Guohua Bai (Ph.D. Guest Professor)



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Notes of Systems (cybernetic) Theory Study

Part 1 ; Part2; Part 3; Part 4


Britton, G.A. and McCallion, H. (1994)

An overview of the Singer/Churchman/Ackoff school of Thought

Jouranl of Systems Practice, Vol. 7, No. 5, pp 487-521

Theme 1: Philosophy

2.1 The foundation of experimentalism

Singer's historical study focused on how we know; how we learn facts and laws and the relationship between these. He divided the major philosophies of science into three classes:

Rationalism: Assumes that mental laws are given and that one complete deductive scheme can be developed using simple ideas and the laws. Thus facts depend on laws, but not vice versa.

Empiricism: assumes that some simple sensations (facts) are given. Complex sensations and laws can be produced by combining the simple sensations in various ways. Thus law depend on facts. But some facts, the complex sensations, also depend on laws: the inference. Hence, all laws depend on facts, and some facts depend on laws but some do not.

Criticism: assumes that there are some laws that are given prior to any experience, a priori sciences (geometry, logic, kinematics), and that there are other laws that are generated as a result of experience, a posteriori laws.

Singer argued that all three schools are incomplete because there is no unique starting set of ideas or facts, there are no simple truths from which one could develop further truths. He defined the fourth philosophy asExperimentalism: there are no fundamental truths. Some laws have to be assumed in order tolearn, but in addition, some facts have to be known in order to generate laws. Facts and laws are inextricably intertwined, they can not be separated. Truth is not the starting point of inquiry; it is the end point. A true fact is an answer to a question and is expressed as an indicative assertion; for example, "the angle in question is an angle of N0" (Singer,1959, p111). Science on the other hand, always respond with imperative assertions; for example, "the angle measured is to be taken as an angle lying in the range (m±p)0 (Singer, 159, p.11). The answer is an ideal: a limit that can be indefinitely approached by responses but not obtained; the series of responses reduces the value of p towards the limit zero. Scientific progress is defined by an infinite sequence of sets of facts and laws, each set more closely approximating the truth. Neither facts nor laws are considered inviolate; both will be revised during progress to the limit, or as Churchman (1981,pp1-2) aptly states, the "original question becomes more and more complicated, not simpler and simpler. This 'learning more and more' is what, following Singer, I call the 'sweep-in-process' of systems science.

Three important aspects of Singer's philosophy. (1)under the concept of scientific progress outlined here, no science is more fundamental or more important than another. All are required for the progress towards truth. (2) the notion of an ideal moves attention away from what scientists actually do to what they ought to do. (3) experimentalism assumes a teleological view of the world.

Churchman and Ackoff extended Singer's experimentalism to cover modern rationalism and modern empiricism (logical positivism), and propose that pragmatism is a modern synthesis of these schools (modern rationalism and logical positivism). They show that modern rationalits assume that some knowledge cannot be proven but must be accepted on faith, e.g., metaphysical knowledge relating to ontology, epistemology, theology,ethics and aetsthetics (De raddt ). They trace the development of logical positivism and show that instead of asking how do we know? logical positivism ask what do we mean? thus positivist are lead to a study of thing-language. This leads to a view that all scientific language can ultimatey reduced to the thig-language, but it cannot be translated to any other language. "out of this basic language, we can build up the other languages of the sciences, beginning with the language of phyics, and proceeding to biology, phychology, and the social sciences (Churchman and Ackoff, 1950, p185). Sciences are conceived in terms of a hierarchical order. (De Raddt, MMM) Churchman's statement about notions he incorporates "from criticism it borrows the notion of interplay of ........"(Churchman and Ackoff, 1950, p194).

The fundamental presuppositions of this (nonrelativistic) pragmatism (experimentalism) are as follows: 1) all problems in science are interrelated. All sciences are required in any particular scientific inquiry 2) Scientific progress must not be measured relative to any particular people or ocieties, but relative to all humankind. Science is judged from an ethical point of view: on what scientists ought to do. Summarizing thus far, the meaning of reality is an ideal to be pursued. They define an ideal as an outcome or end-state that can never be attained but that can be approached without limit. Scientist quest for knowledge is formulated as a pursuit of an ideal named truth.

The experimentalists argue that all people are inherently (potentially) ideal-seeking, each person is a desiring being (motive in Activity theory). Desire is meaningless without the ability to achieve it. Therefore each person must desire the ability to achieve his or her desire (able to act in Activity theory). All people of all times must desire this outcome; i.e., it is inherent in human nature. Singer made the theme of endless process a central one in his philosophy; his name for the restlessness he had in mind is 'contentment'. (Churchman, 1961, pp199-200).

Singer (1948) posed the question to whom could a person turn in order to gain strength to pursue an unattainable end? He rejected the religious view of an ultimate authority (God) as a source of strength and argued that the source must come from humans themselves. Any person can gain strength from four sources: (1) from within himselfIherself , (2) from contemporaries (A contemporary can help another by choosing objectives such that their attainment will help other achieve their objectives, Singer calls this the moral law of a cooperative world, , (3) from past generations (, and (4) from future generations.

"The conflict has, therefore, served the purpose of intensifying his interest in an end. It is out of these conflict situation that an individual selects his means and ends. Since conflict is in a sense a "contradiction" for the individual and represents what has traditionally been called the "opposition" between the thesis and the antithesis, the competitive situation forms the basic of the dialectical process. (Churchman and Ackoff, 1947, XIV, p17). People conflict in order to agree (see Ackoff 1976, Chap. 11). The conflict is constrained by rules to ensure that it serves another end. Four ways to improve personal function (organizational function, bai) (1) by reconstructing the environment so that more efficient means are available; (2) by reconstructing himself or herself so that the person will select the most efficient means available; (3) by intensifying interest in an end; and (4) by integrating interest in the ethical end so that it continues to be pursued under changing conditions. Conflict is an essential feature of the pursuit.

The subideals according to Ackoff and Emery (1972) are: Politicaleconomic state of PLENTY, the scientific state of TRUTH, the ethicomoral state of the GOOD, and the aesthetic state of BEAUTY.

Critique from Within

Inside-out scientific approach: e.g., if so few people have high moral standards, then use science to find out how to be more moral , if art is failing to inspire, then use science to find out how to produce better arts, and so on.

Outside-in strategy of science: The sscientific viewpoint had no more authority than other strategies for pursuing ideals, e.g., rtistic, moral, political strategies, etc. It was equally valid to consider scientific strategy from the viewpoints of these other approaches.

Churchman (1971) argues that Sigerian fails to capture all the essential aspects of human nature. In particular, it does not include feelings.

A dilemma for this scientific view point. Science needs a guarantor to prove that it is actually bettering humankind, but there is no rational way to prove the existence of such a guarantor. Thus the whole scientific philosophy and strategy has to be accepted on faith . Science must consider the whole system including nonscientific viewpoint of science (Churchman, 1971). He discusses a way out of this dilemma. It is to consider other approaches as enemie. Enemie are those people who "are hostile, out to stop you, to eliminate you and your ideas; they are also to be loved, even as youself(Churchman, 1971,p.156). The scientific strategy is to be your enemy. In other words, one should formulate the optimal approach from a scientific point of view and then subject it to critique from other viewpoints. He argues the minimal set of enemies is politics, morality, aesthetics, and religion. He discusses the nature of the enemies but provides no guide on how to be your own enemies.

Theme 2: Methodology

The experimentalists argue for a teleological methodology, and they reject any notion of hierarchy in terms of fact and theory. For them, all facts depend on theories, and all theories depend on fact. They also do not recognize any hierarchy in scientific disciplines.

Teleological Measurement:

A teleological view of measurement asks what is the purpose of measurement? (Churchman, 1961 p93). His answer is that "measurements are a specific type of information which co-determine decision in a wide variety of contexts." (p93). To measure something, the object being measured must be specified, and so must its properties .

Each part of nature is to be viewed as containing the whole of nature; to understand any part of nature requires viewing that part from as many different viewpoints as possible. But he does not prescribe how to construct a framework to do this.

He points out that all measurement involves prediction.

Optimizing Problem Solving

Ackoff (1953) defines the major phases of research as problem formulation, the idealized research design, and the practical research design.

Ackoff (1976, 77,79), based on the criticisms of OR (value free, ignor humanization and environment) propose new approach (he called interactive planning (1970,1981):

1) participative planning. The djudgement of values are should be made directly by decision-makers, not by scientists. If the decision-makers will be directly involved in the planning proces, then measurement of values by a scientisits is not required.

2) The idealized designing is a kind of participative planning that best allows the decision-makers to express their values and judgement.

3) Planning must be continuous and involve all levels of the organization simultaneouly.

4) The focus of the planning process and the idealized design is on the developing an organization that can learn and adapt rapidly.

Interactive Planning:

Ackoff has devoted a considerable amount of effort to develope a model of the best or ideal adaptive organization over 25 years. The main characteristics of the model are summarized below:

1) A flexible organization structure prescribes how accountability i to be assigned, integrated, and coordinated, he called thi model multidimensional organization. three dimensions are used to divide the work: input (resources), output (products and services), and market (customers).

2) A circular organizational structureprescribes how the hierarchical command structure can operate to facilitate participative planning and decision making.

3) a responsive decision system prescribes the essential properties of a stand-alone system to control the implementation of decision and how a set of these can be interlinked recursively.

Theme 3: Imagery

Singer addressed the problem about the debate between the mechanists and the vitalists. Was it possible to integrate the finding from the two different images of nature ? If so, How Another was whether it was possible to have a science of the mind. If so, how could psychological properties be defined ?

First he noted that the scientific images of nature were different views of reality (subjective), rather than different realities(objective) (Singer,1924,1959). hence the problem was not how to integrate different realities, but how to relate the different images to each other so that the scientific disciplines could use each others' results in their inquiries.

Cause-effect relation was used by scientists to cover two different kinds of relationships. The first is one in which a proceding event is necessary and sufficient for a following event (cause-effect relationship). it is appropriate within a mechnical image of nature. The second relationship is one in which a proceding event is necesary but insufficient for a following event (Producer-product relationship). It is appropriate within a probabilistic image of nature.

He argued that mind is behavior. Mind has meaning only if there is another mind (within one person or another persons) to observe the firt. The behavior that is observed is the mind of the subject. Ackoff rejectd the cybernetic definitions of teleology in favor of the more general concept directive correlation.

Mechanical Image of Nature:

Fig 4 Mechnical image of nature

Fig 5. Probabilistic image of nature

Fig 6. Teleological image of nature- extrinsic function

Fig 7. Teleological image of nature- intrinsic function.

The definitions above can be used to develop a complete,hierarchical, functional classification of system (teleology?). The simplist system is one that can only act in only one way in all environments and belongs to an extrinsic functional class. Such a system is referred to as passive functional because it does not change when the environment changes.

A more complex type of system is one that has one or more intrinsic functions, can act in only one way in any given environment, and can act in different ways in different environments (Fig. 8).

Fig 8. Definition of reactive functional systems

The selection of different ways of acting is caused by the environment. If the system has more than one functions, then change of function is also caused by the environment. This type of system is said to be reactive functional because it reacts to changes in the environment. It cannot choose its actions or its functions, but it does corproduce the execution of its actions.

The most complex type of system is one that has one or more intrinsic functions and can act in different ways in any one environment and in different environments. The selection of the different ways of acting is coproduced by the environment and the system. Such a system is called goal-seeking if it only has one function (goal) or a multi-goal-seeking system if the system can seek two or more goals, but only one goal in any one environment. A purposeful system can seek two or more goals in any one environment and in different environments.

Fig. 9. Definition of Goal-seeking and purposeful systems

The importance of a rigorous definition of a purposive state cannot be overemphasized. The purposive state is the basis for defining personality and other psychological properties and for defining interpersonal behavior. It can be extended to groups of people by specifying a purposful system with people as elements. In this case the purposive state of the system is a group state, which can be used to define the sociological properties of groups and societies. Finally, it can be extended further to define the pursuit of ideals.

"Understanding must be rooted in theory and theory must be tested experimentally by determining whether predictions deduced from it are valid. (Ackoff and Emshoff, 1975, p15)"

An essential part of iterative planning is idealized designing which drives the system to adapt and learn. The idealized design must be technologically feasible and capable of surviving if brought into existence. But it need not be capable of being brought into existence now, or even in the futuer. That is, it can be, or should be, politically and economically infeasible . The reason for this is that political and economic feasibility depend primarily on people's values: Change these and you change the feasibility. The purpose of idealized designing is to free people from existing constraints so that development can be more radical. How do the designers know that their design is complete ? The short answer is that you cannot know. It is essential to include an adaptive/learning component in the design to overcome this problem. As the system learns, it can redesign itself to become more complete. Full completeness is an ideal to be pursued.


Churchman argues that the Singerian inquiring system did not include feelings. Ackoff (1976) argues that feelings are included in the interactive planning approach. Ackoff' (1976b, p.296) thesis is that " 'the quality-of-life' problem consists of failure to obtain stylistic objectives and loss of a sense progress toward an ideal." He argues that this failure can be overcome through participative planning based on an idealizzed redesign of the system.

The experimentalist philosophy began as a philosophy of science but soon developed into a philosophy of life. The basis of this philosophy is the pursuit of ideals. It becomes a methodology for solving interrelated sets of problems. It is called interactive planning to indicate that the focus of the planning process is on interaction, rather than actions .

Corning. Peter A. (1994)

Synergy and Self-organization in Human Evolution.

Proceedings of the 38th International Society for the Systems Sciences, California. pp1-60

Synergetics is defined as the science of co-operation, (cooperating)

Combined effects that can only be produced by two or more component part, element or individuals -- yet we do not, most of us, seem to appreciate its importance; we take its routine miracles for granted. Kauffman (1993) posits a new physics of biology in which the emerging natural laws of organizatio will be recognized as being responsible both for driving the process and for constraining natural selection.

Synergy may be the functional bridge that connects self-organization and natural selection in complex systems. synergistic effects of variou kinds have been a major source of creativity in evolution. The so called modern synthesis (neo-Darwinian synthesis) Theodosius Dobzhansky: "Natural selection has no plan, no foresight, no intention" (1975:157). the evolution of complexity has seemed to require something more than "random" point mutations.

The multi-levelled complex living system, the causal dynamics, has dialectics of part vs. whole: on the one hand, the properties of the whole are constrained and shaped by the properties of the parts, which in turn are constrained and shaped by the lower-level properties of their constituent raw materials, and by the laws of physics and chemistry. On the other hand,the extreme reductionist argument that an understanding of the part fully explains the whole leads to what so called the "analytic fallacy." A whole also represents a distinct, irreducible level of causation which "harnesses," constrains and shapes lower level parts and which may in fact determine their fates. In effect, wholes may become both vessels and selective fields for the parts - and may even come to exercise hierarchical, cybernetic control over the parts. Whole can do things that the parts cannot do. .... its performance and functional consequences may only be comprehensible in terms of its interaction with other parts and the whole.

An increasing acceptance of the views of Biologists Ludwig Bertalanffy (1950,1967), W.Ross Ashby (1952,1956) that biological complexity is characterized by cybernetic properties. That is, biological (and social) systems are distinctive in being goal/oriented (or teleonomic), hierarchically organized and self regulating (they display proceses of feedback control), as well as being uniquely self determimg.

The more the division of labor was developed (in evolution), the more important became intercellular and interorganismal communication and control. (Engelbert Broda,1975) The power and impact of these emergent wholes has greatly expanded over the course of time; complexity has been at once a product of evolution and a cause of evolution. Self-organization and complexity:

Darwin postulated that both the overall process of evolution and the cycle of reproduction in each new generation were self-directed; his theory of natural selection assumed the operation of evolved materialistic caues, as opposed to the intervention of any external organizing agency or teleology. While neo-Darwinians proposed the concept "teleonomy (purposiveness) "internal program.", self-organization has been equated qith the mechanisms of cybernetic self-regulation and feedback. Self-organization is viewed as being a product of, and ssubordinate to, natural selection.

The origins of order in Kauffman´s "invisible hand" (1993) of natural selection are to be found in the generic properties of living matter itself. He characterizes natural selection as a blind "search proces". Herman Haken recognizes the complex dynamical systems are Janus-faced. In some circumstance , the introduction of small changes can enhance the stability of the systems or cause no significant diturbance. Yet in another case, a small change can completely destabilize the system. Two different kind of hierarchical control: one is involves distributed, mutual control among system parts in order to maintain a stable collective state (homeostasis); the other involves the introduction of superordinate "order parameter."

The matter of adaption in nature depends on functional (re)design.

Natural selection did not creat order. It often plays the role of an "editor" or a "censor". Competition via co-operation. The slogan "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," it would be more accurate to say that synergy refers to effects that the part (or individual) cannot achieve alone, effects that are interdependent. Wholes are not necessarily greater than the um of their parts, just different.

Symbiosis : living together, mutualism.

Sabelli H. and Carlon-Sabelli, L (1994)

How the Process Method can Contribute to the Improvement of Social Systems.

Proceedings of the 38th International Society for the Systems Sciences, California. Pp 71-86

Econimic development, political revolutions and religious creeds have not only failed to increase the quality of life, but have also dehumanized life, detroyed the environment, and promote economic, ethnic, and ideological wars that have made the twentieth century an era as savage as any of previous times. Science has manufactured weapons of detruction and means of control that indicate that technological expertise is a double edged sword.

The Need for Theory:

There is a growing recognition for the need to change, but the lack of an updated theoretical framework to conceptualize changes and progress prevents the development of attractive programs capable of forging successful alliances. Those who profess to be "practical men" and rely on "scientific expertise" often neglect or even reject social theory as unnecessary. This attitude is dangious.

Process Theory:

The union of opposites has been the core of process philosophy. The bifurcation of opposites is responsible for the creation of novelty and complexity. Opposites are also synergistic, and that progress justice and peace can be fostered by alternating and integrating opposing perspectives, rather than by following one or the other, or remaining in the dead center of neutrality.

Everything is an action (change and exchange of energy in time). Everything that exists is made of three different but inseparable aspects: energy, matter, information.

Every process contains opposites which are conflictual as well as synergic, similar as well as different, inseparablely linked as well as partially seperated. Every process is paired, but not balanced, by an opposite. All relation are mutual, reciprocal, a two-way street, but they also are asymmetric, unequal, hierarchical. Every social role requires and produces a counter-role: Men and Women, generals and soldiers, capitalists and workers. This universal division of society into complementary groups, and the coexistence of harmonic and conflictual interactions between them is the union of opposites. Harmony and conflict are united opposites, neither existing without the other.

Creative evolution: Systems are not maintained homeostatically; they are in constant evolution. Their evolution follows in some degree predetermined stages, such as the ages of persons. However, equally important are the process of individualtion which makes each social group, and each person, unique, and more complex than the system from which they emerge.

Negative feedback mechanisms that keep a social process within limits, and tend to equilibrium (stability). More commonly positive feedback mechanisms produce ongoing growth and unilateral transformations. Processes ingeneral, and social processe in particular, are not determined; it is not possible to predict their trajectories. We may never reach the ends; we can be certain only of what is accomplished now.

Progress and conflict resolution require (a) to accept, (b) to identify, and (c) to negotiate the existing opposites, and (d) to creat new distinctions and alternatives.

(a) accepting opposition needs to overcome the tendency to see one side as upholding all truth, viewing the other as a cancerous growth which should be determinated.

(b) identifying oppositions: Mao Tse-tung's searching for "main contradiction"

De Greene, K.B. (1994)

The systems Thinker as revolutionary.

Proceedings of the 38th International Society for the Systems Sciences, California. Pp 259-270

But do the systems thinking and practice necessarily connote ethics and morality ? The answer of course is NO! "Systems" could easily degenerate into just another ideology, just another religion. ... Systems, therefore, has no inherent ethics and morality.

If ethics and morality have no inherent meaning, but rather are a function of values (often institutionalized in the various religions), then which values are right? The answer must operationally stem from reality, but there are of course many different perceptions of social and environmaental reality.

Towards an Ecology of Goods "I am led to the conclusion, which I trust others will find persuasive, that we are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the achine we have created to serve us" (Galbraith, 1967, 7).

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