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The course "Systems Thinking" teaches: ontology

Humanity has broken free from the realm of nature. The mass of people today amounts to 300 million tons. This is twice the mass of all large vertebrates that lived on Earth before the appearance of human civilization. The amount of material processed by humans is estimated at 30 trillion tons, which is more than 50 kg per square meter of the Earth's surface[1]. And this is a result of the fact that people within humanity over the last couple of thousand years have intensified their intellect and accumulated a critical mass of explanations that effectively allow them to "escape" from various external disasters.

In the first three subsections of the course, we will present a brief ontology (objects and relationships) that will help discuss the place of systems thinking in general thinking. Throughout the course, it will be mentioned several times that relying on precise definitions is something only done in math. But a few subsections will resemble "defining terms", and reading will be approximately like reading dictionary/glossary texts.

We do not expect you to fully understand everything in this brief ontology right now, just like in math, complete understanding will come later, the main thing here is not to get stuck on each subsection and persistently move forward with the course (we will repeat and clarify each concept in them, provide examples, and show errors in their use).

All these concepts are elaborated in detail not even in our course "Systems Thinking", but in courses following the "Systems Thinking" (primarily courses like "Methodology", "Persona Engineering", "Intellectual Stack"). Nevertheless, to understand the place of systems thinking among other forms of thinking, we need to understand what thinking is - although we repeat, we don't expect you to understand what it is by the texts of the first three sections. Just continue taking the course, understanding will come!

At the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics of MSU, there is a saying among teachers: "The student does not understand, does not understand, but then gets used to it." So here, too, we understand that you are not a computer, so you won't be able to load three pages of definitions of different concepts into your brain in such a way that you can freely operate with them afterward. But you will get an impression of how intelligence, thinking, role-playing skills, thinking methods are discussed.

For us here, the main thing is to show the place of systems thinking in general thinking not just of a human** - **but of all agents (and we believe that from the course "Modeling and Coherence" you already know what an "agent" is, but we will repeat it many times later on). Along with that, the text of the first section will also provide an example of using systems thinking itself and the reasoning of methodology as "learning about methods of work". We don't expect you to understand what is written here right away, but by the end of our course sequence, you will find that it all seems natural and doesn't even require additional explanations.

So do not get stuck on this ontology, avoid getting stuck on the first three subsections, but don't just pass by. The final section of our course is roughly the same** synopsis (a brief presentation of the ontology of the third-generation system approach without explanations and examples), it's titled "Instead of a glossary: the ontology of the third-generation system approach" with a more or less formal presentation, devoted to the content of the third-generation system approach. But in the first section, we present a different ontology as a set of concepts and relationships between them for discussing the place of systems thinking among various other fundamental and applied forms of thinking.

Further on in the text, significant usage is made of the knowledge about types of objects and their relationships which you obtained in the course "Modeling and Coherence."

"Intellectual Agent"/"agent in a narrow sense" can be a human, an AI agent, an organization. Agent is a creator::a system that performs universal physical transformations on other systems. Creator is a system that carries out various transformations of objects in the physical world. The concept of creator is constructed as an extension of the concept of a computer/processor, which executes information transformations. Just like a universal (Turing-complete) computer can perform all possible computations given sufficient memory and time, a universal creator can perform all possible transformations of physical objects provided there is enough energy and time. We can consider that a creator includes a computer/processor, setting the transformation program. A human is a universal creator, a computer processor embodied mainly in the brain. This will be discussed in detail in our course "Systems Thinking" and in the subsequent courses of the educational program.

An agent "consists of"/"composition relationship":

  • Organism ("hardware" of the agent - body, "hardware component"), here we also include exobody with exocortex, and even resources owned by the agent, for example, some tools/instruments increasing the hardware capabilities of the agent. And if it's a collective agent, we're talking about all bodies together.
  • Personality ("software" of the agent, "firmware"/"program") consists of a set of all the agent's skills. Skill, when engaged with the organism, performs work in a specific way/method unique to that skill. Personality consists of:
    • Life skill, including
      • Intellect consists of
        • Skill::computer, executing a method/practice/way/culture** **of thinking 1 (for example, conceptualization::method) from a set of strong thinking methods (we will call this set of methods the "intellectual stack"). The method/practice of thinking 1 consists of
        • sub-skill of thinking using concepts from the theory/discipline of this method of thinking 1
        • Sub-skill of utilizing instruments (set of tools/instruments) for this method/practice 1
      • Thinking skill by method/practice 2 from thinking methods in the intellectual stack 2 (e.g., semantics thinking skill)
      • ...
    • Self-care skill consists of
      • Sub-skill of thinking using concepts from knowledge/theories/disciplines of self-care (like how to sleep, eat, treat oneself, start a family, ...)
      • Sub-skill of applying tools/instruments for self-care

Thinking can be understood in two senses (we will use both):

  • Narrowly** - computations of intellect (that is, computations of the set of skills in the methods of the intellectual stack)
  • Broadly** - computations of an agent-creator of any kind of skill (including applied skill).

The concept of the method/way/practice of work, in its distinction from the work itself** **- is the subject of a separate course, "Methodology", the study of the method. The discussion on a method is difficult because different types of relationships get mixed up. So, thinking::method/practice of intellect. It is relevant to ask: "which thinking method did you apply"? This is not a tautology "which method of method did you apply," but an attempt to express a metonymy in everyday language: it means the thinking work::method and an attempt to find out which variant of that thinking::method was involved.

We distinguish between work (achieving a result) and the method/way/practice of work. We also distinguish the method/way/practice of work, the theory/knowledge/discipline/algorithm of that work, tools/instruments/equipment for the work. The method/way/practice of work is the way itself by which the work is done (behavior patterns), not a description of the work process. And the theory/explanation/algorithm** **- is precisely a description of the working method, usually not overly dependent on the tools/instruments/equipment used but closely related to them. Again, for all these subtleties, there is a whole course "Methodology" which you will take next.

Thus, in the narrow sense** - thinking is a computation::function/process/method of the intellect::"a part of the personality"::"a set of skills in the methods of the intellectual stack"::"a set of calculators working according to the methods/practices of the intellectual stack." The set of these methods is discussed in the course "Intellectual Stack", and we will briefly list them below in the text.

The peculiarity of thinking::computations of intellect, in contrast to computations of various other kinds of skills** **- is the focus on solving new and new classes of problems. Thinking in the narrow sense (computations according to the methods/ways of the intellectual stack) is aimed at cognition as the creation of new and new explanations/theories/knowledge for new and new methods that subsequently allow agents, both individually and collectively with the help of various tools of these new methods, to change the world for the better, participating in an endless techno-evolution (and even interfering in biological/Darwinian evolution).

Systems Thinking/systems thinking - is the use of concepts of the systemic approach (system, subsystem, supersystem, emergent property, system level, etc., which we will discuss throughout the course) in thinking in the broadest sense. These concepts help model the world as consisting of important objects: interacting, nested systems within each other. These systems** **- are physical **objects, stable in relation to the impacts of the continuously changing and not always friendly environment around them. Systems somehow maintain a boundary between themselves and the environment, without mixing. Over the long time-scale, these systems also evolve, becoming more stable against unpleasant surprises from the changing environment.

Modern intellect** - is a human-machine calculator, and often it is collective, meaning thinking is done by a group of people supported by computers. Even without computers, the human biological intellect is enhanced by external reliable memory in the form of notes on paper or books. Systems thinking implies the use of notes, not everything happens in the biological brain. If you are not writing/modeling in a computer or at least on paper - you are not thinking systemically. Systemic thinking is now known not only to humans but also to a computer with an artificial intelligence program, if they have been taught. Even an organization can think systemically (i.e., use concepts from the systemic approach in thinking and associated modeling), although what "thinking" means for an organization and what kind of thinking intellect is there **- is still a subject of debate.

Another subject of debate is whether "computations" are the only thing in intellect, because thinking prowess in methods of the intellectual stack includes methods of working with tools/instruments too. This may involve physical processes, which physicists can reduce to informational interactions (so it can be said with a stretch that these are "computations"), but in daily life and even in engineering, it's not customary to think of them as such. For instance, to verify thoughts about what is happening on the far side of the Moon, you can create and send a tool there: a spacecraft that will take measurements of certain characteristics - and then think further. Whether to include the creation of tools (microscope, rocket ship, synchrotron, multi-story building, genetically modified tomato, thermometer) in thinking, is not clear. The creator** **- is a generalization of the concept of a computer/processor to an agent who changes the world, so it's quite easy to equate "pure computational thinking" with thinking that includes the use of tools to change the surrounding world. A tool can be a shovel, a computer, a robot, or even another person who has been trained to perform certain tasks using methods chosen specifically for that purpose.

The key point is that modern intellect is based on fundamental methods of thinking (from the intellectual stack) that rely on concepts of the systemic approach. By supplementing this knowledge with modeling tools (in the simplest case - an exocortex in the form of any means of note-taking, even pen-paper), intellect manages to reason about systems of all sorts of scales/physical sizes: from elementary particles to quasars. Including situations when one creator (for example, humans) creates other creators (for example, robots, or organizations made up of humans) - and since these are all systems, concepts from the systemic approach are used to discuss these situations of "creating and developing creators by creators." This will also be systemic thinking.


  1. Zalasiewicz et al., "Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere", Zalasiewicz et al., http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2053019616677743 ↩︎