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:

The System in the Box:


In today’s post, I am looking at the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The Beetle in the Box” analogy.

Wittgenstein rose to fame with his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he proposed the idea of a picture theory for words. Very loosely put, words correspond to objects in the real world, and any statement should be a picture of these objects in relation to one another. For example, “the cat is on the mat.” However, in his later years Wittgenstein turned away from his ideas. He came to see the meaning of words in how they are used. The meaning is in its use by the public. He came to realize that private language is not possible. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”.

The beetle in the box analogy is detailed in his second book released posthumously, Philosophical Investigations:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.

I love this thought experiment because we all assume that we can tell what others feel like. We talk as if we are all talking about the same world. We talk about the beetle as if everybody has the same beetle in their boxes. Everyone’s world is different, and their worlds are constructed based on their worldviews, mental models, schemas, biases etc. The construction is a dynamic and ongoing process. The construction is a recursive process in the sense, our construction influences how we interact in the world, which in turn influences the ongoing construction of the world. From this standpoint, we can see that reality is multidimensional and that there are as many realities as the number of participants. There is no one reality, and we cannot assume that our reality is the correct one. What exists is a cocreated reality with others, and this co-constructing activity is on a delicate balance. Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something. Nobody has access to a true reality. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see it as it is, it is as we see it.

We all talk about systems as if we all know what they mean. We say that we need to think about the purpose of the system or that it is the system, not the people. Systems are mental constructs we create based on our worldviews to make sense of phenomena around us. Most of the time when we talk about systems, we are speaking about a “part”. For example, when we talk about the “transportation system”, we are actually meaning the bus that is running late. Similar to the beetle in the box, my system is not the same as your system. My view of the healthcare system changes when I become sick versus when I am healthy. The same system has a different meaning and purpose if you are a healthcare worker versus if you are on the board of the hospital. We cannot stipulate a purpose for the system because systems do not have an ontological status. We cannot also stipulate a purpose for a co-creator. To do so will be to assume that we can see the beetle in their box. The great Systems Thinker West Churchman said that systems approach starts when one sees the world through another person’s eyes. Wittgenstein would say that this is impossible. But I think what Churchman was getting at is to realize that our “system” is not the only system. What we need is to seek understanding. With this view, Churchman also said that, there are no experts in the systems approach. Werner Ulrich, who built upon the ideas of Churchman said the following:

The systems idea, provided we take it seriously, urges us to recognize our constant failure to think and act rationally in a comprehensive sense. Mainstream systems literature somehow always manages to have us forget the fact that a lack of comprehensive rationality is inevitably part of the conditio humana. Most authors seek to demonstrate how and why their systems approaches extend the bounds of rational explanation or design accepted in their fields. West Churchman never does. To him, the systems idea poses a challenge to critical self-reflection. It compels him to raise fundamental epistemological and ethical issues concerning the systems planner’s claim to rationality. He never pretends to have the answers; instead, he asks himself and his readers a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions.

Even though systems are not real, we still use the word to further explain our thoughts and ideas. Ulrich continues:

What matters is ultimately not that we achieve comprehensive knowledge about the system in question (an impossible feat) but rather, that we understand the reasons and implications of our inevitable lack of comprehensive knowledge.

 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’.”

 A book on morals is not moral. We cannot assume full access to the real world and stipulate purposes for our fellow cocreators. The purpose of language is to not expose our thoughts, but to make them presentable. In today’s world where complexity is ever increasing due to increasing connections, the beetle in the box analogy is important to remember.

 Similar to the famous credit card ad, I ask, “What is in your box?

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Map at the Gemba: