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.

g. Anti-social Needs and Behaviour

Anti-social Needs & Behaviour

Our normal needs have an evolutionary basis and are those which, in the past, best enabled us to survive and procreate. They are the result of order brought about by life’s struggle against entropy and can be likened to the sandcastle described in my first article “Schrodinger’s Other Paradox”. They have a basis in both genetic and cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, due to the same evolutionary processes, some individuals have anti-social needs which cause behaviour that is a contra-satisfier resulting in harm to others. Note that I do not regard simple differences of opinion or personality as being anti-social. Nor do I regard outrage or disapproval as a harm. There must be a genuine impact on the contra-needs of others. Anti-social needs are the inevitable effect of entropy both on society and on the human genome, and can take many forms, most of which are harmful. Their existence can be likened to the many ways in which the sandcastle can begin to decay into a random heap of sand.

In practice, both normal needs, anti-social needs, and the behaviour they cause are defined by laws, norms, and consensus. These differ from nation to nation, culture to culture, and time to time. Generally, however, crime is subject to laws and punishment by the state, for example, imprisonment for theft. Violation of moral and religious codes has been regarded as punishable by God. Historically, for example, hell has been the ultimate fate of sinners. In some highly religious societies, the state can also intervene and, for example, impose punishment for blasphemy. Violation of social norms is punishable by the community by, for example, shunning. However, acts that cause mental stress or psychological damage to the victim often receive no censure.

Our contra-needs, or those harms that we wish to avoid, also have an evolutionary basis and are largely universal. Any behaviour which impinges on them will, therefore, be regarded by the recipient as unacceptable. If social controls favour normal needs, then the tendency will be towards orderly and healthy societies. However, if religious dogmas, political ideologies, corruption, or any combination of the three gain undue influence, especially control of the state, then incompatibilities can occur. This results in a society which can only be sustained through force, coercion, and repression.

Although normal needs are relatively universal and based on what has best enabled human beings to survive and procreate, disorder can occur in infinite ways. The causes of anti-social needs are, therefore, boundless. Examples include heredity, biological disfunction, drugs, upbringing, poverty, social, political, and economic factors, and so on. Criminologists recognise, for example, that the causes of crime are unique to each individual and that a combination of several factors may be in play.

It is impossible, therefore, to categorise anti-social needs. Furthermore, because an actor with anti-social needs will usually disguise them to avoid social controls, and will not be forthcoming with researchers, it is also extremely difficult to assess the priority that he or she gives to them and to anticipate when anti-social behaviour will occur.

Anti-social needs do, however, lie on a scale of type, which can vary from extreme psychological disorder, to exaggerated normal needs. Once a need is adequately satisfied, we usually move on to the satisfaction of others. However, for a variety of reasons, such as social influences, force of habit, or personality traits, it is possible to become trapped in the satisfaction of a particular need, to the extent that it is indulged in to harmful excess. For example, the pursuit of excessive wealth, power, or celebrity.

Anti-social needs also lie on a scale of harmful intent. At one extreme lie psychopathy, paedophilia, narcissism, etc., where the need is only satisfied by deliberately causing harm to others. At the other extreme lie antisocial behaviour and Schadenfreude or pleasure at the misfortune of others. Anti-social behaviour, as we presently understand it, is inconsiderate behaviour. It incudes, for example, vandalism, graffiti, littering, and dumping rubbish.

Finally, anti-social needs lie on a scale of effect which depends on the priority given by the victim to the relevant contra-need. Death, for example, would be high in the list of a victim’s contra-needs.

Life is a struggle against entropy, and it is inevitable, therefore, that we will always be faced with anti-social needs. However, this does not mean that we should just accept them. They are entropic in nature, and we are compelled by evolution to fight against them.

Most criminologists recognise that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. It is also the case that people are attracted to institutions, organisations, and individuals who they feel will satisfy their needs. Knowing this, risk assessment, deterrence, prevention, and mitigation, based on the priority of the relevant contra-needs and the number of people affected, could be a practical approach. This would, for example, involve assessing the risk of an institution being steered in a harmful direction, and taking measures to reduce the risk that an individual with relevant anti-social needs can take its reins.

01. Evolution a. Schrodinger's Other Paradox

Schrodinger’s Other Paradox

Have this article read to you.

There are significant features of living beings which distinguish them from all else in the known universe and which play a major role in human behaviour. To understand these, it is necessary to enter the realm of physics.

The explanation begins with the concept of time. Our human experience of time is that we move through it in one direction from the past to the present. This is known as “the arrow of time”. However, with two exceptions, the fundamental laws of physics do not dictate the direction of travel. They apply equally whether it is from the past to the future or from the future to the past.

The first exception is the second law of thermodynamics. The first and second laws of thermodynamics were developed in the 1850’s based on the work of Rankine, Clausius and Lord Kelvin. The first law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed and that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. The second law states that, in a closed system, i.e., one into which energy cannot enter and from which it cannot escape, as energy is transformed from one state to another, some is wasted as heat. Importantly, however, the second law also states there is a natural tendency for any isolated system to degenerate from a more ordered, low entropy state to a more disordered, high entropy state. 

An important feature of the second law is that it defines direction in time and, thus, the arrow of time. The degeneration from a low entropy state to a high entropy states takes place as we travel through time from the past to the future. Were we to travel from the future to the past then the reverse would occur.

In the late 19th Century, the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann explained that entropy was a measure of the ways in which atoms and the energy they carry can be arranged and the probability of that arrangement. If atoms are arranged in an organized system, for example a crystal lattice, then they are in a low entropy state. However, if they are arranged in a more random and unstructured way, for example in a gas, then they are in a high entropy state. However, the probability of atoms being arranged in a crystal lattice is much lower than the probability of them being arranged as a gas. Thus, an orderly system has low probability and low entropy, a disorderly system high probability and high entropy. Entropy and disorder always increase in the direction of the arrow of time because the probability of a high entropy system is greater than that of a low entropy system.

Professor Brian Cox gives an excellent example in this Youtube video  In summary, the random arrangement of sand particles in a heap is far more likely than an arrangement that forms a sandcastle. So, as time progresses it is far more likely that a sandcastle will decay into a heap of sand than a heap of sand will arrange itself into a sandcastle.

Boltzman also suggested that, at some time in the distant past, the universe was in a low entropy state. This was dubbed the “Past Hypothesis” by Richard Feynman. However, Boltzman was unable to explain why this is the case and, to this day, this remains one of the unsolved problems of physics.

The second exception among the fundamental laws of physics is causality. In the direction of the arrow of time, a cause always precedes its effect and not vice versa. Were it possible for an effect to precede its cause the world would abound with time-travel paradoxes.

Attempts have been made to link, entropy, probability, and causality into a unified theory, but they have met with little success. Most authors believe that there is an undiscovered law associated with the initial and final states of the universe. Others believe that the law is associated with the nature of time and this defines the initial and final states. However, as matters stand at present, we simply have no explanation.

In 1944, another Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, raised an apparent paradox in his book “What is Life” which can be downloaded at This was not his famous “Cat” paradox. Rather it is the tendency for living systems to become more organized as time progresses, which appears to contradict the second law of thermodynamics. Schrodinger thought that the basis of living matter evading decay to equilibrium was a “code-script” in the chromosomes of the organism “which determined the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and its functioning in the mature state”. At that time, DNA was yet to be discovered but Schrodinger’s work was significant in inspiring the necessary research.

There is no real paradox, however, because living beings are not closed systems. Rather they use free energy from the sun. In striving to maintain their integrity they increase entropy in their surroundings, and, in total, nett decay still occurs. Nevertheless, this anti-entropic behaviour is a distinctive feature of life.

Another distinctive feature of life, or of reasoning beings at least, is associated with causality. In the non-sentient universe, a cause must be certain and not merely possible if it is to produce its effect. It makes no sense to say “The traffic lights may turn green therefore the traffic moves off”. Rather, the traffic lights must turn to green. However, it does make sense for a human being to reason that “It is possible there will be an accident therefore I will drive carefully”. In this case the possibility of the accident causes careful driving. We are considering a possible risk and behaving in a manner which maintains our integrity.

So, in living beings there is also an association between entropy, causality, and probability but one which is significantly different from that seen elsewhere in the universe. The effect on human nature of this fundamental anti-entropic drive cannot be overstated as will be discussed in future posts.