Systems have been around for a long time—since the world began—or before! More ancient than spider webs, more universal than weather, more extensive than our sun and its planets, the intergalactic equivalent of the word “system” is undoubtedly stamped on the hub of the universe.
“Primitive” tribes have always had a strong and ready feel for the systemic interconnectedness of things. It ran through ancient laws, traditional ceremonials, folk sayings and “superstitions.” This sensitivity has not entirely vanished—even from the lives of their more sophisticated descendents. Greek science began from the conviction that the multifarious, complicated scene around us is nevertheless in essence somehow one world. The Hebrews believed that all realms and rulers are overruled by one divine almighty Lord of all. Many of the pioneer European natural scientists, such as Newton and Mendel, were devout church people avidly searching for the laws by which God governed his whole universe.
Every experimental scientist soon discovers how difficult it is to keep the rest of the world from poking its fingers into whatever she/he is examining. Physicists realize that, at the inner surfaces of their test tubes and all other “boxes” within which they try to isolate their experiments, the rest of the universe is actively present.
In modern formal usage, the word “system” refers to an assemblage of things which are connected dynamically and interdependently so as to form a complex functional unity. A whole worldview lies packed within that brief statement. Cramming so much into that one little intellectual carton has probably crumpled things pretty badly for you. But for now, that definition of “system” will serve reasonably well, even though it may not yet make much sense to you—its terms are so abstract and general.
A bridge is fairly easy to understand as a system. When a bridge is built it provides a means for a load to be moved over and across a depression in the terrain. The bridge as constructed is far more than an aggregation of concrete and steel pieces. Before the bridge was built, piles of its constituents lay nearby—all those beams, rods, plates, rivets and prestressed concrete slabs—but as yet they were not a bridge. They became a bridge only when they had been organized and put together in a certain way. Some civil engineer had developed a design for the structure so that when the bridge was loaded, the anticipated stresses would be conveyed through structural members from the point of loading to the footings, without overloading any of them. A bridge can break down due to gross overloading, unstable footings, weak or defective structural members, or a faulty design routing too much stress through inadequate supporting members. A broken-down bridge is only a heap of scrap, not a system for distributing a loading as intended.
I used to think that a bridge was a structure of concrete and steel resting on, say, the two banks of a stream. It sat there as a unit—simply part of the landscape. Now I see that a bridge is not only a structural system in itself—it is involved in many other systems that intersect at the bridge.
The bridge is systemically connected with the geomorphology of that particular area, not only under it, but upstream and downstream. If there had been no higher land upstream, water would not have flowed toward the site of the bridge, cutting the channel which made the bridge necessary. If there had been no lower land downstream, the stream might have turned into an unbridgeable lake. If the meteorological system did not carry water in clouds up from the sea and far back into the hills, there would have been no water up there to flow down through this stream to the sea. Since the great bridge over the Tacoma Narrows collapsed during strong winds, bridge builders no longer forget that bridges also interact with currents in the surrounding air mass.
The bridge we are describing from the systems point of view would never have been built at all if a community on one side, or both sides, of the stream had seen nothing whatsoever of value on the other side. The fact that someone was willing to pay for building the bridge indicates that certain valuables must exist on the other side. Bridges therefore always participate in social, economic and political systems. That is why politicians get the credit for building bridges rather than the civil engineers who design them and supervise their construction.
In view of all these complex systemic interrelationships, perhaps you too will no longer regard a bridge as being merely a material structure so long, so wide, so high, and so strong. Its relationships are far richer than that. The systems outlook can add a great deal to the interest of a tour through any country or locale. You learn to look at any feature of the landscape and ask, “What is going on here? What has happened to create this situation?”
Consider the human eye itself as a system. This remarkable optical organ receives information from light that comes from the landscape. It is a marvellous motion-picture camera system, fully automatic, self-focusing, self-guiding, self-maintaining and Aimless. In the human eye, the complexities of specialized living cells—each a system in itself—combine to form a lens system, an iris system, a retinal system, a humor system and a circulatory system. All of these develop within a movable, flexible, spherical container—the eyeball. Quite unlike a ship model assembled piece by piece inside a bottle, the systems of the eye were all developing together at the same time as the eyeball itself was growing.
These ocular systems intersect with systems of information borne on incoming light and also with the body’s circulatory system, nervous system and muscular systems. The latter not only rotate the eye for scanning purposes, but can quickly cover the eye with a protecting shield, the eyelid. Eyes normally operate as a coupled pair, making possible stereoscopic vision—three-dimensional depth perception.
The eyes are mounted in skeletal sockets in a head that can swivel on neck joints. The head and neck turn when the whole body turns. Thanks to these mechanical systemic connections, eyes are able to see in every possible direction from any one place. Moreover the legs can normally carry the eyes around an object and back again, gaining the further advantage of having multiple perspectives.
Ordinarily an eye removed from the vital systems of a living body would soon become a putrefying blob of organic tissues. A living, functional eye, systemically connected to the rest of the body, is a miraculous component upon which the whole body depends for most of its remote perception.
Eyes, having such mobility, are admirably suited to observe moving systems—such as a hockey game. One team’s aim is to drive a black rubber puck from the center of a sheet of ice into a defended net at the far end of the rink, despite the efforts of an opposing team to put that same puck into a net the first team is supposed to be defending at their end of the ice surface. By playing together under a coach, a team learns various group techniques for attack and defense. The role of each player constantly changes as the puck is passed from one to another and as the members of the other team make their moves.
The configurations of the opposing teams are always shifting. As the play develops from moment to moment, the players must be able to switch quickly from one way of conceiving the situation on the ice to another set of possible developments. Each player on the ice is both an observer of the succession of systemic situations and a flexible, adaptable component under observation by the others.
The players are expected to behave as members of a team system and as part of the whole game system. Every existing or possible situation involves every player on the ice. Watch how the players of the various shifts relate to each other. As they skate in different directions they seem to be tied together by invisible elastic cords. When one makes a move with the puck, all of them move or prepare to move. The complexities of these swift rearrangements of the system and the developments which can so quickly emerge from any given interaction make the game fascinating.
So far we have not mentioned the authority system known as the hockey league, the owner of the team franchise, the business manager, me coach, the captain of the team. We must not neglect the service system: the water boy, stick carrier and medical attendant. If the game itself is to continue correctly, a referee, scorekeeper, timekeeper and goal judges will be included in the personnel system. An ancillary systern of commercial interests exists, consisting of a rink owner, an ice maker, a ticket agency, advertising people, the refreshment concession operator, as well as the cleaning and maintenance staff. Big-time hockey also gets involved with commercial radio and TV systems, as well as the legal system that has something to say about contracts, and other negotiations. Oh yes, better include the SPECTATORS—and the transit system that allows them to get to the games.
Once you begin to look at the world around you in terms of systemic interactions, your life will never again be the same. You should never be bored. Within thirty feet of you, wherever you may be, you will find enough interesting, dynamic relatings in progress to occupy a questing mind for the rest of your life. Your attitudes to everything that happens will be changed, because nothing will anymore seem “perfectly simple.” You will find yourself asking entirely different kinds of questions. Some old problems and paradoxes will have passed away. Ancient sayings and half-forgotten truths will have become new. You will find yourself living in a unified world, where you yourself hold a very significant place. You may even find that the concept of God has taken on new relevance. Maybe you will be able to appreciate the biblical understanding of the world in a new way and also gain respect for those remnants of tribal life that still exist on this earth.
I’ll try to unpack for you now some of the implications of the notion of systems. From time to time I’ll relate these to some of the ideas that I have previously picked out for special attention.
Systemology is a relatively new subject. Everyone who finds that systems concepts are useful is likely to approach them in a peculiarly individual way. No official canonical set of systems terms has yet been laid down, so it is important for all who write about systems to state dearly where they have arrived to date in their thinking. Readers and listeners may then raise serious questions, make helpful suggestions, and carry the explorations farther, perhaps in a very different direction.
All of the concepts which I use in speaking about systems coherently imply each other. It would be ironical indeed if systems concepts themselves proved to be unsystematic! None of the concepts which I use can be entirely understood apart from all of the others. None of the concepts is self-contained or sufficient by itself. Each concept is necessary if the system is to be a system and completely understood. Yet each concept is quite different in “sense” from each of the others. A system may be understood in as many ways as there are components, relations or groupings. Each and any of these could be selected for emphasis as the primary reference when the character of a whole system is being described.
The most basic axiom of systemology is that there are in this world no utterly isolated, absolutely detached things or persons. If there are any such entirely uncontextualized items, they are certainly not to be known. As soon as the existence of something becomes known, the mere knowing of it establishes a relationship between that thing and the one who knows it. Once something has become known, it can be meddled with. For anything which has been newly discovered and become publicly known, the potential for interference changes its entire situation. A known secret is no longer a secret.
Things which are related make a difference to each other because each lies within the field of influence of the other. Some things are very “loosely coupled” so that they make only a minimal difference to each other. If the light from a single dim and distant star were to “burn out,” the face of the ocean here would scarcely be affected at all. Some meticulous astronomer, however, might eventually miss it. Looseness of coupling enables us to speak of “systems” in the plural instead of “The System,” as if there were only one all-inclusive network of interrelated things.
The unaided senses of observers may not be able to detect minimal influences which impinge upon them. Radio waves have always been arriving from the depths of space, but the human race knew nothing of such waves until electronic means of detecting them had been devised. The same is true of gamma rays, X rays, microwaves and infrared radiation.
Who knows what other influences from other worlds, presently unknown, may yet be detected?
When we are dealing with a system we may, of course, have a certain part of it in mind without taking into consideration all the other things with which that thing is actually connected. We can pay attention to some aspects of a thing while simply neglecting other relationships, whether they are of minimal importance or are absolutely essential. If I were to point to a certain tree nearby and ask you whether or not you could see it, you would say, “Certainly.” But under the circumstances neither you nor I could actually see the roots of the tree, nor their vital connections with the soil in that place. For you, seeing the tree’s trunk and branches is sufficient. These, however, form only an upper portion of the whole system that is and supports a tree.
We must always remember that when we think of things as alone, by themselves, we are dealing either with mental abstractions arrived at by the Divide and Eliminate technique or with imaginative mental constructions which we have put together from memory. At best, nonrelated, nonsystemic, decontextualized units are dubious temporary intellectual expedients. At worst, they are deceptive delusions.
If we accept the fact that everything which we know is related to something else, we soon discover that we have to face some crucial theological problems. Few theologians have hesitated to speak of God as he was before he created the universe. They have readily affirmed the precreational situation of God as that of “The Absolute” in solitary primordial splendor, in no way related to anything else whatsoever. If the systems approach to knowledge is correct, and if God before the worlds began is to be conceived at all, he would have to be conceived as related somehow, either externally or internally, or both.
Externally, the being of God would have to be visualized as surrounded by “something,” such as darkness, emptiness or nonbeing— whatever that “nothing” was, out of which God is said to have created the world. If such an attempt to visualize God spatially is deemed inappropriate, how about time? God is said to be without beginning and without ending—the everlasting one. Surely, however, if it is legitimate to speak of God as prior to creation and as after creation, the event of creating the temporal world provides at least one time marker for the procreation history of God. The creation event automatically locates the “eternal” God in some kind of a temporal context.
If it is illegitimate to conceive of God as being externally related in either a spatial mode or a temporal mode, or in any other mode, it would seem that we have no conception at all of God’s existence prior to the creation of the universe. In that case it might be wise if theologians and philosophers simply stopped talking about that subject. The Judeo-Christian tradition would then be deprived of a procreation beginning and motive for the plot of its dramatic this-worldly story.
If God is conceived as being internally related, certain aspects of his nature would have to be distinguishable and there would have to be communication between those aspects. God would still be one, as a folded tablecloth is one cloth despite its folds. Several styles of knots may coexist in one rope. No doubt this conception of internal related-ness fits nicely with the traditional Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The notion of internal distinctions within the being of God and communication proceeding between them presupposes a time-like, “going on” quality about God’s “everlastingness.”
If there are no unrelated individuals, searching questions arise about those lopsided kinds of faith and ethics which concentrate on the self-sufficient individual. Once one becomes aware of the systems approach, self-centered philosophies immediately become suspect. So does the pose of purely objective detachment which some scientists claim they adopt.
The minimum knowable situation consists of two components with a relating between them. If it is to be visible, even a single black dot (.) must have a background from which it differs. The dot is conceived as being “on,” “in front of” or “contained by” the background. Some spacing relationship is always present to constitute the third element, the relating between the dot and “the background.”
Even self-knowledge implies the self as knower, the self as known and the knowing which relates knower and known.
In the absence of any absolute and unrelated “ones,” the only oneness to be found is a characteristic systemic unicity which is discernible in the “togetherness,” the “throughoutness,” and the interdependence of the several components which operate as one system. The oneness of God has often been conceived as somewhat like that of a solid, undifferentiated block, an inconceivably huge, unfissionable “atom.” That kind of unity cannot be imagined without the ghostly companionship of a surrounding milieu to which it is somehow related. The systems approach suggests that the simplest possible way to conceive and speak of the oneness of God is in terms of the unicity of a minimal system—two distinguishable components united into one system by an intrinsic interrelating go-between.
This kind of unicity which is compatible with internal and active interrelating does not demean the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. On the contrary, it could help to make some sense of that ancient teaching for those who cannot see how what has been conceived as three separate block units could collectively possess any actual unity other than the abstract universal “idea” of unity which makes each self-contained unit “one unit.” In that case “God” would have to be the idea of unity. The question “In whose mind?” raises the same problem all over again.
The fact that the basic module of “system” always consists of at least two coexisting components and a relating between them provides a ready solution to the ancient philosophical problems of how the “many” can be “one” and how the “one” can be “many.” Despite the necessary plurality within every system, that plurality does not exclude unicity. Many components can work together as one system.
Within any system, differences and distances are always to be found. Without them we could not know about or speak of the plurality of the components. In systems there will always be otherness, distinguishability, joints, opposites, polarities, resistance, initiatives, fluctuations and oscillations, but all are reconcilable.
Obviously all of these features could become sources of potential breakdowns. Despite their presence a system must hold together long enough to sustain reciprocal communicating via some medium. The existence of a system which actually operates is a victory over disintegration, an achievement which seems to have defied successfully, if only temporarily, the clutches of the second law of thermodynamics. By that law every system—its energy dispersing—is doomed to participate in a death march toward total disorganization. In a world which is alleged to be running downhill into disorder, the occurrence and continuance of so many long-thriving systems is a bit of a puzzler.
Only if the components of a system continue to cohere can they continue to interact. To keep components in constant communication with each other, between them there must be some elastic medium or tensile force, a resilient, springy go-between of some sort. Were it not for such mediators, active systemic components would tend to part company. Some system-connecting arrangements are invisible, such as gravitation, magnetism and chemical bondings. Some systems are held together by material continuities—cables, springs, zippers, seams, wires or wood fibers such as those that are preventing the printed symbols on this page from drifting away into a wrong order or into utter disorder. Invisible personal interests, common goals and social rules hold individual persons together for a conversation or for a meeting.
The old runaround
Through various connectors and media the components of a system interact across distances for significant periods of time. A local concentration of energy tends to disperse in whatever directions traveling is possible. Waves of differing, oscillations or surges of energy, will therefore be making their way through all available couplings from the component in which they arise toward the other components in the system. Any variations in a single component can thus effect changes in the performance of many other components. When the government enlarges one of its departments to administer a new law, for example, everybody’s taxes go up. When a lightning bolt hits a transformer, it can bring to a halt all the activities that depend upon the electricity which that transformer usually supplies.
A change in one component will influence the performance of the entire system and therefore indirectly affect every other component in the system. A broken leg can change your whole life-style. Every difference makes a difference. The state of any portion of an organization, therefore, depends largely upon the situation which pertains to all other portions of the system. Each family has to work out what events can be included in the day’s schedule for each family member, considering all the pressing engagements and prior commitments of other members of the family. If a table has one short leg, all parts of the table become unstable. This principle has far-reaching political and social implications.
The parts of a system, being interdependent, mutually affect each other. The “normal” behavior of the system cannot, therefore, be said to have been “caused” solely by the activity of any single part of any one subgrouping of parts within the system. In systems, causation is a mutual affair. No one can specify “the cause” of a system’s origin or continuing operation. It is fairly easy, however, to track down “the cause” of the breakdown of a system. You locate the place where communication between components ceases—i.e., where the circuit is interrupted. Since at any one moment in this complex interactive world there are more systems which are functioning well than there are systems which have broken down, the vague old notion of “causation” doesn’t explain much about the vast majority of normally functioning systems. Doctors can account for many diseases fairly easily, but no one can totally explain health.
Here is a diversion you might introduce when nothing much is happening at a gathering of young people. Have them all stand close behind each other in a ring, each facing the back of the person ahead all around the circle. When you say, “Sit,” each person is to sit down on the lap of the person just behind. Everybody will be delightfully surprised at discovering mat the whole company can be seated without chairs! This seating arrangement demonstrates the principle of mutual causality. Pull out any sitter and all will fall.
Since a complex system requires a multiplicity of mutual causality explanations, and since in this world really simple systems are rarities and probably abstractions, it is well-nigh impossible to explain anything to the very bottom. It therefore behooves scientists and all would-be explainers to avoid giving the impression that they “know it all.” The advent of the systems approach to the world has signaled the acceptance of a due and proper attitude of humility as befitting all those who really know the complexity of the actual world.
As far as that goes
The “wholeness” of a system is, in practice, definable in terms of the transmission of information concerning the activity of each part to all other parts of the system. The “wholeness” of a system is evident when whatever happens in one region of it reverberates throughout the remainder of the system. When each part is responsively connected with every other part, a sense of “throughoutness” is created. What is not functionally connected through to all the others in some way is not considered to belong to the whole. At some time in the future it might become part of the whole, or at some time in the past it might have been part of the whole. But if what happens anywhere in the system makes no perceptible difference to some alleged part of the system, that item is not at that moment functioning as part of the whole. If you pull one person out of that ring of mutual lap-sitters, all of them will fall down. Anyone who is not affected by the dislocation was not a part of the system of sitters. The “boundaries” of a system can be discovered by following the effects of a perturbation until they are no longer discernible. System boundaries are therefore to some extent a function of the interdependence of components and the transmission of information.
When a system acts upon any of the systems around it, it acts as a whole. Each system which is acted upon also reacts as a whole.
Any “single” item which becomes a part of a system is already a system in itself. It may be capable of performing in many different ways, depending on the systemic context within which it is caught up. A table tennis ball can bounce on a solid surface. It can also float in water. It will not likely have an opportunity to float in water while it is being batted back and forth in a table tennis game. Most of the possible behavioral modes in a system’s repertoire will never be exercised while it functions as an element within the same larger system. The rest of the system selectively controls the moves of each of its components, permitting some and preventing others. Only if the controlling powers of its dominant element are exerted effectively can a system retain its characteristic patterns of behavior.
Everything is under control
Just as the extent of a system can be established by tracing out to a vanishing point the effects of changes generated by a certain component, the system’s boundaries are also locatable by identifying the effective authority which is being obeyed at a given place. On one side of a system boundary whatever happens is governed by a certain set of rules, while whatever happens on the other side may be controlled according to a quite different set of rules. That’s how you can tell when you have crossed over an international boundary line, remember. The rules change over the boundary. Teenagers acutely experience this change of regime when they come home after being out on the town with their peer gang. When familiar and expected courses of events give way to some that are quite different, you know that you have either slipped over somehow into another system, or some alien system has intruded. If dishes begin rattling in your cupboard, the rocking chair starts rocking and a vase reels off your mantlepiece, you immediate suspect that an earthquake has disrupted the stability of your area. Or a poltergeist? If each system derives a certain identity from the particular source of authority which it obeys, it is important to understand how control is achieved. Some control arises indigenously within a system from the very way the system is organized, for components can to some extent control one another. Other controls may be imposed by constraints located outside the system.
Parts combine to determine and reinforce the behavior of the system as a whole. At the same time the parts mutually limit one another’s possible activities. By restraining one another, individualistic “wildcat” excursions are prevented. A well-constructed bridge behaves reliably because it contains bracing units in a triangular formation. Each side of a triangular bracing unit restrains the freedom of motion of the ends of each of the other two sides. When the whole structure so braced is firmly tied to unmoving footings and anchorages, great stability is achieved with a relatively small gross weight of components.
Systems which are designed to deliver materials, energy or information from one place to another are usually constrained by relatively impenetrable boundary barriers which are usually called channels. The flow is contained within pipes, wires, railway tracks, ditches, banks, fences and the like. The times and volumes of the flows are controllable by valves, switches, gates, traffic signals, dams with sluicegates, and such. Some systems are controlled by automatic devices. Governors on engines, thermostats in heating systems, and recording-level controls on cassette recorders are examples. The components of these automatic control systems are so arranged mat the level of the system’s performance is monitored and maintained as close as possible to a desired level by “feedback” of information.
Every system commences its career with an original endowment of primal motions in certain directions, and with components which possess characteristic affinities, interests and functional possibilities. These aboriginal “givennesses” will exert a continuing, inherent control upon the system’s behavior throughout the whole of its subsequent history. It can never do what it “might have done,” or become what it “might have become,” had its beginnings been different. The concentrated mass and substantial structure of rocket vehicles are necessary when they are blasting through earth’s atmosphere. Their solidity, however, makes them vulnerable to impacts from other solid rapidly moving objects such as meteors. Devastating collisions could be avoided if, say, a spaceship could momentarily dissolve into a yielding gas through which an oncoming hurtling object could pass without inflicting damage. Such radical transformations are, of course, impossible because of the initial construction of the spaceship. The control exerted by initial conditions contributes greatly to the stability and predictability of the world as we know it.
In this kind of book, the vast subject of system control can receive only passing mention. The various ways of programming machines to secure controlled flexibility in their operations, although fascinating to discuss, would require too much space. Who is not interested in the “artificial intelligence” imparted to chess-playing computers and mechanical robots? Other books cover such matters at length with much greater expertise than I can muster.
Systems which are not operating under some internal and external controls would long since have disintegrated into characterless disorganization, their energy dispersed into the deadest death of maximum entropy. Every enduring system has successfully maintained a dynamic dialectical balance between the individual initiatives of its components and the constraints of the resistances within and without the system.
Every enduring system embodies a dimension of authority. It operates under a specifiable set of rules which give the system its character and identity. These rules are enforced by some kind of power structure. Even the simple children’s game of tag has a shifting power system. Any player may be assigned the initiating authority of “It.” Traffic at busy intersections would become stalled in every direction if “the right of way” were not assigned by police or alternating traffic lights.
The assertion of dominating preeminence can be observed in all social situations involving leadership, organization, order, sequence, placing, protocol, rank, category, standards, values and priorities for selection or disposal. Wherever certain things always happen, or never happen, look for effective rules and authoritative controls.
Because the concept of “control” implies a “controller” and something that is “controlled,” and because the existence of a system implies that it is under control, the idea of system inherently implies the existence of some sort of “class structure” based on the power to control. Each system is dominated by some source of initiative. The sun is on a journey through space accompanied by the earth and a retinue of other planets. Wherever the sun goes, the planets obediently go along, always circling the sun. The earth in turn dominates the travels of the moon. The moon, however, sufficiently dominates its own materials to hold them in place. Operating within every system and between systems is a kind of hierarchy of authority characterized by domination and submission.
Within a living cell, the chaotic motions of all materials are controlled by unknown forces, but they are also and obviously limited in their activities by the cell’s wall. That cell and others like it are organized into tissues, and they into organs which participate in the organ systems of an organism, the latter being part of an ecosystem. Each system is embedded in a domination-submission hierarchy. Each has subsystems “below” it, suprasystems “above” it and coordinate systems around it. Each “level” is partly organized and controlled by other levels of government.
Specific rules which are in effect at a low level of jurisdiction may not even make an appearance at a higher level. That aspect of the total task of governing has already been adequately attended to on the lower level. The interaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form water is not a problem for plant rootlets as they absorb ready-made water. Laws which pertain at the molecular or atomic levels of matter may have nothing whatsoever to do with the way elementary particles behave at the subnuclear level. Their controls are quite different from those that control the solar system. As we transfer our attention “up” or “down” from one level to another, looking at rules and controls, we may be surprised by unexpected novelties.
Whatever special set of rules may pertain to any given level, these will be superseded, overruled or limited by rules which emanate from higher levels of government. Many interpenetrating levels of government may jointly influence the behavior of a subsystem embedded in a hierarchical series. In a company, the board decides the constitution and the goals toward which the management level should work. The production line obeys management instructions, but in its own way. The peculiarities of an individual worker may strongly influence the quality of a product. All these levels—board, management, production department and worker—combine systemically in order to produce a particular product.
Though in different ways, the higher governors influence what happens within the very same space within which the authority of the lower governors is exercised. The systems approach has no objection to this “cooccupation of space,” but it upsets people who adhere to the old logical dogmatic axiom that no two “things” can occupy the same space at the same time. The overlapping of sets of laws which is characteristic of hierarchical systems, is clearly at odds with a logic that insists on clean-cut edges and unambiguous divisions between the segments of reality. It is often quite difficult, if not impossible, to say exactly where one set of rules loses force and where those of another level of authority take over.
Due to the dynamic linkages between the components which are the parts of a system, systems are much more than collections of bits and pieces. In a heap, items may be related only randomly and irrelevantly. Nothing exciting is ordinarily expected from an unorganized pile of miscellaneous things. But when a throughway is established between components, through which materials, energy and information can be transported, those items can become integral parts of a system, and participate in “the composition effect” which sometimes generates surprising emergent phenomena. An item may remain inert and nonfunctional until it is connected with a certain level of energy. A light bulb, for example, doesn’t gain its major significance until it is serviced by the proper electrical current. Then it may glow brilliantly. Receiving the right information makes a big difference. People will soon learn how to sing a new song when they have heard the melody and seen the words.
As we have previously noted, when an item which is capable of functioning in many ways becomes part of a certain system, that system’s controls will likely suppress many of the behavioral patterns possible for that part. If it should later be removed from that particular system and transplanted into some other, some of its unsuspected latent talents may then come into play. Potentialities thus released explain many emergent systemic phenomena. That length of boiler tubing which had served as a culvert at Sechelt became a baking oven soon after I set it up differently. Systems are likely to have multifinality—they can produce different results in different contexts.
The first time an emergence is witnessed it may produce dismay, delight, or a sense of wondrous miracle. After the same thing has happened a number of times, however, the phenomenon will likely be considered as merely a routine occurrence. Thus do the joyous wonder, glory and mystery depart from life for those who never do or see anything new. The only relief from boredom for those who have “seen everything” must come from learning to look at the world “through new eyes.” Then what once seemed to be “merely natural” turns into a perpetual miracle. The systems approach can provide a new way of seeing which is an unending source of delight and worship.
The inclusion of a creative human being as pan of a system can greatly increase its versatility and the likelihood of emergent surprises occurring. The behavior of a train of gear wheels should be easily predictable by counting the numbers of teeth in the wheels and the number of revolutions per minute of the drive wheel. But if a human being gets involved with that system, the gear train may be disassembled and the gears may be strung on a wire or a chain to serve as a boat anchorage.
The various parts of a system could often be put together in a number of different ways thus accomplishing a variety of different purposes. Alphabets are like that. A working system as a whole, as we have previously noted, is quite different from the mere aggregate of its parts. It’s the form, or the arrangement and order of interconnection between the parts that makes the difference.
A similar or identical result may be produced by a number of different systems. How many ways are there to catch a fish? Whatever the system by which it is caught, the fish ends up in the same frying pan. How many ways are there to go to Rome? When the same result is produced by different systems, that is called equifinality.
In view of the multifinality and equifinality which can follow system processes, one must conclude that the systems approach to the world is not necessarily rigidly and permanently deterministic, especially when human beings are included in the systems.
The best or the most
System performance has a way of settling down into a smoothly operating pattern. Each component is then making its optimal contribution to the whole. Each car seems to work best at a certain speed, with a certain kind of fuel at a certain time of day or night. So it is with every system. When its performance is predictable, continuous and efficient, we may conclude that the controls are set just right, that the right materials are being provided and that the right energy is being supplied. The right channels are conveying the right information to the right destinations within the system so that it is producing the right responses.
This complex system quality which is referred to by the words “right,” “fitting,” “appropriate” and “optimal,” is that same quality of “righteousness” that came up in connection with the Logic of Growth. Being a system word, righteousness is inevitably and essentially involved in the realms of art, health, morality and religion. Righteousness is not merely a matter of private commitment or a solo performance. This rich conception takes into account all of an individual system’s relationships, both internal and external. If all of these relatings are going as they should, harmony, prosperity and pleasantness should prevail—a state which the Hebrews called “shalom.”
Unfortunately such a state of total righteousness is almost impossible to come by in this world. There is competitive conflict between systems. Some win and some lose. Maximizing a single system and its tributary satellites can only work to the detriment of other systems. The inordinate boosting of a single aspect of a single system will result in a destructive, monstrous lopsidedness. Maximization of less than the whole must not be mistaken for optimization of the whole. In the systems sense the egoist, the chauvinist, the specialist, the self-centered “saint,” however praised they may be, are not the “righteous.”