Systems Thinking vs Belief? LO19730

AM de Lange (
Tue, 3 Nov 1998 15:13:40 +0200

Replying to LO19717 --

Dear Organlearners,

Steve Randall < > writes:

>Could the inability to come to resolution on this thread be
>a signal that the system we are involved in is unnecessarily


>I would guess that some of us object to *belief* when
>it held very tightly by a person, held in a way that isolates
>that person from others and makes even compassionate,
>penetrating inquiry impossible and frustrating ...


>I have found that systems *thinking* never seems to get
>a truly comprehensive view of any system. It gives us
>varied cuts, models, and perspectives, but inevitably
>depicts pieces, even in attempting to describe wholes.

Greetings Steve,

Thank you for a delightful "log" (Greek: "lego"=speak) on this dialogue.

I have quoted three sections from your "log" because they point to a
serious problem which you have formulated as follows:

>What if we broadened the scope of our investigation
>to ^SSystems views?^T And included more than just
>thinking, beliefs, convictions, data, meanings, conclusions,
>and sensations? What if we included nonverbal
>awareness, which occasionally is aware of a field,
>not just particulars?

Your view is in the direction of increased complexity. I am very happy
with that. But if we do not look also in the opposite direction, I will
not be so happy anymore because complexity is concerned with all possible

What will we get is we keep on reducing our systems thinking until we are
left with next to nothing. In other words, we push beyond even the limits
posed by phenomenology. (In phenomenology we try to visualise the bare
essentials by thinking all the baggage away.)

This is exactly what George Spencer-Brown (GSB) did. In 1969 his book
"Laws of Form" was published. He did three simple, intuitive things.
Firstly, he drew a mark (action) which distinguishes between two sides.
Then he crossed the mark to the other side and back again to establish his
first law. (I am not able here to render that law symbolically as he did
so that I will have to describe it in words.)

Law 1: "Mark over mark is (nothing)"
Lastly, he crossed the mark, repeated the same process in the same
direction to establsih his second law.
Law 2: "Mark along mark is mark"

Upon these three systematical things (one simple construction and two
simple laws) GCB began to erect symbolic logic. It helped him to find some
ingenious ways to do logical inferences. Should we study symbolic logic as
a reasoning system for mathematics, its beginning is usually much more
complex. First a complex definition is given to allow for logically
acceptable symbolic expressions. Then several axioms (usually three for
propositional logic) have to be formulated in terms of the definition.
Lastly, inference rules ( usually one for porpositional logic) have to be
formulated. The logical system is then ready to prove theorems and to
derive new inference rules.

Note how GSB's system corresponds to the symbolic logical system of
mathematicians, but with much less detail. Both have step 1
("construct mark" or "define acceptable symbolic expressions" ). Both
have step 2 ("establish unmark -- law 1" or " establish the axioms as
initial true statements"). Both have step 3 ("establish mark -- law
2" or " establish the inference rules to derive additional theorems").

GSB''s system is so simple that it almost appears to be the work of a
moron. Almost everything can be constructed upon it. This makes GSB's
enigmatic because without sufficient creativity, very few people get
any further than GSB himself. The symbolic logic of mathematics, on
the other hand, is so complex that it can almost work by itself. Thus
Rosser, an emminent mathematician and logician, noted that once a
mathematician has discovered a theorem, the details of its proof can
be worked out by a moron using the symbolic logical system. Is it not
extraodinary, the moronic simple system (GSB's work) requires a little
less than a genius to employ it usefully while the ingenious complex
system (symbolic logic) requires a little more than a moron to employ
it usefully.

Steve, you will probably now understand why I stress that we have to
look in both directions, extreme simplicity and supreme complexity --
it is because we have to cater for morons, geniuses and everybody in
between. ;-)

But let us get more serious. GSB book seems to haunt people. A review
in Nature after its publication said that it was the work of a genius.
Later others refered to it as useless because of gross
oversimplification. I have written in the early days of Newsnet a
small article on the meaning and value of his work. I cannot even
remember which newsgroup I have mailed it to. But every couple of
months I get an enquiry, seemingly from a person in any walk of life,
asking me for reprints of all my papers on SB's work. It seems as if
the search enjines runs hot on GSB and his "Laws of Form". Can we
learn anything from it with respect to LOs?

Yes. his two laws, in their deepest sense, distinguish between "being"
(like structure or organisation) and "becoming" (like process or
methodologies). Since his "mark" symbolises "becoming" (the process of
distinction), the "mark over mark" which results in "being" cannot
symbolise "becoming" because "mark" symbolises "becoming". For the
same reason, "mark along mark" which results in "becoming" can
symbolise "becoming". His two laws also provide for a new viewpoint to
look at the two supreme laws of physics and chemistry. His law (mark
over mark is nothing) is reminescent of the "law of energy
conservation". Energy can be transformed from one form to another and
back again, but it cannot be destroyed or created. The change in total
energy is thus "nothing". His law (mark along mark is mark) is
reminescent of the "law of entropy production". Successive productions
of entropy lead to more production of it. The change in total entropy
is thus an increase .

We can learn even more from his first step "draw a mark which
distinguishes". We cannot think about systems or even transform our
thinking into systems thinking if we have not done the most elementary
of simple activities -- draw a border which distinguishes the inside
of the system from the outside of the system. GSB stresses that the
mark must have "continence" (chasticy). I think that he means that the
mark must be "whole" and "sure", leaving no "openings" or
"uncertainties" in its bordering action. In other words, what GSB
does, is to create a "dialectical duality" with his act "draw a mark
which distinguishes". (This sounds very much like Friedrich Engels and
Karl Marx!) On the result of this act he synthesises his two laws as a
"complementary duality". (This does not sound like FE or KM any more
since they insist on a unique synthesis, not duals which complement
each other. FE would never have acknowledged capitalism as the
complementary dual of socialism. ) The word "complementary" means
"needing one another".

Should we not do the same in our Systems Thinking (ST)? Should we not
be able to identify swiftly and surely whether something is "inside
the system" or "outside the system"? How can we do it if the system
does not have a border with "continence"?

I think that this "dialectical duality" of creating a system is an
important reason for falling into the trap of "premature judgements"
or the "deemster problem". Is it possible to set up a ST without
having to resort to a "dialectical duality"? GSB, for example, shows
that he needs this "dialectical duality" to create his "complementary
duality" upon. Another example -- Jesus does the same when he
contrasts darkness to the light. Why then is a "dialectical duality"
necessary? The shark contrast in difference function as a creative
field, i.e an "entropic force".

But how can we escape this trap of "dialectical duality" which the
"draw a mark which distinguishes" may lead us into? By introducing a
"rich diversity" into our ST as soon as possible, before the trap can
even begin to function. What is a "rich diversity"? Anything more
complex than a mere duality, i.e. anything with more than two in it.
See also my comments on the essentiality wholeness
("associativity-monadicity") and especially the associative pattern
with its third member, the "umlomo" or interpreter.

In logic it is done by introducing "fuzzy logic". Apart from having
the two truthvalues "true" (100%T) and "false" (0%T), we also
acknowledge values in between such as. 10%T, 70%T, etc. But is this
not foolish, destroying the very basis of logic? No. We frequently use
modal words to introduce fuzziness. I have done it just now in the
previous sentence by using the word "frequently" (more than 50%T)
rather than the word "allways" (100%T) or the word "never" (0%T). What
we then try to do, is to create more quality ("quality management") by
working towards extremes so that we can use words such as "virtually"
(close to 100%T).

"fuzzy logic" is a post WWII development, just like "systems thinking"
itself. Do we not have something older to give us an idea how we
should proceed? Well, philosophers have been using the term
"systematical thoughts" for many centuries.They seldom, if ever, used
the term "systems thinking" before WWII. Thermodynamics is our next
oldest source. (Thermoynamics is that branch of science which deals
with the complementary duals "energy is conserved" and "entropy is
produced".) Thermodynamists did not use the term "systems thinking",
but I can show you some old text books dating from the late previous
century, advising the reader to "think in terms of systems". This is
as close as we will get to "systems thinking".

Thermodynamists also struggled to define the boundaries of their
systems properly. In the early years mostly "physicists" and
"engineers" (note the duality) studied thermodynamics. They used the
words "open" and "closed" (note the duality) to describe the
boundaries of their systems. But as soon as some "chemists" (note the
third member) began to solve the intricacies of Gibbs' theory in a
practical manner, they also became keen on thermodynamics. Their
version soon became known as "chemical thermodynamics". They also
began to realise that they have to think not of "open" and "closed"
boundaries, but of "open", "closed" and "isolated" boundaries (note
the third member). The "open" means that "anything" can cross the
boundary. The "isolated" means that "nothing" can cross the boundary.
Both form the two extreme cases. The "closed" means that "some things"
can cross the boundary while "some other things" cannot cross it.

Is there sense in introducing this "rich diversity" in our Systems
Thinking? I have had contact with many systems thinkers. They
frequently use the terms "closed system" for "nothing crosses the
border" and "open system" for "anything crosses the border". When I
draw their attention to the fact that long before Systems Thinking
came to light, chemical thermodynamists had already been using the
terms "isolated system" for "nothing crosses the border", "closed
systems" for "something crosses the border" and "open systems" for
"anything crosses the border", they get the jitters. Most of these
systems thinkers were willing to allow for the "fuzziness" (more than
two possibilities), but were not willing to use the term "closed" for
any fuzzy case. When I asked them to suggest a better solution than
the historical one, they kept quiet.

It is initially strange to think in terms of isolated, closed or open
boundaries, but it does not lead to languages inconsistencies. A rule
which prevent something specific to cross the border, is called a
"closure". A rule which allows something specific to cross the border,
is called a "degree of freedom".
An isolated system has only closures and a open system has only
degrees of freedom. A closed system has both. System Thinking has
gradually shifted during the past decade its paradigm from the
"machine" to the "living organism", from "closures" to "degrees of
freedom". But to do that and still use the words "closed" and "open"
as the only cases, lead to grave anomalies. For example, it is often
said that living systems are open systems. If it is true, should blood
not continuously ooze from our bodies because anything can cross our
skin (boundary)?

What we should try to "see", is that living systems have the ability
to control what crosses their boundaries (skins). They do it by
special organs called orifices which carefully controls what, where
and when something goes in or out. To control these orifices, they
make use of marvelous feedback mechanisms. It is these very orifices
with their feedback controls which is responsible that the system does
not to fall into the trap of "premature judgements". For example, our
bodies do not decide in advance that today no sweating will take place
or tomorrow we will all sweat, hot or cold.

One last thing, it is possible to develop a comprehensive Systems
Thinking. One way to accomplish it, is to use GSB's "draw a mark which
distinguishes" a couple of times. But unlike GSB, we have to proceed
from more complexity to lesser complexity. First we draw the "grand
system", the one which contains everything which we will ever want to
give attention to in our Systems Thinking. Because it contains
"everything needed", it acts like an isolated system -- nothing else
can come in or go out. For most academics the "grand system" is the
faculty of the subject which they have specialised in. For example,
for most chemists the "grand system" will be the material world. Hence
in their grand system there is no place for things such as a Learning
Organisation because that subject belongs to another faculty. Another
example, for managers the "grand system" will be the world of
organisations. Hence in their grand system there is no place for
things such as chemistry because that subject belongs to another
faculty. In my own systems thinking I am not original because I simply
follow the Bible authors. Their "grand system" consists of the Creator
and Creation (including humans). Nothing else is outside this "grand
system" because there is only one God who created everything.

We apply "draw a mark which distinguishes" once again in this "grand
system" to establish our system of study. Thus we find in the "grand
system" two systems, the system to be studied and its surroundings
(context, environment). ( I use the symbols SYS and SUR to label
them.) Whereas the "grand system" is isolated, the system SYS cannot
be isolated. For if it is isolated, then it becomes itself the "grand
system". If the system SYS is not isolated, then what should it be:-
open or closed?
If it is open, then anything in the system SYS can become part of the
surroundings SUR by crossing the boundary. If it is closed, then some
things will remain in SYS forever, other things will remain in SUR
forever while the rest of the things will move between SYS and SUR.
Remember that living systems are closed systems and consider the
following example. The heart of a mammal (system) will forever be part
of that mammal, but water can move from the mammal to its environment
by sweating or vice versa by drinking.

So, which case will it be: closed or open? (Remember that "closed" is
not "isolated", but any case between "isolated" and "open".) It is
just here where belief manifests itself most clearly. The majority of
people (tacitly) and systems thinkers (formaly) ACT as if the system
is closed. Please note that I stress ACT and do not even write "say".
(It is again where the epistle of James comes in.) For example, many
liberal or progressive people "say" that their system is open, but
they often "act" as if it is closed. Why do most people ACT as if the
system is closed? Because it is the way in which all living systems
act. Furthermore, it is very dangerous to act as an open system
because without a systems thinking strong enough, it will lead to a
losing battle. However, innovative people often act as if the system
is open -- anything goes (in or out of the system). But "often" is not
"allways" so that innovative people do have their "off days" when
either society coerse them to become closed, or they need to protect

In my own Systems Thinking I try to keep the system's boundary as open
as possible. In other words, I allow the SYS and the SUR to "mix" as
much as possible by letting anything to cross the boundary, in or out.
However, to act as if the system is open does not imply that all
things move over the boundary reversibly. In other words, open does
not mean that there is no preferance to which side things are moving,
the SYS side or the SUR side. It is my purpose to have an irreversible
(nett) movement of things from the SUR side to the SYS side. Thus the
system SYS is able to self-organise into increasing orders of
complexity. In other words, in my systems thinking I make special
provision for irreversible self-organisation to happen. Clearly,
openness is one of this provisions. If you still remember from my
series on the seven essentialities of creativity (the last three and
hence openness as one of the three still to be discussed), there are
six other things which I make special provision for in the same sense
as openness. They are liveness, sureness, wholeness, fruitfulness,
spareness and otherness.

These seven essentialities do not act as closures, but act as degrees
of freedom. In other words, a person may fear that things like
"sureness", "wholeness"and "otherness" are closures on their systems
thinking and consequently may try to avoid them. But it is not the
case as one of the seven helps us to understand. Openness cannot be a
closure because then it is a sheer contradiction. The essentiality
"otherness" or diversity is particularly difficult to handle. The
reason is very simple. It requires us to look beyond the "dialectical
duality" which has resulted from George Spencer-Brown's basic act
"draw a mark which distinguishes".

Steve, you also write:

>Awareness that varies in the way that it appears with
>an "owner"? And what if we included the *way* that
>we perceive, think, and are aware in a nonverbal way?
>Perhaps leaving these out makes it impossible to really
>understand each other.

You have asked for it. I hope you have enjoyed the *way* of G
Spencer-Brown in his "Laws of Form" which I have tried to paint into
our dialogue. Actually, I have done GSB an injustice because I have
described his two laws "mark over mark is nothing" and "mark along
mark is mark" verbally. It is not possible to do it symbolically (as
he did it) on this list with only "western" symbols. You should try to
get hold of his book and see how he did it symbolically.

Ok, I know that many of you will say -- what is the difference, using
words or using symbols. It is still using signs made by humans. Well,
here is something to think about. We have three dogs at home, a small
one (the starter) and two big ones (the main dishes). Every day when I
arrive at home, they are the first to greet me. Some days they begin
with the law "mark over mark is nothing" by running to me, then
running away, running back, etc. Other days they begin with the law
"mark along mark is mark", trying to strech themselves higher and
higher up against me, leaving footprints all over me. But every day
they do both "laws of form", telling me how glad they are to see me

Best wishes


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>