The World as a Set of Interrelated Systems
Self-organization and emergence, especially when expressed by what appear to humans to be the laws of nature, have caused perceived patterns, cycles, and synergies to come into being. These patterns, cycles, and synergies are defined by certain regularities of operation involving specific kinds of objects, interacting in such a way as to form an identifiable, definable phenomenon. We have briefly examined such phenomena already. Now, we will take a broader view. When we step back from particular sorts of regular phenomena, we begin to see patterns of patterns, cycles of cycles, and synergies of synergies. When we broaden our view out to its maximum extent, we see that all of these phenomena form a unified whole, a world comprised of components which, in various ways, can be described as systems. The world is therefore, from one perspective, a system of systems, or more accurately, a set of interrelated systems. It is by the operation of these systems that our world seems to function, and it is these systems that both surround us and incorporate us. We are ourselves systems within the web of systems, inextricably linked, to varying degrees, with virtually all of them.
Definition of the Term System; General Characteristics of Systems
What do we mean when we refer to something as a system? We mean any phenomenon that includes within itself a number of distinct parts or elements which work more or less in concert with each other in a regular, reasonably (but not entirely) predictable way to maintain the phenomenon in approximate equilibrium. Of crucial importance are the facts that a system is capable of modification and evolution over time, and can be seriously disrupted or even destroyed, although the degree of vulnerability systems have varies tremendously. A system, therefore, is not simply a collection of objects or processes. It is the entire set of relations and interactions between and among objects and processes in a particular area over time. In the emerging discipline of systems science, there is a consensus forming that systems primarily exist as percepts of human consciousness. We perceive a system because our brains are evolved to make distinctions among things in our environment, and to see relationships based on those distinctions. This viewpoint is known as the constructivist view of reality. As systems scientist George Klir puts it:
The constructivist view, at least from my perspective, is not an ontological view (concerned with the existence and ultimate nature of reality), but an epistemological view (concerned with the origin, structure, acquisition, and validity of knowledge)…Every system is a construction based upon some world of experiences, and these, in turn, are expressed in terms of purposeful distinctions made either in the real world or in the world of ideas.1
Systems in nature do not present themselves in neat, clearly demarcated form. Their existence (in human perception) requires careful examination and the ability to discern relationships in a context which at first seems chaotic. Thinking of and seeing the world as an interrelated system of systems is to understand that reductionism is insufficient for an understanding of the world, the realization that the phenomena of the world cannot be understood in isolation. They can only be understood (to the incomplete extent that humans are able to understand anything) by examining the ways in which they interact with all the other phenomena of the world. Of course, when we express it in this way, we are brought up against the limits of human consciousness in a rather stark manner. The implication is clear: if a real grasp of reality depends on comprehending it as a whole, then we will never truly comprehend it. Even if we confine ourselves to our own diminutive world, we will struggle to grasp more than a fraction of its reality. We will only be able to understand the whole in the broadest and most general sense, which means that our understanding will, by definition, be an inaccurate and incomplete one.
One of the founders of modern systems theory was Ludwig von Bertalanffy. In his classic work on the subject, he identified the basics of the system concept. A system, he says, is characterized by interacting elements, what he calls “organized complexity”. In his view system theory is concerned with applying quantitative analysis to this complexity. 2 He points out that the elements that comprise a system are distinguishable according to their number, their species, and their relations to each other. A complex set of equations can be used to describe these relationships. Bertalanffy points out that isomorphisms (similarities of function or structure) exist among the laws that describe various aspects of reality. Applying systems concepts to explain these isomorphisms therefore clarifies them, letting us see commonalities among the physical laws as they relate to various fields, the unity of science, and the broad principles by which physical reality operates.3
There are the exclusively internal workings of a system and those points in space-time where the system is in interaction with another system, its interface (to use an inelegant term). A system may have interfaces with a number of different systems, which means that its internal workings may be the sum of all the effects these influences have on them. The ability of a system to recover from a disruptive event may be termed the degree of its system resiliency. If the patterns, cycles, synergies, feedback loops, energy inputs, and interactions the system has with other systems are of such a nature that they help the system restore its equilibrium quickly, then we would say that the system has a high degree of resiliency. We could also say that such a system is highly adaptable.
Systems researchers Peter Fryer and Jules Ruis have identified the following features of what they term complex adaptive systems:
1. Emergence, the result of the interaction of agents within a system that produces an unexpected level of organization.
2. Co-evolution. A system is changed by the environment in which it operates and in turn changes the environment itself.
3. Sub-optimal [organization]. As Fryer and Ruis put it, “A complex adaptive system does not have to be perfect in order to thrive within its environment. It only has to be slightly better than its competitors…”
4. Requisite Variety. The more internal variety a system has, the stronger it is, as complex adaptive systems “use contradictions to create new possibilities to co-evolve with their environment.”
5. Connectivity. How the agents within a system interact with each other.
6. Simple Rules. Although systems may exhibit tremendously complex patterns, they tend to be founded on very fundamental principles. The examples Fryer and Ruis cite are water systems, which although they form an intricate variety of patterns, are governed by the simple rule that water tends to seek its own level.
7. Iteration. The formation of feedback loops that can cause simple structures to grow tremendously in size.
8. Self-Organizing, a property that results from the action and interaction of the system’s various feedback loops and emergent properties.
9. Edge of Chaos. A system that is too stable cannot respond quickly to changes in the environment in which it exists. A system that is excessively chaotic disintegrates and loses its status as a system. A successful system lives on the edge between stability and chaos, where it can exploit changing circumstances and create new possibilities.
10. Nested Systems. Systems are mostly embedded within a network of other systems with which they interact, and may in fact be subsystems of a larger, overall system.4
When we examined feedback loops, we noted the presence of hysteresis, the time lag between a cause and the effect stemming from that cause. We must assume that in highly complex systems there can be many points at which hysteresis manifests itself, and we must further assume that the cumulative effect of these points of hysteresis on the system’s functions can be considerable.
Systems scientists differentiate between a closed system, i.e., one which lacks any apparent interface with any other, and open systems, which obviously can have a wide number and variety of interfaces with other systems. (It is my view that there is no truly closed system, for although a system may have no direct interaction with any other, it forms a part of a whole nonetheless, occupying space-time and energy-matter that would otherwise help comprise other systems.) Within a system itself, the following variables may be in operation:
--The elements of the system may interact at variable rates of speed or frequency.
--The individual elements of the system can undergo changes in composition, or even disappear altogether (an aspect of evolutionary systems, as we will see in the next section of this work).
--The elements of the system may interact at different durations, degrees of intensity, or varying degrees of reciprocity.
--The system itself may be subjected to wide fluctuations of energy from outside the system, which may have the effect of altering the system’s internal functions. Different elements within the system may have greater or lesser sensitivities to such external influences. Variables in purely physical systems caused by outside influences can include such things as temperature, pressure, gravitational effects, interference caused by electromagnetic fields, degrees of humidity, rainfall or the lack thereof, or the actions of external objects physically interacting with objects inside the system, among others.
--In systems involving the actions of humans, the multitudinous unpredictable variations in human consciousness will add a layer of uncertainty to the operations of the system, as we will see in much greater detail later.
In the human perspective, the first systems were obviously completely natural ones. The patterns, shapes, and cycles of the Universe in general and the Earth in particular, acting by means of synergies and feedback loops, comprise the systems through which physical reality operates. The Universe itself may be thought of as a system, although its various component parts usually have very little interaction with each other outside of a limited area, affecting each other primarily by the exceedingly weak gravitational pull they exert. The same is true of the Local Group (as we refer to it) of which the Milky Way galaxy is a part. The Local Group is a system only in the broadest sense, its interactions restricted to gravitational attraction. (But perhaps I have spoken too soon—after all, Andromeda and the Milky Way will begin colliding in about 3 billion years.) The solar system operates within the massive distortion of space-time caused by the local star, and its movements have a regularity that helped shape the minds of our ancestors.
The Sun’s interactions with the surface of the planet and the actions of thermals rising from the land and water (and the variations in these caused by the features of the Earth’s surface), the interaction of the atmosphere and the world’s bodies of water, the wind patterns in the air and the pattern of currents in the ocean brought about by these interactions, can all be thought of as subsystems or nested systems within the overarching world climatic system. As we will see, this climatic system has undergone frequent and enormous changes throughout the Earth’s history.
Living things are systems. Even the simplest one-celled organisms are basic systems evolved to obtain nutrients, expel waste products, and reproduce. Eukaryotic cells especially are amazingly complex, systematically behaving chemical factories. Moving up the ladder of organic complexity, modern plants have evolved elaborate systems that allow them to produce nutrients for themselves and spread their genetic material. The whole of the interaction between plants and the atmosphere can be considered an enormous system. Multicelled animals are a collection of systems which act in concert to facilitate (or try to facilitate) the survival (and reproductive chances) of the animal. An example near and dear to us is the human body, in which the various cell-based organs are organized into systems that in turn interact with other systems of organs to comprise an overall system, one that maintains the dynamic equilibrium of the individual. If we stand back from it and view it in its totality, the world ecosystem is the sum total of all the interconnected, energy-matter cycling local ecosystems that exist on, above, or below the Earth’s surface, the ultimate biological system of systems, and one which exists not only spatially but is the product of all the systematic behaviors and characteristics of all the living things that have ever existed over the last 3.5 to 3.8 billion years.
Human-organized systems are also at work, often at cross purposes. In fact, the world is overlaid deeply with systematic human ways of doing things, systems which are generated inside human cerebral cortices, (usually) laid out in some symbolic form, and then acted upon with the goal of achieving certain outcomes. Humans try to devise ways of doing things that will maximize the efficiency of the overall operation and take full advantage of the natural and human resources that will be devoted to the systems. The test of a human system is simple and straightforward: does it meet the test of reality? Does it in fact achieve its stated purposes in the most efficient and advantageous way possible? (We will, for now, set aside the issue of whether the system’s goals are achievable at all, or rational, or clearly defined, or ethical, or desirable.)
Human systems operate on vastly differing scales, ranging from an individual organizing his work more carefully to entire culture-wide systems that encompass hundreds of millions of individuals. Human systems are subject to the same general rule to which all systems are subject: the more intricate the system’s “structure”, the more elements it contains, and the more variables affecting it, the more vulnerable it is to a variety of disruptions. In one sense, the use of the term system is misleading because it seems to suggest a process that performs flawlessly. We sometimes think that if something is being done in a systematic way that the outcomes we derive from it will be exactly what we want. The word system also implies isolation, or self-containment, a process unaffected by external factors. No human systems, even the very smallest ones ever achieve such a status. We sometimes forget that all human-devised systems are vulnerable to intrusions from outside the system (such as truly unpredictable events or particularly bad natural disasters), random breakdowns in either people or parts or processes within the system, and the emergence of unforeseen negative synergies. The best systems are not those which function “perfectly”—an unattainable goal. They are systems that show sufficient flexibility to absorb disruptions, repair their effects, and get the main processes back on track as quickly as possible. Systems that are inflexible and dependent for their success on 100% flawlessness of operation at all times are doomed to failure.
Human devised systems include all the phenomena we typically call institutions, which we will examine in some detail in a subsequent volume. Institutions are the large sets of procedures and norms by which major tasks are regulated and/or carried out, such as the legal system, the political system, the institution of marriage, the educational system, and so forth. Institutions are usually the product of a long process of what might be called social evolution, a term that is somewhat ambiguous. By social evolution I mean the ideas that are passed from brain to brain via the media of communication existing in a given culture at a given time, ideas which are understood differently by different people and which are very often modified by changing external circumstances or popular attitudes. As we will see, institutions have a specific objective, but the means by which that objective is achieved may change enormously over the centuries. An example of this is the transformation of many legal systems from ones that used such methods of “justice” as trial by ordeal or trial by combat to ones based on rules of evidence, jury systems, systems of due process rights, and detailed, prescribed police and court procedures.
The Interface Between Natural and Human-Devised Systems
All human systems are ultimately embedded in the natural world, even those systems which are nothing more than agreed upon abstract ideas (another subject we will examine in a subsequent volume). Human systems reflect the internal neurological processes specific to our subspecies, and have all the advantages and limitations arising from them. For example, many humans are extraordinarily good at classification and organization, capabilities their brains give them, but exceptionally poor at calculating the various long-term consequences that will arise from their systems, which is also a feature of our intellects. Naturally, human systems are adapted to human sensory apparatuses and must conform themselves to human physical capabilities and needs. Complicating the picture further, human systems must be built (to some degree at least) in conformity with the purely natural systems within which they operate. It could be argued, I suppose, that the objectives of science and technology are, in part, to give human-based systems greater leeway in this regard, to allow humans to flourish in particular regions of the globe that to our ancestors might have seemed uninhabitable. But it needs to be pointed out that expenditures of human time, effort, and resources rise precipitously the more difficult the natural system humans wish to live in. The ultimate example might turn out to be the attempt to move human systems of life into the utterly hostile and exceedingly difficult conditions of outer space.
Human systems, therefore, are still subject to strong natural influences. They can be disrupted by massive changes in climate, tectonic activity in the Earth’s crust, changing patterns of animal migration, and many others. Humans in turn can wreak havoc on natural systems they either incompletely understand or are indifferent to. They can destroy ecosystems with deadly effectiveness, often by polluting atmospheric and hydrological systems to appalling degrees. They can over-fish the oceans and over-hunt the land, drive species into extinction, and transmit viral infections across the planet. Humans, by virtue of their incomplete understanding of their own powers, can disrupt natural systems vital to their own survival, yet another subject we will examine in detail later.
The systems view of the world is an attempt to see reality in a holistic fashion, an attempt to comprehend the whole by analyzing the operation of the parts so as to understand how the world we experience emerged from them. In human perception, systems permeate the physical world and the intellectual worlds that have sprung from the physical world. Humans themselves are systems embedded in systems, devising still further systems through the exercise of their conscious abilities. Systems do not operate with machine-like perfection, even machine-based systems. Most of the purely natural and human-devised systems in which we are immersed are deeply interconnected and seem to be inherently open to change, the consequences of which we will emphasize strongly in the next chapter. We will see that although the world is thick with systems, that it is a world on the brink of disaster at any given moment: a world in profound disequilibrium.