Systems Theory

"Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web. All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy; and there is hardly anything unconnected with any other things. For things have been coordinated, and they combine to make up the same universe. For there is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, and one reason."

Marcus Aurelius
A system is an organized structure of mass and energy existing in a dimension of time and space. More than a collection of parts, once organized, the system has properties that are not present when the parts are separate.
All things can be viewed as a system and/or as part of a system, composed of systems and interfacing with other systems. Systems show a circular and cyclic quality to their functioning. Certain principles apply to all systems while other principles are unique to specific types of systems. All are interconnected and affect other systems to varying degrees. All systems are constantly changing and are in dynamic balance with each other.
Systems theory summarizes concepts that apply to all systems. (1) The proof is self-evident from observation and testing the applicability of systems theory to all systems. Systems theory is useful when approaching complex problems. Most of us use a systems approach for problem solving, although it is rarely labeled as such. Systems theory is quite logical and is compatible with our experience; however, it can be neither proven nor disproved by the traditional scientific method.
Some basic concepts are:
  • A system contains a structure of organized components of similar and/or different types.
  • No system exists in isolation. A system interfaces with other systems that may be of a similar or different type.
  • The functioning of a system affects multiple other systems and is effected by multiple other systems.
  • With the possible exception of the universe and the smallest component of energy or matter, all systems are components of larger systems and are composed of smaller systems.
  • The constant interaction between systems results in a constant state of change.
  • When a system remains stable while there are changes in other systems, it is in a state of balance. Balance is a fundamental concept in nature.
  • Time is a significant dimension and different effects occur over time.
  • A system exerts a feed-forward effect upon a second system. This effect may be stimulatory (positive) or inhibitory (negative). The second system may then exert a feedback effect on the first system, which may be either stimulatory or inhibitory. Stimulatory feedback may increase the initial effect, while inhibitory feedback may decrease the inhibitory effect.
  • Modulation occurs when the feedback or feed-forward is a complex combination of different positive and negative effects.
Systems have evolved over a dimension of time. When we look at the structure of a system, it may appear illogical. As we study the history of how systems have evolved, the current and future structure and functioning of systems are better understood.
Evolution of Systems over Time

Creation of the Universe


Solar System







Fetal Development

Childhood Development

Past Experience

Proximate Events
The combination of a systems and evolutionary approach allows us to organize current information in a much more efficient manner. Such an approach is equally effective for astrophysics, biology, psychology, sociology etc.
To acquire a valid theory of human functioning we need to understand observations of human functioning in relation to internal and external systems. An understanding of systems theory, history and the specifics of any given system allow us to understand and therefore better predict the outcome of an event. Even with such an approach, there are limits to our ability to understand and predict.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle may have broad application to many fields of science. To expand on this concept, our capacity to measure and consequently predict multiple variables has limitations.
Some questions are very difficult to answer particularly when addressing infinity or what exists at the end of time and space continuums, if there is an end point (i.e. what was before the beginning, after the end, smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest?). These questions are approached from very different perspectives and accordingly, are subject to endless debate. Currently, we need to accept that no one can comprehend the existence or the nature of any end point of time or space.
Since systems are very complex and impacted by an infinite number of other systems, we can never attain total predictability of effects. Such a view is an open systems model. In contrast, a closed system model assumes that everything does not affect everything, there are a finite number of variables that impact an outcome, and therefore, outcome is totally predictable. An open system model still affords us some capacity to predict. We can create a hierarchy of the system variables that appear to have greatest impact upon an event. When we organize these variables, it improves our statistical capacity to predict although we are never able to attain total predictability.
Every event is caused by a sequence of other events. The last causative event is the proximate cause; however, more distant events may be more significant than the final proximate cause. It is helpful to understand the sequence of events since each stage is a potential intervention point.
  • An event is the result of a sequence of events over time between or within systems and causes multiple events in other systems. Also an event can cause a cascade of other events.
  • A cycle is a repetitive sequence of events.
  • Cycling may retain balance as a result of repetitive oscillations.
  • Spiraling occurs when there is a sequential effect that magnifies the initial effect.
  • Growth is attaining a higher level of integration.
  • A growth spiral (or growth cycle) occurs when spiraling has an increasingly integrative effect.
  • A negative spiral (or vicious cycle) occurs when the spiraling has an increasingly disintegrative effect.
  • Hierarchy can be used to rank by different criteria such as size, space, time or the significance of causes and effects.
If those involved in problem solving remain open-minded and use an open, multi-system approach, we can benefit from others' perspectives and expertise. Occasionally, however, some use a closed system, a rigid, dogmatic approach to complex issues with the view that absolute truths and predictability exist. Although simple solutions to complex problems are initially comforting, they prevent us from being open to the full complexity of any given problem and may cause problems that are even more complex.