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Systems Paradigm

A paradigm in its most general sense can be understood as a way of seeing the world

A paradigm in its most general sense can be understood as a way of seeing the world, a worldview or culture

A paradigm is a standard, perspective, or set of ideas1 that form a worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular domain.2 The systems paradigm, is then a coherent set of basic concepts and axioms that form the worldview or perspective underlying systems theory.
All reasoning and scientific inquiry rest upon a set of assumption about fundamental philosophical questions. Before any kind of constructive inquiry into the world around us can be conducted, a number of basic philosophical questions need to be answered, including basic ontological questions, i.e. what is the nature of being? How does causality work? Etc. Basic epistemological questions i.e. how do we know something and how can we prove that we know it? Every coherent body of knowledge needs to provide some kind of answer to these questions, which will then form the basis to that conceptual framework shaping how we see the world when using it, and ultimately the kind of answers that can be derived; this is a paradigm.

Premodern View

Pre-modern European culture provided answers to these questions based on a fusion of classical Greek philosophy with the Christian Bible. This worldview of medieval thought created a hierarchical ontology of things that existed based upon their perceived proximity to God. Those things, such as angels, that were regarded as being closest to the perfect being of God were placed at the top of the hierarchy with humans bellow this, animals below them, and so on all the way down to inert matter that was perceived as being closest to hell. Within this worldview, epistemological authority or validity was derived from tradition. If it was endorsed by some preexisting authority, such as the Bible, monarch or Aristotle’s writing then is was deemed valid. This is a very simplified schematic representation but it helps for illustration purposes.

Modern Foundations

With the rise of the modern era approximately five hundred years ago, a whole new set of philosophical answers were formulated to these fundamental questions that still today form the foundation of our scientific framework. During a period of intense metaphysical questioning in the seventeenth century, a number of great thinkers, like Francis Bacon and René Descartes, laid the philosophical foundations to our modern world. These thinkers asked and answered the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality and knowledge which was further fleshed out in the eighteenth century. They fundamentally rejected the idea that knowledge of the world around us should be derived from scripture, theology or authority. These natural philosophers posited that the world is physical in nature. That knowledge about the world can be accumulated through empirical observation. That the laws governing that world were as Galileo Galilei famously said: “It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

The Newtonian Paradigm

The Newtonian paradigm is said to be mechanistic in its nature meaning that explain phenomena in purely physical or deterministic terms

The Newtonian paradigm is said to be mechanistic in nature meaning that it explains phenomena in purely physical or deterministic terms

Thus a new paradigm and method for deriving knowledge about our world was formed; the scientific method. Where empirical data could be collected, hypothesis developed and experiments done, to validate or invalidate those hypothesis. In such a way new knowledge could be accumulated and it was believed that this knowledge should be put to the use of human betterment, to curing disease, to growing more crops, to building bridges, etc.
This new paradigm was most powerfully expressed in the work of Sir Isaac Newton who did nothing less than describe a full mathematical and scientific framework for how physical systems interacted. The central idea of which was that of matter in motion causing events, that the world is governed by discrete components of matter interacting in a cause and effect fashion. Newton’s absolute space-time coordinate system is the framework for a fixed, orderly predictable and deterministic universe where all events are driven by the linear interaction of discrete components of matter3 creating a mechanistic vision to the world, what is called the Newtonian paradigm.
In a recent publication by Maurizio Iaccarino entitled “Science and Culture” he writes about the development of this new scientific paradigm as such: “Science has had an increasingly strong influence on European culture. In the nineteenth century the buzzword for science was ‘order’. Scientists had discovered that the movement of the stars is predictable, and that all terrestrial and celestial phenomena follow the same scientific laws like clockwork. They believed, according to the Galilean vision, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, with characters represented by geometric objects. The mission of science was to discover the laws of nature and thereby explain all natural phenomena. This faith in science gave rise to the philosophical movement called positivism, which led to a widespread trust in science and technology and influenced social theory.”4 This paradigm supporting modern science went largely unquestioned until the beginning of the 20th Century when quantum physics and general relativity showed its basic assumptions to be limited. By the start of the second half of the century, a new paradigm was gradually being formulated. This new paradigm we can call the systems paradigm, and it has a number of central concepts or axioms to it that work to counterbalance the traditional assumptions of our modern age.

Subjective and Objective

The traditional paradigm of the modern era has posited a strong dichotomy between the subjective and objective. Since before René Descartes’ formulation of a philosophy based on a mind and body dichotomy, modern science has been strongly focused on the objective material world. Questions concerning the subjective dimension of the observer have been largely excluded in favor of a quantitative analysis of objective, material components and linear interactions.5 This has resulted, from the beginning, in a strong divide between science and more subjective interpretations to the world – such as religion or many forms of philosophy.
The systems paradigm breaks down this barrier, positing that the subjective dimension of the individual interpreter should be of equal importance to our understanding of the world. Systems thinking sees any knowledge of the world as a product of an interaction between the conceptual system used by the individual or community and the objective phenomena being observed. Thus to gain a fuller understanding of the world one must both question and develop the subjective framework being used as well as what is being studies.
To do this, it is important that the assumptions, paradigm, and models used in an inquiry are made fully explicit so that everyone can examine the assumptions and bias that may distort the process. Systems thinking places great emphasis on recognizing and asking how do I see the world?6 How do other people see the world? how do those models and assumptions that we all hold shape and create our interactions and the world around us. One of the central tenets of systems thinking can be summed up in the simple statement “We have met the enemy and he is us.”7 That is to say a recognition that how we see the world creates how we act in the world, which creates the world around us, which then feeds back to present us with challenges, all of which are the product of our subjective interpretation. Thus for systems thinking there needs to be a balanced emphasis on the subjective models and assumptions as on the objective inquiry that we are engaged in.

Synthesis and Analysis

The systems paradigm is holistic in nature meaning that it refers primerally to the whole in order to understand the parts

The systems paradigm is holistic in nature meaning that it refers primerally to the whole in order to understand the parts

Systems thinking is based upon a very different process of reasoning from our traditional scientific paradigm. The Newtonian paradigm is understood to be primarily reductionist, which means that whole systems are seen to be reducible to an account of their constituent parts. Reductionism, as a fundamental assumption, leads to a process of inquiry called analysis. Analysis is a process of inquiry that proceeds by breaking systems down and trying to understand the whole in terms of the properties and interactions between the elementary parts in isolation from its environment. The analytical method has been central to modern science and accountable for most of its successes,8 through isolating systems, decomposing them, and searching for linear interactions of cause and effect.9 Systems thinking is characterized as being what is called holistic, meaning that it always refers to the whole system or environment as the most appropriate frame of reference for understanding something. In order to understand some component or system, we must understand the context that it is a part of, its interaction with other systems and its functioning within the whole environment. The process of reasoning that follows from this is called synthesis. Synthesis is the opposite from analysis in that it means putting things together. Synthesis is the method of inquiry used within the holistic approach, whereby we look at the relations between things and how, when we combine them we get the emergence of new levels of organization.

Linear and Nonlinear

A central part of the analytical paradigm is the idea of linear causality. The primary endeavor of modern science has been to control for external variables, to isolate one or two input variables that are thought to cause some effect within the system. These cause and effect relations are encoded in equations and thought to describe how the system behaves. The central aim of the analytical paradigm is to ignore weaker influences from the environment and develop a model that is based on what are consider to be key observations, which are the primary driving variables causing change within the system’s state. Linear causality follows a sequential order, where a direct link between cause and effect can be drawn, with there being a clear beginning and a clear end in time, effects can then be traced back to one or a limited number of causes.10 This paradigm is extended to general reasoning where people see events as a product of some linear interaction, from A> B> C.11 Systems thinking, in contrary, is focused on nonlinear causality where multiple factors affect an outcome, as they work together synergistically in a networked fashion to generate a combined result that is greater, or less, than the sum of their effects in isolation. A central idea here is that of emergence. With emergence, an event many not have any direct cause, instead within the systems paradigm many events are seen as in fact emergent phenomena, not caused by any one thing but instead emerge out of the interaction between many things interacting in a horizontal, parallel or networked fashion to generate the outcome.
Equally, systems thinking looks for circular or mutual causality, how two things affect each other and how every effect feeds back to its source over time. With nonlinear causality effects do not just flow upwards with the parts generating a result in the whole; as is seen to be the case within the analytical paradigm. But they in fact also cycle back down, what is called downward causation, with higher level phenomena also shaping lower level events.12

Components and Relations

The systems approach is based upon a relational paradigm that focus on the connections and interdependencies between the parts

The systems approach is based on a relational paradigm that focuses on the connections and interdependencies between the parts

Systems theory fundamentally rests on a relational or interactional view of the world. That is to say that the connections between parts is explicitly given ontological precedences over the parts themselves. In the general sense, a system means a configuration of parts connected by a web of interdependent relationships.13 When talking about any system, the emphasis is typically on connections and interdependencies as the defining feature to the organization. The relational paradigm of systems thinking emphasizes how connection, interdependencies and context shape the component parts of the system and not vice versa; which is the most traditional assumption.
The traditional analytical paradigm is fundamentally component-based, analysis is focused on the properties of “things” in isolation and how those things cause change through direct interactions. This perspective leaves us with a vision of the individual or component as actor effecting change within their environment, it downplays the influence of connections and context in affecting and shaping the individual parts. Systems thinking helps instead to focus on how the network of connections around the individual parts affect and shape the system as a whole. This perspective becomes of particular relevance when the system comes to have a high degree of connectivity.

Dynamics

The analytical approach is typically based on excluding a changing environment, as described by the term “ceteris paribus” which means all other things remaining constant. This static nature to the environmental variables makes it possible to repeat an experiment, to isolate and detect stable cause and effect interactions that are believed to be the drivers of change, which leads to predictable outcomes as long as it is possible to hold the environment constant.
This is in contrast to the systems thinking paradigm which is process orientated in nature; it takes a dynamic vision of the world where everything is seen to be fundamentally in change.14 This change is typically not perceived to be initiated by any of the particular parts to the organization, but instead is driven by processes that have inherent patterns that drive and shape the individual events that constitute them. Environments are seen to be complex and constantly evolving as a product of many interacting variables, leading to the emergence of new forms of organization over time. Processes of change can be driven by macro level feedback loops that create certain dynamics and patterns of change on the macro level – what are called system archetypes.
Due to feedback and emergent, change within the systems paradigm is seen as an evolutionary process rather than a mechanistic process. New phenomena emerge that could not have been predicted a priori due to the nonlinear interaction between parts, between the parts and their environment and because of past events feeding back on themselves; all of which make the future unpredictable in nature.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Systems Paradigm," in Complexity Academy, August 8, 2016, http://complexityacademy.io/systems-paradigm/.

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