Guohua Bai (Ph.D. Guest Professor)



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Notes of Systems (cybernetic) Theory Study

Part 1 ; Part2; Part 3; Part 4


Checkland, Peter (1995)

Model Validation in Soft Systems Practice.

Systems Research Vol.12 No.1, pp 47-54

The concept of "model" usually evoles the connotation "model of part of the real world". That is an almost automatic response. It makess sense especially in relation to the way the concept has been developed and used in natural science. Classical operational research (OR), with its scientific aspirations, and systems engineering, use the concept in the same way, and in addition use models as surrogates for the real world, on which experimentation is cheap. In these fields the key feature of the model is representativeness. In soft systems methodology models are not of part of the world; they are only relevant to debate about the real world and are used in a cyclic learning process. The paper shows how the different conceptd of validation in classical OR and SSM.

The method (engineering experiment) is characterized by the three great principles of : reductionism, repeatability and the refutation of hypotheses expresed in models. ... "The models are simplifications, simulations, and/or abstractcion of reality. Models must accurately simulate reality to be useful." In the activity of natural science, then, we see a continuou never-ending search for valid models which enable us to increase our understanding of the world.

The nature of SSM

SSM arose and was developed in a 20-year programme of action research in real-world problem situation. Von Bilow (1989) :

SSM is a methodology that aims to bring about improvement in areas of social concern by activating in the people involved in the situation a learning cycle which is ideally never-ending. The learning takes place through the iterative process of using systems concepts to reflect upon and debate perceptions of the real world, taking action in the real world, and again reflecting on happenings using systems concepts. The reflection and debate is structured by a number of systemic models. These are conceived as holistic ideal types of certain aspects of the problem situation rather than as accounts of it. It is taken as given that no objective and complete account of a problem situation can be provided.

Model validation in SSM

The complexity of the universe is beyond expression in any possible notation. The model in SSM are not "would-be" description of the world, and hence they cannot be tested by checking how well they represente the world. Models in SSM have been described here as 'epistemological devices', so that the validity question becomes the question of how we can tell a "good" decice from a bad one. There are two aspects of thsi question: thw question of whether a modl is actually 'relevant' or not , and the technical question of whether a given model is competently built. wheher a model is relevant has to be answered by learning process.

Robert, L. (1978)

The rise of systems theory.

New York: John Wiley & Sons.

A number of disciplines have emerged in the twentieth century that can be classified under the general heading of "system thinking." These originallly separate disciplines includes the following:

1: The biological philosophy of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and his concept of the "open system"

2: Norbert Wiener´s formulation of cybernetics and W. Ross Ashby´s related work on machines that are claimed to think and to learn and, stermming from this work, the concept of feedback and automation.

3. Informarion and communication theory, based on the work of Shannon, Weaver, Cherry and others, on the theorerical, mathematical, and linguistic problem involved in the transmission of messages over message-carying circuits.

4. Operation Research, which first emerged full-fledged in England during the War of 1939-1945 under the leadership of E.C. Williams.

5. The game theory of Von Neumann, computer simulating social and environmental process.

Technical and scientific advances in different fields have resulted in the establishment of new disciplines.

(Dialectical relation of quantitative and qualitative changes in the scientific history) Within a given period, the overall framework or point of view of the field remains fixed and stable; scientific work usually consists of applying and elaborating concepts that are taken for granted. New work is done and new discoveries occur without overthrowing the general framwork or point of view. But at some point discoveries occur, the implications of which are "revolutionary" in that they suggest the overthrow of the paradigm or general conceptual framework within which scientific work has been done.

The system thinking assumed a revolutionary world view, i.s, to take the world as "organization", "wholes", "systems", not as in the basic categories of mechanistic and positivistic philosophy in which life was as an accidental product of physical processes: the living world appeared as a product of chance. Contextualism and organicism (Stephen C. Pepper)


Contextualism is the name given by Pepper to the metaphysics in which the world is seen as an unlimited complex of change and novelty, order and disorder. Out of this total flux we select certain context; these contexts serve as organizing gestalts or patterns that give meaning and scope to a vast array of details that, without the organizing pattern, would be meaningless or invisible.

A given quality always exhibits some degree of fusion of the details (elements) of its texture. .... William Jame´s lemonade has become famous in this regard: lemon, sugar, and water are the ingredients or details of the taste, but the quality of lemonade is such a persistent fusion of these that it is difficult to analyze the components. .....Where fusion occur, the qualities of the details are completely merged in the quality of the whole. Where fusion is released, the details take on qualities of their own. ... Fusion, in other words, is an agency of qualitative simplification and organization .. some fusion must remain in the quality of an event; otherwise the event would break apart and we would have not a single event, but two quite unconnected events... Contextualism is the only theory that takes fusion seriously.

From the assumptions of contextualism a specific theory of trouth emerges: truth is "the successful working of an idea within a specific (and always limited) context. Truth is verification in practice. No theories or formulations can be used to construct a theory or a metaphysis that will successfully digest the world. All conceptual schemes occur within a universe and can never grasp the total structure of events. Many contuxtualists would even deny that the universe has a "structure" that can be grasped. Nature itself may be constantly changing and full of novelties. The philosophical and epistemological problems connected with this world view are beyond the scope of this study ; what is relevant to the development of systems theory is the organizing properties of contextualism; part are meaningless when detached from a whole; more than that ,they are not only meaningless but often simply unperceived or unperceivable.

Contextualism, important as it is, is not the only root metaphor that relates to systems theory. The fourth root metaphor offered by Pepper, organicism, also constitutes a major orientation for some systems theories.


The organicist points maintains that integrating structures surrounding and extending through given events, are more numerous, coherent, and real than the contextualist want to admit. Our experience is not the chaos the contextualist would have us believe, but shows undeniable regularties of details and texture. For the contextualist, the truth of any idea of theory is operational; these ideas are never firmly established, but may at any time be overthrown by the emergence or discovery of a new fact. The organicist, on the other view, points to the same scientific theories to show that in fact the overthrow of scientific theory does not mean a collapse into chaos, but rather the replacement of a relatively limited integrating form by a more comprehensive and more accurate form. The materials of experience are never lost when a one scientific world view is over thrown by another; rather, they are transferred from a system in which they did not belong to one in which they do belong .

"Each level of integration resolves the contradictions of the levels below and so removes the errors that were most serious there. Each level brings about an improvement of judgment. Each level exhibits more truth through higher integration of the facts. There is much more truth in Ptolemy than in Anaximenes, ore in Kepler than in Ptolemy, more in Newton than in Kepler. It appear that the criteria of truth are precisely the features of the organic whole-inclusiveness, determination, and organicity...."

Equilibrium: ( Lawrence J. Hederson, Biochemist and sociologist)

The organism possesses a self-regulating mechanism whose goal is the maintenance of equilibrium: " a state such that if a small modification different from that which will otherwise occur is impressed upon a system, a reaction will at once appear tending toward the condition that would have existed if the modication had not been impressed." He use the idea in social system from mathmatical describtion. " in a social system all factors (person, interests, residues, etc.) are mutually dependent or interactive" He demonstrated the equilibrium with a figure in which three elements A,B, and C are connected with relational (elastic) bands, and so on..

Homeostasis: (Walter B. Cannon)

A variety of mechanisms exist in the organism to manitain fixed levels of blood sugar, blood proteins, and so on. Insighs derived from psychology might prove fruitful for the study of society. His analogy develops into an argument against individualism. Only with the development of more complex social systems and more complex division of labor do the individuals become more mutually dependent, gaining thereby the advantage of relative freedom from the immediate pressures of foodgathering. He draws a direct analogy between the "fluid matrix" of animal organisms and the transportation system of a state or nation. Persons in need due to hunger, fear, insecurity, are not free.

Open system and hierarchy (Ludwig Von Bertalanffy)

The formulation of the concept of an open system by L. V. Bertalanffy first established system thinking as a major scientific movement. In Modern Theories of Development he argues that organic laws, in contrast with physical ones, require a new ways of thinking. He concluded that higher levels of organization involve new laws that are not deducible from the laws appropriare to lower levels. Science is seen as a hierarchy of statistics.

"All laws of nature are of a statistical nature. They are statements about the average behavior of collectives. Science as a whole appears as a hierarchy of statistics. At the first level is the statistics of macrophysics .. A second level is constituted by the laws of macrophysics.... A still higher level is represented by the biological realm .. Finally there are the laws that apply to the supra-individual units of life... laws of this kind are the basis for insurance statistics, and hence are the great practical and commercial importance."

General System Theory leads to the transfer of laws from one field to another. The main concepts are as follows:

1: the characteristic state of the living organism is that of an open system. It is open in the sense that it exchanges material with its environment; by this import and export of materials, there is change of components. Previous conception of the organism as maintaining a state of equilibrium must yield to the idea of the steady state.

2. The concept of the open system maintaining itself in a steady state represents a departure from the concept of classical physics, which has dealt for the most part with closed system. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a closed system must eventually attain a state of equilibrium with maximum entropy and minimum free energy. But under certain conditions an open system may maintain itself under a steady state.

"The characteristics of steady states are exactly those of organic metabolism... There is first maintenance of a constant ratio of the components in a continous flow of materials. ... after a disturbance, a stimulus, the system re-establishes its steady state. Thus the basic characteristics of self-regulation are general properties of open system."

4. A profound difference between most inanimate, or closed, systems and living systems is expressed by the concept of "equifinality." In an inanimate system the final state of the system is determined by its initial conditions. A change in the initial conditions produces a change in the final conditions. A different behavior is shown among vital phenomena: under many conditions the same final state may be reached from different ways.Though equifinality is not a proof of vitalism, it can be shown that equifinality is not to be found in closed systems .

According to open system theory, phenomena such as metabolism, irritability, and autonomous activities may be understood as maintenance of the steady state, while "growth, development, senescence and death represent the approach to, and slow changes of, the steady state."

The idea of Wiener´s feedback is related to the theory of open system. Feedback, both in manmade machines and in organisms, are based upon structural arrangements. Such organisms are responsible for homestasis.

Summary of Von Bertalanffy´s work:

Both in living and organisms and in human behavior, we see order, regularization, self-maintenance during continual change, regulation, and apparent teleology. In human behavior we see goal seeking and purposiveness. The urgent question is whether conceptual schemes can be expanded to deal with these problem where the application of physics proves insufficient or unfeasible. Biology was embroiled in the controversy between mechanism and vitalism. In attempting to resolve this controversy Bertalanfy first formulated organismic and system concepts. General definition of a system is as a complex of interaction, sum, mechanization, centralization, competition, finality, and so on.

There is a general tendency towards integration in the various science; this integration appears to be centered in a general theory of systems. System properties can be stated in a set of mathematical forms.( e.g, Taylor series, law of exponential growth)

General system theory " will make possible the transfer of simplified conceptual models from one field to another, " and will no longer be necessary to duplicate or triplicate the discovery of the same principle in different fields isolated from each other. General system theory, then will be a discipline that develops, tests, and demonstrates laws that apply equally to a variety of fields.

Psychology in many respects took its origins in a set of biases that hindered its development. For a long time psychology was dominated by the stimulus-response scheme. Human and animal behavior was considered to be a response to stimuli coming from outside. The second principle in psychology, derived from stimulus- response, is environmental conditioning. A third principle is equilibrium. The fourth principle at the root of modern psychology is economy: behavior is governed by principle of least effort. Thus the imagine of man under these principles is that of the robot: Man as a machine manufactured and trained by those using applied psychology. They can not explain behavior as creativity, seeking adventure, and different reactions under same conditioning. Biologically, life is not the maintenance or restoration of equilibrium, but the maintenance of disequilibrium, as the the theory of open system reveals. " If life, after disturbance from the outside, had simply returned to the so-called homeostatic equilibrium, it would never have progressed beyond the amoeba which, after all, is the best adapted creature in the world-it survived billions of years from the primeval ocean to the present day." In this perspective, a new image of man is emerging; the model of man is the active personality system. Man is not a passive receiver of external stimuli, but that he activly creates his universe.

Systematic history approaches by figures such as Vico, Hegel, Marx, and others, Whatever their differences, they all at least agree that historical process is not completely accidental, "but follows laws and regularities which can be determined." Human behavior can not be reduced to biologistic notions; personality disorders must now be understood in terms of the breakdown of value systems; culture is an important component of mental health. System thinking provides a new conceptual framwork for psychiatry.


Systems theory can be seen in its social philosophy as another variant of organicism, the image of society as an organism subject to "growth" and "decay" which "evolves" over time into new and more differentiated forms. In addition, various social instituations will be likened to organs of the body; perhaps the military will be seen as the teeth and claws of the social organism, the university as brain, the massmedia as senses, and the like. System thinkers fall into the organicist conception of society; many do so with little or no awareness of the great age of this imagery.


The essential features (of intelligent machine and human) is that they must operate according to feedback-the control of a machine or man on the basis of its actual performance. We know that human muscular reactions are controlled and regulated in precisely the same way: the reflex by which one reaches for an object is modified by information fed back to the brain about the distance between the object and the hand that reaches for it. Wiener takes for granted the significance of feedback not merely for muscular or mechanical control, but for social control as well.

The nevous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they make decisions on the basis of past decisions. The machine, like the organism, is a device for working against entropy. " There are local and tempory oslands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enable some of us to assert the existence of progress."

W.Ross ashby find similar process among machines; even an arbitrarily constructued machine tends to seek out purpose; it tends to favor modes of acivity in which the parts work together in a stable way.

" I believe that Ashby´s brilliant idea of the unpurposeful random machanism which seeks for its own purpose through a process of learning is not only one of the great philossophical contributions to the present day, but will lead to highly useful technical development in the task of automization. Not only can we build purpose into machines, but in an overwhelming majority of cases a machine designed to avoid certain pitfall of breakdown will look for purposes which it can fullfill." The ultimate significance of communication is that it serves to bind societies together. In fact modern communication makes possible - and even inevitable- the establishment of the "World State."

The organism may be consider as analogous to a message. The organism is a pattern that maintains itself against chaos disintegration; the message is a pattern that imposes itself upon the chaos of "noise".

There is no fundamental distinction between materials transportation and message transportation .

Wiener believe that he can define the law and justice as 1: the right of each individual to develop his full potential; 2: the feeling that what is just for one is just for another.; 3. sentiment of unlilimited good will.

Wiener describes what he calls the two industrial revolutions. The first was defined by the subtitution of the machine for human muscle power; the second is symbolized by the science of electronics, cybernetics concept of feedback. By coupling feedback directly to the machine instead of through the agency of a human operator, immense new possibilities of unfold. We may expect vast economic and social consequences to emerge from these development, but the most he can tell us is that these new developments have great potential for good or for evil and that much depends on how society use them.

The significance of cybernetics in medicine science, e.g, the diseases of inability of the sufferer to guid his muscles accurately-appears to be a function of the breakdown of feedback mechanisms in the nervous system and brain. of even greater important, however, are machie that have learnd how to play chess and to improve their games on the basis of theor past experence.

This is a hard lesson of cold machematic, we are running the risk nowdays of a great World State, where deliberate and conscious primitive injustice may be the only possible condition for the statistical happiness of the masses; a world worse than hell for every clear mind. Wiener assumes that the best safeguard against cybernetic tyranny would be the engagement of a philosopher and an anthropologist on the governing committee. Once we know what man´s nature is and what his "built-in-purposes" are, and once we know why we wish to control him, we can then wield this knowledge as "soliders and as statesment."

Wiener argues that cybernetics impinges upon society. ethics, and religion; he wish to show how: first some religious and scientific prejudices must be overcome. The former is the belief that man is essentially different from animals; the later is that the living beings and machines are profoundly different.

Human learning must br considered from two aspects: (1) ontogenetic (the learning that an individual acquires in the course of his life experience) and (2) phylogenetic (the learning of the entire human race in the course of its evolution. Wiener says one of the great future problems we must face is how man and machines must interact and which functions properly belong to each. Machines work better and faster than man and are relatively tireless, but man is more comlex and has a greater storage capacity for information. In adition human brain can handle vague ideas, imperfectly defined.

He says that social sciences are a bad proving ground for the ideas of cybernetics, for the conditions and variables are so difficult to control. He assumes that science contributes to what he calls social homeostasis, instead in the other way around which many other thinkers assume that a society that is relatively stabilized, perhaps along tranditional lines, is disrupted by the intruduction of new technological and scientific devices, e.g, E. M. Forster express " We can not reach social and political stability for the reason that we contimue to make scientific discoverie and to apply them, and thus to destroy the arangement which were based on more elementary discoveries. If science would discover rather than apply-if, in other words, men were more interested in knowledge than in power-mankind would be in a far safer position, and the stability statement talk about would be a possibility .. But science shows no signs of doing this: she gave us the internal combustion engine, and before we had digested and assimilated it with terrible pains into our social system, she harnessed the atom, and destoryed any order that seemed to be evolving. How can man get into harmony with his surroundings when he is constantly altering them? The future of our race is, in this direction, more unpleasant than we care to admit, and it has sometimes seemed to me that its best chance lies through apathy, uninventiveness, and inertia." . Perhaps Wiener then means stability to be introduced by scientific management of society.

"The instrumental process brings about change; the institutional process, which apparently represents a residue of earlier instrumental achievements, rasists change and accepts it slowly. Thus the phenomenon of cultural lag: the gulf between what is possible and what is acceptable. The problem for the systems exper, then, is to be used are manipulative where they are not overtly authoritarian.".p118

"Change is easier to introduce in matters arranged on a scale with narrow intervals than in those arranged in a sharp dichotomy,....the introduction of change is eased if the symbols of change present no apparent alteration or modification of the culture´s widely held symbols. .. One resolution of this difficulty ... is to conduct a project with mixed teams of investigators, some of whom have instrumental skills, and others who have institutional skills" .

The result appears to have satisfied the needs of systems designers rather than the need of society. The technology to determine the "optimal system" for ....

The Limitation Of Systems Theory

Systems boundaries:

One concept fundamental to all system theory is the notion that a system has clear boundaries. furthermore, the system, if it is to be a system, must not only have boundaries; it must also be a closed system, sometimes closed by the very act of constructing the experiment. Dealing with a "natural reality" is always a matter of dealing with an open reality. In some areas, no doubt, closed systems can be constructed, but not in others; one cannot make a closed system just by assumption.

The arbitrary Choice of Systems Elements:

A constructed system, which is relevant, is usually arbitrary in its reflection of nature. Thus one can be arbitrary in experiment, but one can not call it nature when one has selected the factors.

Systems Purposes:

There is a tendency to assume that the system has purpose. Nature can be viewed as to operates in a given way. In other areas the teleology of nature may be a linguistic fiction necessary to reconstruct an image of nature in teleological terms in order that finite minds-which tend to personalize nature-may develop some understanding.

Systems and Cooperation:

Systems theorists tend to see systems as essentially cooperative, and with almost no exceptions, social systems are seen as cooperative. This assumption means that one can work within the framework of cooperative people who cooperate with the ends of the system. And since this is done by way of implicit assumption, the contrary notion that men do not always cooperate, that they miss and misunderstand each other, and that whatever cooperation does ensue may be a result of coercion, lack of communication, misunderstanding, and error-all of which one finds difficult to integrate into systems theory. Further, when such phenomena are noticed, they are taken to represent deviation from a conceptually pure system in which the values of cooperation, coherence, harmony, and the rest, are assumed to be the normal phenomenon, with the "systems"

***** Systems theory as social doctrine may be regarded as a new variant of organic or "organismic" approaches to society. REgardless of the details of the analogy, the social import is always the same in the sense that it tend toward a doctrine of increasing unification and centralization of social functions with human individuals reduced to the role of "cells" in the organism with their functions and sphere of action delimited from outside and from above. The question, of course, is not merely whether this systems-organic imagine is true, but rather: (1) what are its probable social consequences and (2) what can be done with the image. With the respect to the first, the answer has been evident from the beginning: system theory appears to be the "natural" ideology of bureaucratic planners and centralizers.

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