What is a system?
So You Want To Know What A System Is?
Or do you want to know what a system does?
By Tom Mandel
Usually the first question asked is “what is a system? But already we have a problem for two reasons, a system is not a thing, that is a system is not one thing. Secondly that cute little word we are so familair with “is” leads us to tell a falsehood, for no word is the thing it is referring to. So the answer to this question is not going to be easy. Well, if you are in a hurry, we could give you a simple one-word answer, a system is a family.
I am not trying to be funny, but that answer is about as close as we can come to answering our question “what is…?” There just are so many kinds of systems, we could even say hardly anything is not a system. Yet, there is something that is not a system - a thing by itself. Just try and find one of those.
But all is not lost, for we could ask what does a system do? Well, we have one thing, and we have another, a this and a that. What a system does is bring together these members into a meaningful relationship which acts as a whole. Obvious now, isn't it, why a system cannot be a single thing.
Of course, because I have used very general terms, we have just about included everything into our description. Subsequently, we really haven't said anything concrete, and a typical scientist would not be able to accept such an answer, mainly because scientists need something to work with, that is, details. And not just any details, scientists need details that they can test and confirm by their Verification Principle.
Unfortunately, such a requirement limits our explanation of a general system, for example, we wouldn't be able to talk about unknown systems, not scientifically, for science is about the known. Nor would we likely talk about what is called trivial or uninteresting systems, such as two grains of sand on a beach. But unknown systems do exist, and two grains of sand in your shoe may not be interesting, but it is not trivial.
But now we have another problem - the boundary problem. In order to describe our system, we need to set boundaries. Or else we are back to the system is a universe again. so how do we set boundaries? Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules. We set the boundaries according to what we want to see as a system, “a system is anything you look at as a system.”
So you can see why asking what “is” a system is a dead-end street. If we use the proper terms, we don't say anything. If we say something, then what we are saying is not true in all cases. All we can be sure of is that whatever we say a system is, it is not just that. It is the “Is-ness” that leads to confusion and misunderstanding at best, and downright falsehoods at worst. Now what?
There is a solution. The problem is not the correctness of our language, as if by polishing the language up enough we can eliminate our difficulties. The problem is the language itself, By design language separates wholes into parts, which is how it works, but language does not put the parts back together, which is the problem.
One solution is to speak of actionings, as opposed to entities. Experience as opposed to identification. Doing as opposed to thinking about. What things are doing as opposed to what things are called. Relationships as opposed to elements. Living as opposed to Life. Verbs as opposed to nouns.
Does it work?
Let's go back to what does a system do? As we said, a system brings together members into a relationship. Well, this bringing together adds up to a whole. And in fact the whole is indeed one of the common ways of looking at a system. The common coin with its two sides for example. But we want to go a little further in our description. Let's examine that whole: what we are seeing as a whole is really the relationship between the members, right? Let's take a concrete example, well, the words you are reading right now. Those words are made of letters, and when we read the word/letters, we see the same letters over and over but still they make up different words. So at least in this case we aren't really seeing “letters” we are seeing their relationshiping.
So a system is what a system is doing. And why we had better not say what a system “is”.