Systems Exist

ae72ace9f2f229501d003a17ae84d21fIt is often said, citing Banathy, that "there are no systems out there." Variations of this view include a panoply of ideas that quickly devolve into solipsism (the idea that there is no reality "out there" only our mental models "in here"):

  • systems are not real
  • systems are just our representations
  • systems don't exist in nature

All presume that that systems are mere dalliances of the mind. In fact, systems do exist both in mind and in nature. Indeed, all of the DSRP patterns have been shown to exist in mind and nature (see evidence). Systems do exist in nature—part-whole structure exists, and its resulting nestedness, hierarchy, and fractality also exists. The question we should be asking ourselves does the system exist in nature as it does in my mind's eye? Is my mental model and accurate reflection of what actually exists? 

To be fair, I don’t know what Banathy intended. We do know that many quotes, taken out of context, can take on different meaning (e.g., that Beer’s POSIWID means that all systems have purpose in the ways that humans think of purpose [it doesn't]). Banathy may have been trying to distinguish between mental models and reality during a period where the distinction was not as clear to the general public. If, for example, this was the case then what Banathy meant by "out there" is mental models, which is also what is meant by "in here" (mental models. This would make the distinction between mind and nature, between mental model and reality, or between "in here" and "out there" a meaningless distinction. In other words, no meaningful statement is being made. In any of these cases, he would simply be supporting the ST Loop. Either way, the statement that there are no systems in nature is misleading. Indeed, a student of Bela Banathy, Sherryl Dimitry, explains,

I always have to chuckle when I hear random, half-sentence quotes out of context. I studied with Bela over 10 years until he passed, I never heard him say "there are no systems out there." 

Along these same lines, some are reminded of the famous saying that "the map is not the territory." It is true that, the map is not the territory. But that doesn’t mean there is no territory and that there is only a map. Nor does it mean that there is no correspondence between the map and the territory. There are mountains in maps and there are mountains in territories. So, it would be wrong to say that the mountains are merely in our maps, or in our minds. The truism that the map is not the territory is an entirely different metaphor than the solipsistic misrepresentation that there are no real systems or that systems are not real. The system in your mind may not represent well the real system in nature, but that does not mean there are no systems "out there." Systems exist in mind and nature. Sometimes we get it wrong where and how they exist.

Banathy's original explanation is thus:

"Flood and Jackson (1991) suggest that the concept of 'system' does not refer to things in the real world but to a particular way of organizing our thoughts about the world. I always shock incoming students at the orientation [Banathy taught systems at Saybrook Graduate School] when I say that there is no such thing as a system out there. Systems exist as mental pictures in our minds. Saying this another way, systems thinking structures thinking about whatever entity or phenomenon we become aware of and assign meaning to. (3)"
 
But I'm afraid it doesn't really clarify what he means. The issue isn't whether, as Banathy states, "Systems exist as mental pictures in our minds"--no one serious debates that. The issue is whether the implication is that that's the only place systems exist (i.e., they don't exist in reality/nature). Given that many folks in ST and will outright proclaim that "systems are not real" I think we have our answer of at least how this ambiguous quote gets misunderstood and used (not necessarily by Banathy but by others).
 
The point is, systems do exist in mind AND nature. They are not merely solipsistic social constructions. The systems of mind and those of nature are rarely the same thing but they are often structurally coupled and reflective of each other. Indeed, it is precisely because no part of us exists outside of nature and also that no part of us evolved outside of nature, that there is significant correspondence (despite bias).

 

The last thing systems thinkers need is more solipsism and more ambiguity. Let's not let these faulty but catchy popularisms of systems thinking catch on.

This is one of 6 "Sacred Cows" of Systems Thinking. See the table below for all sacred cows and their scientifically valid replacements and then click on the links to read more about each. 

Sacred Cow True or False? Replacement Cow (and BLOG)
1. The whole is more than the
sum of the parts (a.k.a.,
"emergence").
False The whole is always precisely
equal to its parts.
2. All systems have a purpose. False The "purpose" of a system is
what it does.

3. Systems thinking is ____
[insert systems dynamics
or other models here].

False

Systems thinking is a plurality of
hundreds of methods and
models
that all cohere around four patterns
of thought (DSRP).

4. Systems thinking is holistic
(or alternatively, systems
thinking is anti-reductionism)
False

Systems thinking is balanced
thinking (both holistic
and
reductionistic, and/both not
either/or).

5. Everything is connected. False Everything is connected, or
not.

6. There is no system out 
there.

False
There is a system out there, 
it just may be different from
your mental model of it.

To learn more about these topics, get the book. 

New call-to-action

References:

  1. Cabrera, D. (2006) Systems Thinking. Cornell University. 
  2. Cabrera D., Cabrera L., Cabrera, E. A Literature Review of the Universal Patterns and Atomic Elements of Complex Cognition. Journal of Applied Systems Thinking (20) 6. (2020)
  3. Banathy BH. Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. 1st ed. Springer US; 1996. page 156; doi:10.1007/978-1-4757-9981-1