On Systems And Wholes

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Clever Jannie.

After losing an election as prime minister, and his seat in parliament, a South African politician, Jan Smuts, published his Holism and Evolution in 1926, a remarkable book for its time. Albert Einstein remarked his relativity theory and Smuts’ holism would dominate thinking in the 21st Century after reading it. He was right about relativity, but underestimated the resistance against the existential threat of thinking in terms of wholes, or systems. Intellectually, we’re still stuck in the comfort of 18th Century Enlightenment thinking.

Smuts’ idea of a whole being more than the sum of its parts was not only ahead of its time, so was the anomaly of a thinking politician. People offended by his intellect called him clever Jannie as a slap down.

To prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the multitude of signals we constantly receive from the world around us, we evolved to classify and order it. The way we classify and order depends on our assumptions about that world. Let’s illustrate that by the following example.

A surgical procedure by a team assuming a world organized like a clockwork strictly follows instructions in a manual, because in terms of it, a surgical procedure works like a machine. They work according to a description for every step previously designed and documented by a group of outside experts. Steps are implemented and controlled with military precision, with good intent, with no allowance for variation or creativity. Everything and everyone in the team is exchangeable and can be optimized.

A surgical team designed like a biological organism has a general, the surgeon in charge, who thinks for the team. Other members, like the organs in a body, report to him or her and based on that are given orders. The surgeon is an appointed expert that don’t make mistakes and controls from inside. The team is like the organs of a body responding to the instructions of a brain.

In a systemic, or socially complex surgical team, members know and realize the importance of their roles, and that dialogue and cooperation is vital to the outcome. As members interact and respond to each other, the procedure proceeds in a self-organizing whole, adapting to the situation by acting and reacting to the inevitable variety and changing circumstances, and learning from it for the next procedure.

Our modern world is dominated by a mechanistic, or clockwork perspective of reality, which is based on inanimate systems with rigid and stable parts that are only moved by outside forces. They achieve equilibrium and are constrained, meaning they only move with effort, hence constraints limit what they can do. To bring about change, you must rearrange the parts or constraints. In short, clockwork systems contain parts, the parts are arranged in a stable structure, changing the parts is part of a process, and the specifications of an outside controller constrains it. In social mechanistic systems, humans are seen as the parts contributing to processes, usually through their labor, and are guided towards an outcome and controlled by an outside autocratic authority, who benefits from the system.

We get the concepts of structure, process, constraint, control, study by reduction and analysis, and equilibrium from mechanistic, or clockwork thinking.

Cybernetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which conceive a world organized along the lines of a dynamic organism, upset mechanistic thinking. Organismic thinking takes on the concepts of adapting and survival from evolutionary theory, in terms of which species better able to adapt to conditions are rewarded, and those who can’t are weeded out. From cybernetic systems it takes on the concept of feedback, which means, like a thermostat, seeking to maintain equilibrium between preset parameters. Organisms consist of parts cooperating towards the survival of the whole, which requires cooperation, which in turn depends on information about the current state, to which the organism responds. The thermostat of an organism is its brain, which receives information from the organs and sends out instructions back to the parts.

In human organismically designed systems, employees contribute to the survival of an organization, they get directives from a controlling management center, and directives from there are changed based on feedback about the performance of workers. Workers are not expected to think or be creative.

In mechanistic systems cause and effect is linear, but in organismic systems it feeds back in a circular chicken and egg fashion. Some feedback systems are self-correcting (balancing), for example a thermostat, and others amplifying, for example a financial investment, which can amplify both up, or down. Feedback loops often work in combination, which can balance a system, or spiral it out of control. Note such systems critically depend on the constant input of information, energy, or matter to maintain equilibrium.

In short, organismic thinking contributes the concepts of adapting and surviving, information processing, circular feedback, and centralized control.

Wholismic, or complex systems, self-organize, with unique properties emerging from the interactions that are more than the sum of the parts. Knowing the parts of a clock doesn’t tell you what it does, for that you must look at how the clock is used as part of a system, for example, it is often used for telling time. Note analysis, or clockwork thinking provides useful information when used in combination with thinking in terms of systems.

There are many co-producers of an effect in a wholismic system, the same parts can produce different outcomes, and differently organized parts can produce the same outcome, in other words, multiple factor circular causality is in operation. It means all parts affect the outcome and the functioning of the whole.

From a wholismic or complex perspective, we get the concepts of self-organization, emergence, self-control, multiple factor circular causality, and study by synthesis.

The purpose of clockwork systems is the purpose of the owner and the purpose of its human parts irrelevant. The purpose of organismic systems is survival, and the purpose of its human parts is contributing towards that. A complex system has a purpose, but its human parts are purposeful as well, which may differ from the overall purpose. How well the individual and overall purposes are met depends on how well the parts cooperate and work together, which is the crux of wholismic human systems.

Clockwork systems are controlled by an authority, based on the belief it has the power, or ability, to direct the flow of inputs in a predetermined manner. Organismic control depends on a processor, brain, or management function’s ability to process information, and respond to it. Control is therefore part of the entity. Order emerges in complex systems unpredictably from the arrangement and interactions of its parts without control, usually without being planned. It cannot be designed and controlled from the outside, and there is no superior thinking part on the inside. That is difficult to accept if you are used to clockwork or organismic systems.

Internal order in complex systems emerges from the decision of humans to align themselves with an entity, or organization, which means accepting the associated constraints, and an understanding there is a personal and collective benefit from doing so. There are no systems without constraints, and its attractiveness depends on whether the constraints outweigh the advantages of participating. In complex systems, management doesn’t plan and control, it coordinates and enables towards a common goal. Information exchanged through conversation and dialogue becomes not two-way traffic to a management function, but instead a crucial exchange between the parts towards enabling the collective function.

Taking a complexity perspective is not an exclusive alternative to mechanistic or biological thinking, at times it is useful to take one of the other approaches, or even all three at the same time. What it does is open up our understanding of reality, problems, etc., and what we can or cannot do about it. We effortlessly and unconsciously default to assuming a mechanistic or biological reality as evidenced by the terms we use to describe a situation or problem, a complexity perspective surfaces that to our awareness.

Systems, or wholismic thinking as I prefer to call it, has been a stop-start affair. Smuts’ work receded into obscurity, the shift from operations research to soft systems thinking led by Churchman, Ackoff, Checkland, and others after WW2, is on life support, and it is only the more mechanistic system dynamics and its various interpretations that still seem to survive, probably because foundationally it is a hybrid between clockwork and organismic thinking, which makes it easier to understand and accept. The problem is, other than Smuts’ attempt, there never was a coherent philosophical body of wholismic thinking, which is a tremendous tragedy, because, as Einstein pointed out, the fundamental idea has so much to offer and it provides the most promising way forward for dealing with the complex problems of our time.