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Learning to See Systems
I’m re-using another post from earlier last year. Apologies to those of you who have already read it, although I have added some material. It’s still an important less for me, and I hope you find it helpful as well. We need to see systems. Failure to do so endangers human society at all levels, whether individual, familial, communal, ecclesial, national, or global.
Thinking in terms of systems is hard. How do all the parts relate to make a whole greater than their sum? According to Iain McGilchrist, thinking systemically, or attending to the interrelatedness of things, is a specialization of the right hemisphere of the brain. Whereas the left brain pulls things apart and analyzes them separately, the right brain first takes in things as a whole, and then puts them back together after analyzed by the left brain. At least, that’s what happens when the human brain is functioning according to the divine operating manual. Unfortunately for us in the West, our imbalanced left-hemisphere dominant culture struggles to pay attention to the whole.
Although seeing systems requires deeper transformation, learning from systems thinkers is certainly a good place to start. In 1975 John Gall wrote a humorously insightful book called Systemantics (with a third edition in 2012). Gall’s main thesis, as seen in his playful title, is that systems have “antics”, they “act up”. He presents 32 intriguing and clever axioms which describe common ways that systems, especially large complex systems, fail to operate as expected. The real life examples that explain those axioms are fascinating, from waste management systems to the Bell Telephone system to university faculty systems. Here are just a few of Gall’s principles:
Axiom 5. The generalized uncertainty principle: Systems display antics, that is, complicated systems produce unexpected outcomes.
Axiom 6. Le Chatelier’s Principle: Complex systems tend to oppose their own proper function.
Axiom 7: Functionary’s Falsity: People in systems do not do what the system says they are doing.
Axiom 8: Operational fallacy: the system itself does not do what it says it is doing.
Axiom 9: The Fundamental Law of Administrative Workings (F.L.A.W.): Things are what they are reported to be. The real world is whatever is reported to the system. If it isn’t official, it didn’t happen. Corollaries: A system is no better than its sensory organs. To those within a system, the outside reality tends to pale and disappear.
Axiom 19. The Newtonian law of systems-inertia: A system that performs a certain function or operates in a certain way will continue to operate in that way regardless of the need or of changed conditions.
Axiom 20: Systems develop goals of their own the instant they come into being.
Axiom 21: Intrasystem goals come first.
Readers of this newsletter might imagine examples of how these axioms might show up in religious systems. For example, axioms 20 and 21 capture how systems prioritize goals internal to the system, goals which are different from whatever purposes originally led to creating the system in the first place. More concretely, think about how a denomination might prioritize its survival at the expense of evangelism, discipleship, and the spiritual health of its members.
In an appendix at the end of his book Gall tentatively suggests that everything is a system. As a Christian looking at the world through a Biblical worldview, I wholeheartedly agree. And in light of our fallen world we expect that all systems have antics. What we see and experience every day is the predictably unpredictable ways in which systems of all kinds (biological, zoological, cultural, societal, religious, psychological, technogical) break down.
However, if McGilchrist is right, that our left-brain shifted culture is often oblivious to systems, we don’t actually see systems breaking down. What we see instead is a marriage falling apart, missing the broader familial systems which foreshadowed such collapse. We see a child acting out, but miss the family system whose anxiety is getting displaced onto and then erupting out of the child. We see a woman beaten by her husband, but fail to see the systemic pattern of traumatic bonding that perpetuates abuse. We see an innocent Black man shot down in the name of the law, but don’t see the system that provides the necessary context to explain what is otherwise unexplainable. We see repeated pornography use, while failing to notice the intrapsychic system of chronic shame managed by facades and false gods.
The list could go on. The point is, unless we see systems, unless we think with the grain of our systemic existence, we will tend to treat symptoms instead of diseases. And more to the point of this newsletter, we cannot even begin to focus on the underlying disease in any system unless we actually see the system.
Quote from John Gall
What is required is a special, elusive talent, really an intuition—a feel for the wild, weird, wonderful, and paradoxical ways of large systems.
Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail, by John Gall.
Can you think of a problem whose solution eluded you because you were unable to see how all the pieces fit together? How might a systems lens help you view a current issue differently?
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