When invited to solve the Rubik’s cube, we are also instructed, as a basic rule, to consider the whole of it to win the game. That is, we can’t move one part without thinking about the impact of that move on the entire cube. The game is simply constructed this way, we have no other choices, and we can’t change the game’s rules.
But in dealing with nature, we can build rules that guide us. How we approach reality, considering the whole or the parts, affects deeply how we reason and arrive at the truth. We usually go through one or even both options without noticing that we are committing ontologically to what will later shape the crux of the scientific experiment we aim to build or any social problem we are set to solve.
In other words, this abstract question has dire applied consequences, but as is the case for these types of questions, they don’t have one straight answer. For the past centuries, philosophers have debated answering the question; some hold the old reductionist worldview, arguing that nothing new exists on the whole, and the other camp subscribes to the idea that nature is nothing more than a system.
We live in a non-rubic cube world and must know how to navigate it!
In the first half of the 17th century, the renowned French philosopher René Descartes introduced the idea of reductionism. In the landmark essay Rules for the direction of the Mind, Descartes argues we can understand anything by breaking it down into its fundamental parts and analyzing it at that level; this paradigm became the modus operandi for conducting science and has been driving it ever since.
In 1972, Ervin Lazlo published his seminal book Introduction to System philosophy, attempting to lay down the foundation of a new worldview; he argued that phenomena are best understood when we consider the whole rather than taking the parts separately; his radical and audacious thinking was a real effort to push the system’s idea into the mainstream intellectual debates.
Lazlo also explained that systems philosophy is a fundamental shift towards thinking of the world, not in a fragmented atomic way but instead seeing the facts and events within the context of the whole, and this requires, as he argued in his book, the audacity to think outside narrowed specializations of knowledge that humans made to understand the universe as a whole.
One can readily notice the influence of Lazlo’s ideas on System Thinking which is now being marketed as a tool to solve problems in Journalism, Healthcare, Immigration, Urban Planning, Criminal Justice, Climate Change, the Environmental impact of Covid-19, and many other domains and sectors. Most recently, renowned scholars even argued it’s crucial to use system thinking to understand this era.
As it’s usually the case in science and more in the industry, we humans are not willing to go back and question the assumptions that have just been pushed far into the background. All too often, we consider rethinking them as merely impractical and even a waste of time. Especially when we already see some success in the tools we use in the real world. This happened to the system philosophy, which is now shifting to the mainstream.
Below are six assumptions I found when I spent time thinking about this paradigm:
First: The assumption that there is a system! This may appear a shallow point to dwell on it, but let’s just ponder over the basic idea that, at the very ontological level, the world does not always consist of systems; there are indeed scattered events and objects that are not united or have any common goal or purpose, the rush always to put them in a system is very tricky and will lead us astray. Therefore we should always start by questioning the system’s existence and resist the temptation to observe and construct it in our mind to start analyzing it.
Second: Some systems die! Either due to some external factors or internal dynamics, we all know this fact, but we overlook it. We must be reminded that the system we are studying now may already vanish. We are dealing with its debris, akin to the death of a far galaxy or a group of stars already disunited. Still, we are fooled by the lights. Consider, for example, an elementary group of people crossing a street. As they interact with each other, they form a system, the move of anyone affects the others, but when they cross the road, there is no longer any system in place.
Third: Perhaps the most cherished assumption within the system community is that more is different! The overemphasis that adding more quantity will always result in different qualities is only sometimes valid; more is different. More times and not in others, some systems are scale-free and not impacted by adding more quantities; perhaps it’s wise to amend this statement to more might be different.
Fourth: We should not equate system philosophy with absolute truth. This sounds very obvious point to make, but many times, as we are driven and passionate about power of the tool we have, in fact, even reductionism, that’s considered on the opposite side, has historically proved it is successful in many areas and branches of science.
Fifth: Some systems philosophy ideas are not entirely new and already embedded in our shared knowledge and culture; they have just been put into complicated scientific terms and communicated in jargon. Even the core idea of considering the whole and not only the part does exist in many cultures and eastern religions, such as Yin and Yang in the Chinese tradition. Another example is the old parable of blind men. The elephant also tells us about the importance of the whole, even some known sayings such as we should miss the forest for the trees go in the same direction; one more example is the African Ubuntu idea, the word is from the Zulu language and could be translated as “I am because we are” this idea invites us to think from a system level, We have to be humble a lot to learn from and interact with our daily culture not to discard it.
Sixth: We should be very cautious of the ethical implication of applying System philosophy, especially to social problems; a perfect example is an analyst looking at and optimizing the interest of a society in a city while ignoring the rights of a sub-group of immigrants.
This is not a call to abandon the system philosophy but rather an invitation for all of us to understand the assumptions and limitations continuously, and it’s indeed a daunting process for those of us who are dealing with this philosophy daily.
After more than half a century of tinkering with system philosophy, it’s prudent to stop and rethink the whole paradigm for a more realistic future adoption.
*Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern university Civic AI lab. He also holds a degree in engineering from the University of Khartoum.