Report: System is not the same!
What is more exciting than humans? The well-known American writer Kurt Vonnegut is said to have explained to students who were interested in the secrets of successful and captivating writing that it is entirely possible to describe a mountain range in an exciting way. The only thing that matters is that a person is also revealed in the picture designed in the process.
As a result of this article, it will not be a matter of excitingly describing an exciting discussion of the appearance of a mountain range or other geological curiosity - which would actually be a difficult task to master.
This will be about something that threatens to look even drier, drier: This is about one of the most abstract terms used in science and technology - the concept of system.
Even Vonnegut's recommendation to involve a person in the presentation of a thing threatens to remain ineffective in view of the massive lack of clarity in the matter. That's why I tackle the challenge by involving not just one person, but a whole group of people in my description, and by using another trick: I write my text in the form of a report.
Place and occasion:
An international meeting of system theorists and cyberneticists took place in Vienna from April 22 to 25, 2014 - the 22nd European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research (emcsr 2014). The event location was the premises of the University of Vienna - more precisely: that of the communication scientist on Währinger Strasse.
The organization of the event was in the hands of the employees of the "Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science" a registered association, which according to its statutes sees itself as an association for the promotion of systems science. The founders of the Bertalanffy Center set their club the goal of promoting research in general systems theory in the sense of Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
April 22, 2014 - 10:00 am - “General system theory is rock 'n' roll!”
At the start of the multi-day symposia, greetings are given first - representatives of organizations that feel connected to systems research and support this year's international meeting introduce themselves and greet the participants of the event week who are present in the lecture hall.
The mood is good, the participants are looking forward to the upcoming, hopefully interesting contributions and discussions of the following days. One of the last words of greeting gets enthusiastic with a “General system theory is rock 'n' roll!” completed - a first, an emotional highlight of the day.
April 22, 2014 - 11:00 am - Ceremony: "The award winner does not take prisoners."
A ceremony follows the greeting ceremony. Occasion: The Bertalanffy Center awards the “Bertalanffy Award in Complexity Thinking”. The first award winner was the French philosopher Edgar Morin two years earlier at the 21st European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research Events.
On today's memorable April 22, 2014, it's 94-year-old Argentinian Mario Bunge - until a few years ago Frothingham Professor of Logics and Metaphysics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada - who will be the second to receive this award:
He is worthy of the prize to be awarded today, which distinguishes trend-setting, complex thinking in the context of systemism. Because as an internationally renowned science philosopher, Mario Bunge has analyzed and evaluated the use of the system concept in the empirical sciences like no other, thereby setting standards. These standards have many consequences for the assessment of the current methodological approach in a wide range of research fields - such as quantum physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, social sciences or medicine ... but now to the end of the event:
The laudation will be given by the German natural philosopher and university teacher Rainer E. Zimmermann. In his speech, the Schelling reviewer praised Mario Bunge, who is today considered a complex thinker, as a "philosophical freedom fighter" who sheds light on the fundamental questions of scientific knowledge. Zimmermann particularly emphasizes the uncompromising manner in which he shows himself when it comes to asserting his arguments against positions that he believes are misleading: Zimmermann quotes a Bunge expert: "He takes no prisoners!" -
At this point of the laudation at the latest, everyone who has dealt a little with Bunge's work has to hold his breath - after all, it is about a price that is named after Bertalanffy's Austrian biologist. This is a moment of the highest professional tension.
But Zimmermann circumvents their resolution by not addressing the conflict within reach, but instead soothingly stressing how refreshing he finds it to meet Mario Bunge today with a philosopher who knows how to “properly” discuss.
Readers who are not particularly interested in questions of scientific theory will now ask themselves: why hold your breath, what tension? After all, as is customary at award ceremonies, this is a friendly speech, which is primarily about polite, well-meaning words and a solemn appreciation of the long-standing merits of an award winner.
If we pause for clarification, let us say goodbye to the lecture hall in Vienna and the event on this spring-like, friendly Tuesday morning in April to take a closer look at the suggested element. - This is appropriate because, as we know all too well from psychotherapeutic practice: "Disruptions and their resolution have priority ”.
Excursus: systemism and holism are mutually exclusive.
We use the “Reportage-Auszeit” to look up Mario Bunge's work - and we are looking for his examination of the concept of system. Here we encounter direct references to the exciting element of the morning:
Bunge obviously knows Ludwig von Bertalanffy's works very well and appreciates his personal role as co-founder of the General Systems Research movement. - Brief review: In 1954, Bertalanffy in Stanford was one of the founders of the Society for General Systems Research. Incidentally, one of the co-founders was the well-known mathematician, biologist and musician Anatol Rapoport.
In addition, Bunge refers in several places to Bertalanffy's well-known system-theoretical basic articles from 1950: An Outline of General System Theory.
And this is exactly where we come to the sought-after, conflict-laden point. Because Mario Bunge criticizes Bertalanffy's thoughts. He writes very clearly that the latter has developed a system concept that confuses the scientific concept of systemism with a “holism”. If we read further, it becomes clear that from Bunge's point of view there are two incompatible approaches behind these two concepts, even if both terms are often used interchangeably by the lay public.
Holism: Really Misleading and Deadly?
What is Mario Bunge's criticism specifically aimed at?
Mario Bunge's argument comes - as is to be expected - from a philosophy of science.
Let us first try to assess how serious such an argument can be - that is, how serious the criticism in it is. What relevance does philosophical criticism have - what consequences is it able to enforce?
In other words: is philosophical criticism something that an author like von Bertalanffy has to fear?
At first glance, such criticism might seem irrelevant to us, and the idea of translating systemism with holism might be an acceptable approach.
Because: If we can do anything with the term today, then for us as average members of the modern media society, the domain of philosophy - should it ever come into the spotlight - is something like a nice pastime irrelevant to our daily actions, our work, our life or even our fate.
Where do philosophical disputes come into the public eye today?
It happens. When articles appear in national newspapers - for example in weekly newspapers such as the "Zeit" published in Hamburg during the summer vacation period, which endeavor to bring "current philosophical disputes" into the clear daylight. The department that is typically available as a platform for this is the so-called "Feuilleton" (French: "leaflet") - a journalistic branch of presentation that, according to communication scientist Claudia Mast, "considers the little things and minor issues of life in an emphatically personal way and tries to win them a humanly moving, uplifting side ”.
In fact, in this media environment, philosophers are presented as intellectuals who, as text-producing individuals, are able to combine their worldview with a personal and “edifying” note. The most successful market is philosophical authors who manage to convey their exotic-looking worldview so easily that feuilleton readers can consume them without strenuous thinking and without prior philosophical knowledge. The enjoyment should work like colored glasses, which the readers have to put on for a few moments in the hour - detached from the everyday here and now - to enjoy a culturally-elaborated worldview for these moments. - These glasses can be taken off again quickly - everyday life can be continued "normal" without worrying about thinking.
Back to the concept of system and its delimitation to holism:
Is the distinction between these two terms merely such a feuilletonistic moodiness without after-effects and without stressful substance?
Bunge would answer this question with a categorical no. For him, the difference between systemism and holism (the holistic theory) is as important as if it could decide not only about the failure of scientific theories in research practice, but also about life and death in technology and technology.
What he means is in the following direction:
Holism contains the dogma that systems are above all wholes and that the components and entities contained therein are completely shaped by the design of the whole system - that the whole (gr. Holos - "whole") the processes in its subsystems from above dominated (top-down). So strong and decisive that the processes inside it cannot have any effect on the characteristics of the whole, and it is therefore unnecessary to examine them more closely.
A few examples of typical holistic mistakes:
- The sociological systems theorist Talcott Parsons - although he had dominated the international sociological theoretical discussion for decades - tragically failed to pass on solid explanations or precise diagnoses of social systems, societies or social developments to the following generations of sociologists due to his holistic concepts.
- Niklas Luhmann, also a sociological system theorist, "cultivated" holism to such an extent that he completely excluded the social reality of individuals who speak, work, etc. from his considerations: "Not humans can communicate, only communication can communicate." He ignored that social systems and interaction systems are things “made” and brought about by their behavior, which - albeit often with difficulty - have to be changed - “improved” - by these individuals because otherwise they cause serious problems. For the "maintenance" of such systems - companies, institutions, work groups, families, marriages etc. - those responsible would be doomed to do nothing and accept their problems if they actually practiced the holism represented by Luhmann.
- Such holism in medicine causes serious health risks if a "healer" treats the "constitution" and condition of his patients exclusively "holistically" within the scope of his naturopathic "treatment", as is often practiced by "alternative" naturopaths. He would have no interest in the individual, usually hidden mechanisms that cause diseases to break out in the body. It could not prevent the spread and spread of serious diseases.
- A holistic mechanic would be correspondingly catastrophic in the event of a defective aircraft. He would react to the fact that some warning lights flash red in the cockpit by deactivating the corresponding light-emitting diodes instead of investigating the causes in detail and researching failing mechanisms such as the controls and engine. This would apparently restore the outer order behind the joystick in the pilot's cockpit. However, with the risk that the aircraft in question will come into a threatening situation on the next flight.
"If your only tool is a hammer, you will consider every problem a nail."
But is Bertalanffy really a holist in the sense described?
At least his famous essay is written from this perspective.
Let us look at how he explains the applicability of the general system concept in An Outline of General System Theory. Bertalanffy develops his thoughts in several steps. We follow him:
Bertalanffy assumes that science is dealing with "isomorphic" laws that affect all areas of the world, nature, society, etc.
In his view, the most varied fields of reality are of the same shape and structure. He believes that the work of identical or isomorphic laws can be assumed in completely different areas. He believes this to be a well known fact in physics, where the same differential equations are said to apply to the flow of liquids, the spread of heat and the flow of electrical currents. He interprets phenomena such as the growth of bacteria, the growth of human populations or the growth of human knowledge as correspondingly “isomorphic”.
When asked about the origin of this isomorphism, he gives three reasons that he considers self-explanatory:
- He cited the first reason as that it was easy to form a complicated mathematical formula - to write down a complicated differential equation, for example. However, it is tedious to find solutions for this equation. For this reason, only a limited number of simple differential equations would be used to describe natural phenomena. Because in this way the same formulas would always be used in many fields of reality, it would have to be concluded that these different areas of reality are structured similarly and are subject to corresponding laws. In his opinion, the same applies to scientific laws that would not be formalized mathematically, but would be formulated in everyday language: The number of our available intellectual schemes is too limited for us to be able to do otherwise than to apply them again and again to natural phenomena.
This argument makes me think of the phrase that Mark Twain is given: "If your only tool is a hammer, you will consider every problem a nail." Just as with the Düsseldorf "nail artist" Uecker, every art object is covered with continuous nail surfaces and thus appears "structured", all phenomena in science would be shaped by the same thinking structures.
Let's get to the point of Bertalanffy's reasoning:
The forms of thinking that are available for capturing the world are so limited that scientists only recognize what they have put into the course of their research into the presentation of the facts from above from a thinker's perspective. According to Bertalanffy, reality cannot oppose or contradict this process. - It will not be difficult for the reader to recognize a variant of the holistic thinking described above in this reasoning.
- With the second argument, von Bertalanffy tries to secure the previous first justification. Here's how he does it: He admits that the mathematical formulas and thinking schemes described cannot really be helpful if they were merely fictitious. Obviously, they could only be helpful if it were ensured that the basic structures of mathematics and thinking corresponded fundamentally to the things of the world. Bertalanffy puts it this way: Laws and schemes would not be helpful if the world - for example, the entirety of the observable events - were not designed in such a way that they fit in from the start. He thinks it would be possible to imagine a chaotic world, a world that would be too complicated to be grasped by the relatively simple schemes that our limited intellect uses. Talanffy reassures readers: Fortunately, the "real world" not of this kind, be consistently “compatible with the thinking” and allow us to use our intellectual constructions without problems. He claims - to put it a little differently - that the world is pre-shaped according to our thinking and that there is therefore a consistent structural uniformity of thought and world. For Bertalanffy, everything - our thinking and our world - is holistically determined from above by one and the same pattern.
- For the third reason, Bertalanffy comes up with the concept of system. He uses this to support his second argument this time. He assumes that this third reason for the isomorphism of the laws of nature is the most important of his attempts at explanation. It consisted of the insight that general system laws apply in the world, which work regardless of the specific properties of specific systems and their components. He formulates something like this: “We can also say that there is a consistent structural correspondence or logical homology of systems in all areas and fields of reality. That is the reason why we find isomorphic laws in different subject areas. ”For Bertalanffy there is a“ systemic-logical homology ”, which in parallel determines the essence of things and human thought.
Systematically banishing holism: The semantic theory of empirical sciences
Anyone who has not been granted the leisure and concentration to deal with the question of how it is possible that similar mathematical expressions can be used in parallel in many areas of reality, may become one at this point interim “intellectual, structural crisis of meaning” decay: isn't it right that the world is a number? Is it not the case that "convinced" mathematicians speak about their discipline so enthusiastically because they can reasonably assume that their formulas hold the key to all scientific laws?
Both questions are based on errors, but they are easy to work on. Let's tackle these errors and get them out of the way:
With these questions we come into the field of so-called “semantic theories” - it is about how we can refer to the world, to the structures in it and to the processes taking place in them through the meaning of our assumptions.
In particular, these semantic theories deal with how mathematical constructs - for example the linear or exponential functions used in science and technology - can relate to the world.
The answer from a holistic perspective, which is related to the philosophy of idealism and has a lot in common with medieval universal realism or Plato's dogma of ideas, is that these constructs could actually be constructive elements of the empirical world. With the mathematical model in our head or on the sticky note, we would have grasped the same structure as that which gave shape to the world. Because both are drawn from one source, on the one hand to shape the world and on the other hand to work through human language and our mathematical thinking according to the same principles.
A systemism that distinguishes itself from this holism, such as that developed by Bunge, for example, and how it is typically represented by empirical-scientific researchers, works with a fundamentally different semantic theory. In a nutshell: Mathematical models can be applied to the world because they are ontologically neutral and can therefore have different meanings in different contexts.
This formulation of this theory is obviously too short to make convincingly clear to those readers who were just confused in view of Bertalanffy's isomorphism train of thought how to understand the point of view behind it.
For reassurance - the relationships are actually not difficult to understand:
Let's look at Mario Bunge's semantic theory to clarify things. -
In his view, pure mathematics is not concerned with the real world or with experience, because: Mathematical evidence is not empirical evidence.
Mathematical objects such as series, functions, classes, sets, matrices, Boolean algebra, topological spaces, number systems, vector spaces, differential equations are just imaginary, rational things - "entia rationis" - and they are also "entia ficta". That is, mathematical models are fictions, thanks to our ability to create fictions. As a result, the mathematical concept of existence that appears in mathematical existence theorems in set theory is radically different compared to the claim: “Klaus exists.”, Which deals with the real and material existence of a former classmate. Therefore, all mathematical proofs of existence - like all other mathematical proofs - are purely conceptual procedures. In short: abstract mathematical science and with it mathematicians are dealing with fictions - similar to abstract painters, authors of fantastic literature and creators of animated films in which talking mice, ducks, squirrels etc. appear. The only difference is that mathematical fictions are not formulated arbitrarily like screenplays for cartoons, but follow mathematical laws and can be checked using mathematical-logical evidence methods.
Again: math is ontologically neutral:
Mathematics - but also logic - do not deal with concrete things, but with constructs such as predicates, assumptions and theories. This explains why mathematics, including logic, is the universal language of science, technology and even philosophy, and why it is the best transferable and most usable of all sciences in a variety of areas.
Please note the following: Because mathematical models are “empty” and a mathematical formula - such as one of the differential equations that Bertalanffy has done so - does not become part of physics or any other empirical science, rather than being factual Content to be "enriched".
In this way, mathematics has great advantages. Bunge says: Mathematics would be a large, lavishly equipped department store with ready-to-use models that scientists, technologists and humanities scholars can access to map and analyze the structures and processes in their respective areas of interest.
Bunge understands that people were once amazed at the possibility of using mathematics in this way in science to model real facts. In this respect, he considers it understandable that, for example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz - as apparently also from Bertalanffy - believed in a pre-established harmony between mathematics and the real world. Nevertheless, from the point of view of modern empirical science, they have unfortunately succumbed to an irrational belief in an unearthly creation. From the point of view of modern science, it is also incomprehensible what Bertalanffy claims regarding the regularity and structure of empiricism: the world is not consistently “compatible with thought” and “harmonious”. - Here are a few further thoughts:
The fictional nature of mathematics is the reason why its models serve as tools but ultimately can only roughly reflect reality. In this context, Bunge points out that mathematics is precise or can be specified, while the real world often proves to be chaotic, shadowy and unclear, with "dirty" edges. Mathematics doesn't exactly reflect reality: there is a break between the two. For on the one hand, mathematical constructs are interpreted by users as if they had an autonomous existence in a sphere above the changeable real world. On the other hand, mathematical models are not suitable for capturing the irregularities and impurities common in empiricism. In addition, many - probably most mathematical constructs do not have a suitable counterpart in reality - there is nothing that could correspond to them completely and in all aspects in reality. Bunge says it metaphorically: the glove (of mathematics) lacks fingers - moreover, it is not tight enough to be 100 percent adapted to reality.
Back on the day of the event: Mario Bunge speaks after the laudation.
Back to April 22nd - straight back into the festive event.
Laudator Rainer E. Zimmermann has completed his laudation.
Mario Bunge is now taking over the keynote speech for the day of the event. He takes a seat centrally in front of the auditorium, near the central whiteboard, to then outline important concepts on the board during his speech.
The readers of this article are now excited to see how the concept of his lecture may have laid out. It should be directly revealed that Bunge is not afraid to emphasize his systemic concept clearly and thus to take a fundamental counter position to what most listeners represent as convinced general system theorists ("He takes no prisoners!").
But: Mario Bunge does not become rude at all.
Because he refers to the co-founder of the General Systems movement and colleague Bertalanffy, to Anatol Rapoport. On the fact that Rapoport, as a co-initiator of General System Theory, agreed with Mario Bunge's semantic theory that system theory is not really a theory. Rapoport was of the opinion that systemism is instead a point of view, an approach, which helps to grasp problems and to consider them in their real context. This works by analyzing systems, their components, subsystems, structures and processes using a combination of bottom-up and top-down investigation strategies.
Rapoport thus stands out from a holistic interpretation of the term system, which is limited to top-down approaches and therefore - as we have just visualized - does not match the procedures of empirical-scientific research.
The effect of Bunge's words? How do these references affect the system theorists gathered here? Are they ignored or are they countered?
At the end of Mario Bunge's lecture it becomes clear that his message has actually reached the audience.
This is shown by the questions now asked from the audience.
One of the listeners makes sure once again that he really understood Mario Bunge's position correctly and that he represents a counter position to the common general systems theory. Mario Bunge confirms this and emphasizes again: There can be no general system theory and no general system laws. Researchers always have to investigate empirical systems and look here for the specific mechanisms that work here. To explain these mechanisms, researchers would have to resort to a variety of other theories and hypotheses. General system laws that could be used independently of a specific explanation are fanciful.
Another listener understood that Mario Bunge distinguished systemism from holism. In order to have the reason explained again, he asked the question of how this was possible, given the assumption widespread among his colleagues that holism was an essential part of a system theory. Mario Bunge again explains the problems of holism and its limitation to top-down approaches. He emphasizes that holism is an ancient philosophy, a pattern of thought that was often cultivated by mystics and developed into a variety of mythologies.
This exchange of questions and answers makes it clear:
The winner of the day was apparently able to reach the participants of the congress with his message.
One or the other may have got the impulse to test his own systemism and to compare it with the standards that Bunge set in his extensive work.
If this had happened to one or the other of the participants, the above-mentioned rock 'n' roll enthusiasm for the words of greeting would have literally spread to the audience at the beginning of the day, i.e. the thinking rooted in the system concepts of the XNUMXs of those affected actually moves:
"Roll over Bertalanffy, tell Parsons and Luhmann the News!
End of reportage - end of contribution: How it works! (So it goes! *)
*: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Fife or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-Dance with Death, New York 1968.
- Bertalanffy, Ludwig von; "An Outline of General System Theory", in: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Aug., 1950), p. 134-165.
- Berry, Charles Edward Anderson; "Roll Over Beethoven", Chess Records 1626, Chicago 1956.
- Bunge, Mario; Treatise on Basic Philosophy Volume 4. Ontology II (A World of Systems); Dordrecht, Boston, London 1979
- Bunge, Mario; “Moderate Mathematical Fictionism (1997)”, in: Mario Bunge, Scientific Realism, edited by Martin Mahner, pp. 187-203; Amherst, New York 2001
- Bunge, Mario; “The Gap Between Mathematics And Reality (1994)”, in: Mario Bunge, Scientific Realism, edited by Martin Mahner, pp. 204-210; Amherst, New York 2001
- Bunge, Mario; Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelity and the Unity of Knowledge; Toronto, Buffalo, London 2003
- Droste, Heinz W .; The methodological foundations of Talcott Parson's sociological action theory; Düsseldorf 1985
- Droste, Heinz W .; Communication - planning and shaping public opinion. Volume 1: Basics; Neuss 2011
- Photos from the event: Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science (BCSSS) Association for the Promotion of Systems Science / EMCSR 2014
- Photos Gibson ES 335: Pedion Verlag