For two years—but only two—the model of artistic activity provided me with a useful pattern of pegs on which to hang the central tenets of the Christian faith. Gradually however I became dissatisfied with the adequacy of the model. Even artists who are deeply devoted to their arts would probably not maintain that the absolutely essential core of human life really lies in art. As a sometime painter I could be engrossed for hours in artistic activity, yet other people mightn’t care enough to take a second look at what I’d been doing. A piece of sculpture, into which some artist has poured a major portion of his or her lifetime, can become a mere decoration in some rich person’s hall or garden. The fate of a work of art is subject to the whims of viewers, the tastes of buyers, the opinions of the times and the weight of cultural traditions. Art may illuminate life and all things, but it can easily be regarded as a “mere frill”—one of life’s inessentials.
For this reason, I turned my attention after a while to architecture—another of the fine arts. Architects are artists who design appropriate spaces where, protected from the weather, people may live, work, worship or play. Architectural designs must take into account the physical structures of sites, building materials and people. They must integrate technical developments and economics with human psychology and sociology. The extensive insights of the discipline of architecture were therefore profoundly helpful to me as a next step in my search for a theologically translatable model of the world.
I decided that I wasn’t really looking for an artistically beautiful cosmorama upon which I could feast my eyes. I was seeking a feeling-full understanding of the layout and working arrangements of the world-home wherein I dwell. The world around me is far more intimately and fully connected to everything within me than all the paintings in the finest art gallery could ever be. This is where I live. I have inherited the family world-stead, and I want to feel at home in this place.
Eventually through architecture I discovered that engineers too are designers. Their image as workers grubbing about in the mud, wearing rubber boots and hard hats, is quite obsolete. Although they are seldom classified with those who work in the “fine arts,” engineers too are in the business of designing things. The engineers produce plans for many more kinds of humanly relevant products, structures, services and systems than do the architects who design living spaces and the artists who create virtual worlds. Structures designed by engineers may be quite as beautiful and functional as any designed by architects. Engineers can also design organizations which are great feats of imaginative ingenuity—witness satellite communication systems and expeditions to the moon.
Remarkably enough it occurred to me that if I knew more about engineering, my “art-model” might be significantly broadened and enhanced for theological purposes. My experience at Sechelt had taught me wholehearted respect for technical creativity as one of the very greatest achievements of the human spirit. I was sure that “being a maker” has to be a basic element in whatever image of God the Maker one may discern in human beings.
About the same time I began to be intensely interested in engineering, schools of applied science were beginning to feel uneasy about the conspicuous absence of “the humanities” from their normal curricula. On every project after their graduation, engineering students have to work with and for people, but too often their education has done little or nothing to prepare them for handling the relationships involved in such encounters. When they complete their heavy course of studies, engineering graduates (like all other kinds of graduates) know little enough even about their special field. How to include the humanities in the all-too-short time-frame of the curriculum without skimping on important engineering subjects is a perplexing problem.
Educators in the humanities, on the other hand, did not seem at all uneasy about the fact that their students were graduating into a peritechnical society quite blissfully ignorant about many of the important practicalities of life. So often their education, like mine, left them entirely in the dark about the place of technical developments in human history, and about the contemporary conditions of human life on most of this planet. Arts students are almost unaware of that vast body of useful knowledge upon whose principles and applications their ordinary, everyday life utterly depends.
Speakers at university convocations where degrees in arts and the humanities are being conferred, characteristically lift their voices in eloquent praise of their traditional kind of higher education. I sometimes imagine what would happen to all this oratory if the public address system failed, or if the lights went off due to a power outage. What if the drains from the washrooms had plugged? I’m sure that the speeches would be much shorter then, and that the tone of the academic language one would likely hear would not be quite so magnificent, despite the theological flavor of its vocabulary. Such “disasters” would throw the convocation speakers right back to the most ordinary conditions which prevailed a century or two ago. We have been lifted out of such annoying problems by modem engineering. Students in faculties of arts could learn some very important things from the engineers. Why is it assumed that knowledge must flow in a one-way stream from the humanities towards engineering and not also the other way around?
Once thoughts like these had begun to buzz around in my head, I found myself involved in an extended series of high-level conversations about engineering education. By a curious chain of events, I eventually took a study leave back in Ontario and spent an academic year there in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto.
On learning that a philosopher-theologian was “studying” among them, the engineering professors raised their brows, slightly astonished. Then they shrugged. They were no more uncertain than I was about what I could gain from being among them. I had only the simple belief that if I could learn to understand the world from the viewpoint of the engineers and learn their technical language, I might be able to translate things Christian into terms with which many non-Christians were already familiar.
For the first two months I sat in on a variety of undergraduate classes and faculty discussions. From these I gained a feel for the instruction, for the textbooks, and also for the attitudes and concerns of students and faculty members. In the faculty common room and in private conversations with individual instructors, I asked questions which for me were very basic. The professors never laughed at my naivete—openly, at least. They tried to answer me as tolerantly and generously as they could, considering my general ignorance. I quickly learned, however, that despite the achievements of science, many of my questions had as yet no final answers.
I was not long in finding productive directions in which to begin my own explorations. As a philosopher I was quite intrigued by the commonest terms which these people used when they talked about their work. I soon realized that the questions I had been asking largely arose out of an outmoded nineteenth-century understanding of science. My faith in the eternal validity of science was shaken when I found that contemporary science had moved on into a whole new way of thinking and speaking about the world. The changed approach was of course reflected in the vocabulary being used. Typically I would have asked what “cause” produced a certain “effect.” These teachers, however, were talking about “perturbing a system” and observing its “response.” None of them quite knew why “effects” were now being called “responses,” nor had they ever reflected on why what I had always called a “thing” was now commonly called a “system.”
Trying to make sense of what had happened to make these differences, I entered the most exciting period of my long intellectual quest for an adequate worldview. At last I had begun to catch glimpses of the new world model which would, it seemed, enable me to organize my life’s experiences and “get it all together.”
For me the word “system” was the key that opened the door which led me to a new understanding of the world. It was a very old Greek word which had been largely neglected while scientists were concentrating on the analytic method of “divide and conquer.” The word “system” was derived from syn-, meaning “together,” and sta-, the root of histanai, meaning “to set up,” “to place” or “to stand.” So the general idea of a system is that of things set up together so as to interact interdependently. The notion had been useful in referring to a disciplined army, the constitution of a city state, or the specified scheme of musical intervals that constitutes a particular musical scale.
The musical meaning of system turned out to be especially important. It had long been believed that the radii of the circular orbits of the heavenly bodies around the earth were set in proportions similar to those of the portions of vibrating strings which produced the musical scales. This antique conception of the systemic constitution of the heavenly bodies was believed to produce a “musk of the spheres,” which earthly ears cannot hear. In this strange way the musical notion of system was brought into astronomy, studying as it did the planetary motions.
Galileo used the word in 1632 in a work entitled Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World. From astronomy the word migrated to cooperative human enterprises (Hobbes, Leviathan, II, xxii, 115, 1651), to organized sets of ideas (Hales, Sermon, 2Peter 3:16, 1656), to animal organs which function together, e.g., arterial and nervous systems (Cheyne, Regimen, 168, 1740), to geomorphic phenomena (Lyell, Principles of Geology, I, 125, 1830), to mechanical contrivances (Herschel, Encyclopedia Metropolitana, IV, 804, 1830), and thence to modern engineering.
Due to the advent of telescopes and to the Newtonian and Cartesian formulations of purely mechanical laws which appear to govern the universe, the “music of the spheres” died away rather abruptly into the silence of endless, empty space. From factory stacks and railway locomotives, the Industrial Revolution began to belch its sooty presence over city and countryside. The notion of mechanical systems became associated with clanking, roaring machinery, soul-destroying determinism and depressing working conditions. It is easy to understand why poetical spirits never soared at hearing the word “system,” nor did philosophers deign to stoop and look into the implications of such a base and low matter. It never crossed anyone’s mind that the concept of “system” was worthy of serious intellectual investigation.
As far as mechanics were concerned, a system could be constructed by simply adding part to part until the additive sum of them all would do the job. A system could be taken apart, then reassembled to run once more in exactly the same way as it did before. Parts simply kicked each other onward in an inevitable, boring, repetitive or cyclical motion, never learning new behavior, just slowly wearing out. When part of a system broke down or wore out, it could be replaced by a duplicate part. System parts totally lacked unique individuality. When properly held in its intended position, each part would remain there and do its particular task over and over again.
Throughout the nineteenth century, intellectual leaders continued to regard the world as just such a vast machine—not altogether an inspiring thought. What wasn’t altogether mechanical was entirely random. According to a model developed to explain the behavior of gases, more or less identical particles were always bouncing off each other in all directions, cancelling out each other’s motions and thereby giving rise to statistical regularities. The philosophical worldview of mechanists was wedded to the analytic method, to fatalistic determinism and human despair. Plants, animals and people were treated as mechanical systems, only somewhat more sophisticated. Their parts did what they had to do and when they wore out, the mechanism stopped.
The advent of electrical power as an important alternative to steam power in the latter part of the nineteenth century slowly eroded the mechanical worldview. The discovery of electromagnetic fields abolished the long-standing dogma that the only place where a thing can exist is behind a visible surface. In the mechanical, cause-and-effect transmission of energy, one object has to be in direct contact with another in order to give it either a push or a pull. But in electrical field theory, interaction seems to take place at a distance. Also gravitational fields hold distance-separated planets and moons together in orbiting systems.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional solidity of matter had been dispersed into tiny bounding “billiard ball” atoms. Early in the twentieth century, atoms came to be conceived in terms of orbiting charges, matter waves and minimal parcels of energy. One-way “cause and effect” mechanical determinism had gradually given way to the two-way reciprocal influence of positive and negative electrical charges, or north and south magnetic poles. Everyone knew about electromagnetic systems.
The ancient fascination with visible light was transferred to invisible electrical phenomena. The mystique of communication as newly developed through the telegraph, telephone, radio, television and computerized information processing, was soon assimilated to an electromagnetic worldview. An “information” model had begun to displace the older mechanical worldview. By the time I had begun to look into engineering, factories full of machines were being controlled by electronic orders. For me the word “system” quickly took on electrifying significance and more.
The systems approach
During the World War II “blitz” of bomb-battered Britain, invading enemy aircraft were hitting hard by day and by night. Human eyes and hands were no longer fast enough or deft enough to handle guns so as to bring down such high, swiftly moving targets. The approach of enemy planes could now at least be detected at great distances, thanks to the new technology called “radar,” but as yet there was no way to hook up radar with gunnery. The new electronic computers were known to be capable of incredibly fast calculations, but as yet computers had nothing to do with either radar or guns. The computer people, the radar experts and the gunners knew hardly anything about each other’s technical language. Their respective machines were quite incompatible and there was no way to connect them up with each other.
Eventually it dawned upon wartime leaders that more adequate antiaircraft defenses could be developed by combining all three technologies into one integrated system. Radar could track distant planes even in the dark; computers could quickly calculate their tracks and give orders to the guns. “A jolly good idea, what?”
With this military goal in mind, the various pieces of equipment had to be redesigned for complete compatibility. Compatibility is a synonym for uninterrupted functional communication. Radar signals, which would yield information about the position, direction and speed of approaching enemy aircraft, had to be translated into the kind of electrical impulses that a computer could process. With proper programming, the computer could then calculate where the aircraft would be by the time the gun could be automatically aimed, shells set to explode at the right height, and fired to intercept the aircraft.
Planners began to think of their task as that of designing a smooth, uninterrupted passageway for information so that it could move from the intruding aircraft through radar, computer and gun aimer on the ground, back through the shell’s trajectory, to intercept that same aircraft’s track overhead—with satisfyingly destructive effects. The invader would be destroyed by means of the very information which its own intruding presence had sent on ahead. This concept of a smooth, uninterrupted flow of information helped the various specialists to visualize a project which was much more extensive than their own speciality. As the equipment was being designed and constructed, and the personnel trained, the cooperative teamwork and mutually supportive way of thinking about the whole task came to be called “the systems approach,” or sometimes “critical path analysis.”
The integrated air-defense system which Britain produced was very successful. But almost as important as that military success was the development of the systems way of thinking about complex situations.
After the war, the United States and Russia prepared to explore outer space. The task of controlling vehicles at unimaginable distances required a vast organization that could not only process information originating far out beyond the earth, but keep in touch with its ever-moving source. Everything and everyone in a great worldwide network would have to work together in every part of the enterprise.
The unprecedented scale of such complexly organized projects obviously called for a gigantic, updated application of the systems approach. A detailed schedule of designing, manufacturing and training had to be worked out so that all equipment and personnel would be ready at the right time. A reliable space capsule had to be devised to sustain the lives of the astronauts under the deadly conditions anticipated in outer space. It would have to include a miniature version of all the life-support systems which earth normally provides for humans. Rocket engines and fuels, computerized flight guidance devices, instrumentation, communication systems, testing apparatus, flight simulations, launching facilities, tracking and retrieval systems had to be developed.
Manufacturers who were tied into the big project rapidly became conscious of “the systems way.” Their production schedules, assembly teams and the flow of business information parallel to the production process were organized to take advantage of systems principles. Designers, manufacturers, workers and business people naturally learned to think and talk in terms of systems. New breeds of professionals appeared, offering their services as systems analysts to help smooth out all kinds of organizational problems. New specialized fields of research appeared, such as systems analysis, operations research, cybernetics and computerized simulation. To meet the needs, mathematicians developed theories of information, transformations, sets, graphs, matrices, networks, queuing, decisions, games and catastrophes.
The booming development of system-oriented industries, government agencies and worldwide business, demanded a flow of university graduates who understood the new systems way of thinking and getting things done. Many university departments adapted themselves to the new approach so that their graduating students could participate in the new style of operating. New academic journals appeared in order to publish a bumper crop of papers on the new systems themes.
New words and expressions appeared, and bright young people began to roll a new lingo lightly off their tongues. Their “with it” imitators eagerly repeated buzzwords, tossing them off with minimal understanding of the deep and important changes which had been taking place.
The exigencies of wartime and the space age had popularized a new way of thinking. The implications of the systems approach, if taken seriously, were quite as significant in the history of human consciousness as the “Copernican revolution” that had triggered the first brilliant bursts of modem scientific thought. When I came to study in a faculty of applied science, I had unwittingly stumbled into this new world-in-the-making.
As I began to explore the systems view of the world, ideas which through the years had somehow become my convictions became my basic equipment. I long had been fascinated by the importance of “form.” Now I saw that “organization” was being taken seriously, and that what I had been calling “form” was being taken as “organization.” Organization, of course, is the very essence of system. The systems approach therefore promised to give me answers to questions which had circled my head and bugged me for as long as I could remember.
Questions like: What is a university? Is it the charter, the board of governors, the senate, the administrative personnel, the budget, the teachers, the students, the supporting staff, the academic standards, the tradition, the rational way of thinking… ? A university is all of these and much more. But nowhere in my intellectual experience had anyone ever equipped me with the philosophical categories necessary for handling such complex organizational questions.
The world, as I came to understand it after my first acquaintance with the systems approach, is an organization of organizations. It was no wonder that all my life I had been unable to reach a satisfactory understanding of the world. The only terms and logic which I knew were unable to comprehend the nature of organization. They were useful only in dealing with individual things or with named collections of individual things, or with abstract common factors. With those intellectual tools I could never make real sense of my experience, because everything I experienced turned out to be either an organized system or a component of one.
My hopes rose to great heights as I anticipated getting some sensible answers at last to many long-standing questions. You can’t imagine the intensity of my intellectual excitement at the challenge of working out a general systems model which would apply to anything and everything. My appetite for further information about systems was simply voracious. I had picked up a hot scent on a trail that promised to help me at last to resolve old paradoxes and open up a lot of former dead-end streets. It was like being released from a long confinement in some dark prison, or like awakening in a beautiful garden after a frustrating ramble through a meaningless dream.
My future program seemed clear. I had only to learn the fine points of what makes a system a system.
I bad always appreciated the amazing ingenuity of inventors who set up mechanical systems for doing things. Now I began to understand those systems as transmitters and organizers of information. I could dimly intuit some deep similarities between information systems and the arts, ethics and religions which have always moved and directed the human spirit.
The concept of system had a certain “wholeness” about it that promised a way for me to get all things together. In a system the parts are so organized that no one of them can change or move without affecting all the others. In grasping the interrelationship of all things, I knew that I was closer to conceiving the unicity of all things worldly and divine than I had ever been before. My eyes were wide open and my heart was strong.
When I first consciously realized the scope and depth and applicability of the concept of system, it was a “summit experience.” For me it was the onset of poetic inspiration, a mystical religious conversion, a philosopher’s vision, a dawning of the truth. My normal senses, moreover, joined with my practical experiences and some of my best intellectual insights to confirm what I now so deeply felt.
Never before had the world been so meaningful for me. I could see that everything holds together as one world, and I felt myself as one with that world, not so much mystically as realistically, in a specifiable way. This wasn’t simply an emotional experience. It was also a profound intellectual realization, one that is quite able to withstand testing in the strong light of day.
For me the wonder of it all has never departed. At last—a worldview that I could embrace with everything in me! And the task of learning how to express what I as yet only dimly intuited gave me the welcome prospect of a great project mat could occupy me for the rest of my days.
According to classical humanistic assumptions, the place I had experienced this intellectual and spiritual awakening must be numbered among the most unlikely: at what had always been called during my undergraduate days “The School of Practical Science”—notorious SPS—the homeground of “gears,” those barbarous engineering students so admired for their outrageous escapades and so despised for their reputed ignorance of what every “educated” person ought to know.
Thanks to what I had learned about systems in the engineering environment, I could now appreciate the significance of a few rare bits of poetry that my professor of English literature had pointed out as particularly profound.
When John Donne had said, “No man is an island,” in five plain words he had pointed the world toward the essence of systemicity. Each life is related to other lives and to all things.
Amid the gross mentality of a mechanical, steam-powered age of smoking factory chimneys, William Blake had written in Auguries of Innocence:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
With the systems approach I could now assimilate the implications of those lines. The whole universe had conspired together to make a single grain of sand. That bit of rock is a fragment of some geological upheaval, climatic shift or biological development in ages past—a product of the eroding forces of flowing waters and biting frosts as the earth made its season-creating journey around the sun. In a wildflower, the ground is mysteriously organized under the springtime sun and stands up in beauty, reaching toward the heavens. A vast universe is involved in every little thing. In processes that are all presided over by an Eternal Maker, all that happened in remotest times converges upon the tiniest of beings.
In a poem named for its first line, Lord Tennyson rightly and beautifully wrote of his own systemic perception:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies.
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Alfred Noyes in “The Forest of Wild Thyme” thought in a similar systems vein when he wrote:
What does it take to make a rose, Mother mine?
It takes the world’s eternal wars,
It takes the moon and all the stars,
It takes the might of heaven and hell,
And the everlasting love as well, Little child.
Back in Vancouver, my friends in engineering and other disciplines found it hard to believe that such intellectual excitement as mine could ever come out of a “gear factory.” On one occasion I was introduced to a theological forum as a man who had been “brainwashed by the engineers.” Despite my long training in arts and theology, even the people who know that I conduct regular services of worship each Sunday somehow now think of me as an “engineer.”
I had reason to hope that my positive attitude toward systems and my acquaintance with engineering concepts would help to build an easier crossing between the technical side of the campus and its theological side. I soon found myself teaching in the first courses to be labeled “Technology and Society” in the Faculty of Arts and in the Faculty of Applied Science. It was exciting to be flown back to Toronto to speak at special events sponsored by the Faculty of Applied Science, such as the first national Symposium on Systems Building. One of my proudest moments came when I gave a theme address to the annual meeting of the British Columbia Society of Professional Engineers. They have even published some of my thoughts on engineering education.
I keep hoping that somewhere there is a theological seminary which is also seriously exploring the new worldview of systems. The systems approach is being adopted by nearly all university disciplines. A number of special-interest groups are working at the subject on a regular basis. By now, enough seeds have been planted in enough places to make me confident mat the systemic worldview will dominate the foreseeable future. Sooner or later no doubt this new-old worldview will be discovered by theological colleges and consciously worked into their scholarly interpretations. May they derive as much satisfaction as I have from the intellectual adventure of exploring a thought pattern that opens up every discipline to every other.