Causality and Purpose in Systems:

In today’s post, I am pursuing the ideas from my last two posts. I am going to look at purposiveness and purposefulness in systems, and I am going to discuss ideas inspired by Aristotle and Werner Ulrich. Aristotle was Plato’s student, and a polymath. He was the first Western philosopher to provide a framework for causality. Aristotle noted that things are always changing or are in motion. He proposed that matter (things) exists as forms. Matter moves through forms, from simple to complex, similar to an evolutionary process, until it meets its final form. Thus, for Aristotle change is not meaningless. This is the teleological view where every thing is moving towards its higher purpose. He explained this in terms of potentiality and actuality. The current state of the matter represents the potentiality. Once the current state is transformed so that it is in a new form and the desired purpose is achieved, the matter has achieved actuality.

A simple example is that of a stone. The stone has potentiality, and once it becomes a statue, as the artist intended, it meets its actuality. We can imagine matter going through a series of forms. Matter represents possibility (potentiality) and form represents reality (actuality). The change continues until change itself is unnecessary. This also sheds light on purpose. The purpose of a thing is to fulfill its potential. The potentiality represents its purpose. For an organism, the purpose is the realization of its form. For example, the purpose for a seed is to grow into a tree. This also can be viewed as a constraint in the sense that the seed has no other choice but to become a tree. Here the causality is to unfold what is already enfolded.

We may take these ideas for granted, but these were the groundbreaking ideas on which we built the foundations of science on. When we look at the ideas of Aristotle, we see that he didn’t include an observer in the mix. His view is that of an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge is possible from experiencing the real world. For him, knowledge is derived from an objective reality. Let’s take the example of a stone and a sculptor. The purpose of the stone was provided by the sculptor, since it was him who provided “information” to form the statue. The change happened because of the sculptor. We can state that the change was the actualization of potential through the information provided by the sculptor. This is an important example to bear in mind as we proceed further into this post.

We cannot help but draw similarities between the sculptor and a designer of a human system such as an organization. The sculptor provided the information for the stone to change into a beautiful statue. The designer can be viewed as providing a blue print for the organization to form into an adaptive and agile organization. This viewpoint would be true if we were talking about purposive systems. Purposiveness, as explained by Ulrich, refers to the effectiveness and efficiency of means or tools: in other words, cogs in the machines. This is the mechanistic framework, where the designer is the expert who assigns purposes for each part of the system. However, when we look at social systems or human systems, we need to consider purposefulness. Ulrich viewed purposefulness as the critical awareness of self-reflective humans with regard to ends or purposes and their normative implications for all of those who might be affected by their consequences. Ulrich succinctly summarized the idea of purposive human systems in the statement – all design of tools represents somebody’s solution to somebody’s problems. Purposefulness aligns with intrinsic motivation compared to an extrinsic motivation provided by the designer. Humans are purposeful, and although we are able to follow orders, we will not be able to actualize our self-potential. At some point, we may decide to not follow orders anymore. We should be able to provide purpose for ourselves and actualize the potential the way we deem fit. When we consider using a mechanistic framework on human systems, it is good to remind ourselves of Geert Hofstede’s quote: “as soon as people are part of the process, the effects of interventions are not known.”

Another point to consider with treating organizations as purposive systems is that the designer lacks the variety to deal with all of the variety the environment might impose on the organization. Thus, if the designer had a form in mind to tackle a particular need to be met, the structure has to follow the form that it is constrained to. For example, if the designer planned for the organization to produce only black cars, and suddenly there is a need for ventilators, theoretically the purposive system will not be able to meet that need. The structure of the organization is constrained to produce only black cars. The designer has to then intervene to change the form again, to use Aristotle’s idea, so that the organization can now produce ventilators. This approach gets messy and murky fast when the number of demands increase and the designer is not able to match the variety needed. Ideally, the recursions should have enough autonomy at their levels to meet the requisite variety needed.

We cannot help but fall into the trap of anthropomorphism when it comes to talking about organizations. We may talk about the organizations having goals or that organization can self-organize or be agile. We are forgetting that organizations do not have goals; some people in the organizations do. There is no one mind or self-conscious entity having a purpose of its own or moving towards the goal of self-actualization. It is actually a fairly delicate balance. The idea of causality does not apply to human systems. We should stop thinking in terms of causality, rules etc., and instead think in terms of constraints, dispositions etc.

Geoffrey Vickers, an eminent British Systems Thinker, talks about resisting our urge to view organizations/social systems in terms of “systems”. One underlying theme in Systems Thinking is that the whole is more important than the parts. This brings into question – who is defining the whole? Systems are theoretical constructs rather than real entities in the world. This is the idea that the systematicity is not in the real world, but in how we view the world. Vickers realized that the very word “systems” had become dehumanized. As Peter Checkland notes (with some paraphrasing):

He (Vickers) rejected the goal-seeking model of human life (the core of management science) and then the cybernetic model because in it, the course to which the steersman steers is a given from the outside the system; whereas in human affairs the course being followed is continuously generated and regenerated from inside the system. This led him to his notion of appreciation in which, both individually and in groups, we all do the following: selectively perceive our world; make judgements about it, judgments of both fact (what is the case?) and value (is this good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable?); envisage acceptable forms of the many relationships we have to maintain over time; and to act to balance those relationships in line with our judgments.

Another good quote to further this idea comes from Espejo and Harnden:

A model is a convention – a way of talking about something in a manner that is understandable and useful in a community of observers. It is not a description of reality, but a tool in terms of which a group of observers in a society handle the reality they find themselves interacting with.

The idea that humans are purposeful and yet they belong to a purposeful system posits the importance of continuous self-reflection and self-correction from the part of a manager. This also needs a second-order approach to improve our understanding. We have to evaluate how we are part of the system we observe. In the wise words of Heinz von Foerster, we have to decide if we are apart from the system we are looking at or if we are a part of the system we are looking at. We must be aware of the blind spots we have, or as Ulrich refers to them – all conceivable sources of possible deception.

Another important point to keep in mind with social systems is the interconnectedness (which also points toward the complexity of social systems). As West Churchman, Ulrich’s mentor and teacher, points out – “in any specific problem one finds the connectedness to all the other problems”. Ulrich points out that the overwhelming connectedness of problems forces systems designers, no less than any other planners, to content themselves with partial solutions that consider only a limited number of whole systems implications – usually those of interest to the involved decision-makers. That’s always the rub. Everything is connected with everything else and yet we try to make sense by cutting off the majority of the connections and we don’t see ourselves being a part of the phenomenon we are looking at. This is also why objective reality is not a good viewpoint to hold. It forces mechanistic frameworks and reductionist ideas that are not suitable for social systems. The crucial issue, then, is no longer “What do we know?” but rather “How do we deal with the fact that we don’t know enough?” In particular, uncertainty about the whole systems implications of our actions does not dispense us from moral responsibility; hence, “the problem of systems improvement is the problem of the ‘ethics of the whole system’.”

When we are talking about social systems, we need to realize that we cannot simply view the humans as “parts”. This forces us to immediately consider the ethical viewpoints. As Ulrich points out, any systems concept that does not include the intrinsic purposefulness ultimately falls back upon a machine model of social systems. Tools have purposes and are purposive. People are not tools, and nor are they purposive. The purposiveness of tools depends on the purposefulness of people using the tools. Purpose only makes sense when you talk about yourself.

I will finish with Ralph Stacey’s wise words:

When one moves away from thinking that one has to manage the whole system, one pays attention to one’s own participation in one’s own local situation in the living present. Perhaps this humbler kind of “management” is what the “knowledge society” requires.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

4 thoughts on “Causality and Purpose in Systems:

  1. And what to do with e.g. a bacteria living in a body? The bacteria has (may be, most probably) no purpose in itself, but it’s definitely a part of a system called the human’s body, thus has a purpose from the body’s point of view.


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