More to Rick on Systems Theory

From Cliff Joslyn (940221.2100)

Rick Marken (940221.1030)

Rick: I'm prepared to drop this anytime. I think I've made my points. But
as long as you put warm meat in front of me, I'll probably run with it. As
usual, if we bore people we can take it off-list. Since you've admitted not
knowing much about ST, the only other thing I would really like from you is
some appropriate modification or retraction of you first post.

does your knowledge
of Systems Theory (ST) extend beyond "Mindwalk"?

Yes and no. I have had both scholarly and non-scholarly encounters
with what I would now call "systems theorists".

Can you be specific? It may help me interpret you better.

It's obviously not
a coherent movement.

Depends on what you mean by coherent. From the outside, I can see that it
may not appear to be. But from the inside, I know that it is, and I am
working to help "construct" whatever coherence is actually there. I'm sorry
that you've had some bad experiences, and I can understand how that's

The movie was interesting only because it allowed
me to give a single name to a plethora of concepts that have turned
up in the psychological (and CSG-L) literature in the last decade or so.

Well then, please be careful. Words mean something. Misguided people have
given lots of innappropriate names to things over the years. I dare say
that some have even used "Control Theory" to mean something slightly
different from what you think it is. I once published a paper which relied
heavily on control concepts, and was accused of being a Stalinist.

I am not familair with most of them.

Then I would suggest you look at Klir's _Facets_ before posting such things
again. It's an excellent survey and summary.

Powers gave a nice critique of
Ashby some time ago.

I think you're making my point. To the extent that I recall that exchange
exactly (Bill, please correct me), then one side of the argument said that
Bill was flat out wrong, and the other side (I think this is where I came
down) said that Bill was correcting and extending one result of Ashby (it
had something to do with the necessity of delays in feedback loops,
right?). Assuming the latter, then by correcting Ashby's ST, Bill was ALSO
doing ST. I believe that Ashby and Powers are two of the greatest systems
theorists/cyberneticians (I do not distinguish) that have ever lived. Does
the fact that Einstein moved beyond Newton make Newton vapid, or wrong, or
irrelevant, or trivial, or any less great than he actually was?

All I can say is that if any of these people
were doing anything related to understanding the nature of living
systems as perceptual control systems we would know about their
work and they (if they are currently living) would be using ours.

Well, I have been highly critical of modern ST people for ignoring PCT, and
will continue to try to bridge that gap. But that's a problem for us ST
people to handle, and I won't try to defend them.

The other side of your claim is that ST has nothing to offer PCT. Now
believe me, I am NOT trying to start a "relevance of ST to PCT" debate. But
I WILL make the following claim, which is much weaker than Martin's with
respect to IT and PCT.

ST can be regarded not as an actual theory or model, but rather as a
universal modeling LANGUAGE, related to but distinct from mathematics, in
which models are constructed and represented. But when ST IS viewed as an
actual body of theory, then in my view the relation between ST and PCT is
something like that between physics and organic chemistry. ST is the
"base". It is VERY broad and general. But PCT deals with a very SPECIFIC
kind of system, namely control systems, and is thus a PART of ST. In one
sense it is a small part of ST, because the vast majority of all systems
are NOT control systems (being "in control" is a VERY special property).
But in another sense PCT is a very LARGE part of ST, because all the really
INTERESTING systems (for example, living systems) ARE control systems.

Bluntly put, PCT is where the "action" is. Because of this, from the
perspective of PCT, ST may appear quite boring and irrelevant, and I am not
claiming that you should "pay attention" to it in order to do good PCT
(remember, YOU started this fight). But nevertheless, and for what it's
worth, I assert that PCT people, and Bill Powers in particular, are in fact
doing ST (as I understand it). Furthermore, when I discuss biosemiotics,
living systems theory, or social systems theory, I am very conscious of the
link to PCT. So I would say that if there are any ST people who are "doing
anything related to understanding the nature of living systems" then they
are by definition doing PCT, EVEN IF THEY DON'T KNOW IT or acknowledge it
as they should.

We could
also probably get a lot more "fans" if we showed how PCT supported
or was supported by information theory, self - organizing systems, fuzzy
logic systems or whatever.

Now here I agree with you. These are all systems theoretic concepts, but
there is no a priori reason to presume that they will be rlevant to this
very special class of control systems. In fact, I have been engaged in (and
could easily start up again) very serious arguments about the relevance of
classical self-organization (e.g. far from equilibrium thermodynamic
development) for living systems (I myself am undecided). Since I believe
that the class of living and control systems are equivalent, this is
effectively the same argument. In other words, there are many systems
theorists who should also agree with you once they understand the link
between PCT and biology.

It seemed
like PCT should have been of enormous interest to cyberneticians --
in fact, we thought PCT WAS cybernetics -- but I guess it wasn't
"deep" enough.

You have my complete agreement here as well: PCT IS Cybernetics! And, I
hold that Cybernetics is ST! Sooooooo, transitively we go...

Powers is the CLEAR successor to Ashby. No question. But you'd be surprised
how many modern cyberneticians are either ignorant of or have no use for
Ashby, either. It is very sad.

like "self organization" don't make any sense to people who understand
both English and control modelling.

As a Systems Theorist, I have been highly critical of many uses of the term
"self-organization". I agree that it has become highly metaphorical, even
mystical. But in no way does this invalidate ST as a whole. ST is MUCH more
than just "self-organization".

You risk alienating even more people than you already have with the
appearance of ideological intransigence (note I said the APPEARANCE of

I have no interest in "selling" PCT to anyone.
PCT is not a political position.

I may have made an error in stressing this admittedly purely political
point too much. I have no standing to tell PCT people how to run their
affairs (except to the extent that I consider myself one, which is only
partially: I am an advocate, not a practitioner). And I am not second
guessing your approach, or asking you to apologize for PCT or your noble,
loyal, devotion to it. I'm only questioning your hostility to ST.

I don't want
to work with people who deal with PCT as a religion.

OK, then why attack ST with a religious zeal? You bring an ideological, and
not a scientific, temperament, rooted in emotion, and not on a reasoned
understanding of ST.

But hey, that's OK. It's not my style, and to each his/her own. I give you
the PCT blessing: may your actions always satisfy your desires. But in this
case, whatever your approach, you're just wrong.

You have few enough friends out there to go looking for any more enemies.

I am looking for fellow understanders. Friends I can do without (in terms
of PCT).

Well, how do you take ME, then? I think I am a fellow understander. But I'm
beginning to think much less of your overall sense of perspective on
intellectual matters. By attacking things you appear to know little about,
you risk alienating us fellow understanders (allies, even) who are not ONLY
in the PCT community, but ALSO participate in a wider intellectual life.
These are perhaps the most important people to PCT, your link to the
outside world.

I'm really not trying to drive
people away but if that occurs as a side effect of my efforts to present
an accurate representation of PCT that --again-- HOORAY!

So you see, you are NOT just indifferent to the alienation of your
colleagues: you actually find it POSITIVE! Look again, Rick, carefully at
your own words:

theory will lure you in with its marshmallow-brained prose,
impress you with a few physics phacts, seduce you with its concern
for people and the environment and, finally, turn you to stone with its
sheer vapidity.

What place does this kind of thing have in scientific discussion? Even if
you're right, and ST has no value to anyone, what is gained by this kind of
diatribe? I think you need a vacation. ;->

But what we need is MORE cross-contact and fertilization, a coming together
and synthesis, a careful selection of our best work, and not these kind of
(apparently) ignorant broad attacks.

This is a political approach to understanding living systems.

No it's not. It's the broad-minded approach to understanding systems OF ALL
KINDS, and their relations. For example, I'm sure that PCT people are
interested in the relationships between control and non-control systems,
such as organisms and their PHYSICAL environments and food sources, and,
accepting Bill's view that societies are not control systems, individuals
and their societies.

Now I admit I have an interest in generalization. And I find no fault with
your apparent interest ONLY in the control activities of single systems, or
small collections of control systems, and NOTHING ELSE. But what purpose is
served by lashing out at others who are not so limitted?

In fact,
what we need is more research (testing for controlled variables) and more

False dichotomy: could it POSSIBLY be that you need BOTH testing and
modeling AND outreach? NAYHH...

We will get nowhere by trying to find verbal compromises with
those who like to use words like "self organizing".

Who said "compromise"? I said synthesis and selection. You have the
attitude and language of a warrior-zealot: take no prisoners!

ST qua ST may be great. But it ain't PCT.

Who said it was? These mythical villains you still haven't identified?

All that I was "attacking" were the silly ideas that the movie identified
as part of "systems theory" -- particularly "self-organization".

I'm sorry, Rick, you were not JUST attacking "Mindwalk", but rather ST as a
whole. Otherwise I wouldn't have reacted like that, since I agree with you
about self-organization, and about the movie. I said

If not, then I would politely suggest that judging Systems Theory by
"Mindwalk" (which I have seen) would be like judging PCT by "Neuromancer".

allowing for the possibility that you are ignorant of ST, and erroneously
took the movie to represent it accurately.

All I know is PCT.

Thank you. Now just keep quiet about things you don't understand.

So: you're not interested in reading Klir's _Facets_ or criticizing any
systems theorist specifically, or naming names of "some people [who] are
mistaking PCT for systems theory or vice versa"; and you accept Heylighen
and my definition of ST, and you accept that it is neither vapid, trivial,
silly, drug-like, seductive, insidious, or marshmallow-brained.

Then are we done now?


Cliff Joslyn, Cybernetician at Large, 327 Spring St #2 Portland ME 04102 USA
Systems Science, SUNY Binghamton NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

V All the world is biscuit shaped. . .

[From Oded Maler (940222)]

I can't keep up these days with all the CSG-L traffic, but I
must say I'm amused as usual by the thread on system theory.
If St. Paul was of Rick's type, there were no Christians today.



I had some observation that when you walk in a museum your legs
become tired much more than in a regular walk. Is it a case were
higher level goals (keep a steady picture of the pictures on the
wall) are in conflict with lower-level ones? (It is not exactely
a conflict, but it gives the lower-level systems reference signals
that vary in a manner the lower ones are not used to).



Oded Maler, VERIMAG, Miniparc ZIRST, 38330 Montbonnot, France
Phone: 76909635 Fax: 76413620 e-mail: