Truth and Reality in Systems Thinking LO26332

From: Richard Karash (
Date: 03/12/01

I encountered this question:

>Truth and Reality in Systems Thinking
>This is about a personal belief which I will call Truth and about
>an objective phenomenon which I will call Reality. (These are
>just symbols for what I have to say so please don't argue about
>these words)
>So, my question is based again on two assumptions:
>The first one is about Truth: as I understood from the Wall
>exercise everyone is "right" when designing a dynamic model using
>his system thinking skills.
>The second about Reality: my good sense tells me that one person
>can never get a picture of Reality in a conceptual mode. (Mainly
>inspired by Ken Wilber) because a concept requires another
>concept for interference and explanation and so on...
>Now the question: Is it system thinking really helping us mapping
>reality and be correct about it?

I think this is a great question.

>... an objective phenomenon which I will call Reality.

I can address your question in terms of "Reality," but I'm not so sure
"Reality" is an objective phenomenon. The alternative view, which I find
very useful, is that we only can know the world as we experience it. This
doesn't make everything subjective because there is great coherence in the
way different people experience the world. The author I find most cogent
about this is Humberto Maturana. He has written mostly in Spanish, but I
have extensive notes from his 1997 seminar; these are on the learning-org
discussion at

Also, there is a remarkable set of articles by Pille Bunnell in the
journal _Reflections_, Vol 1, numbers 1, 2, and 4. [See for info on this
Journal. Sorry, I don't think one can get these articles on-line. One can
also get a subscription to this journal by subscribing to SoL's
"Connections" at ]

Although the final Bunnell articles are not freely available online, there
is an edited transcript of Maturana's lectures at the 1998 SoL annual
meeting at

Finally, Maturana's most approachable work in English is The Tree of
Knowledge by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

So, I would rather talk about "experience" than about "reality." This
actually will make things easier.

>... I understood from the Wall exercise everyone is "right"
>when designing a dynamic model using his system thinking skills.

[For those unfamiliar, the "Wall" exercise is part of the Foundations for
Leadership course taught by Senge and Robert Hanig. See more below, but I
don't want to describe the whole exercise here.]

I don't see it that way. A basic test of any model is whether it explains
experience. Everyone can propose a dynamic model, but these models are not
equal! Some models are better at explaining our experience than others. We
should shift our attention towards the better models and away from those
which are not as good. (There is much more to say about the criteria for
good models.)

I think the point of the "Wall" exercise is subtle and slightly different
from what you've said. I think the point is that no one has any absolute
claim to being "right." When we are considering a phenomenon, no one can
claim that they "know" how it works in any absolute sense.

Or, I can put it differently: If someone is claiming to have an absolute
knowledge of something, that is a religious statement, not a statement
from science or social science.

>Now the question: Is system thinking really helping us
>mapping reality and be correct about it?

I think the purpose of systems thinking is to improve our understanding of
how things work so that we can be more effective in the world. The model
is useful if it explains experience (in the past, in the future, or both).

I think this makes things easier... Instead of "correctly mapping reality"
we want models that "explain our experience in a way that's helpful."

Each systems thinking diagram represents a theory of how the system works.
We should test it based on validity, explanatory power, relevance, and
  - Does this theory make sense? -- Is it internally consistent? If in
doubt, ask for an explanation, probe the suspected link. Ask, "How does
this cause that?"
  - Does the model explain what's actually happening? -- Test this by
asking, "What time patterns would we expect based on this diagram? Do they
match what we've been seeing?" If not, investigate. It's surprising how
often the diagrams represent things as we want them to be, not as they
are. This is fine; but we need both an accurate picture of current reality
and a picture of the desired future, and there's danger if we confuse one
with the other.
  - Does it explain things that are important to us? -- If not, perhaps we
are focusing on the wrong part of the picture. Try again.
  - Does it help guide us to effective action? -- Ask, "If we came to
believe this diagram, what would that tell us to do? Where would we find
leverage?" If there's no clear answer, the diagram may be too
simplified... or it may have so many variables that the essential loops
are harder to see.

   -=- Richard Karash <>


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