A Brief History of Systems Theory

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

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

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

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

The Scientific Method

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

The Systems Approach

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

The Root of Science and Its Driving Impulse

Science is an invention of our civilization, a cultural invention — it’s probably the most powerful invention in the whole history of mankind.  Our world in the twenty-first century is essentially the world created by the activity of science: in cities, transportation, and communication systems and in our political and administrative procedures (the way we organize society).
Rationalism and empiricism, twin outcomes of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, have created enormous changes in all of our civilizations.  The fruits of modern science are now all-pervading in their influence.  It has provided us with at least the possibility of material well-being, even on a planet with finite resources … and it has also given us the means of destroying all life on our planet.
The impulse behind science (scientia, episteme) is the itch to know things, to find out how and why the world is.  This is different from the drive behind technology (techne), which is the itch to do things, to achieve practical ends. The urge to know and the urge to do are different motives.
The urge to know came from the Greeks — who gave us the art of rational thinking.
After the Greeks came the Dark Ages (5th to 10th centuries), then the recovery in medieval times, when scholastic philosophers brought Aristotle’s thought within the orbit of Christian faith.  The medieval world view, based Aristotelian science, survived until the Renaissance of learning led to its replacement by the new world view created by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton — the worldview that is still recognizably our own.

The Quest for Truth

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

The Cartesian Influence

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

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

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

The Death of Reductionism

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

The Method of Science

Science is the human activity which is “the origin of the modern world view and mentality” and within which the systems movement has emerged within the last 30 or 40 years.
Science is a system, an institutionalized set of activities, which embody a particular purpose, mainly the acquiring of a particular kind of knowledge.  It is an inquiring or learning system, to find things out about the mysterious world we live in.  The Greeks invented rational thought, breaking with the idea of the irrational authority which is not to be questioned; medieval clerics started the conscious development of methodology, providing the beginnings of the experimental approach; the age of Newton united empiricism and theoretical explanation in a way that dealt with necessity and contingency at the same time and made the real world comprehensible through ideas.  The 20th century reminds us that knowledge gained is always provisional.
An account of science as an activity:  A way of acquiring completely testable knowledge of the world characterized by an application of rational thinking (to experience observations, experiments, concise expression of the laws which govern the regularity of the universe, expressing them mathematically if possible).
Three characteristics define the patterned activity: reductionism, repeatability, and refutation.  We reduce the complexity of the real world with experiments whose results are validated by their repeatability.  We build knowledge by the refutation of hypotheses.  These are the three senses in which science is “reductionist.”  The world is messy. To define an experiment is to define a reduction of the world, one made for a particular purpose.  The second way which science is reductionist; much is to be gained in logical coherence by being reductionist in explanation, using the minimum explanation required by the facts to be explained. Thirdly, breaking down problems to analyze piecemeal, component by component.  In this sense, scientific is almost synonymous with analytic thinking.

Hierarchy and Emergence

The reductionist ideal is expressed in terms of a hierarchy of the sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and social science – each dependent on the preceding.  No one would ever argue that the place for psychology is between chemistry and biology.  We see here levels of complexity.  Laws, which seem to operate at one level, seem to be higher order with respect to those of lower levels.  This is the kernel of the concept of emergence, the idea that at a given level of complexity there are properties characteristic of that level (emergent at that level) that are irreducible.
The debate of reductionism vs. emergence is a prime source of systems thinking.
The second characteristic of science is repeatability of experiments.  You might think that D.H. Lawrence or a particular kind of music is good or bad, depending upon the literary or musical tastes of society at a particular time, and ourselves.  Knowledge of this kind remains private knowledge in the sense that the choice is ours to accept it or not.
Scientific knowledge is public knowledge.  We have no option but to accept what can be repeatedly demonstrated by experiment.  The inverse square law of magnetism is the same all over the world.  What has to be accepted is the happenings in the experiment, not necessarily the interpretation of the results!  It is the repeatability of experimental facts, which places science in a different category from opinion, preferences, speculation (that iron filings are attracted because they are iron, not because of their shape).
Connected with the repeatability criterion for science is the importance of measurement.  Measured values can be repeated and recorded more easily than qualitative findings.

Paradigm Shifts

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

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

Newton and Einstein were responsible for revolutionary paradigm shifts.  This is what happens when a piece of scientific work is planned and carried out:  The scientist decides what section of the world’s variety to examine.  He makes his reduction, designing an artificial situation within which he can examine the workings of a few variables while others are held constant.  The experimental design makes sense in terms of some particular view of or theory about that part of the world’s variety that he is investigating, and his particular experiment will constitute the testing of a hypothesis within that theory.  The question the experiment poses is: Will it pass the test?
In logic, we are more interested in the refutation than corroboration.  This is because it is not possible to prove anything by induction.  With deductive argument, there is no problem; we can prove that Socrates is mortal.  But we cannot prove that the sun will come up tomorrow.  Multiple confirmatory observations do not, in logic, get us nearer to truth.  Thus, a hypothesis refuted is a more valuable result.

Science and the Systems Movement

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

Coping With Complexity

The interesting question: To what extent can the method of science cope with complexity?  Where does it fall down and why?
Cursory inspection of the world suggests that it is a giant complex with dense connections between its parts.  We cannot cope with it and are forced to reduce it into separate areas we can examine.  Thus we get subjects and disciplines.  Because our education is, from the start, conducted in terms of this division, it is not easy to remember that the divisions are man-made and arbitrary.
Nature does not divide herself into physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth. Yet these concepts have been hammered into us, and are so ingrained in our thinking that we find it hard to perceive the unity that underlies them. Our need for coherence, therefore, demands that we arrange the classification of knowledge according to some rational principle. Systems thinking gives us a way to escape this trap and evolve more inclusive paradigms for understanding ourselves and our world.

Why Is the Mind/Body Connection So Important?

Though we search the world over to find the beautiful, we find it within or we find it not.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Q: Why Is the Mind/Body Connection So Important?

A: “Essence,” “divine child,” “soul,” “spirit”– our connection with the concept we call “Self” is far more important than what we name it. Awareness of its power and purpose changes your life’s potential. You have the greatest access to Self when the mind/body connection is strongest and there are many, many benefits to purposefully seeking it.

When you are in touch with your Self, you enter a state of extraordinary receptiveness in which valuable information can be revealed, received, and assimilated without the distortion of “mind chatter.” The essence of who we are — Self — is most clearly visible in the open, candidly vulnerable face of a child, you can feel it in their honest and free expression of emotion. Consider how rapidly a child learns, without conscious struggle, without self-judgment and without questioning the value of the growth they are pursuing. Commitment, passion, and purpose are clearly present and clearly provide them with the strength to succeed. It is natural for very young children to experience what we might call “failure” with no loss of self-esteem.

The more frequently the Self is accessed the more “inspired” and creative our daily lives become. People report experiencing a sense of relief, of release, of completion, of recognizing personal truth and having a renewed conviction and purpose. Goals become defined and reaching them seems possible at last!

Mind and body are one, whatever happens, it happens to both. This implies a concept of healing which is deeper than usually anticipated by conventional Western Medicine and Psychology. It is a. return to an ageless healing approach which integrates, rather than separates, the mind and body. Approached in this way, the deepest motivation for the greatest change becomes available.

Most cultures accept the integration of mind and body, but this has not always been true in the Western world. A couple of hundred years ago the curious notion was invented that the mind and the body are somehow separate. This concept was maintained well into the 1970s and 80s in the field of medicine — until overwhelming experiential evidence demonstrated it’s absurdity. Many people still have trouble releasing this notion. Physicians who “know best” and patients who “know nothing” deprive each other of a truly deep healing experience.

Negative conditioning can diminish our sense of Self when we’re very young. We may hide emotions that are not honored by our families — we may even hide them from ourselves.(If we live in a family made dysfunctional with alcohol, drugs, abuse, or other trauma we have a need to develop an internal wall to separate us from emotions and feelings we were never intended to handle.) A feeling deficit begun in childhood may also result in seriously eroded self-esteem, destructive behavior patterns, and the development of emotional, behavioral, or physical symptoms. The wall we erect to isolate our feelings is reinforced to contain our disappointments: this structure denies us access to the Self we need for full participation in life. If we’re fortunate, sometime in our adult life we will notice what has happened to us.

It is commonly believed that adults will deny the need for change until after they “hit bottom.” (Having “nowhere to go but up” may result in the discovery of the wall and what is behind it, including the lost Self.) Must devastation be the only motivation for change? Of course not — not when we can return at will to a non-judgmental state where “failure” carries no shame and the courage to try, to dream, to succeed is accessible. In this state of mind change becomes possible and denial is unnecessary.

When you strenghten the mind/body connection it leads to the highest level of change, growth, and healing possible — a course of action born of desire, not imposed by will or desperation. When intervention is designed for the mind as well as the body; both the individual and their life experiences are considered. This is the basis for Mind/Body medicine.

Our Culture on the Couch

Emmett Miller, MD has completed his latest book, “Our Culture on the Couch, Seven Steps to Global Healing” and is in the process of getting it ready to release. That’s where you come in. We are putting out a call to artists to help us design a cover for the book so we would like to invite you to sign up for our contest. The deadline is tight as we need to have sketched concepts to view by Sunday, March 8th at midnight. The target publish date is March 18th, 2009. The dimensions are 6 x 9 front, 6×9 back and spine artwork with ½ “ bleed. Please see the template for more information.

The winner of the cover art contest will be awarded 2 signed copies of the book, 2 photo prints for your portfolio, your photo, short bio and contact information printed in the book, three Dr. Miller downloadable titles of your choice, and $100.00 cash prize!

Synopsis of “Our Culture on the Couch”

From one of the pioneers of the mind/body approach to medicine comes perhaps the boldest undertaking ever attempted by a physician. Emmett Miller, MD, has taken on the world – the planet and its human culture – as a patient. In Culture on the Couch, he performs a thorough examination, arriving at accurate diagnoses for the serious ailments that currently threaten our civilization.
But, surprisingly, the prognosis is not dire.

The current economic crisis, albeit huge and frightening in scope, is, as Miller sees it, the latest symptom of a deeper imbalance, an imbalance that has brought us wars, political and corporate corruption, terrorism, and environmental devastation, not to mention a litany of personal mental and physical ailments.

With scientific and mathematical accuracy, coupled with ancient wisdom, Miller discovers the underlying causes of our global disease and outlines a treatment plan.
Years of experience have taught him that individuals can produce disease in their body, mind, emotions, or behavior as a result of their beliefs, ideas, tensions, and ways of handling stress. He knows that central to this are mechanisms such as denial, projection, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Could it be that these same mechanisms are also active in our society, country, or even at the global level?
Applying a systems approach, Miller performs a careful evaluation of the symptoms displayed by his new patient. His examination reveals a systemic dysfunction at the core of these problems. Digging even deeper into the system, Miller discovers fundamental principles at the base of the majority of these problems and recommends a treatment plan that involves applying these principles at every level of system (personal, family, community, cultural, national and global ecosystem), the result of which could be the cure we’ve been looking for.

The principles involve no less than a transformation from the current paradigm based on separation and opposition to one that focuses on cooperation and unity. For Miller, this new paradigm is the answer to the world’s problems as well as to the myriad ailments that plague human beings even in this era of medical breakthroughs and advanced technology.

But can we, as a society, learn to work together after centuries of finding every reason under the sun to oppose each other? Miller thinks we can. He offers a blueprint for a new type of leadership that incorporates the values and goals we all hold as individuals, including perspectives and tools for achieving personal inner identity and balance. He demonstrates how living according to one’s values actually shifts the direction of the family, community, nation, and the planet as a whole and shows how Internet social networking sites can spread these values around the world.

To find out more about Dr. Miller check out the links below:

Catalog and Dr. Miller Online:
http:// www.drmiller.com

The YouTube Channel:
http:// www.youtube.com/EmmettMillerMD

“Live Life” Movie Trailer: http:// www.LiveLifeTheMovie.com

Planetary Transformation Talk: http:// www.consciousmedianetwork.com/members/emiller.htm

If you’re interested in participating, please send your sketch along with your contact information and any previous work or portfolio to .com by midnight, Sunday March 8th!
Good luck!
Amanda Rodger-Foley
Director, Marketing and Distribution