Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems (2008)

Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch Jew and author of Ethics, was a systems thinker. Perhaps one of the greatest systems thinkers. Ethics is sometimes referred to as a "philosophical system," but it is that and more than that in describing a system. Spinoza is a material naturalist. He contemplates a deterministic system that incorporates the entire material world, and his name for that system is "god." While his contemporary detractors unfairly described him as an atheist, he was, in fact, a pantheist.

Professor Michael Morgan, the editor of Spinoza Complete Works, wrote this paragraph in his Introduction to the book:

"If the key that unlocked the secrets of possibility for us as human beings was unity and totality, the wholeness and order of all things, then the reality that grounded the aspiration to this unity and order was the fact that each of us, as natural objects and as human beings, was precisely located in that unity and order; each of our places was determined in every way, and we were thereby endowed with a very particular point of view on the whole. In a letter to Henry Oldenburg of November 1665, as he attempts to clarify the nature of parts and wholes, Spinoza provides us with a famous image. Each of us is, he tells us, like a little worm in the blood. Nature is like the entire circulatory system or like the entire organism, interacting with only a small part of it and experiencing only a very limited region. Even if we grasp the fact that there is a total system and understand its principles to some degree, our experience is so circumscribed and narrow that we are bound to make mistakes about our understanding of they system and our place in it. Myopia confines our understanding, no matter how we seek to overcome it. And we do. We aspire to experience every detail, every event, and every item as part of the whole, to see it from the perspective of the whole rather than from our own narrow point of view. Our success is limited; we can free ourselves and act in terms of the whole, but only within limits. Our goal is to free ourselves from the distortions and corruptions of our finitude, to become free, active, and rational. These are all the same, and are aspects of becoming like the whole, which is what the tradition dignifies with the title "God" or "divine" or "the Highest Good."

For Spinoza, as Professor Morgan writes, "reason in us was akin to reason in nature; one order permeated everything and enabled us, as rational beings to understand ourselves and the whole and to live peacefully and calmly within it. This was the key to science, to ethics, and to religion. It was the key to all of life. It was his goal to show, clarify, explain and teach it --- to the benefit of all humankind." Morgan's remarks about Spinoza could have formed a preface to Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems. My purpose in highlighting Professor Morgan's statement is that systems thinking is not new. It has been going on for centuries, and I doubt if Spinoza was the first systems thinker.

By the 1960s, systems thinking had become more widely adapted in academic curriculum, at least at the collegiate level. Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, is widely credited with introducing systems analysis to public policy during his tenure from 1961-1969. Systems analysis grew to become integrated in addressing engineering problems, business problems, communities, as well as looking at systems in nature (the environment). And it was during this time that Jay Forrester founded the System Dynamics group at MIT. Donella Meadows emerged from the System Dynamics group at MIT and began thinking about socio-ecological systems. Meadows' objective, as with Spinoza, was to "help us understand ourselves and the whole and to live peacefully and calmly within it."

"A system is not just any old collection of things," she writes. "A system is an interconnected set of elements ["people, cells, molecules, or whatever" she says elsewhere] that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose." These elements are "interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered or driven by outside forces. But the system's response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world." Systems can be simple, or they can be extremely complex. Spinoza's system, if you think about it, may be the most complex of all, because it attempts to contemplate all of physical nature as a system. At that level, one can only discuss a system in terms of grand generalities, as Spinoza does in Ethics.

I go back to the very first posting on this blog (see August 17, 2009 post) and the discussion of units of information as the most fundamental unit of physical nature. "Systems of information-feedback control are fundamental to all life and human endeavor, from the slow pace of biological evolution to the launching of the latest space satellite," Meadows quotes Jay Forrester from his book Industrial Dynamics. "Everything we do as individuals, as an industry or as a society is done in the context of an information-feedback system." The mechanism that provides that information-feedback is known as a "feedback loop," and it is regarded as responsible for creating consistent behavior within a system over time. A feedback loop is a mechanism that monitors the parameters of the system that triggers adjustments (which Meadows refers to as "resilience" or elasticity) and ensures stasis within parameters which, in many cases, ensures the survival of the system (human body, community, ecological niche) or continuation of functional purpose in the case of an engineered artifact or system of artifacts. Stasis and survival are not guaranteed; sometimes perturbations can overwhelm feedback systems resulting in the demise of the system.

This is reminiscent of Antonio Damasio's discussion of the brain's role in maintaining homeostasis in the body. "Life requires," Damasio wrote in Self Comes to Mind, "that the body maintain a collection of parameter ranges at all costs for literally dozens of components in its dynamic interior. All the management operations to which I alluded to earlier --- procuring energy sources, incorporating and transforming energy products, and so forth --- aim at maintaining the chemical parameters of a body's interior (its internal milieu) with the magic range compatible with life. The magic range is known as homeostatic, and the process of achieving this balanced state is known as homeostasis." (See April 8, 2011 post). Damasio is describing at least the human nervous system of which the brain is a part, but probably more than one system comprising a larger system that is the human organism.

Spinoza's system can only be explained in generalities because there is simply too much information in the universe for any intelligent body to comprehend. We are forced to acknowledge and live with a laissez-faire dynamical system for all of nature in the hopes that perturbations across nature are managed by nature's own information-feedback systems and stasis is achieved. We can try to control or engineer only the small subsystems we can touch in our remote corner of the universe (or multiverses). "People who are raised in the industrial world," writes Meadows, "and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control. . . . "Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the trivial, we can't optimize; we don't even know what to optimize. We can't keep track of everything. We can't find the proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror." We are also returning full circle to a previous discussion of "entropy" and the "thermodynamic condition." (See August 15, 2011 post).

Spinoza would be disappointed by Meadows' conclusion, but she is right. Our scientific method, our philosophy has largely abandoned deterministic systems; we think in terms of probabilities in order to manage uncertainty. (See July 30, 2011 post). This does not mean, Meadows says, that we should stop "doing" just because we can't control something or anticipate every surprise. But we can listen to what the system tells us and "discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone." And with this conclusion, Spinoza would have felt more comfortable.

No comments:

Post a Comment