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b. General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory

In this article, I will describe a branch of science known as General Systems Theory. I will do so because it provides an extremely powerful set of tools for understanding human nature and society.

The aim of General Systems Theory is to provide an overarching theory of organisation which can be applied to any field of study. It aims to identify broadly applicable concepts rather than those which apply only to one field. It can, therefore, apply in the fields of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, biology, the social sciences, ecology, etc. One of the principal founders of General Systems Theory was the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901 – 1972), although there have been many other contributors. To date, its principal application has been in the popular fields of business, the environment, and psychology, but it is equally applicable to human nature and society.

A system comprises a collection of inter-related components, with a clearly defined boundary, which work together to achieve common objectives. Within this boundary lies the system, and outside lies its environment. Systems are described as being either open or closed. In the case of a closed system, nothing can enter it from, or leave it to, the environment. It is a hypothetical concept, therefore. In reality, all systems are open systems comprising inputs, processes and outputs to the environment. In a closed system, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies, entropy will steadily increase, and the system will fall into disorder. However, in an open system, it is possible to resist decay, or even to reverse it and increase order.

In summary, an open system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. In the case of an individual human being, our inputs are satisfiers and contra-satisfiers, our processes comprise our needs, contra-needs and decision-making, and our outputs are our behaviour.

The basis of General Systems Theory is causality. Everything we regard as being a cause or effect comprises components, which can also be regarded as causes and effects. Ultimately, causality has its foundation in particle physics, therefore. Furthermore, every cause or effect is a component of yet greater causes and effects, up to the scale of the universe in its entirety. Similarly, General Systems Theory regards everything from the smallest particle to the entire universe as a system. Thus, every system comprises components which are also systems, and every system is a component of yet greater systems. A system, a cause, and an effect are all one and the same thing, therefore.

In causality, events of one type cause events of another type by passing matter, energy or information to them. These are the equivalent of the inputs and outputs of a system. As Einstein explained, matter is organised energy. Information is also conveyed in the way that matter or energy are organised. So, causality is the transfer of energy, in an organised or disorganised form, from one system to another. This transfer can be regarded as an output from the cause, and an input to the effect. Causes and effects form chains or loops, and so create recurring, and thus, recognisable patterns of energy flow. It is such recognisable patterns that enable us to understand and predict the world in which we live, and which are of interest to General Systems Theory.

Causes can, of course, be necessary or sufficient. For a system or system component to carry out its function, several inputs from the environment or other components may be necessary. Only together may they be sufficient for the system to function. Furthermore, inhibitors also have a part to play in preventing effects on processes. Thus, the relationships between a system and its environment, and the relationships between the components of a system can be complex and chaotic.

A feature of systems is that they often display emergent properties. These are characteristics that the component parts of a system do not have, but which, by virtue of these parts acting together, the system does have. In other words, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. This concept dates to at least the time of Aristotle. The classic example is consciousness. A human being experiences consciousness, but his or her component cells do not. Similarly, systems also display vanishing properties. These are properties that a system does not have, but which its component parts do. For example, individual human beings may be compassionate but an organisation comprising such people may not. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be related to the way that energy is organized and flows in a system. They are recognizable patterns of energy flow.

Continuum changes of state occur when a variable characteristic of something alters. For example, when a child puts on weight or grows in height. System complexity is one such variable characteristic. Changes in a variable characteristic can be imperceptible in the short term but aggregate over time until we can perceive them. For example, in the longer term, a person can change his or her state from that of being a child to that of being an adult, but the changes which occur in a week are imperceptible. Emergent and vanishing properties are thought to be continuum changes of state which occur as the complexity of systems grow. They can be identified by comparing things that are similar, but either more or less complex than one another, e.g., a chimpanzee and a human being.

We tend to think of systems as falling into categories which are organised hierarchically, e.g., the popular categories:  animal, vegetable, and mineral. The best way of categorising the levels in a hierarchy of systems is via emergent properties. This is because with new properties, new rules also emerge. One emergent property of particular importance is self-maintenance. This appears in life, beginning with replicative molecules and moving up through viruses, bacteria, and multi-cellular organisms, to ourselves. This self-maintenance property is the same as life’s struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of entropy.

Self-maintaining systems are characterised by two types of feedback loop. One is internal and the other external. The internal feedback loop is known in systems theory as the command feedback loop. It gathers information from within the system and modifies its operation. The external feedback loops are particularly relevant to human society. They comprise the system interacting with its environment, through its outputs, to create circumstances conducive to the supply of its necessary inputs. The goal of both is, of course, to ensure the continued survival of the system in changing circumstances.

Individual human beings, organisations, and societies can be regarded as systems. So too can the natural environment in which we live, for example, the weather and natural ecosystems. However, their behaviour can be chaotic rather than deterministic. We can predict them to a limited extent, but the probability of any prediction proving correct diminishes as distance into the future increases.

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