Opening on a Hopeful Note
I have been named Editor in Chief for the International Federation for Systems Research (Vienna Austria) book series, published by Springer, “Systems Science & Engineering”, previously managed by George Klir. I am deeply honoured to have been asked by the IFSR to head up the re-launch of their book series. My hope is to guide the series in the direction of opening up access to systems science and engineering to a much wider audience by making sure that the books published include sufficient prose, along with their mathematics, so that non-mathematically inclined people may also see the insights that systems science has to offer.
SS was developed as a subject during an era when scientists, especially in the various domains of physics, were overcome with pride and zealousness over their mastery of advanced mathematics. The early thinking was that mathematics was a completely adequate language for describing systems concepts. Many books and journal articles, thus, focused on mathematics at the expense of prose. The result was to put off a large audience of people who, nevertheless, intuitively grasped the ideas of systemness but were left without a lot of intellectual material from which to draw. The major exception was a group of people who bridged the worlds of verbal and mathematical description and realized that systems thinking would be valuable in management science but only if ideas could be expressed with a minimal amount of arcane mathematics. They called this track “Soft Systems Thinking.” To their credit they were fairly successful in expressing most of the principles of systemness in plain language using mathematics (usually nothing more complicated than basic algebra and set theory) only to add some amount of preciseness to their ideas.
Today there is a growing understanding that mathematics' proper role in describing the world is as just such an addendum. My work on human thinking, especially in the area of the internal language of thought (LoT) that I have proposed is actually the language of systemness - what I am calling “systemese,” and this language is comprised of four mental modules (actually five modules including the affect, emotional, influence on decision making as I reported in my Sapience book). The first module is the linguistic (verbalization) module responsible for encoding and using names of objects (nouns), relations (prepositions and many modifiers), and actions (verbs), plus the grammatical formation of sentences. This is the language facility most researchers and linguists focus on. However we also have names for quantity, measures (units), and calibrations (comparisons between two or more quantities, for example). These words can be conveniently represented by more terse symbols (signs) such as the numeral, '1' symbol representing the verbal symbol “one” and a built-in sense of counting. Measuring, involving comparison of sensory data from one object, for example, with another object, and calibration (e.g. making sure an arrow head was not too heavy for the arrow) led to various arithmetic capabilities. Math today is the result of an on-going evolution of abstraction of patterns of relations and using those abstractions, along with rules for deriving them, to multiple situations.The third module in human thinking is strongly related to the mathematics module but was first evolved with the linguistic module and that is the logic module that is used to construct rational arguments. Early humans, as they were evolving language facility needed to use that language to confer on group decisions about future actions (e.g. when to go hunting next). These kinds of discussions required the discussants to put forth veridical arguments for their positions when there was a disagreement about conclusions. Facts and logic were needed to ferret out the proper course of action.
The fifth module concerns itself with visual interpretations. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. And this has some basis in psychology. Our brains are evolved to use all four of these modules in order to have successful intra-specific communications take place. Successful here means that the results of communications increase the fitness of the species, by increasing the fitness of the tribe (and by doing so the fitness of individuals). The verbal facility acts as an integrating nexus between all of them. We have words and sentences to describe what we see, how we reason, and how big or small things are and how they compare to one another.
It takes all four of these competencies in order to describe the world (it takes the emotional module as well in order to communicate knowledge about individuals' states of feeling, e.g. desires, but so far as scientific descriptions are concerned we try hard to eliminate the effects of emotions). No one is sufficient by itself. It is somewhat possible to translate any of the three extra language facilities into verbal descriptions, but often at the risk of losing some precision or context. A well balanced use of all four is what makes the sciences so successful in producing increasingly veridical descriptions of the world and how it works. The reason mathematics has tended to dominate, especially at the lower levels of organization (e.g. physics), is that the various specializations in the sciences means that those who work in a particular field become deeply antiquated with the subject and the math used to model systems within that field. They can talk mathematics to one another and feel like they have done an adequate job of communicating with their tribe. However two factors are intervening in this comfort zone. The first is that systems science deals with systems in general, regardless of medium (physical, biological, social, etc.) The second is that the problems that the sciences are tackling are increasingly involving complex systems and require transdisciplinary approaches. Meaning that scientists must communicate with other tribes, often speaking different languages.
I will be developing my system language more thoroughly in the new book. My hope is that understanding better how our internal language of systemness works (with all modules) will provide us with a universal way to achieve transdisciplinarity and communications between all of the science disciplines. My object with the IFSR/Springer book series is to similarly guide the whole field toward a more balanced approach to communicating systems science to everyone.
And Now Some Not So Hopeful Observations
This year has demonstrated to us that nothing is permanent, not even democracy!
The evidence that the world as a whole is coming undone is abundant. The circuitous manner in which Trump arrives at the White House shows us that institutions meant to ensure the proper working of democratic governance have broken down, failed. Unless there is some revolution in the electoral college that denies Trump the presidency (and we will know shortly) the fact that a sufficient number of people in the US voted for him, sufficient to bring him close even if losing the popular vote, is, to me, adequate evidence to show how incredibly pathetic our education system has gotten. People (and not just Trump supporters) are generally abysmally ignorant. They are, I am starting to think, equally stupid. Even PhD-educated people are showing signs of a lack of any intellectual capacity, a dismal lack of any kind of understanding about matters outside their particular profession, and certainly no ability to exercise critical thinking skills. Even if the electoral college denies Trump the office, there is likely to be a revolution since his supporters are so emotionally broken that many of them have already shown violent tendencies.
The next few years are going to be especially difficult for the world and I think it is safe to say the rivets are already starting to burst from the boiler. From this point expect the chaos to simply increase and likely at an exponential rate. People, both republicans and democrats alike, voted for change. They wanted to eliminate the status quo and they will get their wishes. But given what I said above about the level of ignorance and stupidity that seems so prevalent in the population, even the so-called educated population, the kind of change they wanted isn't even feasible in the current state of the biophysical economy. So the changes they will get will be quite different from what they expect.
Democracy is a nice-sounding idea. As a form of governance it has appeal because it addresses a basic human desire to be autonomous, translated into the concepts of freedom and liberal human rights. It conveys some sense of equality and opportunity to participate in the decision processes of managing the economic, ethical, educational, and cultural subsystems of the human social system. Democratic governance has evolved over many generations to the kind we witness in the US and many western nations. Coupled with economic freedom, in the form of neoliberal capitalism, it has seemed to everyone that mankind had finally found the right formula for managing our affairs with equity and dignity. But...
A representative democracy is supposed to compensate for the little problem that most people have very limited memory and understanding capacity relative to the complexities of governing large social systems like a country. Even at the founding of the United States of America, the complexities of state and internal affairs were such that the Founding Fathers realized that the common person would be unable to know everything needed to participate fully in the governance process. Ergo, the representation in congress and the electoral college creation for the election of the executive. Even at that, the people being elected to represent the rest are tending of late to the stupid and ignorant side of the mental distribution. I think of someone like James Inhofe (R. OK.) and simply hang my head and cry. Of course stupid people are getting into elected office because the voters are even more stupid and ignorant and are even resentful of anyone who is clearly more knowledgeable and intellectual than they are. They vote with their emotions and a feeling that such people will understand their problems. It hasn't helped that the occasionally smart politician has used those smarts mostly for personal gain — influence, power, and riches. There seem to be as many selfish democrats as there are selfish republicans. And so the common person is left feeling like no one is really looking out for their interests.
A big part of the problem, however, is the difference between what they believe their interests are or should be, versus reality. Americans in particular have been sold on the concept of the “American Dream.” But so have so many other people around the world, pursuing material wealth in the belief that it brings happiness. It has simply never occurred to most people that wealth comes from converting natural resources into goods and services and that those come in limited supply. Thus, now that we have reached the limits imposed by reality, they simply cannot understand why they are denied the American dream. Worse yet in places like Syria and the whole MENA region, they cannot understand why they can't even try to attain something like the American dream. Not even their governments can tell them the truth. Mostly they themselves don't understand the situation. It has taken something like global warming to start physically changing the climate and weather patterns to finally get some leaders to recognize a little piece of the puzzle.
Democracy in any form suffers from this one fundamental flaw. It depends entirely on the mentality of the populace — the whole populace. It depends on people being sufficiently smart that they can use critical thinking and logical reasoning along with possessing adequate knowledge about how reality works to be able to make informed decisions. There are likely to always be differences of opinion because of emotional attachments to world views that vary from culture to culture and ideology to ideology. As long as there is a forum (the political process) for working out differences amenably, and an intent on all parties' parts to do so in a peaceful manner, then democratic process has a chance to work. But as you think about it, when has that description of people ever been true?
Closing on a Hopeful Note (somewhat)
I strongly believe that systems science can provide guidance toward creating a form of governance that would succeed in terms of providing for an acceptable level of welfare for the citizens. That welfare would be considerably less oriented toward physical wealth as we understand it today. But every citizen would have an opportunity to participate in meaningful work, helping to secure the social milieu against disturbing forces from outside, and being supported by the society in terms of assurance of physical needs and comfort.
Problem one is that this is only feasible for a significantly smaller population, one that is not depleting natural resources faster than the renewable ones can be renewed and the non-renewable ones can be recycled. The current population of 7+ billion people on the planet is not just non-sustainable, it alone (never mind continued growth) will kill the planet's ability to supply resources to humans and to most other members of the biosphere. How we get down to a sustainable population is the continuing problem being discussed in population overload circles. To date, no clear consensus has emerged, except that the likelihood of supporting 7-10 billion people is understood to be irrational. The most likely scenario for humanity in the near term is a planet-wide population crash and an evolutionary bottleneck event. This would be a self-correcting aspect of the population problem. But obviously a very brutal solution.
Problem number two is that even if we could get the population down to a supportable number, the physical environment, in particular the availability of more natural resources and the dramatic changes in climate, are going to provide significant hurdles to get over. Future human beings are going to face incredible obstacles in forming any kind of reasonable civilization, even at a tribal level. They will not have the resources, especially high power energy, to do the work needed to build and sustain civilized living conditions.
Problem number three involves preserving all or most of the hard-won knowledge about the world that science has accumulated to date. Not all of this knowledge would be immediately useful to future humans but it would serve as a reminder of the mistakes our current species have made (I imagine preserving the parable of the iPhone as a cautionary tale warning of overzealous technology advances). It might also serve as inspiration for eventually building a reasonable civilization. My own thoughts along these lines is that what will be needed is a way to encode knowledge into a preservable medium, but essentially compressing the expanded knowledge in all fields into a form (message) that could be transmitted through the ages and used to recover all of the detailed knowledge when it becomes possible (and I have to believe it will in some distant future time). I believe that knowledge of systems science is exactly that compressed form of knowledge for everything. If systemness is the fundamental organizing principle of the Universe, then it should be possible to rebuild the specific sciences by applying systems thinking to the phenomena that future humans will certainly witness.
Problem number four, then, is simply providing strategies, tactics, and logistics to people who grasp reality well enough to follow through so they can survive in the future drastically different world they will occupy.
Over the years that I have been writing this blog I have tried, in some small way, to provide some pointers in the directions of, first, understanding these problems, and second, offering some suggested ways to address them. Of course, over that time my own thinking has been evolving and continues to do so today. My involvement with the book series project mentioned above is part of my work on hopefully solving problem number three. I am counting on a wider dissemination of systems science knowledge and thinking to help ensure some preservation. Even if no more than by word of mouth as a kind of oral tradition.
Over the last few months I have turned my attention to ideas about systems based governance of human social systems. Owing to the capricious nature of human emotions, human agents make lousy decision makers on their own recognizance. So the question of designing an architecture that can overcome the weakness of human beings acting as decision agents has begun occupying more of my time. I will be outlining my findings in the new book but also plan to write about them here as they evolve. The good news (of sorts) is that after studying natural governance in living systems I think I can see where our evolved ideas about governance took a wrong turn (as with the evolution of deepening sapience the turning point appears to be around the advent of agriculture!) Moreover, I think I can see how we can learn from natural governance and apply those ideas to create a better form of human governance that will meet the criteria of welfare for all citizens. I can promise it will be nothing like we have now nor particularly like we had back in the tribal days more than 10,000 years ago, though it will incorporate the human meaning that was the basis of tribal cultures. It will describe a system that is in balance with the whole Ecos owing to internal regulation that keep it from growing beyond realistic boundaries or using resources unrealistically fast.
I realize it is too late for our current populations to adopt such a governance system. They can't even understand it or why it is needed. But I hope that as part of the knowledgebase of systems science the ideas will be available to some future society for adoption.