2016/07/25 11:10 David Rousseau, “Scientific principles for a general theory of whole systems”, ISSS 2016 Boulder

Plenary @ISSSMeeting David Rousseau Keynote #isss2016USA, 60th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences and 1st Policy Congress of ISSS, Boulder, Colorado, USA

Day 1 theme:  Systems Thinking for Systemic Sustainability

Plenary II –Towards Holistic Systems Thinking

  • Description: Although every environmental agency today is calling for ways to manage whole ecosystems, we do not know how to do that. Our theories and methods to address the question of whole-system sustainability are incomplete and as a result our actions regarding individual processes, sectors, and resources can contribute to problems as much or more than to solutions. How can systems thinking help us move to another level of understanding where we can address the pressing complex systemic issues of inter-related socio-ecological systems to resolve the dysfunction of their often contradictory sectors and components?

Session chair:  Judith Rosen

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.

David Rousseau is Founder and Managing Director for the Centre for Systems Philosophy.

David Rousseau

[David Rousseau]

ISSS was founded on Ludwig von Bertalanffy, on a science of systems

  • We haven’t made much progress on this
  • Have book, and linkage principles from Len Troncale
  • Don’t have clear scientific principles
  • Don’t even have an idea of what the scientific principles would look like

Will make a case for what systems principles are

  • Will introduce three system principles

Science as a rational inquiry into nature

  • Rosen’s modeling relation:  natural system and scientific model
  • Philosophical implications influences the scientific worldview
  • Need some truths in the nature of the world, say what is possible, guided orientation

Examples of scientific principles

  • All changes have causes:  Causal powers can do work, can be tracked as “energy”
  • All changes are proportionate to other changes

Principles are general assumptions about the nature of the world

  • Causal powers are object properties

Principles – Laws – Theories model of science

  • Start with worldview
  • Distill into principles
  • Can then create scientific laws
  • Laws can be compared to observations, leading to theories
  • Leads to theoretical virtues
  • Then work backwards with challenges

Systemology will follow the same pattern of discovery and evolution

Complexity hierarchy of systems:  levels of realities, containments

  • Don’t know how to get from living systems to non-living systems

2×2 matrix

Types of Change
State Kind
Interaction complexity low diversity billiard balls emergence and the conservation of energy
high diversity

David Rousseau (Interactions, Processes and Identities)

  • Arrows point down, going into reductionism

Emergence, and the conservation of energy

  • Not only more than sum of the parts, also less than the sum of the parts
  • Systems principle 1:  Conservation of properties, energy properties are exactly paid for by the submerged one
  • Value for research needs to prove emergence, who the interplay with submergence
  • Value for intervention:  System degradation involves both los of systemic functionaltiy and re-emergence of inhibited part behaviours.

Embeddedness of systems in super-systems

  • Systems principle 2:  Universal interdependence:  system properties represent a balance between bottom-up emergence and outside-in submergence
  • Brings environment in, as an energy concern
  • Value for philosophy:  Explanatory arrow goes both ways, so holism replaces reductionism
  • Value for research:  Explanatory burden tracks in two directions
  • Value for intervention:  Two interconnected kinds of leverage point for changing system capacity

Emergence and complexity

  • Systems principle 3:  Complexity dominance:  the impact of submergence on a part is proportional to the complexity differential between the part and the whole
  • Value to research:  The two explanatory arrows differ in size proportional to relative complexity
  • Value to intervention:  Two interconnected leverage points for modulating system are inequally weighted.
  • To effectively control a system, you need a more complex one (Ashby’s law)


  • Systems principles can be discovered by applying standard scientific and philosophical models to system concepts
  • Then, could have another scientific revolution, e.g. figuring out what fire is


Causal actions doing work.  As talking, causing thoughts about different actions.  Ideas as an energy that leads to future action?

  • Causal power is based on physical systems
  • However, there are other systems than physical
  • Could be other forces and principles

#isss, #isss2016