@nizken I will respond to the original question “what is a system”.
The challenge is that there’s a Type 3 error in the framing. In Ian Mitroff’s categorization (that includes Type 3 and Type 4 errors), we are “tricking ourselves” by asking the wrong question.
E3 is very different. Have I tested the right hypothesis to begin with? Am I asking the right question?
… see “Ian Mitroff | “Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely” | Feb. 24, 2010 | Commonwealth Club (web video, MP3 audio)”
Let we frame a different question: what is systems thinking?
Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations.
… see David Ing, “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World”, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science , Volume 30, Number 5, (October 2013) pp. 527-547, cached at http://coevolving.com/commons/201310-rethinking-systems-thinking
There are multiple nuances on this. (I lecture on these ideas regularly)
(1) Systems in systems thinking is plural, not singular. If you ask what is a system, does that presume that you’re not interested in other systems (wholes) that interact with it? Are interactions of a system not relevant to a system?
(2) There’s a debate about whether systems are or are not real. When we branch over from the “hard systems” advocates towards the “soft systems” practitioners, systems are a mental construct that human being use to communicate with each other. My interpretation of a system may be different from your interpretation. Saying one is right or wrong leads us towards the design of the inquiring system (i.e. West Churchman and Ian Mitroff), i.e. how to we know – epistemology.
(3) Individuals who criticize “systems thinking” as insufficient and want “systems action” are incomplete. Do we want thinking without action? Is there a presumption that action happens without thinking? (Do we want to get into an anthropological discussion about human beings are different or not different from other mammals, or animals, or any living system?) We move from the questions around “systems thinking” (more epistemological) and away from pure ontology (i.e. what are systems).
(4) The important part of the published assertion is taking apart the statement of "Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations).
(a) Parts, wholes and their relations mean (i) part-part relations; (ii) part-whole relations; and (iii) whole-whole relations. (The question of “what is a system” may not get to the whole-whole relations.
(b) Perspective is important. Are you working on the system, or in the system?
My experience with teaching systems thinking for beginners is that it tends to fill in the parts that people don’t know. As an example, in the resilience science community, “social ecological systems” only started to rise about 2011, because the scientists were primarily biologists and ecologists. They didn’t really deal with human systems. The original Resilience Workbook demonstrates that their initial perspective was from biology and ecology, and human behaviour was tacked onto that. Similar, Soft Systems Methodology is a good entry point in the systems engineering community, where many people have come from aerospace engineering, or mechanical engineering backgrounds. Human systems don’t work the same way as mechanical systems. Teaching Soft Systems Methodology to sociology students is always humourous, because the social science people are immersed in dealing with human systems, and wonder why the engineers haven’t approached the problems of the world in that way first.
There’s a longer blog post on " Systems thinking and (the) systems science(s) in a system of ideas" from 2011 at http://coevolving.com/blogs/index.php/archive/systems-thinking-and-the-systems-sciences-in-a-system-of-ideas/ .