Move up and Down in the Hierarchy of Systems

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The world is a hierarchy of systems. As we necessarily perceive these systems in their stable states, i.e. their Attractors, we can identify the systems as we perceive them with their attractors. So when we’re trying to understand systems, what we’re really looking at are attractors within attractors.

To understand them, we can go two ways:

The important thing now is to resist the urge to understand these two moves as analytical, using the same explanatory strategy. This is the mistake that Systems ThinkingSee Meadows (2008).

is making: To think we can analyse Complex Systems, their components and context, sufficiently well to arrive at adequate Models that allow us to understand why attractors emerge on the various levels.

In reality, “[n]o matter how we construct the model, it will be flawed, and what is more, we do not know in which way it is flawed”.Cilliers (2001), 137

So instead of an analytical, we should employ an exploratory mode of inquiry which repeatedly switches between the levels of the hierarchy and between different explanatory strategies:

Such a level-switching Strategy for Sensemaking and ExplanationManual DeLanda’s reconceptualisation and use of Deleuze’s ontology (DeLanda 2002) is an example for such a strategy: an abstraction of the general ideas behind the most advanced scientific thinking that informs very concrete, materialist analyses and explanations.

needs to include the following approaches:

Scale-free Abstractions reduce the cognitive cost of both work on all of the levels (re-usability) and switching between them (unification).

In addition to the levels of description, there is a more fundamental difference between certain steps on the ladder: There are systems and models of varying scope and generality on the different object-levels – and then there is the meta-level of theoretical reflection, on which, e.g., this note or Conceptual Engineering are operating. This reflection informs and critiques the work on the lower levels and should act as a constant check on it.