Written by Darrell Anderson.
Note: Many thanks to Dr. Harvey Barnard for helping me write this. I miss you dearly my friend.
A “system” is model describing a collection or process of things or variables, all possessing certain interrelated observable characteristics and relationships. Systems theory is an interdisciplinary approach of evaluating how various parameters, characteristics, or phenomenon interact; and focuses primarily on the effects of those interactions. Systems theory is used to identify the overall process that will be the subject of the study.
Systems theory is not magical or written anywhere in stone. Systems theory is only a logical process of thinking about things, a checklist of sorts to see who is doing what to whom. By using such an approach, flaws and fallacies often are more easily discovered. More importantly, intelligent discussions become possible when both sides of a discussion agree to the terms of the discussion. When people do not stop to seek even a mutual agreement to what words or phrases mean, they almost always end up arguing endlessly. You might as well watch a dog chase its tail.
Types of Systems
There are three types of systems:
In systems theory, control means forcing a measurable parameter within a system to a desired value by adjusting some other system parameter known to cause an immediate, predictable response in the measured value. The requirements for system control include:
There are three types of system responses:
System output varies because of a change to the system. In all systems there are natural limits to the variation of physical parameters. These natural limits tend to clamp their associated measured variables, which usually limit system output.
There are two ways to change system output or, two types of forcing functions: 1) continual and 2) impulse. A continual force can be constant or periodic (repetitive). Impulse changes are non-periodic (non-repetitive). Changes can be caused internally or externally. Changes in a system input usually cause changes in system output.
There are two basic types of control methods: open loop and closed loop. Open loop systems are used when the outcome is known and predictable. Such systems provide no mechanism to regulate the output with respect to the input. An open loop system is good for static systems. Dynamic systems require a means to stabilize the output within expected parameters. Stabilizing systems is performed in one of two ways:
Engineers and scientists use these principles daily in their vocation. Yet, understanding these principles can help lay people as well. Understanding the fundamentals of systems theory helps people appreciate the meaning of the adage that “the quality of an answer is directly related to the quality of the question.”
For example, consider survey polls where respondents are limited to only a few options. By providing a limited number of choices, boundaries are purposely established. Add another option and a new system appears — with new boundaries. Add an option of “none of the above” or “all of the above” and a new relational rule appears for how the elements (options) might interact. Purposely limiting the number of options is called a false dilemma.
Thus, by understanding systems theory, an individual can grow to learn that all polls are usually rigged to control the outcome of the answers. Indeed, ask a professional pollster to help run a poll, and the pollster likely will ask you what kind of outcome you desire.
Another example is a pure economic system of supply and demand. Such a system is self-stabilizing positive system. However, introduce artificial elements into that system, such as banking, monetary, and tax systems, and a new system is defined that might or might not remain self-stabilizing.
Another example is the common effort used by some “teachers” to demonstrate a point of theory: the “island” scenario game.
Island scenarios are often static snapshots of dynamic systems. Often only one element of a complex system is discussed, further limiting usefulness of the discussion. A static snapshot of a dynamic system controls the outcome of the scenario. In other words, the “teacher” rigs the outcome of the game (usually unintentionally because they do not understand the basics of systems theory, but sometimes intentionally too).
Therefore, before participating in any discussions about island scenarios, you might want to inspect how they (intentionally or unintentionally) rigged the game. Although most island scenarios typically are a limited static analysis of a complex dynamic system (economic or monetary systems, for example), sometimes these “intellectual” exercises also break natural limits, or they cross system boundaries, or they make the system self-referential (recursive).
Static snapshots also often ignore the effects of other elements of the original complex system. Sometimes people try to explain complex systems by reducing the system into a “simpler” system. This is called reductionism. However, when people do this they create a new system; along with new boundaries, elements, and relational rules. Thus, whether intentional or unintentional, they have rigged the outcome of their “simpler” system; and often, those outcomes do not correspond well to how the original complex dynamic system functions. Worse, begin to reintroduce into the “simpler” system some of the elements of the original complex system and the author is continually creating a new and different system, with new boundaries, elements, and relational rules.
When people present island scenarios, simply ask them to first clarify the system, the boundaries, elements, and relational rules. Most definitely ask the “teacher” to fully explain all definitions to ensure everybody is talking about one thing and not another. Be sure the relational rules are clearly defined, such as ethical vs. moral. More than likely the “teacher” will return a blank stare. Then, after a few moments of the blank stare, tell them they have rigged the game and that the boundaries, elements, and relational rules they have created limit your options.
Or, if you want to have fun, you can re-rig the game by adding your own elements, relational rules, or boundaries, then hand the scenario back to them!