Systems thinking as alternate and criticized paradigm

A basic distinction of science is that it uses observations, measurements and experiments to answer questions associated with problems. But new and relevant questions must be posed if one is to obtain new and useful answers. In reality our old world-view has not been kept up to date to take account of contemporary change.

All things considered, the great innovations of the 19th and early 20th centuries are responsible for most of our problems — something that technology itself is currently trying to find solutions for. The objective, value-free position of traditional science has erroneously been taken for good science. After two world wars and a trip to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, humanity has probably learnt that science does not per se convey a survival advantage. As a realizer of human interests, science has to be founded on transcendental values that exist outside itself. A science that cannot address the values, needs and questioning of modern life and inspire its support, will soon lose its public justification. (See the System Paradigm, van Gigch 1978)

The heterogeneous groups of systems scientists are held together by the predilection for what they see as new ideas, values, and a new way of thinking. They try to transcend the limits of conventional science and reveal the order underlying the messiness of nature and social life. Many of them have a relativistic attitude regarding the modern world-view with its instruments and procedures (Western science and technology). Our present world-view is seen as one among many conceivable, and probably not providing the most desirable course for humanity.

Systems thinking imply that science, technology and all their institutions must serve man, not man to serve them. It will prove that the technological imperative — that every technology which can be developed also ought be developed — has long been both obsolete and harmful. It also tells us that if we decide on an excessive standard of living we have to choose a low quality of life. If, on the other hand, we want a better quality of life, we have to give up an excessive standard of living.

Systems thinkers know the relation between noosphere and biosphere – or mind and body or culture and They know that the biospere is part of the rioosphere and if you destroy the biosphere your destroy the noosphere, but not vice versa.

Systems scientists see common principles by which systems of all sizes operate. By use of an overarching terminology and a common language and area of concepts they try to explain the origin, evolution, and stability of all systems. For systems in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored they offer methods for scientific understanding and treatment. An interdisciplinary science with a body of comprehensive knowledge, attempting for a universal application, to be used by collaborating researchers, is seen as the prime means to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of specialists.

As a meta-discipline, systems science will transfer its content from discipline to discipline and address problems beyond conventional reductionist boundaries. Generalists, qualified to manage today’s problem better than the specialist, could be fostered. With these intentions, systems thinking and systems science should not replace but add, complement and integrate those aspects that seem not to be adequately treated by traditional science.

Other researchers state that there are no other ways to solve human problems than by traditional science. Relativism is said to lead anywhere and nowhere at all. They see no special systemic rules and knowledge about systems, their apparent patterns and behaviour may be both illusory and random. In the real world almost everything interacts with everything. Neither the elements nor the couplings nor the boundaries are uniquely definable. Thus human creativity needs to go for invention more than for discovery. The world needs concrete, immediate technical solutions of problems like AIDS, cancer and traffic accidents and not general principles. Also, large-scale systems thinking in the shape of social engineering supported by extensive computerization of the citizen’s everyday life has been erraneousely associated with systems science.

Taking this last-mentioned fact as a starting point, one of the most aggressive critics of the systems movement (and also one of the most zealous) has been Robert Lilienfeld. In his book The Rise of Systems Theory (1978) he conducts a general attack on its whole spectrum of ideas and methods. From his critiques the following main points deserve to be mentioned:

  • Systems theory is the latest attempt to create a universal myth based on the prestige of science. Earlier myths has been based on theology or philosophy.
  • Systems thinkers have a special weakness for definitions, con­ceptualizations and programmatic statements, all of a vaguely benevolent moralizing nature, without concrete or even scientific substance. Rather arbitrary normative judgements are built into its technical apparatus.
  • In the eyes of the ‘universality’ of systems theory all things are systems by virtue of ignoring the specific, the concrete and the substantive.
  • As a theory, systems philosophy is a mixture of speculation and empirical data, neither of them satisfactory. It is an attempt to stretch a set of concepts into meta-physics that extends beyond and above all substantive areas.
  • Systems theory is a theory with applications which have never been really tested.
  • The systems view of society as an organism appears attractive to intellectuals, who will see themselves as the brain and nerve centre of the organism, dealing as they do with symbolic and conceptual matters.
  • Systems theory is not a genuine philosophy and is not a science; it is an ideology and must be considered as such. As an ideology it promotes meritocracy: freedom to command for those at the top of the hierarchy and freedom to obey for those locked into the system. Its authoritarian potential seems striking to all but the systems theorists themselves.

Lilienfeld does not appear to understand that systems science can help us to explain why an omnipresent nomenclature is unable to let people alone. The systems theorist knows that radical intervention in natural and social systems is a certain way to achieve surprising effects or to initiate a breakdown. He also knows that the solution of one problem often creates a new, more serious one. Systems scientists are not social engineers, but on the other hand they are very capable of explaining why that discipline also often fails.

For the serious practitioners of systems science, Lilienfeld’s declaration that the area has ideological overtones makes little sense. That scientific truth is not entirely objective does not imply that it is subjective and ideological. To a certain extent, systemic knowledge must be considered produced, not discovered. This will, however, not imply that it can be reduced to the social, political, and economic circumstances where it was originated.

On the other hand, it is quite obvious that the systems movement embraces certain ethical dimensions. These were reactivated as a necessary response when humanity seemed to approach nuclear extinction during the most intense cold war era.

Another kind of criticism comes from Ida Hoos who states that even the systems approach has been obsolete in her book Systems Analysis in Public Policy—A Critique (1984). Systems Thinking abstracts and idealizes, replacing the real world with a simpler one. Its techniques has hitherto worked well, yielding elegant and useful models. But today, prime concern in science is in areas which are seen as so complex that they defy this idealization process.

From her criticism the following arguments are typical.

  • The so-called isomorphisms are nothing but tired truisms about the universality of mathematics, e. 2 + 2 = 4 prevails whether we consider soap, chickens, or missiles.
  • Superficial analogies may camouflage crucial differences and lead to erroneous conclusions.
  • Adherence to an alleged irreducibility doctrine renders the approach philosophically and methodologically unsound because it can impede analytic … isomorphisms have effected the reduction of chemistry to physical principles and life phenomenon to molecular biology.

Finally Willian Thompson may be quoted with a sentence from his book Evil and World Order (1976). “The tongue cannot taste itself, the mind cannot know itself, and the system cannot model itself.”

Systems Thinking, like other alternatives to conventional positivist science, has not been unaffected by serious criticism. An example of renewal may be mentioned. This is “Critical Systems Thinking”, based on social emancipation, critical reflexion, complementarism and ethical commitment. It is excellent presented by Flood and Jackson in Critical Systems Thinking: Directed Readings (1991) and Critical Systems Thinking: Current Research and Practice by Flood and Romm (1996). Unfortunately, there are no visible signs that this kind of development has resulted in a more functional attitude in relation to systems thinking.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *