What is a system?

Hello all…I know I’m courting controversy but what exactly is a system? I don’t mean to ask for a precise definition or proposition of a “system” but what does it really mean to you…

Is it a working whole composed of inter-related parts and sub systems? Kind of like an atom or a solar system?

It seems to me that a “system” really implies an abstract mental idea. Something like a map or model of an object. So when we talk about systems sciences or systems we are really talking about the mental abstractions/idea that we have conceived. And this gives us a better picture of the complexities in Nature (physis). Now this may or may not correspond to something in the real world (Especially since nothing is easier to deceive than our feeble intellects…)

Please tell me if my conception of what a system is, is incorrect…

A system is comprised of mechanisms at internal interplay working together in some recognizable way. It has clear boundaries to the outside world that may be other systems or just other stuff, with which the system interacts via input and output, while nothing from the outside is part of the system in question nor is the input or output. This leads to typical, certain behavior and properties of the system despite one cannot necessarily rely on those as they may change for reasons of internal complexity or changes caused by the input or active adjustment/modification. From the outside, the system can be interpreted as a whole, allowing it to be handled abstractly as a “black box” component.

Describing the world as systems is the attempt to arrive at a better understanding of the boundaries, properties, behaviors, internal mechanisms and outside interactions of things and therefore a useful mental tool for getting a handle on complexity. The point here is that systems exist in reality and the question is more if our descriptions/modelling of them is accurate or needs to be improved/corrected. There are few cases where the description as system breaks down or becomes useless, but in any case, it’s never static (as the real underlying system can change or our description) and systems can overlap (meaning that the same mechanism is part of different “independent” systems that each on their own do things within their boundaries in a certain configuration/setup, appearing to the outside as a whole).

The main mental instrument here is abstraction, allowing to hide all the internal details into a generalized entity with relatively defined input and output, so one doesn’t have to deal with all the internal complexity all the time, which happens to be at internal interplay anyway and not directly interacting with everything else in the outside world, hence reducing complexity in the model/description a great deal. Every now and then some internal (side) effects or self-increasing feedback loops or unrecognized interconnections or errors in the model/description or unaccounted changes in the system can cause a lot of trouble (up to leading to instability of the system and even collapse, at which point the internal mechanisms can’t function in their internal interplay any more and the system stops working as a whole, falls apart into separate non-connected stuff) as it isn’t really, fully, adequately representing all of the complexity (which isn’t possible by definition), but only offers a handle by approximation to seemingly reduce complexity at the cost of potential inaccuracy and incorrectness, despite seldom.

Whenever there’s a difference between our mental abstractions of a system and the real system, scrap the previous mental abstraction and come up with a better, more accurate one. While everything in the universe might be interconnected in some way, for reasons of distance, distributions, boundaries, etc. it’s kind of hard to see how everything should be in direct interaction with everything else, so for the reason that there might be some indirections and hops in between, it might indeed make sense to describe things as separate systems that interact with each other.

This doesn’t need to be all theoretical: we as humans ourselves design and build systems and interact with and analyze many of them all the time and are a system and sub-systems ourselves. While analyzing systems and describing them is one thing, designing/building them is another, and even more difficult is to change already existing systems because that means messing with the internal complexity and interplay, which may lead to effects that weren’t forseeable, both in terms of the workings of the internal mechanisms as well as affecting the input and output (including cooperation or lack thereof with other external systems and things).

My synthetical thinking is telling me that every system is part of the thinking mind.

Hence the “whole” is simply the abstracting intellect. i.e. every system is really an abstract mental idea.
This means that to fix any system, we have to fix the thought or mentation we have of that system in our heads.

Yes, that’s a common purely academic use of system theory. It also means that no amount of fixing the virtual system/concept/model in our head has any effect on real systems whatsoever, and what if the mental model in our heads is wrong? Wouldn’t be the conclusions derived from it be wrong as well? So sure, interpreting/describing things in terms of systems is primarily a tool for thinking, but it’s pretty pointless and irrelevant and not better or worse than any other theoretical approach if it doesn’t translate somehow to the real world we from time to time tend to care about. If my model of a car is that it moves forward by its weight rolling downhill with no concept of an engine, fine, who cares if I’m never going to try to build a car nor to drive one nor encounter one on the street, never have any interaction with a car system.

Well, the world is my idea isn’t it? If I want to change the world (or any system in it) I’d have to first make sure I have the right notion about it… A good science depends both on empirical observation as well as a good hypothesis (theory).

How does systems thinking not fall under this rubric of things?

The world your idea, is that a Schopenhauer reference? From looking at the Wikipedia article about his work, I pick up that he made a point that the world has/is its own idea, and while you have your separate idea/model of the world, the true nature of the system is really internal and inherent in itself, right? Just wondering if we should enter a Schopenhauer tangent here, or what you mean by this expression.

Updating the model/concept of a system from empirical observation, that’s already outside of yourself, so you’re willing to change your theoretical model if in reality it becomes apparent that the model was incorrect or incomplete, therefore the actual mechanics of the system win over its theoretical model by others constructed from external observation.

Pardon my irreverence but I’m a complete skeptic concerning Schopenhauer, or Kant or Hegel or any of those European thinkers. I know it is blasphemous to say such things in North American intellectual circles but I think these German and Teutons are a fucking joke. And they all consider the Universe to be a “system” made of parts.

I’m just asking this question of what exactly is a system to find out if people in Toronto really do know what a system is or if it is just some famous placeholder term and famous jargon…kind of like American terms like “the system” or “financial system” or “God Bless You” etc. There is a lot of people who use jargon, words, and cliches just because they are popular or cliche or words which are taken for granted in popular usage. I sincerely hope “systems thinking” is not something like that? Again sorry for the jokes…but the joke is really on me in this discussion forum!

Thank you and take care!

P.S. my only intention in starting this question was to find out what people mean by a “system” because it seems to mean different things to different people. Also I’m a complete disbeliever in Descartes way of doubting everything, I don’t think everything is to be doubted or be reasoned against (except the act of thinking…or whatever that implies for Descartes) European thinking has never quite overcome his cogito sum.

P.P.S. Not trying to be rude or abrupt here…just a bit concerned about what is fact and truth in all this stuff.

That made me wonder what your context of interpretation might be, and it still remains unclear to me because my answer would be: No, and while systems thinking/theory is a mental tool/instrument for analyzing and modeling the real systems encountered out there, the subject of observation and interest is these real systems that do exist, not our models and thinking about them. While arriving at a correct/useful model of a system is a precondition for safe/meaningful adjustment/change of the system, the actual activity in many cases might require much more than just a virtual model in the mind, namely energy, effort, time, timing, and so on. So for the initial question, what a system might be, I’m trying to make the case that an exclusively virtual, theoretical, analytical use of the systemic approach is pretty much missing the point, as the purpose and power of this tool is about potentially understanding and even changing the real systems that do exist out there. You seem to agree via your reference to empirical observation of such real systems and adjusting the mental model accordingly, on the other hand, the notion of changing the world which is only your idea, how might this impact actual real systems observed and encountered by others?

Hmm, let’s see, if it’s not that, what is it then in your opinion? I might add that it certainly isn’t a single system (or only abstractly so, which makes sense for being able to address it, given that abstraction is the main tool for systemic modeling, awaiting adjustment if the “universe” system concept turns out to be wrong or incomplete), and that systems shouldn’t be considered to be mechanistic, strict parts and subparts, but they may overlap (still each having their boundaries with the inside and outside of their internal mechanisms, but doesn’t mean that they don’t interact with other systems or share some mechanisms or similar). Or one could say that with system theory, if applied (the practical aspects), it’s a tool/framework to analyze/identify the mechanisms in the universe that work together in contrast to those that don’t, and be it as broad as the general interaction/mechanisms of “time”, “space”, energy, rendering physical matter like galaxies into sub-systems that adhere and operate according to these broad rules, granted that this notion might be wrong and that there isn’t a “universe” super-system, and each galaxy comes with its own independent rules of operation. At least, system theory offers a way to analyze and talk about how these parts and mechanisms might be related or separate.

I don’t know about people in Toronto, and wasn’t aware that you were asking those specifically. This site is the Open Learning Commons on the World Wide Web, and hardly a city in Canada. I too have trouble with people who only have a vague notion of systems (maybe because of lack of time to learn more about it or ignorance/disinterest), most likely because if one would practically design, analyze or change systems, one would learn a thing or two about their nature, until it becomes almost meaningless to talk about the “financial system”, or much more meaningful in a different, systemic way. At least it should become much harder to just blame an abstract vague “financial system”, not realizing who and what mechanisms are involved :slight_smile:

That is a great answer and it really helped clear up the fog imho. I liked your 1st reply in this thread as well…it helped tell me what a system implies to you. I will reply more and contribute to the discussion on this topic soon once the “busyness” in my Sunday is over.
In my opinion, an organic system has quite different emergent properties than a physical/mechanical system and an intellectual system is quite different than a biological system. But this brings us to the ancient, old dilemma of mind over matter and such rigamaroles which spoil the discussion so I won’t really tread there.

@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/ .

Why? Are you suggesting that the original question is misleading and it’s more useful for better understanding systems by investigating how we think about them (which in my opinion is most of the time wrong or incomplete)?

I like that for systems thinking, as there’s not really a point by thinking about a single system in isolation. For the original question, @nizken didn’t ask “what is the system”, so I don’t assume a confusion in that direction. And indeed the design, structure, nature, mechanisms, rules lead to certain interactions and prevent others, therefore these interactions are inherent and pretty characteristic for a system and its description.

I don’t fully understand this yet either. True, when we discuss systems, potentially everybody has a different interpretation, model, perspective and what not, as our description is composed out of words, for which everybody may have a different definition, interpretation, usage, which is a result of humans not operating on formal logic and being distributed, so because of differences in time and space, we all pick up and develop different thinking. However, it also works well enough to communicate for improving our understanding either purely virtually or by observing/investigating the real system together. I’m puzzled how one could think that systems aren’t real, even if interpreted according to the definition of systems thinking: how would one argue that the telephone system isn’t real with its parts, wholes and relations?

I imagined that with all the systems thinking theory, somebody not already familiar with where its usefulness is might have a hard time if not starting with the basics of an example/instance of a concrete system, about which there can then be theoretical thinking afterwards.

Want to add “observing from the outside” :slight_smile:

Yes, I find that very important. Systems are different, there are different types of systems, they may interact with each other or are completely separate, and it would be dangerous to simply copy observations learned about one system and expect that they’re necessarily also true for a different system, even more so if that’s of a different nature for which different rules/mechanisms apply (maybe because of being part of a different super-system or by inherent design/structure). What remains universal however, are the tools of system thinking methodology, which allow to analyze and talk about systems and understand them better, even if they’re completely different.

How would one do that, by example for chip design?

lol I watched Ian Mitroff on E3 and E4 errors and he mentions Ken Wilber as an inspiration! I’ve studied Ken Wilber like maybe 12 years ago and he is pretty good on holarchy and integral thinking. There is a lot of stuff one can learn from his books although Ken can be a bit verbose and also overconfident in his assumptions. I guess a lot of thinkers are following Integral Theory and Pragmatism like William James and Sidis first defined it.

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