intuitive feeling of things and the maths will be used to simplify.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory belongs to the mind of the observer. or the generation of great mathematical general theories is a problem since the theories so general they cannot be applied to anything (sterile) and. they fail to note that the system itself is relative to the view point of an observer. 10 Each observer type would choose its own set of object types and hence we need different points of view for different observers. elements. justifying the effort of explanation of the idea. and if they succeed. The set notations lets us recognise that there are two aspects of an observer – the kind of observations he can make (Scope) and the range of choices he can make with each kind (Range). System thinkers talk about these members. The mathematical view cannot distinguish between ‘sterile’ and ‘productive’ arguments. on a mathematical level. … they will find themselves very much enlightened during the process…12.11 As long as the members are not set.10 If systems are sets of things. language designers do not talk about what the elements are. but nothing about how to choose them. We will use sets in the elaboration of out concept of observer. Observers and Observations We have so far been vague about what the set underlying a system is a set of. they cannot be distinguished from productive theories. for example. We introduce set theory to give ourselves a convenient way to talk about a delimited range of possibilities. Hall and Fagen give the following definition: ‘A system is a set of objects together with relationships between the objects and between their attributes. An observation is the act of choosing an element from a set. An observer makes observations. Page 69: … Let them make the effort to express these ideas in appropriate words without the aid of symbols.

undefined elements and the word ‘correct’ applied to them is meaningless. which take the sting out of words. We have no requirement that the observer be able to make individual observations ‘correctly’. A many-to-one mapping implies inconsistency. things are often renamed just to change thinking patterns. On the other hand. The first step in testing the consistency of 2 observers is to neutralise the form of their observations. But. 13 36 . We sometimes learn things from A that we could not learn from B. we rely on mathematical symbols. The notion does not depend on how the observer names the observations. one from either adjacent side. an observer is replaced by a designer. Certain elements in the product set may need to be excluded for a more precise description of the observer. we can always tell what A’s observation is once we know B’s. If A is consistent with B. the Principle of Indifference: ‘Laws should not depend on a particular choice of notation. Each decision type is concerned with a particular type of decisions. neither observers dominate the other in all situations.). Generally. To put the principle into operation. The product set may be too broad a model for the observer. but In aida2. For example. Hence. because the observations are our primitive. All he must do is to recognise 2 sensations as being ‘the same’ and he is the final arbiter. then the cross product model would at least not exclude any observations he might make. we shall remind ourselves how much computational capacity our model requires (Square law of computation). This decision comes from the set of all possible decisions for that designer. it is not necessarily the case that B is consistent with A. How many possible observations can be made? The set of all possible observations is the product set (Cartesian product) of the observer’s range sets. An observation is equivalent to a particular design decision he can perform.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory We may be either not aware or interested in certain possible observations or the resolution levels. In this model of the observer. we introduce the concept of ‘consistency’ which is the compatability of one set of observations with another. consider A and B looking at a table. During and after a revolution. giving each observation an arbitrary name. The Principle of Indifference We cannot speak of an observation as correct or incorrect. since if B makes more accurate observations that A. There is a many-to-many mapping between A and B’s observations. and vice versa. make as fine grained observations as B (That is.’ But we are often fooled by the names of things. he may not be able to make all combinations. even if A does not. A’s observations add nothing to those of B. By including such a broad characterisation of the observer. Hence.13 A complete observation by an observer consists of one selection from each set in his scope. at eye level to both A and B. where even though he can make each of the component discriminations. or cannot. An observer that makes more discriminations in a situation than another is said to dominate the other in that situation. Mathematically. and hence their observations are not the same. B might specify a more accurate observation than A. but without a notion like that of ‘correctness’. A is consistent with B if there is a one-to-many mapping from A to B. knowing what A observers does not lead us to what B observes. If A is consistent with B. If we toss a penny on table. we are committing an error of assuming that the observer can observe things he may not be able to do. yet A’s observation is still consistent with B’s. A is said to be consistent with B if A never gives 2 different symbols for one of B’s symbols. if A is consistent with B. they can both say if it is to their left or right. it is difficult to say much about observers and their observations. if we properly characterise his scope and the grain of each component.

37 . capable of seeing what ordinary mortals cannot. 15 This is a good argument against having a single super-model that has all properties as opposed to having multiple-models for each observer/discipline. 2). the sequence is a pair of choices for the set of 24 states. If we use their observations properly. (notation 1 or 2).) The things you observe on the box are a red light (R).15 5. Combinatorial growth is a critical flaw in any discussion of multiple points of view. You note the sequence of observations of the box which happens to be … a n i k a n i k a n i k … Luckily. …. in the sequence. etc. R = (1. 1. The cartesian product of your ranges produces all possible states of the box. we refrain from thinking or having a super discipline. But. Common observations need to be consistent. 1. we cannot predict what A says from that of B. If the penny is on the table. Combining these observations. This dominance can be assured if the superobserver’s set of observation states is the Cartesian product of all of the others (It is all possible combinations of observations. 2. and there will be an infinite number of possible sequences. 5. The superobserver powers. The whistle can have one of six tones. in that it contains all possible observations. It is easy to slip into imagining that we can get ‘above the table’ when talking about other people’s viewpoints.4 Interpreting Observations States Imagine that you walk into a strange room with a big black box. The range of the light observations is hence. we can talk about different points of view if we are willing to introduce an explicit fiction – the superobserver. 2) and G = (1. Each type of observer/designer/discipline makes his set of observations and there may be overlap in common observations/properties. and vice versa. one can ask ‘how fast does the number grow as the length of the sequence grows?’ If there are 2 observations in a sequence. our point of view. W = (1. there is a great deal of regularity. However. That is.14 We have been assuming a special position for ourselves. we can learn more about the system. which is the scope of your observation S = {R. A and B can agree if the penny is on/off the table. only a subset of these combinations is needed. 4. 4). there is little chance of having one in complex situations. you can dominate ‘any’ other observer. 1). such as a = (1. b = (1. If we use these observations properly. grow much faster that the other observers. W}. or constraints. (The concept of super-superobserver is like the concept of ‘reality’. in many cases. resulting in 2x2x6=24 possible states. otherwise there will be a lot more writing to do.2. 3. since it only takes a small set of properties from each view. We must particularly refrain from imagining that WE are the superobserver. In aida2. This is the role of x-disciplinary analysis. and that you are a supersuper-observer. For simple cases. 2). 2. j = (1. each observer type dominates the other in one way but is dominated in other ways. though finite. each will make a contribution to our understanding of where the penny lies. G. but we really have no reason to believe that we have such super powers of observations. we generalise the concept to involve types of observers. The lights can be either on or off.). A superobserver’s view must dominate the view of every other observer present. we can reach further understanding of the system (emergent properties) that neither observer could have contributed to. An analysis view might combine parts from different views but is not seen as a superobserver of these views.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory not how close it is to them and each can tell if the penny is on or off the table. 6). for though we can imagine that a superobserver might exist. which we call the ‘states’ of the light. The superobserver needs to have enough viewing capacity which covers the abilities of the other observers (but not more). a green light (G) and a whistle (W). How much more writing? One cannot ask ‘how many possible sequences are there?’ since a sequence can be indefinitely long. He needs to be able to dominate all other involved observers. Every thing is always distributed. But. and all possible pairs is this the product set which has 14 In Aida2.

As long as one of them is on. everyone declares in unison: ‘See. and that it is not determinate in its behaviour. traversed twice.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory 24x24 members. but that the last sequence is 5 states long. the inventor explains that the music box plays three national anthems. By applying the ‘principle of indifference’ to ‘you’ and ‘others’ in the previous sentence. As a superobserver. and the behaviour of the box is predictable after just one observation. you give the box a tap. the pattern of light and sound changes and we see … g m d f g m d f … You then give the box a bolder kick and get … b j r c q h p l o e b j r … Further kicking fails to produce any other behaviours than the three already produced. 16We could map your superview onto his (Each of your states maps to one of his states). There. you are not omnipotent (all powerful). ‘what lights?’ When you show him the lights. Why where there disagreements between you and the other observers? The inventor explains that the box plays six different notes. Since the inventor ignores the lights. agrees that there are three sequences. The box is further examined independently by two other observers. 38 . When you ask about the lights. Inside the door. Being constraint. for example. it works just the way I said’. The structure of the two views is also different. Instantly. may 16 AIDA2: Note the relation between the purpose and ignoring certain states in the previous two sentences. the inventor of the ‘music box’. and other aspects are ignored. To him. For example. he sees only six states – the six notes. you should never be surprised to see something that others do not see. all you have to do is to ‘kick it’. If the mapping is not one-to-many. the inventor replies. Another difference is that the superobserver’s view is ‘state determined’ whereas his is not since each state is not always followed by the same state. which you know. different aspects of the system are of interest. Let us suspend the black-box rules. since he is slightly deaf and can only hear three notes. such as an astronomer studying the universe. a sign says ‘KICK ME’. We may believe the world to be independent of the percipient observer. he says that they are nothing to do with the box. Therefore. all observers walk into the room together. upon observing the box. which means that he does not have to discriminate as many state as the superobserver does. you have no power at all (impotent). which actually means ’yell at it’. concludes that it only changes between two sequences of states. and endow you with limited powers of interaction. but is a revelation to the friend. the third sequence of ten states maps to a sequence of 5 states in the inventor’s view. Although you are omniscient (all seeing). we get another insight that is a little harder to accept. but not visa versa (Each of his states maps to more than one of your states). you have been a passive observer. or else be lucky and see highly constrained sequences. the purpose of the box is known. A stranger. You touch a spring and a little door opens. The Eye-brain Law After experiencing being a superobserver. or (24 power n) sequences of length n. where the observer is impotent to manipulate the box by looking ‘inside’. When he demonstrates this. there are 256 possible sequences of length 2. Now the mystery is cleared. To settle the disagreements. The black box models an observer who cannot or will not influence the system to be investigated. A superobserver would need a super memory if he’s to remember everything he sees. Based on the purpose the designer has. and to get the music box to change tunes. You have been playing a game called ‘black box’. but we definetly feel it depends on the participant observer. A friend. Human beings often interact with the systems they observe. everything is OK. So. one can use compact means of recording the observations as a mapping from one observation to the one that follows it. there are no ambiguities. So far. The inventor.

we must forgo some potential discrimination of state. Mathematically. stating that z depends on. based on what he believes are the important features of the system. there would be no psychology. in order to learn anything. unless specific constraints exist to keep them from occurring. Scientists are envisioned making the most precise measurements as a basis of theories. we mustn’t try to learn everything. (second law). called the Eye-Brain Law: ‘To a certain extent. This is put into the Generalised Thermodynamics Law: ‘More probable states are more likely to be observed than less probable states. The substitution of mental capacity for observing power is an illustration of a general law about observers. Newton might have simply said F = 39 . the latter the product of the interaction of the body possessing certain primary qualities with the sense organs of a human or animal observer.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory see an A or a D state after state A. and hence no state will ever occur again unless we lump many states into one. mental power can compensate for observational weakness. despite their different observational powers. there may be situations in which the system exhibits behaviour to which all observers agree. Newton based his law of universal gravitation on certain observations. As systems get more complex.’ Given raw. he can predict the next state. and only on a. x). his work would have been much more difficult. but he can decide on its scope and range of observation. This Law will not work if there are no constraints at all on the observations. A state is a situation that the observer can recognise if it occurs again. they are lucky that the measurements are not overly precise. if the inventor can remember the previous two states. The balance between ‘eye power’ and ‘brain power’ cannot be pushed too far in either direction. This notation is important in systems thinking since it allows us to present ‘partial knowledge’ about a system we do not know how to describe its behaviour exactly.’ As examples of the Eye-Brain Law. Memory is of no use unless the future is like the past. he may miss the big picture.’ If psychologists saw every white rat as different. no two situations would be exactly alike. Thus. Discriminating too many states has been defined as undergeneralisation. observational power can compensate for mental weakness. in order to generate repetition. The Generalised Thermodynamics Law Page 99: Galileo distinguishes between primary qualities of matter and secondary qualities – the former inherent in matter itself. The problem of science is to find the appropriate compromise. the experienced doctor needs fewer laboratory tests than the intern to make the same diagnosis. But. b. for knowing means knowing how to ignore certain details. the BrainEye Law is: ‘To a certain extent. detailed observations of the world.’ Through symmetry. but in practice. some possibility to learn everything. Functional Notation and Reductionist Thought The blackbox model of observation gives a passive view of the investigation process. which if they were made more precise (as precise as can be made today). b and z as far as we know or care at present. Science deals with repetitive events and each science has to have ways of lumping the states of the systems it observes. this can be represented in ‘functional notation’ such as z = f(a. However. since observations do not entirely depend on our observation characteristics. The observer is not allowed to change the box.’. but the intern can substitute a good laboratory for the years of experience lacking. See-it-all does not mean know-it-all. the divergence of views between different observers increases. Although the superobserver sees the fine details. which can be reframed as: ‘The things we see more frequently are more frequent: 1 because there is some physical reason to favour certain states (first law) or 2 because there is some mental reason. This is the Lump Law: ‘If we want to learn anything.

…). but they do not have the information needed to make the choice. Such a limit leads to a situation called ‘complementarity’ of observation. On the other hand. and speaking of the relationship as ‘wrong’ means that the specific equation of T is not in this set. I. b. …)/r2. and we are left with the arbitrary choice between different views that fit the observations. M)/r2. Is T not varying because T is not dependant on one or more of the quantities.The form T = f(W. where T remains constant irrespective of the value of a. On the other side. such as stating z = f(x. I. We can use functional notation to show our intentions to do so. If T sometimes changes while a remains constant. Consider the more complicated system where T = f(a. we can talk about this expansion of observation or memory power. t. y. …) or refine our observations. since science explains by reducing one phenomenon to the terms of other phenomena. M. even if we do not know what these quantities are. in the sense that for the given discussion. or because the effects of the quantities cancel each other out? Given the finite set of observations. …) because his views are not state determined. giving Vt+1 = h(Vt. Similarly. The box is black and we cannot see inside to say which is the ‘true’ structure. c). To make his view state determined. Incompleteness and Overcompleteness What does it mean for T = f(a) to be incomplete? This functional relationship between T and a stands for an infinite set of equations of a. This can only be concluded from the observation of the behaviour of T and a.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory f(M. we are not interested in the functional dependencies of these quantities. even if the view is complete. D) implies that the quantities in parenthesis are independent. through its behaviour. The black box. and where T remains constant for a finite set of varying values of a. r) before he could give the exact form of the gravitational forces between two masses. y) when it really is z = f(x. m. This can occur in one of two ways: either T does not depend on a – overcompleteness – or T depends on something in addition to a – incompleteness. Consider the earlier observations of the black box at the start of the chapter. for example F = g(m. t. The notation of decomposition of functions is appealing. I. t. Being superobservers. functional composition such as T = f(W. by writing D = g(…). A scientist may commit a Fallacy of Incompletness by omitting some quantity from one of the functional relationships. or he would need to observe two successive states. D). or because the situation will not admit further reduction. Functional notation can be mixed with explicit formulas to show ‘intermediate stages of knowledge’. he could expand his impression of what a state is to include the lights. Vt-1). There are two main fallacies that can be committed during this reduction. g(…)) shows the deeper levels of dependencies in a compact form. we cannot discriminate between the two cases. Given a function T = f(W. in the sense that it is not state determined. overcompleteness occurs if we observe that T does not depends on a at all. even thought they can themselves be dependant on other quantities. His observations are ‘state-determined’ since the state at one instance is completely determined by the state at the previous instance. then we have to conclude that either T depends on something other than a or that T or a are measured incorrectly. we might desire to further refine the model by expressing D as a function of other quantities. 40 . We hence either expand our relationship to T = f(a. the reduction must eventually stop either because of the limited capacity of the observer. tells us that our view is incomplete. incomplete knowledge can be denoted as F = h(m. b and c. It cannot however tell us how to complete this view. The inventor’s observations are presented as Vt+1 = h(Vt. Secondly. The observations of the superobserver can be describe as St+1 = f(St) where St is the state observed at time t.

nor were the views entirely independent since certain things can be derived from each about the other. you observe 41 . And opening the box means decomposing/reducing one step further (Until one cannot reduce no further and the problem of complementarity between the given isomorphs arises). there will generally be complementarity. that is. An economist and a sociologist looking at the same system. At any level of observation. etc. but because of what is to be observed as of primary importance. 5. observers do not make infinitely refined observations. and we must content ourselves with complementary views. Even two economists. By this refinement will eventually reach an end. for whatever reason. If. This gives the General Law of Complementarity: ‘Any two points of view are complementary’. A different observer. although there will be some correspondence between their views. but we use the term in a more limited sense.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Two models that fit all observed data are said to be ‘isomorphic’. then between any two points of view. The views of our two observers of the earlier blackbox. although it might be possible. its velocity is to be deduced by measuring the blur of the photograph. … Reduction sometimes works. Note that complementarity between two views does not only occur when the reduction of the two views cannot be further performed. previous knowledge. This arbitrariness ensures that different observers will have a multitude of ways in which to interpret their observations. It is not always necessary to remove complementarity between two views. not just because of the different choice of isomorph. who sets his shutter speed differently. will see a different – or complementary – picture. one among many.) Black box observation. One way to escape this complementarity is by using more refined measurements such as a less grainy film. getting an exact value of its position requires that the shutter speed of the camera is decreased in order to reduce the blur in the photograph. do not care if their views are reconcilable since they are aware that they are looking at different things. but there is no hard scientific evidence for that – only faith. the choice of isomorph is strictly up to us depending on our memory capabilities. by further reduction. Consider the experimental setup in which we would like to know the speed and position of a car from the single observation of a photograph.2. Page 121: Reduction is but one approach to understanding. are complementary. Getting an accurate velocity measure will reduce the accuracy of the position and vice versa.5 Breaking down Observations We will here discuss how the limited mental power of the observer influences the observations made. for nobody has ever observed the final reduction of any set of observations. Notice the complementary nature of this method. Given that you have limitless mental power. Neither view can be reduced to that of the other. the two models would have to fit all ‘possible’ data. Because we are scientists. … Reductionism is an article of scientific faith. and hence whatever shutter speed we choose will involve some compromise. and you again see the states a through x. we believe that our methods will work more often. while viewing the same situations. The Generalised Law of Complementarity The second reason for the failure of reduction is that of the problem of complementarity. This is the idea of complementarity: two mutually irreducible points of view that are not entirely independent. At the same time. Since the car is moving. (Mathematically. Consider again that you are a superobserver of the earlier blackbox. might not bother to reconcile their different observations by reducing their observations. but we must admit that other methods sometimes work too. once it no longer yields new observations cannot resolve this isomorphism unless the box is opened.

The ultimate reductions are finally 17 In Aida2. In order to deal with this problem. You now succeed in seeing the state determined. as common experiences for communication between engineers. carpentry. However. in the past. 2. Our limited mental powers do not allow us to carry a different view for every moment of our lives. or the economist profit and marginal utility. The Metaphors of Science Trying to cope with complex phenomenon. the Axiom of Experience: ‘The future will be like the past. the decomposition into independent parts enabled you to predict the system behaviour better. and hence are no longer able to see the cycle. each of which is state determined. By studying the past. We are like a handyman that carries a single toolbox to perform electrical. but smaller system. or whatever work. reducing the original function to a function of other things. From time to time. This decision is based on the assumption that future work will be like those received in the past. get a ‘complete’ view. or feel we know. While these goals are often met. valence and PH. might allow a better decomposition. decomposing the system into independent qualities.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory that the system has a 20 state cycle. 3. which would be unnecessary has it not been for our limited brains. so to reduce the mental effort required. of a system. get a ‘minimal’ view. (loved one = f(rose. A more appropriate set of qualities of the same system. (Burns: My live is like a red. Page 134: This is the method of science. Like a poet. red rose) This works since we know. whose essence is the metaphor. because. by decomposing the system in two independent parts. Scientifically. Burns depends on the universal experience of roses and colour perceptions. But given that you have limited mental powers. get an ‘independent’ view. if it is found to be more generally useful in the future. broad enough to encompass all phenomena of interest. your understanding and grasp of the system will hence vary. the future was like the past. you decide to narrow your view and only observer the two lights. a scientists starts with a complete view. Page 142: One of the problems of specialisations of the sciences is that scientists in different fields have few 17 common experiences to serve as the basis of communication. 42 . You have actually invented a new way of looking at the world. since it may not conform to the psychological categories we have either inherited or learn from the past. a metaphor is like a function. some properties of one thing that we can transfer over to the other. We may not know how Burns feels about love. This assumption is based on an article of faith. In this comparison. …)). Consider poetry. talking of one thing in terms of the other. the handyman may be able to develop a more useful box of tools. by lumping states that are unnecessarily discriminated so we do not overtax our observational powers. since that reduces the number of states to 4 and hence increases your chances to remember the complete cycle.’ This can be rephrased as a definition of the word ‘like’: ‘Two things are alike if one in the present can be substituted for one in the past’. You try also to only focus on the tones and succeed in observing the complete cycle of 6 states. then refines and simplifies it. a tool may be replaced by another. A physicist recognises entropy and density. Science and poetry are much alike. the resulting view may not be ‘natural’ or ‘satisfactory’. having been drugged by the inventor. and hence a more simplified view. we will use the tools described later in this chapter. but we do know how it feels in the presence of a red rose. and we hence need to fit this view into earlier experiences. you are only capable to remember the last 10 state transitions of the system. the chemist. at the expense of having to deal with 2 smaller systems instead of one. we try to: 1. Depending on the choice of properties. Can a system’s behaviour always be decomposed into independent parts? This depends on the set of qualities being observed.

and hence can partake of both system and environment. for one man’s system may be another man’s environment. We call such a definition by pointing ‘ostensive definition’. such a boundary ‘connects’. we would need to progress to a more precise description of the separation. Problems arise since our choice of boundaries is generally influenced by previous experiences. except by pointing to the states which have different values of this quality. our brains are limited to about 15 boxes at a glance. red rose’. but lures us when the boundaries are not welldefined. clean way. By the Principle of Indifference. Even so. we are really saying the same kind of thing as ‘My love is like a red. etc. not all systems can be separated from their environment in a sharp. A system boundary may not be infinitely thin. Our choice of boundaries makes a difference in the effectiveness of our thought. Graphs with bounded boxes are useful in systems thinking. we can draw a line around something and easily discriminate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’. Conventionally. These things are the possessors of ‘properties’ or ‘qualities’ that they carry around with them. 43 . and beyond that we would need further support. we already encounter difficulties of reasoning when we are dealing with systems with physical boundaries. since it has been secreted from the body and does not take part in the body’s physiological processes. ‘Interface’ is a more useful word than ‘boundary’. Page 143: by examining the metaphors of science. for it reminds us to pay attention to the connection. As scientists. and particular to our experience of ‘boundaries’. Our use of the ‘thing’ metaphor is closely allied to our experience of physical space. Moreover. It can hence be treated like other excrements such as perspiration and urine. using the term ‘system’ to mean ‘inside’ and ‘environment’ to mean ‘outside’. But. We commonly consider the hair to be part of our body. we can call either one the ‘system’. System thinkers use the term ‘interface’ to describe that type of the world that looks both inside and outside at the same time. This metaphor is so deep that we seldom know that we are using it. we apply this concept to all our systems. These ultimate reductions must be rooted in observation of the world. The anthropologist speaks of the ‘social organisation’ of a tribe as if it were a box of matches he could carry around in his pocket. and not just the separation. where solid meets a liquid. however. We might explain one set of qualities in terms of another. difference in texture. and can be isolated from other properties by isolating the thing from other things. Qualities and the Principle of Invariance We cannot explain what we mean by a certain ‘quality’. we can learn about the limitations of the brains that do science. if we are to make more specific conclusions about a system. a part is represented on paper as a closed region surrounded by a boundary. which will come from several directions. while a connection is represented as a line or arrow. but we should remember that the primordial set is obtained by ostensive definition. We choose easily recognisable physical features such as a sharp change of colour. By analogy. sharp boundary. hair is better thought of as outside of the body. On the surface of the earth. Not all systems exist in the physical world.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory assumed known and left undefined. Rather than separating. which have been excellent guides most of the times. Boundaries and Things One of the most deeply buried metaphors of science is the concept of a ‘thing’ or ‘part’ that can be cleanly separated from other things or parts. For the physiologist. because it is attached to it. between system and environment. While the graph implicitly says that the system has sharp.

of taking a relative quality as an absolute one. the attempt is faulty because this property 44 . and thus describing a quality: ‘For every state x. ‘Breaking into parts’ can be generalised into ‘transformations’. The definitions of intensive and extensive qualities can be turned around to give a definition of ‘breaking into parts’: ‘If the intensive properties remain the same. In general. For example. but this actually means that we are more accustomed to observing in those terms. In order to define a ‘sharp’ partition. such as ‘greater than’. the set consists of the Cartesian product of the set of states that has the given value of that quality. These concepts are defined ‘relative to some act of breaking’ of the system. The reflexivity condition prevents us from the erroneous absolute thinking. Clearly. in which the relation between each pair describes the relation ‘has the same value of the quality’. we have to introduce another operation besides ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ for states. our learned capacities become less effective. However. we cannot say precisely what we mean by a certain quality because there are an infinite number of possible transformations that can be performed. A partition is defined by a set of ordered pairs of the parts (states). If we want to ‘measure’ the mass quality. then you have probably broken the system. if the chocolate block is divided into the qualities of flavour and consistency. if we attempt to divide a village into groups of ‘cousins’. The ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ operations allow us to identify and explain the quality in question. then the densities would be different. the quality of mass is defined by the states in which masses are the same or different. This is the ‘reflexive’ condition. the density quality of a chocolate block is extensive when related to the act of cutting the block in half. When the partition describes a quality. then neither part have any density at all. while an extensive quality depends on maintaining the full extent of the system. or restated in terms of transformations: ‘With respect to a given transformation. there exists three mathematical conditions that must be satisfied. we identify states by the shifting of quality values. there are those properties that are preserved by it and those that are not’. Physical scientists differentiate between ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’ qualities depending on what happens to the quality when the system is divided into parts. consider the act of dividing the system’s behaviour into qualities. More generally. a quality will not satisfy our idea of a quality if we cannot consistently identify it with a particular state. An intensive quality is one which maintains the same quantity after the system is divided such as density. The Principle of Invariance can be restated: ‘We understand change only by observing what remains invariant. it means that the quality cannot shift back and forth with time while the state remains the same. If a state x does not have the same value of the quality as the last time that state was observed – the pair (x. if the block is divided into its chocolate and peanut parts. x) is not in the set – then the whole idea of quality breaks down. This leads to the mathematical condition for describing a partition. such as mass.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Qualities have a mental function for observers with limited memory. and we can hence derive the more general Invariance Principle: ‘With respect to any given property. We may think that certain qualities are more ‘natural’ than others. If we start with the idea of qualities. As we work in less familiar situations. x) must be in the relation. A quality may be characterised by the transformations that preserve it. For example. there are those transformations that preserve it and those that do not preserve it’. or a transformation may be characterised by the properties it preserves.’. A quality is a way of grouping states of a system. Hence.’ Partitions As an example of the division of a system into parts. since it has been found more useful to observe in those terms. For example. the pair (x. and permanence only by what is transformed.

For a simulation to demonstrate understanding. A digital computer. 5. But. other than drawing the different states and the movements between them. new tools. or using ‘analog computing’ in which electrical circuits model the system under study. is another approach in which the inside of the system is perfectly revealed. Transitivity may not hold with qualities involving graininess. even if A considers B as a friend. such as in ship building and planes. If we can build a system that appears to behave in the same way as a system we claim to understand. without observing the behaviour – black box view – we may not have seen the property at all. If the system can be composed of two qualities. no clear division of system into subsystems. But. no clear separation of system and environment. then an observer may classify A as the same colour as B as well as B as the same colour as C. If state x has the same quality value as state y. are needed to represent them. But. The second property a relation must have to fit our intuitive notion of a quality is ‘symmetry’. while the difference between A and C is noticeable. Even if A is a friend of B. but assemble a model from smaller number of parts from which the behaviour is generated. we do not simply build a model that mimics or copies the system. as we shall see. This error is exposed when we notice that one is not a cousin of oneself. such that a human cannot detect any of these differences. if A is slightly more blue than B.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory is a relation between two parts. the white box makes it easy to uncover the source. it is not necessarily the case that B considers A as a friend. With graininess transitivity may not hold. and not an absolute property. Note that the assignment of state of a two-variable system to points in a physical plane is arbitrary. then A must be a friend of C. but once the property has ‘emerged’. and every state has its place. System can be simulated by building scale physical models.6 Describing Behaviour Simulation – The White Box In order to understand a system. Resolution levels are part of any measuring process. State Spaces When dealing with systems with a large number of states. no box is ever entirely revealed to us. then for transitivity to hold. For example. but A as not the same colour as C. with its advantage of being programmable. where there is a place for every state. that is qualities in which the sensing device has a minimum resolution level under which it cannot detect differences between two values. Certain arrangements may 45 . or simulation. Just building a white box of a system does not guarantee that we understand all of the system’s properties. which is not necessarily the case. because of our limitations. we can never be sure that the simulating system captures all the properties of the studied system. Consider trying to partition a village into groups of ‘friends’. a black box approach can be taken in which the system could only be known through observing its behaviour. and B is slightly more blue that C. our claim will gain some strength. and hence there is no complete partition. and another system can be constructed to reveal its behaviour. the it should also be the case that state y has the same quality value as state x. we can draw the states using Cartesian coordinates. Considering a symmetric definition of the ‘friend’ property. The white box. is a more accessible simulation tool. and assuming that reflexivity is satisfy by assuming that one is one’s own friend.2. and B is a friend of C. In certain understanding of the ‘friend’ quality. The third condition is that of ‘transitivity’.

An open system has normally not a single line of behaviour. while a ‘random’ system is represented by St+1 = F(St. Another way of handling the surplus of dimensions is by introducing the dimension of time. a system with n qualities can also be mapped onto an n-dimensional space. a crossing poses no problem.’. Old work needs not be thrown away. Rt) giving the name R for that randomness. Generally. and hence ensures that no cycles or crossings occur. Sx. where the ‘something else’ is unknown to the observer. at the expense of loosing certain information.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory appear to yield a continuous line of behaviour. but we should remember that this appearance is a consequence of our assignment of numbers to quality values. Time has the property of always moving in one direction. Page 196: If you cannot think of three ways of abusing a tool. we may want to find such an assignment so as to reduce our effort at describing the behaviour. We might as well say St+1 = F(St. which indicates that something is wrong with our point of view if the system is to be state determined. we have the Diachronic Principle: ‘If a line of behaviour crosses itself. saving the effort of looking for inputs or trying to make the system description more complete. If we insist that the system is closed. then either the system is not state determined. The closed system fiction is a useful heuristic device. since it becomes a projection of the new set of dimensions. Indeterminism. The opposite of projection is that of ‘expansion’. where I is the ‘input’. we look for an input. in which a new dimension is added. This is exactly the same form we would give an open System St+1 = F(St. Behaviour in Open Systems Scientists prefer to study a state-determined system because its behaviour is simple. We speak about the set of behaviours of an open system as ‘Behaviour’ – capital B. has to be reached again and the cycle starts again. after discovering that a certain variable is missing. but a set of behaviours selected by the input. Projections and other transformations help us overcome the limitation of our brains to handle many dimensions. An observer has no way of determining the cause of this randomness. or if the enclosure is leaking and hence the system is open. For behaviour represented in a state space. The need for a new dimension may be discovered when realising that the line of behaviour of the system seems to cross itself. ‘sectioning’. Such operations may be useful in order to reduce the system complexity or the mental power needed. Every finite state determined system has cycling behaviour since eventually a state. ‘project’ or ‘subspace’ respectively. in general. A state determined system is represented by St+1 = F(St). If we partition a state determined system into a ‘system’ and an ‘environment’. If we see non-cyclic behaviour. you do not understand how to use it. Operations such as ‘projection’. we will assume that there exists ‘randomness’ in the system. we suspect that the system is uninfluenced by external factors. When we see cycling behaviour. or influenced by cyclic external factors. This may be necessary when studying a system. may be seen in the system either if the qualities observed are not complete. …). The addition of time also allows us to project each other dimension onto a two dimensional graph as a function of time. A crossing represents two different paths emanating from the same point. It). any closed system is state determined. the ‘system’ part will no longer be state determined. since depending on the inputs from the environment the behaviour of the system part varies. Note however that in a projection. or ‘randomness’. and this determinism is created by trying to fully enclosing the system. and that the external factors are too small to influence the system. ‘dimensional reduction’ can be performed on such a space producing a ‘section’. Of course. called a ‘state space’. or we are viewing a projection – an incomplete view. 46 . From this point of view.

this is only a convenience. Conversely. that constitute ‘becoming’ or developing. In V we see the ‘behaviour’. This gives us the Used Car Law: ‘A way of looking at the world that is not putting excessive stress 18 In aida2. a pattern of events in time. Gerard: … But the real shift here is from a focus on organisation to a focus on action. We have discussed the ways we picture ‘being’: the notion of set. chronological graphs. and to discard those ways that do not. And with this shift in time there occurs a shit in entity of concern – from an object. Being is the cross section of an entity in time. from pattern to process. randomness and the black box. for the ‘real’ identity lies in the ‘structure’. This leads to the principle of Indeterminability: ‘We cannot with certainty attribute observed constraint either to system or environment’ We prefer to think and create our systems to be as closed as possible. from the timeless to the temporal. often repetitive. and how particular structure leads to the production of particular behaviour through the execution of ‘programs’. and the enduring and irreversible changes. are entangled with what we observe. often progressive.18 We are perfectly entitled to identify systems in any way we choose. in which the fixed part – or structure – is the ‘source’ of its behaviour. is the ‘behavioural’ view. and those aspects of the organisation which appear relatively unchanged in a series of such instants constitute the essential structure of the entity or organism. The recipe for effective thinking is to use those ways of identifying systems that focus on what interests us. Openness complicated prediction and observation. which is the variable functioning of the permanent ‘structure’ P. along a longitudinal section in time appear the transient and reversible changes. a pattern of matter in space. properties. We partition the system into two sets of variables. we tend to partition systems into a fixed and a variable part. There exists a mental cost of having a viewpoint too far out of touch with the ‘realities’ – either of the world out there or of the observer’s own mind. or ‘function’. P and V. there should be really no precedence or favouritism between the structural and behavioural models of our systems. yet at the same time. which says that the only way we know ‘structure’ in the first place is by observing behaviour. Invariance in time helps to identify the significant units of a mature system.7 Some Systems Questions Page 227: R.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory Given that the behaviour of an open system is influenced by inputs from the environment. Although we may identify the system by its functioning. 5. as well from its own behaviour. that constitute ‘behaving’ or functioning. to a behaviour. We believe in the Law of Effect: ‘Small changes in structure (white box) usually lead to small changes in behaviour (black box)’. W.2. as observers. and behaving: state spaces. from form to function. the Law of Effect can be restated as: ‘Small changes in behaviour will usually be found to result from small changes in structure’. 47 . We have also studied the relationship between being and behaving – how particular behaviour leads to the inference of particular structure through the extraction of ‘properties’. input. We believe so because we live in a world surrounded by systems whose structure is controlled to a much larger extent by the manner in which they might fail and by the precautionary measures which have been taken against their failure. We have investigated the role of the observer in these things with the conclusion that we. unless he has white box knowledge of the system. an observer cannot tell the reason for certain behaviour. it lets us gain predictability by allowing us to act on the system. diagrams of structure. boundaries and the white box. entangled in ways that leave ultimately indeterminable which is being and which is believing. From this view. These are two complementary ways of looking at the world. Complementing this ‘structural’ view. Because of our belief in the Law of Effect. from being to behaving.

Ann Arbor: Society for General Systems Vols 1-19.Ola Larses and Jad El-khoury Views on General System Theory on an observer need not be changed’ or ‘A way of looking at the world may be changed to reduce the stress on an observer.htm for system definitions 19 In Aida2..uwaterloo. Look for one about engineering.2. 48 . Specific examples of the application of GS are found in Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Anatol Rapoport Ed. Look at www. we adopt the principle that we want to reduce the stress on the observer. by choosing view points that best fit their view of the world.fes. General Systems Yearbook.. 1956-1974.8 Further readings 1.’19 5. 2.

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