Saturday, June 19, 2010

Where do the laws of a system come from?

Below is a very insightful take on systems - it's guest post from my friend and fellow Systems Thinker, Biren Shah.

I have been informally studying man-made systems (as opposed to the naturally found, complex, self-organising systems). And the most intriguing, confusing, frustrating and enraging thing I find about our systems (that is, our understanding of systems, and the practice of designing and building systems) is the rules and laws we use; thinking foolishly (and convincing ourselves) that they will help us gain control over the behaviour (and thus, outcome or results) of a system.

We have succeeded in convincing ourselves that rules and laws are what govern a system... drive a system... and give rise to a 'fixed' behaviour of a system. But like everything else, we have it topsy-turvy. We design and draft laws, to define the system... and create all the chaos and confusion that is the hallmark of our human systems - economic, social, educational...we have never stopped and wondered, if the above is true, WHO (or what) implements the rules - how are these rules followed, when there is no one single, central, governing feature or creature.

If we observe natural systems, we will see that rules, or laws, are followed and implemented by the whole system itself - the system constituents (both: the components, and the WAY they interact - the processes). There is no 'police' - a dedicated, separate governing part. That means, the rules and laws of a system are the property that arises BECAUSE of a 'coming together of specific components, in a specific way'.

The rules, or laws, are actually the emergent property of a system. They do not define (that is, make) a system; rather, they are a feature of the system.

The other important thing we can make out is, these rules do not reside (as knowledge) in the components of the system, but they arise, and thus reside, in the system - the complex interaction. That is, a lion does not know the law of 'the survival of the fittest', simply because, there is no 'law'. 'Survival of the fittest' is a property that emerges in our planet's natural world, out of the way the whole natural world interacts.

In other words... laws (what WE call laws) arise out of the system... the system does not arise out of the laws. So, why don't we see this? Recognise this?
We are focused on the behaviour - the 'emergent properties' - of a system. But we assume that those properties are 'designed' (and not 'emergent'). and then hastily move on, never stopping to wonder about who or what 'designs' this system.


What I am noticing is... that BECAUSE we look at life (and thus systems) from the 'fear' perspective of helplessness... and victimhood, we NEED to feel in control... we WANT to be in control. This 'control' perspective colours the way we perceive the behaviour of a system. We are focussed on finding WHAT controls the behaviour of systems... what makes it predictable? And as soon as we can find an answer, an explanation that sounds rational, we hastily move on.

And so, we convince ourselves that the laws are 'written in stone' - fixed - for that particular system. We don't see that the 'laws' are a result of the complex interplay of the system's components. and since both, the components and the interplay, are ever changing, the 'laws' may also change in accordance.

(If you have any comments, please email me at I have disabled the comments feature as there's too much spam)