A philosophy for system theory

(Part two of “Scientific Idealism” as a philosophy for system theorists)

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 26/05/2017 20:18


The paper outlines the philosophical context for description, information and system theory.

It draws on “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” and “Philosophy in Minutes” Marcus Weeks.

Unless otherwise stated, quotes are from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries.


Preface. 1

Structural linguistics. 2

Logical Empiricism aka Logical Positivism.. 3

Pragmatism.. 5

The scientific method. 6

Realism or Idealism.. 8

Conclusions and remarks. 8

Footnote 1: An infinite regression?. 10

Footnote 2: On the innumerable ways divide the world into discrete entities and events. 11



A system can be characterised as parts that interact in regular or repeatable behaviors.

Such a system can exist in two forms - which may be called “abstract” and “concrete”.

A concrete system realises (or instantiates) an abstraction system description (or type).


The Solar System

A symphony

Abstract system description

The “Solar System” as described by an astronomer

The musical score of a symphony

Concrete system realisation

Several large physical bodies orbiting the sun

Performances that instantiate the symphony in physical sound waves


Which begs a more general question: how are describers, descriptions and realities related?

The abstract/concrete (or description/reality) distinction has troubled philosophers for millenia.

“The distinction has a curious status in contemporary philosophy.

It is agreed the distinction is of fundamental importance.

Yet there is no standard account of how it should be drawn.

A philosopher may [treat] questions like ‘‘What is [X]?” as difficult questions about the underlying nature of a philosophical category.

A better approach is to recognize that in many cases, we simply have not made up our minds about how the term X is to be understood, and that

what we seek is not a precise account of what this term [X] already means, but rather a proposal for how it might fruitfully be used in the future.”


Structural linguistics

Sometimes, philosophical discussion of knowledge, reality and truth can appear merely a debate about words, rather than the world we live in.


Saussure (1857 – 1913) dyadic sign relation

Saussure examined the structure of language and developed a theory that it is made of up “linguistic signs”, signifying concepts.

This became the basis of structural linguistics and semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs and the relationships of the signifier (the sign) to the signified (the concept).


Peirce (1839-1914) triadic sign relation

Peirce’s added a third concept to Saussure’s view.

Peirce’s triadic “sign relation”


<see as representing objects>   <represent>

Interpretants  <observe and envisage> Objects


The sign itself is the term in the sign relation that is ordinarily said to represent or mean something.

The object is what would ordinarily be said to be the “thing” meant or signified or represented by the sign, what the sign is a sign of.

The interpretant of a sign is said by Peirce to be that to which the sign represents the object.”

Peirce’s interpretant – the meaning of the sign as understood by an interpreter – seem part mental model and part an actor’s intelligence.


Ogden and Richards semiotic triangle (1923) in “The Meaning of Meaning”

The semiotic triangle can be represented thus.

Semiotic triangle


<are symbolised by>        <represent>

References          <refer to>          Referents


Referents are realities - things referred to by actors.

Symbols are descriptions of realities - encoded into a communicable form

References are concepts - which describe realities and can be communicated.

(Symbols can only link to referents via references.)


Modifying the semiotic triangle

We encode descriptions in two forms.

In publicly communicable forms called signs or symbols above

In private bio-electro-chemical mental models call concepts or references above.

In other words.

Semiotic triangle v2

Communicable models

<are symbolised in>         <represent>

Mental models     <refer to>       Realities


In other words, we create signs/symbols of many kinds: mental, oral, textual graphical and physical.

Where is the intelligence that translates a mental model to/from a verbal model, and between any two kinds of model?

The next triangle positions intelligence as a process that translates between any two kinds of model..

Semiotic triangle - reshaped

Mental and other models

<create and use>          <represent>

Intelligences      <refer to>           Realities


The scientific idealism version of the triangle separates describers from the mental symbols created and used by their intelligence.

Scientific Idealism

Descriptions (mental and other)

<create and use>         <represent>

Describers          <refer to >            Realities


We say all descriptions (be they mental models or documented signs) represent realities.

And meanings only appear when describers create or use those descriptions.

Logical Empiricism aka Logical Positivism

Systems thinking hangs on distinguishing language from the world, proposition from fact.

And more generally, distinguishing description from reality.

This distinction has worried philosophers since philosophy started.

And it was a focus of logical empiricists/positivists in the “Vienna Circle”.


“Philosophers who were centrally or peripherally part of it… included many of the most important philosophers of the mid-twentieth century.

Hans Hahn, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and Otto Neurath were leaders of the Vienna Circle, and Kurt Gödel regularly attended its meetings.

The list of its members, visitors, and interlocutors is staggering, including A.J. Ayer, Herbert Feigl, Philipp Frank, Hans Hahn, Carl Hempel, Karl Menger, Richard von Mises, Ernest Nagel, Karl Popper, W.V. Quine, Frank Ramsay, Hans Reichenbach, Alfred Tarski, Friedrich Waismann, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others." https://plato.stanford.edu


Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/1922) set out seven propositions.

A tough read; I gather his premises are that philosophical propositions have logical structures, and many are poorly formulated.

So debates arise from misunderstandings, and philosophical disagreements can be resolved by analysing the use and abuse of language.

Wittgenstein mark 1

Language (propositions)

<use>                  <pictures>

Philosophers <observe and envision> World (facts)


Wittengenstein later realised his “Tractacus” was self-contradictory and developed an entirely different linguistics

He dropped the metaphor of language “picturing” reality and replaced it with language as a tool.

Wittgenstein mark 2

Language (propositions)

<use as a tool>                  <stand for>

Philosophers <observe and envision> World (facts)


A few asides on a few of Wittgenstein’s propositions

1 The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. Etc.

I understand this to say: the world is the totality of facts, and language is the totality of propositions,

The world and language are structured the same way.

Philosophy should confine itself to facts set out in well-structured propositions


Here we say: The world is mysterious, unknowable as it is.

There are infinite ways to describe the world that are true enough.

Any description that helps us to predict or direct how the world moves forward must be a reasonable model of that world.


2.02 Objects are simple.

2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world. That is why they cannot be composite.

Here we say: With the exception of atomic physicists, people always perceive and describe composite objects and events.

What we regard as atomic differs according to the context.


2.0271 Objects are what is unalterable and substantial; their configuration is what is changing and unstable.

Here we say: All real objects are alterable, and have a limited life time.

Every object (even an atom) is created, it may change during its existence, and it will be destroyed in the end.


Language based philosophy?

Here: we do not regard language as the basis for a philosophy of system theory.

“Against positivism (the position ‘There are only facts’) I would say: no, there are precisely no facts, only interpretations.

To the extent that the word ‘knowledge’ has any sense, the world is knowable: but it is interpretable differently, it has… innumerable senses, ‘perspectivism.’

It is our needs that interpret the world: our drives and their to and fro.” Nietzsch


Here: natural language is a biological phenomenon, a product of evolution that gives us tools we need to communicate.

But it is imprecise, ambiguous and fluid.

The role of words in biology is to help us to remember and communicate descriptions that are true enough.

Words didn’t evolve to enable us to formulate perfectly true propositions (a concern of philosophers and mathematicians) they are not good for that.

Usually, any "state of matters" or "fact" that one animal recalls or communicates to another is a perception that has "degrees of truth".



Logical positivism was rooted in Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as "critique of language“ and the verifiability principle, or criterion of meaningfulness.

Verificationism is a theory of knowledge which asserts that only statements verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful.


"In Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) Russell had even positioned logic as the locus of scientific method in philosophy.

It is small wonder then that those who were looking for something scientific in what was left of philosophy turned to logic.

Wittgenstein expressed a radical verificationism in the early 1930s in his conversations with …members of the Vienna Circle.

Many of [them] could see in … verificationism the ideal tool with which to carry out their anti-metaphysical program.” https://plato.stanford.edu


“Logical positivists were generally committed to "Unified Science". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_positivism

Similarly, von Bertalanffy was committed to a unifying General System Theory.

Systems thinkers have to address how we know what is true, and test propositions about or descriptions of reality..

Which brings us to Pragmatism and the Scientific Method.


Pragmatists say knowledge is not made of up truths and certainties; it is made up of descriptions and explanations.

They are true in so far as it works or is helpful in dealing with realities.

They can be improved or replaced.



       <use>                  <represents>

People     <observe and envision>     Realities


Charles Sanders Peirce was a founder of pragmatism.

“It is perfectly true that we can never attain knowledge of things as they are. We can only know their human aspect.

But that is all the universe is for us.” Peirce http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce/self-contextualization.html


Peirce’s pragmatism might be represented in a triangle thus:

Peirce’s triadic “sign relation”


<see as representing objects>   <represent>

Interpretants  <observe and envisage> Objects


“What exactly Peirce means by the Interpretant is difficult to pin down.

It is something like a mind, a mental act, a mental state, or a feature or quality of mind; at all events the Interpretant is something ineliminably mental.”

Peirce’s interpretant seems part actor and part mental model.


So, the scientific idealism version of the triangle (below) separates interpretants from the mental signs created and used by their intelligence

Scientific idealism version

Signs (mental and other)

<create and use>              <represent>

Intrerpretants <observe and envisage> Objects


Here: all signs (be they mental, documented or other) represent objects

A mental model is an idea (be it simple or complex) encoded in the mind about a reality.

Meanings appear when interpretants create or use signs (mental and other)

The scientific method


The Greeks were wrong!

Borrowing from “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science” by Steven Weinberg.

Plato suggested scientific truth could be attained by reason alone, in blithe disregard of empirical observation

This was "a false goal inspired by mathematics.”

Aristotle tried to explain nature teleologically, in terms of ends and purposes.

It "never was fruitful" to ask "what is the purpose of this or that physical phenomenon.”


They were both intellectual snobs according to this source.

However: "Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.” (Weinberg)


The deductive method (used by the Greeks)

The deductive method is to start with axioms - simple true statements about the way the world works.

Then use these axioms to build your logical system of nature.

If your axioms are true, everything that follows will be true.”

This approach, so wildly successful in mathematics, is not so in successful investigations of nature.


About 1600 A.D., it became apparent to several people (Galileo Galilei in Italy, Francis Bacon in England, Tycho Brahe in Denmark, etc.)

It is enormously difficult to determine "simple true statements about the way the world works".

It should be the goal of science - not the starting place - to determine what the "simple true statements about the way the world works" really are!


Induction (aka the “scientific method”)

Induction is “the process of inferring a general law or principle from observation of particular instances.” (OED).

Induction is a refined form of pattern recognition, in which principles or laws are invoked to explain regularities in the world.

Pattern recognition is something we humans excel at.

We constantly seek to identify general principles from our limited experiences: a trait which has obvious survival value (e.g. a child learning to avoid hot things).

The success of a general law or principle depends on how well its results agree with observations of reality.

If they do not agree, then the theory needs to be adjusted.


In short, the scientific method features:

·         Induction - the process of making general laws from individual observations.

·         Deduction - the opposite process: deducing certain phenomena from general laws.

Science uses both processes, sometimes iteratively alternating, with dash of intuition thrown in.

And then tests that realities match the laws and deductions.


Falsifiability (1930s Karl Popper)

Hume pointed out induction cannot logically show anything with certainty.

However scientists continue to use the method with remarkable success!

Karl Popper proposed a million successful verifications cannot prove a proposition true, but one failure can prove it false.

So, a scientific theory must be falsifiable by experiment (though a falsified theory may be good enough for pragmatic purposes).

Here: a system description must be falsifiable by testing.


Paradigm shifts (1962 Thomas Kuhn)

Consider the history of cosmology from Aristotle/Ptolemy through Copernicus/Kepler/Galileo to Newton to Einstein.

Science does not progress smoothly; now and then, there are disruptive paradigm shifts.

Cf. the “enterprise transformations” to be planned using TOGAF.


Quantum mechanics

Many concepts of quantum mechanics seem to defy common sense.

Most obviously, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

And the “observer effect”: the need for observation to fix the properties of a microscopic system

But they have an uncanny resemblance to Berkeley’s philosophy!


Where is “meaning”?

Here: the meaning of a description arises in the process of its creation or use by an actor.

Scientific idealism

Descriptions (mental and other)

<create and use>              <represent>

Actors      <observe and envisage>    Realities


Meaning arises in what William James called the “stream of consciousness” that interprets and processes input data.

And in the processes of a natural or artificial intelligence that connect, classify and otherwise organise memories.

Realism or Idealism

In classical philosophy, Realism and Idealism are considered to be opposing positions.

These positions are discussed in the preceding paper “The problem of universals.”

Today, there is little practical difference between what are called “Scientific Realism” and “Scientific Idealism” in that paper.


Scientific Idealism

The structure of the world is composed of separable particulars/things.

Universals/types are constructs of the mind that rational actors use to classify and describe particulars/things.

Universals/types are tools for understanding and dealing with the particulars they describe.


The scientific idealist view of description can be represented in a triangle

Scientific idealism

Descriptions (Models/Types)

<create and use>               <idealise>

Describers        <observe and envision>        Realities


Other presumptions:

·         Description is a tool used by describers

·         Descriptions could not exist before describers

·         A description/model/type is potentially instantiable in N realities

·         Mental and other models are translations of each other

·         A description is true in so far as tests show it to be true.


We can create descriptions in two modes.

We can observe an existing reality and create a model of it.

We can envision a future reality, create a model of it, and then try to realise that model in reality.


Enterprise system transformation involves doing both.

Baseline analysis: detect reality, observe current reality and observe or create a model of it.

Target design: envision a new reality, create a model of it and realise that model in reality.

Conclusions and remarks

“An idea is always a generalization, and generalization is a property of thinking. To generalize means to think.” Hegel


Our scientific idealism separates thinkers, described realities and generalised descriptions.

Note that most realities are more complex and multi-faceted than any description of them.

And a particular reality may not exactly fit any description applied to it.

Outside of mathematics and computing, fuzzy matching of realities to descriptions is normal.


The 9 propositions of scientific idealisation are detailed in another paper.

How do they apply to system theory?

In general, system designers use a design language (vocabulary and grammar) to describe a system.

System design in general

Abstract system designs

<create and use>              <represent>

Designers     <observe and envision>  Concrete systems


Building architects use a professional architecture language to draw building architectures.

Building architecture


<create and use>              <represent>

Architects      <observe and envision>    Buildings


System architects should use a professional architecture language to architect systems.

System architecture

Architecture descriptions

<create and use>              <represent>

Architects      <observe and envision> Operational systems


Aside: on ISO 42010

This ISO standard features a curious 1:1:1 conceptual meta model.

ISO 40210

1 Architecture Description

<expressed by>            <identifies>

 1 Architecture   <exhibited by>          1 System


Surely the Architecture Description is the Architecture, it is the concept exhibited by the System? Where else is that concept?

And in a better meta model, many systems could realise the same (1) Architecture Description.

Also, many Architecture Descriptions could idealise the same (1) System (though only 1 may be the agreed/official version).


Aside: on metaphysical philosophy.

Our scientific idealism owes nothing to metaphysical philosophy.

We address description and reality, mind and body, space and time, and what prompts humans into action, but not in a metaphysical way.

Like Carnap, we consider that philosophy must be committed to the primacy of science and logic.

Carnap’s second major work, Pseudoproblems in Philosophy asserted that many metaphysical philosophical questions were meaningless.

A J Ayer (a logical positivist) also dismissed metaphysical philosophy (such as Heidegger’s) as useless – unverifiable logically or empirically.

Footnote 1: An infinite regression?

The following comments on Peirce’s philosophy conclude by pointing to an infinite regression issue.


“For Peirce the world of appearances, which he calls “the phaneron,” is a world consisting entirely of signs.

Signs are qualities, relations, features, items, events, states, regularities, habits, laws, and so on, that have meanings, significances, or interpretations.”


 “A sign is one term in a threesome of terms that are indissolubly connected with each other by a crucial triadic relation that Peirce calls “the sign relation.”

·         The sign itself is the term in the sign relation that is ordinarily said to represent or mean something.

·         The object is what would ordinarily be said to be the “thing” meant or signified or represented by the sign, what the sign is a sign of.

·         The interpretant of a sign is said by Peirce to be that to which the sign represents the object.”


“What exactly Peirce means by the Interpretant is difficult to pin down.

It is something like a mind, a mental act, a mental state, or a feature or quality of mind; at all events the Interpretant is something ineliminably mental.”


“The interpretant of a sign, by virtue of the very definition Peirce gives of the sign-relation, must itself be a sign,

and a sign moreover of the very same object that is (or: was) represented by the (original) sign.

In effect, then, the interpretant is a second signifier of the object, only one that now has an overtly mental status.


But, merely in being a sign of the original object, this second sign must itself have (Peirce uses the word “determine”) an interpretant,

which then in turn is a new, third sign of the object, and again is one with an overtly mental status. And so on.

Thus, if there is any sign at all of any object, then there is an infinite sequence of signs of that same object.

So, everything in the phaneron, because it is a sign, begins an infinite sequence of mental interpretants of an object.”


Scientific idealism separates interpretants from the mental models created and used by their intelligence.

There is some recursion, but not infinite regression, for the reason explained below.

Describers are also realities: a describer can be observed as a reality, and described by a describer.

Scientific idealism


<create and use>             <idealise>

Describers   <observe and envisage>   Describers


Descriptions are also realities: a description can be observed as a reality, and described by a describer.

Scientific idealism


<create and use>             <idealise>

Describers  <observe and envisage>  Descriptions


Thus, scientific idealism triangle is recursive, but the recursion is not infinite in practice.

Only some realities are observed and described; most are not.

Footnote 2: On the innumerable ways divide the world into discrete entities and events

Most plants and animals are encased in a solid three-dimensional body.

And most others things of an interest to an animal are solid, discretely manipulable, entities.

Many philosophers (being animals themselves) have taken the discreteness of things for granted.

Here, we say chunking the universe into discrete things is a necessary device of perception.


Scientists see the physical reality of the universe as a space-time continuum.

But we can’t perceive or describe the whole space-time continuum all at once.

And luckily for us, matter and energy is unevenly distributed across space and time.

We perceive there to be discrete trees in a wood, footsteps along a path, colours in rainbow and notes in melody.


We naturally subdivide space where there is a relative abrupt change in form or substance.

We perceive places where the universe changes from one form to another, especially from solid to fluid.

We perceive an entity to be discrete when it appears to move or behave independently of its neighbours.

We draw logical boundaries around things of the same kind (a species or social group).

We draw boundaries around areas of space (the basis of a design technique called structural decomposition).


We naturally subdivide time into periods marked by a relatively big change between two states.

We notice when the universe changes rapidly from one state to another.

We perceive a discrete event to have happened when an entity state changes from one state to another

We can successively divide long events into smaller events (the basis of a design technique called behavioral decomposition).


In short, our perceptions and descriptions of reality impose discreteness on the fuzziness of reality.

Relatively abrupt changes, in the form and state of the world, influence how we divide it into discrete entities and events.

Where there is a continuum in reality, psychologists use the term a “just noticeable difference” (JND) to explain how we distinguish one position from another.

To a large extent, when communicating a description of the world, the boundaries of things in that description are a matter of choice.


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