Systems Science and the Human Condition

Series Pitch

This is a proposal for a collection of books under the above title. The purpose of this collection is to demonstrate how humanity might tackle understanding our situation in the world as a prelude to taking appropriate actions to attain some degree of sustainability.

I am the lead author of a breakthrough book on the subject of Systems Science (Mobus & Kalton, Principles of Systems Science, Springer, 2014). This book integrates many different themes in systems science that have previously been drifting apart as subjects.

From the book jacket:

This pioneering text provides a comprehensive introduction to systems structure, function, and modelling as applied in all fields of science and engineering. Systems understanding is increasingly recognized as a key to a more holistic education and greater problem solving skills, and is also reflected in the trend toward interdisciplinary approaches to research on complex phenomena. The subject of systems science, as a basis for understanding the components and drivers of phenomena at all scales, should be viewed with the same importance as a traditional liberal arts education.

The book establishes a core of concepts and methods for organizing knowledge in a way that should make it possible to develop a holistic understanding of the world and the human condition. I have a number of projects in line to follow this book and explore many ways in which systems science might be used for this purpose. The immediate follow-on volume is tentatively titled, "The World as System", subtitled, "Toward Understanding the Complex Relations between Humanity and the Ecos." In this volume I outline the basics of systems science, providing pointers to details in the Springer textbook. I then provide a starting systems analysis using the principles to situate the Human Social System (HSS or humanity) within the Earth ecological system (the Ecos) and then identify the top level of subsystems in the HSS (see Figure from the book, The balance of the book investigates the relations between these subsystems (listed below) and discusses the principle dynamics and evolution of them. This book establishes a high level systems map of the HSS as a starting point for further analysis of each of the subsystems.

The objectives of the book are to introduce readers to the nature of systems science as a way to understand the world and what is happening to it, to show how doing rigorous systems analysis can obtain explanations of these phenomena, and to introduce the follow-on volumes, each of which will cover a different subsystem analysis. A major theme is that humanity has become a major force in shaping the future of the whole planet; we are the causes of phenomena that give rise to defining this era as the "Anthropocene." Many of the effects of these causes are of a threatening nature (e.g. climate change and declining biodiversity). Traditional sciences are providing us with insights into the facts of these phenomena but cannot, as practiced normally, provide the interrelations between them that give us the "big picture." My thesis is that only systems science can do that.

If one looks at the major institutions that are part of the human social system today, one cannot help but see that many, if not most, are suffering some form of dysfunction. And no one seems to know what to do about it! Subsequent to the book described above, I propose the following volumes, each dedicated to applying systems principles and analysis to the major subsystems in the HSS. The objectives of these books will be to analyze these subsystems (institutions like economics or education) from a systems perspective to show 1) what an "ideal" system would look like - one that is truly fulfilling its systems function, and 2) identify those points where the current system is not working as where potential "fixes" might be found.

To be clear, these books are not intended to provide all of the answers of what can be done to keep our global social system, civilization, from collapsing (a distinct possibility). What I want to do is demonstrate that there is another, better way to organize our existing knowledge based on the principles of systems science and to find missing knowledge using systems science methods more rigorously. My objective is to demonstrate a framework for tackling complex problems that is more integrated than the current standard science approach (silos of knowledge). The hope is that if more people are applying these methods they are more likely to find solutions to nearly imponderable problems and find a way to move society to a state of balance with the Ecos so that it can be sustained for the indefinite future.

The volumes are:

  • Sapience: A New Theory of the Human Mind, Why We Are Not Wise (and what we can do about it)
    The subject of this book is the nature of the human brain/mind from the perspective of systems science. An analysis of the brain and our mental constructs provides a surprising insight into why we continue to make substantial mistakes and misjudgements in dealing with the Ecos and our own uses of technology. This book has already been written and a separate description is available. Basically it explains why humans cannot make wise decisions when it comes to long-term and wide-scale problems (like global warming vs. the economy). It sets the stage for the analysis of the rest of the HSS because human decision making is the key to everything else we do.
  • Systems Economics: Toward Understanding the Real Nature of the Economy
    Biophysical economics is a relatively new branch of heterodox economics that is closely associated with ecological economics but provides a more systems-oriented view of the economy as a dynamic and evolving system. I have written extensively in this subject regarding the systems analysis of economic processes. A systems approach will explain why the global economy is in the doldrums and likely to continue to decline in the coming decades. Put very simply it takes a certain quality and quantity of energy in order to do useful economic work and that energy is net of the energy it takes to obtain it. By understanding the system dynamics and evolution of the energy resource subsystem it is possible to see the underlying workings of the economy in ways the neoclassical economists have never imagined.
  • Systems Governance: Toward Understanding How to Create a Sustainable Society from a Systems Perspective
    A major sub-field of systems science is cybernetics. The theory of hierarchical cybernetics is the fundamental basis for all governance subsystems. This book will explicate the theory and show how it applies to the governance of subsystems within the HSS (some of this is actually covered in the sapience book since the brain is a hierarchical cybernetic system). Relating to the systems economics subject, this book explains how cybernetics applies to markets and market failures, regulation and incentive-based policies. The ultimate objective of a governance system is to provide the governed system with longevity or sustainability against a highly variable and often unfriendly environment. The objective of this book will be to show how implementation of the principles of systems science regarding hierarchical cybernetics will achieve that for the HSS.
  • Education as a System: Toward Understanding How Knowledge is Transferred to the Next Generation
    The system of education is quite possibly in the most dysfunctional state of all social institutions. I speak from personal, inside observations. The formal education system is so far in its approaches to teaching real knowledge to our young from what is known from the psychology of learning that it is almost a miracle that anyone learns anything these days! This book will revisit the theory of mind from the Sapience book and focus on the nature of learning. The focus of this book is the nature of developmental psychology and how a formal education system could actually work to maximize the development of sapience and understanding in our young, as opposed to merely teaching them facts and routines. The book will also look at non-formal education, the process of acculturation, including ideologies, religious beliefs, mores, and cultural norms. It will consider the nature of education in the Palaeolithic as compared with what our children experience in modern society (e.g. the Internet effect).
  • Knowledge Discovery and Uses: Toward Understanding Science and Engineering as Systems
    Humanity's way to gaining new knowledge about how the world works is science. Even traditionally humanities-oriented fields where intuitions and unconscious judgements have held sway are coming increasingly under the microscope of scientific psychology and neurobiology. Science is a system of knowledge acquisition that has proven spectacularly successful in discovering facts and basic relations but has become increasingly fragmented in terms of integrating knowledge for understanding. Similarly, engineering is a system for converting knowledge from science into usable artifacts. This book will look at the details of how these processes work both in principle and in practice.
  • The Political System: Toward Understanding How Social Decisions are Made
    The theme of mental decision processes (from the sapience book) is carried forward and incorporated into group decision making. The fundamental questions for a society, be it human or other social primates, are: What do we do next and where do we go to do it? These are strategic questions as much as tactical. They are tied directly and intimately with the governance subsystem, which is supposed to implement the answers given. The political subsystem mediates the group decision process based on the knowledge and ideas held by participating individuals. This book examines several models of the process that have evolved at various times and in various cultural contexts. The systems perspective shows how the political system is related to the other subsystems, particularly the economic and governance subsystems, through human psychology. I will trace the major connections between economic and governance sub-subsystems to show how human decisions from the individual through the group affect the on-going dynamic of the whole HSS.

There are a few more major subsystems/institutions that could be handled in this same vein, however, I am not currently versed in these topics as would be needed. They are the healthcare systems and the whole range of aesthetics, humanities, and entertainment. The first is obviously a major function of the HSS but would require expertise I do not possess to adequately attempt. The latter is a significantly important aspect of human psychology and well being. But, again, I am poorly prepared to tackle these subjects. I have spent many years using systems thinking to analyze the previous topics, at least to the level where sub-major processes can be tackled. My main hope is that by providing some examples of systems analysis and its results to a number of major subsystems that others might take up the challenge for those not covered. Moreover, I hope to provide insights into how to proceed more deeply into each of the subsystems identified above. It is a huge undertaking that cannot be done by a single individual. But my intention is to show how it might be accomplished to inspire the next generation to tackle it.