Truth and Reality in Systems Thinking LO26371

From: Sajeela M ramsey (
Date: 03/16/01

Replying to LO26332 --


I'm intrigued by this so I'm jumping in.

On Mon, 12 Mar 2001 00:11:37 -0500 Richard Karash writes:
> 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)

Well, I won't argue about the words. AND I must ask a you:
Are you referring to Truth (with a capital "T", which is a positivist
notion) or are you thinking about truths (constructivist orientation and
emerging from shared understanding)?

> >(snip) 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...

I tend to think of reality as a perceptual phenomenon, and also as a
"kaleidescopic flux" of individual experience or world view.

> >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.

Me either. I tend to think of reality as being quite subjective, as per
my defenition of reality (above).

> 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.

Yes, especially biologically speaking, and transcendentally speaking. Yet
these are cognitive phenomenon (according to Bennett), and are more
positivist and simplistic then not.

>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

Thanks for all your references.

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

Agree. "Reality" as a term does not acknowledge relativity where as the
term experience may more readily infer subjectivity.

>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

You know, I agree with you in theory (I'd love to see the criteria), AND
unintended hegemony can result when defining "better" anything. Dominant
cultural beliefs carry the meaning of "best" for those who defined it as
such in the first place. So this gets very tricky. Hopefully the "better"
models would aknowledge that there are no better models, but rather, just
different ones.

> 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.

Well I agree but with some subtly different spins that I believe are
important to include. We are back at this thing about Truth with a capital
"T" or many truths that are different. I like to think of cognition and
therefore perception of one's experience as being on an epistemological
continuum ranging from positivist/either/or thinking to
relativist/both/and thinking, the latter being more developmentally
evolved in that it allows for more and more complex and emergent meaning
construction, ergo greater learning. Along this continuum, more toward the
positivist stage of development lies this notion of Truth or Right, and it
is what I would refer to as a Universalist notion that denies difference
(and therefore is open only to a Dominant-defined belief system that is
overly simplistic and allows for reified learning only --- no second

> 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."

Well, yes, because no model can accurately map reality---it only
approximates it, as a paradoxical metaphor (Morgan). So the more flexible
or relative the model, then the more I can relate my experience to it and
extract meaning from it.

> Each systems thinking diagram represents a theory of how the system
> works. We should test it based on validity, explanatory power,
> relevance,
> and utility:
> - 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?"

OK, that (cause/effect) covers the positivist or linear end of the
epistemological continuum......

> - 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.

Absolutely Rick, and this second part of your questions begins to probe
the rest of the epistemological continuum, moving us more toward the
complex, relative or non-linear/relational/constructionist/emergent end of
the spectrum of conition and meaning-making, i.e. model construction.

And the danger for me lies in:
1) as you say, confusing temporal/spatial realities to the exclusion of
2) linear simplistic realities to the exclusion of temporal/spatial

> - 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?

Effective action for whom? With what results over the long run for which
steakholders, including the planet itself????

> -- 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.

Well, if it's too complex (has too many variables) for those who cannot
cognize at that level, the model then becomes solypsistic and meaningless.

Where is that "nothing so good as a good theory" that Lewin was after when
he came up with his claim to fame "field theory"? Now THERE"S a model!!!!

Hunkey dorey in cyber-land,
Miz S~

Sajeela Moskowitz Ramsey: President, Core Consulting
Center for Organizational Renewal and Effectiveness
Senior OD Consultant/Culture Generalist
2432 Villanova Drive/Vienna, VA. 22180


Sajeela M ramsey <>

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