The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis for us to become acutely aware of how interconnected the world really is. We see how everything is immersed in a web of interlinked systems ranging from the economy, natural environment, health systems to our own personal wellbeing. Each input is a unique part of the puzzle, and is connected to the system at large through a series of information flows and interdependent feedback loops.  

Systems are everywhere. We see them in the complexities in our own bodies to the harmony that exists in natural ecosystems. Every unique organism has its role to play in the sustainability and continuation of our vast and diverse natural habitats. The success of a well-functioning system is dependent on how well its parts are organized to achieve a common goal.     

In nature we never see anything isolated , but everything in connection with something else, which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
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Despite this, as a culture we have a tendency to be fixated on reductionist and mechanistic systems of thought. Take for instance how we structure our education systems. Knowledge is sliced into specific disciplines which an individual gain expertise in through their specialization.

However, the world is often messy, dynamic and in constant flux. Information can not fit into neat discrete boxes like we would like to imagine. Rather than focusing on the linkages and dependencies between the disciplines, educational institutions create specialists who don’t have the incentives to look beyond their narrow subject matter expertise.

The boundaries that we implement are of course important to organize society. They help us ensure that our institutions can work effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, nothing exists in a vacuum and the borders we impose on reality aren’t as clear cut as they may seem on the surface. 

As systems thinker Donella H. Meadows mentions in her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer

There is no determinable boundary between the sea and the land, between sociology and anthropology, between an automobile’s exhaust and your nose. There are only boundaries of word, thought, perception and social agreement – artificial, mental-model boundaries.  

While these artificial containers provide us with stability and flexibility, a fixation on these mental constructs can blind us, making us naïve to the broader context and interdependencies of the situation. As the world continues to increase in complexity, our social systems and institutions need to be both adaptable and flexible to rapid change.

Thinking in systems forces us to examine things more methodically, and encourages us to avoid polarized ‘us against them ‘or ‘winner take all’ types of reasoning. We can see that problems don’t exist in isolation, and that quick fixes only lead to system instability or collapse in the future.  Moreover, this incentivizes us to think more deeply about issues to address root causes instead of symptoms.

Systems thinking compels us to ask the questions, why is it that the same type of economic, social or political crises happen again and again throughout history? What underlying behaviors and thinking is responsible for this type of ignorance?

 Our wellbeing is intrinsically linked not only to others but to the sustainability of the natural environment. Under this logic, we can see that relationships are the fundamental aspect of all life on earth. Everything which exists in this world is deeply integrated into a set of systems.

As social beings, we humans derive our identity through our interactions with families, friends, social groups, society at large and the natural environment. If we really appreciate and understand this concept, the narcissism and rampant individualism that drives our culture starts to fade. Egotism begins to seem illogical and contradictory as the ‘self’ is influenced and shaped by the quality of our connections with others.

Addressing the ideology of ‘short-termism’, greed and instant gratification which pervade our society and institutions is no easy feat. It all begins however with a shift in our thinking, an evolution of our values to understand how our lifestyles and choices are shaping the welfare others, as well as our future ancestors.

In a way we are the bridge between the past and the future. Our success is not entirely ours to boast. Each generation ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ As David Mitchell beautifully writes in his book Cloud Atlas,

Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

To paraphrase Alan Watts, we are all just one wave in the midst of a boundless ocean.

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28 thoughts on “The Power of Systems Thinking: Beyond the Reductionist Mindset

  1. Great post and message Andrew. In order to change our thinking I think we need to take a hard look at our schooling. The very place where we teach our children to slice up the world into neat little disciplines. Thanks for the thought provoking post. Wishing you well 🙏

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  2. Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    Systems thinking and an moving beyond the limitations of a reductionist mindset are vital aspects of the thinking needed for a New Renaissance. In this post Andrew gives an excellent summary.

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  3. To play devil’s advocate, I see two large problems here.

    The first is that calling fundamental understanding of core principles or basic concepts reductionist – as if this means it’s somehow divisive and narrowing from how we should approach understanding complex interactions and connectivity – offers an easy excuse for vast ignorance about the very details necessary to understand on what and how these ‘systems’ emerge and operate. In other words, one cannot understand, say, any mathematics unless and until the basic idea of quantity and what means is first grasped plus an operating system that represents it (ie numbers). This reductionist approach is, in fact, central to gaining knowledge about many fields of inquiry. Without the necessary and fundamental understanding that systems are not things in and of themselves but in fact demonstrates an emergent property of individual units – say, murmurations of birds so that a flock looks like one thing rather than local units obeying local rules, neural connectivity that looks like one mind rather than local units obeying local rules brain, and so on – we can be easily led astray believing detailed knowledge is a hindrance to grandiose systemic claims to the point that our constructs of groups are believed to be real real but the individuals who constitute them are merely representative of the ‘real’ thing!

    The second issue is regarding education where making connections between what may appear to be disparate areas of study is what a liberal arts degree used to be all about. Today, degrees are aimed mostly at some kind of job training rather than an institution where training the mind how to think in a variety of ways was the goal.

    So it’s easy to assume a ‘reductionist mindset’ belongs to the ‘other guy’ so to speak, but it’s my experience that there is a vast amount of indoctrination going on using this ‘critical’ cover to replace the importance of facts and detail and knowledge with ideological, sociological bullshit masquerading as knowledge about ‘systems’. It’s by no means an improvement but a regression away from respecting what’s true (and our means to find out).

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    1. Thank you for your review and critiques.

      On your first point, I agree that you need to first develop an in depth understanding and expertise of the more granular subject areas before you start looking at the bigger picture.

      I would argue that you need to be able to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to get the bigger picture of reality. Have you read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? The book argues a synthesis between the romantic and classical schools of though

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      1. Yup.

        And so I’m a huge fan of liberal arts education that teaches critical AND creative thinking. Making connections (between the micro and macro, between fields of study that may seem disparate, and so on) is what extending pattern recognition is all about. And we have name for that: intelligence. This is where insight lives. As I often point out wherever I comment, how we think determines what we think, so systemic thinking is fraught with danger unless we can connect larger patterns to how we know the detail works. That’s why education that jumps into presuming systemic views are accurate are almost always if not grossly misleading then outright wrong. The current fad about systemic racism by relying on selected group disparity is a case in point. Yes, interconnectivity is quite real but the level of detail needed to establish exactly where these borders and boundaries are – like between the ocean and land – has people choosing to call the boundary imaginary rather than what’s true: these are two distinct environments that are quite different so just because someone has difficulty identifying exactly what the borders are systemically doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the highly distinctive details.

        Broad strokes of systemic paintings of anything are easy because they lack any need for accuracy of detail and proven expertise. Anyone can be a ‘systemic expert’. But, like a muddy puddle, we shouldn’t assume the lack of detailed clarity means depth. And yet that’s a thinking error that is all too common, and constantly used, today that presumes conclusions based on ‘systemic’ models of ‘relationship’ and then grants permission to those who wave away (or condemns as ‘bad’ people those who point out quite rightly) detail and knowledge about reality that doesn’t fit the ‘systemic’ explanatory model. This criticism of systemic claims is quite often lumped under and then dismissed as coming from the ‘reductionist mindset’ and therefore dismissed by fiat. That’s the danger of using a method of thinking that doesn’t allow the detail of reality to arbitrate systemic claims about it: as Feynman would say, such a method allows us to fool ourselves and we are the easiest people in the world to fool.

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      2. That’s why education that jumps into presuming systemic views are accurate are almost always if not grossly misleading [then] outright wrong.

        One thing I’ve noticed is that the term, “systemic,” is often conflated with “institutional,” even by the most well-meaning of us.

        When it comes to social issues, especially, “systemic” is all too often taken to mean “all-pervasive” when what it really means is that the issue in question is more or less baked into our institutions and, as a friend once put it, “our institutions will be the last to change.” Makes sense because…well, they’re institutions and our institutions are far slower to adapt and change than the fluid and versatile human beings who establish them.

        Personal experience alone tells us that social issues are not, in fact, all-pervasive in the sense that they are so often framed, but far too many of us treat them as if they were to the point that it makes you want to tear your hair out.

        “Systems thinking,” on the other hand, is a completely different animal, far more as you described: views and ways of thought that consider the health and well-being of the whole as well as its constituent aspects. You’ll not find that kind of thinking in politics as practiced today, imho. In fact, just mention “politics” to me and the first thing that pops to mind is actually a quote of Groucho Marx:

        Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

        While there is talk of an “Integral Politics” on the horizon, I get the sense that a truly “Integral Politics” among human beings remains generations away on the evolutionary timescale.

        Cultural metamorphosis occurs over the course of generations and cannot, in any way, be forced any more than our evolution as individuals can be. We’re all well aware of the disastrous results of attempts to force cultures to go one way or another over the course of human history. I think it would be nice if our academic institutions, especially, would put more time and effort into studying the phenomenon of more natural strains of cultural evolution than looking for (and/or causing) trouble where there may, in fact, be none because there just so happens to be an historical precedent for it that further just so happens to remain institutionalized.

        That said, there can be little doubt that “our own wisdom is telling us to evolve,” perhaps not in precisely the same ways this particular author envisions, but the evolutionary pressure is most definitely on and Mother Nature is its most powerful advocate, at the moment, if anyone were to ask me.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Beautifully said, I admit I have much yet still to learn on this topic. I only really touched the surface with my reading. But yes, looking at the past paradigm shifts don’t occur over night, and must be organic rather than ‘top down’. My limited reading of Charles Taylor informs me on this topic.

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      4. IW, you say, ” I think it would be nice if our academic institutions, especially, would put more time and effort into studying the phenomenon of more natural strains of cultural evolution than looking for (and/or causing) trouble where there may, in fact, be none because there just so happens to be an historical precedent for it that further just so happens to remain institutionalized.”

        Can you say more about this?

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      5. Not really. Academia is what it is, for the moment, and even academics are becoming so fed up with its current state that a good number of tenured professors are actually leaving it behind in order to critique educational methodologies and programs more freely, explore and write about new ideas.

        You also said, “Today, degrees are aimed mostly at some kind of job training rather than (Academia being) an institution where training the mind how to think in a variety of ways was the goal.”

        You may be interested in an article I stumbled across quite a while back on this subject: William Deresiewicz’s The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It appears to be a bit controversial, so viewer discretion is advised. : )

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      6. Thank you for this reference. Indeed, realizing that the manufacturing design of ‘education’ that produces widgets is hardly surprising… no matter how specialized the widget may be upon ‘completion’.

        “The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth (the truth that tests really “measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real.”) , when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”

        When teaching adults undergoing academic upgrading, I often pointed out that no one assumed a person who was really good at, say, volleyball, was therefore ‘smart’. But this is a widespread assumption when it comes to math (the subject I was teaching)… a much dreaded subject.

        So I explained that my job was to teach them how to SHOW their mathematical understanding (that they already had) and to not blame me later for them getting high grades that demonstrated this. The most common question I received from literally hundreds and hundreds of students after I did just this was why weren’t they taught ‘this way’ back in their earlier schooling when getting repeated 100% scores determined their future academic paths and later opportunities?

        Well, I did the same at the elementary level and took the very worst students across 5 grade years (Grades 3-7 and gladly given over to my charge by much relieved teachers) at the 3rd worst ranked school in the province, and every ‘identified’ student went from the bottom 5th percentile to the 95th percentile by standardized testing after only 40 hours (1 hour a day for 8 weeks, zero absenteeism). Their status went from being behavioural ‘problems’ to be ‘managed’ by teachers and aids to ‘smart’ students emulated by others. The change in personality was remarkable to behold. Although my principal was later promoted for this remarkable turnaround that elevated the school’s ranking by hundreds of places, I was not retained because every other teacher felt that I had undermined them and their ‘trained’ methods. My lesson? Don’t interrupt the widget production line!

        I demonstrated to students that they already knew all the math but might not realize this. I then demonstrated connections between basic mathematical ideas and their more sophisticated versions much later in the curriculum – and how to show it – so that young students were doing all kinds of secondary school math curriculum and finding it ‘easy’… easy enough to explain pretty sophisticated stuff to their parents… and by adult parents able to do the same with their children at home. Same people, different results.

        So ‘smart’ is not the right term for this student enlightenment (and the ability to show it), which means test scores demonstrating this understanding is the right metric to use for those who have taught them and not for those who may or may not have received this instruction!

        So the ability to make connections across different areas of study, and the ability to demonstrate these applications successfully in meaningful ways, I think is the metric to evaluate systems thinking. But to do this, I think requires a solid grounding in the elements that constitute the ‘reductionist mindset’. In other words, I don’t think you can trust to have accurate systems thinking without first mastering the reductionist mindset.

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      7. I’m of the mind that there are no stupid people. Inordinately ignorant people, maybe, but certainly not stupid. So, the idea that there are “smart” students and “stupid” students doesn’t go down well with me.

        I demonstrated to students that they already knew all the math but might not realize this.

        Would that you’d been among my math teachers, then. Bravo! Math has never been among my fortes. I just couldn’t get sufficiently interested in it until I was required to take Algebra. I don’t know if it was the teacher’s approach (because I certainly didn’t like her) or becoming intrigued with Algebra itself, but I aced the Algebra courses. My newfound knowledge was soon forgotten like a second language rarely spoken, though. I probably couldn’t solve an Algebra equation now if my life depended on it and never got into Trigonometry, etc. In fact, I’m so bad at math that I envy people who can do it in their heads on the fly.

        It might be odd, but I do consider mathematics a language that can be learned like any other language. What do you think?

        As for “systems thinking,” which appears to be in its nascent stage, I’m thinking more along the lines of Daniel Christian Wahl, Nora Bateson and Jeremy Lent, et alia — people who are actually considering the health and well-being of whole “systems” as well as their interactions with one another.

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      8. A couple of things.

        I think it’s obvious some people think really well, especially when a complex problem can be understood and solved with a few simple but highly targeted steps. I think it’s equally obvious some people do stuff really well, especially when they can demonstrate an unusual degree of ability. Both of these, I think, can be improved by exercise and guidance and evaluation. These are teachable; improvements are there to be found.

        So the terms we use for the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages or snapshots (testing) I think describe where on some fictional curve people might find themselves. It is very helpful to know where one was if one wishes to know where to go, so to speak; someone observant once said, “No wind is favorable to the ship that has no destination.” Moving up that curve I think is always rewarding.

        I don’t like the terms ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ because it’s my experience they are almost always factually wrong on one of these two metrics because they incorrectly describe as an element of character something that I think is merely a temporary state of mind or ability.

        This has been very true of people I’ve taught regarding math and, like your algebra example, once a person understands something and can show it, once the insight arrives and lights up what was a darkened place, it’s usually fun and enjoyable to then play with it. And so it shouldn’t surprise any administrator that classrooms where real learning is going on has a volume of laughter that should be welcomed rather than suppressed: ideally, people demonstrate their learning by playing and having a lot of fun with it. So I’m glad you at least got a taste of this in algebra and it’s a shame you didn’t get the same in all those other areas of mathematical understanding that could then be applied in all those other areas of STEM. After all, who knows how many brilliant and insightful physicists and chemists and biologists and engineers turned away from these fields because of some poor teaching at an earlier time that hindered the necessary math component?

        At least – and so thankfully for the rest of us – the athletes and musicians and artists implementing trigonometry and geometry and calculus and forces and logarithms and all the mathematical ideas in action can delight the rest of us! That’s the systems understanding the OP is really talking about.

        Another way of thinking about how interconnected everything really is, is by looking for and then understanding the vital role of relationships. But I see all this as reflecting a pyramid of understanding that has to be widely grounded in understanding fundamentals no matter what the field might be, which is often discarded as too ‘reductionist’ to matter and I think this assumption is a terrible mistake.

        Understanding the fundamentals of that particular field of study I think is how we recognize connectivity and relationships within and between different fields, different systems. Neither fundamentals or systems is better or worse than the other necessarily but both I think are essential to a wider and deeper understanding of and appreciation for how systems work. And I think that has to precede any suggested systemic improvements so that solutions and changes and evolving whatever come from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

        Why does this matter?

        Well, I think mathematical understanding, for example, comes from people rather than into people! (Said another way, I think the term ‘learning’ really means recognizing.) And so this approach makes a huge difference in pedagogy, whether one is a classroom teacher, a coach, a musical or dance instructor, or a parent for that matter. Our biology has this awareness and/or recognition even if we don’t yet have the tools or the means to demonstrate our malleable understanding.

        Anyway, I also think we’re all on this curve together and so it should be a fun ride.

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  4. I think one of the reasons we keep repeating our same mistakes is that unlike science, which builds on past knowledge, we life to do the social equivalent of going on a fad diet: some sweeping change that’s an instant cure. In the art world, the words most associated with valued are are “radical” and “revolutionary”. So, instead of building on what has worked in the past, tweaking it out, and improving the system, when it comes to our social and political lives, we are constantly reinventing the wheel, and part of this is our arrogance in relation to the dead.

    How many people think that because they live now, they know and understand vastly more than someone who lived a hundred years ago? We always look to the future, which has it’s merits, but the struggle of how to live, and just to be in the moment, is perennial, and those who lived in the past frequently had a harder struggle — we are so pampered now, comparatively — in which case they may have known far more than we do in many instances.

    Just a few thoughts there. Nice essay. I agree!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

      Yes, I do think there is definitely value in preserving traditions and ancient ideals, given that they are still relevant and applicable. After all, it is my understanding that the ‘renaissance’ , was a reinvention of the ideas in Ancient Greece and Rome.

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      1. Yes it was, and the perfect example of building on the past, rather than presuming to triumph over it, which happens in our time merely because of technology. Meanwhile, we can still learn from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, who, as you probably know, kept a journal of his Stoic philosophy.

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  5. I agree with you that systems thinking is important and underdeveloped. However, I question the “our culture” stuff.

    I left a very individualistic culture, the US, to live in a much more communitarian culture, South Korea. (Japanese and Chinese cultures are broadly similar in the communitarian aspect.) I prefer the East Asian style, but for almost exactly the opposite reasons that you propose. With less individualism, there’s less resistance to specialization and much, much less resistance to hierarchy. The US, from my point of view, suffers greatly from its egalitarian belief that randos on the internet should be listened to when the criticize climate science, praise “moral progress,” or strive for a “more just world.” Getting ignorant people to shut up and do what specialists and experts zay is a huge boon to problem solving.

    This communitarian outlook has downsides -particularly when the hierarchy abandons competitive meritocracy for hereditary ties – but if you want systems thinkers who break free of “the culture,” I think you’d be disappointed.

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    1. Thank you for this very insightful comment. I guess implicitly I was critiquing existing social structures in North America, using the systems framework.

      My thinking, as with many things, is what is needed is a healthy balance between opposites.

      Of course, there are many virtues to individualism. In the West, it was a hard-fought effort to rid us of the systems of monarchy and feudalism – giving birth to individual rights and democracy. This of course should be celebrated.

      I do think however, from a North American context, we are in an era of ‘hyper -individualism’ , and as a result fail to see how as individuals we are linked to broader communities and systems.

      I can’t really speak to how things are in the East, as I don’t have the knowledge of the social systems\values.

      Thanks again for this informative comment, it really got me thinking!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree with you about the hyper individualism and I’d like to leave you with two short anecdotes to illustrate the differences as I see them.

        First, here in Korea we, generally speaking, kicked COVID’s butt. I live in a city of 1.3 million people, my Dad lives in a US county with 52,000 folks. The tiny US county has 4 times more COVID infections than my massive city, and 5 times more deaths.

        When I tried to figure out why, there are a bunch of things that people suggest that don’t seem to be true. Masks are the first. Korea has better mask compliance than the US by miles, but people chronically misuse their masks and the infection rate has not gone down as masking got better. People still wear their masks where it’s safe (public parks for example) and take them off where it’s dangerous (crowded restaurants and saunas, for example). Likewise, we’ve had some absolute doozies of misbehavior here in Korea. Two of the biggest outbreaks were traced to a series of “sweat parties” in Seoul gay clubs and a religious cult that spent several hours “laying hands” on each other in a mega church.

        What does seem to be different is the ability of people here to ostracize these bad elements way beyond anything the US is capable of regarding anti-mask protesters or Sturgis party-goers. The cult members, for example, found themselves banned from pretty much every private business, often explicitly. And this was not a government mandate, individual business owners wanted nothing to do with those folks.

        Likewise, the support and tracing of infected people is massively better here. The entire country has committed to leaving records of visits whenever they go out. I left my phone number and “gu” (an administrative district larger than a neighborhood and smaller than a city) at 4 different places yesterday, for example. If I were to become infected, the city would deliver me food and basic essentials for the next two weeks. If I became seriously ill, I would be treated for a total of about 140 dollars, regardless of how bad my condition became.

        This is all common sense, and it worked really well, but it would never fly in the US. This might seem simplistic, but without any libertarians around, it’s really refreshing to see how people can just get together and fix things without all the moral angsting and metaphysical debate about some very poorly thought out conceptions of “freedom.” (I’m going to write a post about why “freedom” undefined is the ultimate weasel word.)

        Second anecdote. I was speaking to my master’s degree advisor – a Korean gentleman who studied in the US – and we compared the education systems in Korea and the US. Since I left the US to study in Korea, and he left Korea to study in the US, we found we had a lot of overlap. We agreed that, at its worst, the US system tends to encourage people to debate against things they have not bothered to understand. Mattress girl, anti-masking protests, anti-vaxers, social justice, Randian critiques of “capitalism” etc are much more common in the US because we encourage randos and ignorant people to, as “equals,” question and criticize people who actually have knowledge. On the other hand, we agreed that, at its worst, the Korean system encourages people with knowledge to accept things they know don’t work.

        Obviously the ideal solution is to get the Americans to learn a little about the things they are protesting/critiquing/etc while encouraging the East Asians to question systems that aren’t working, even when those systems are broadly accepted.

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      2. Look forward to your article on conceptions of ‘freedom’, been something I have been thinking a lot about, but don’t have any clear answers as to what it means on a spiritual/social/political level

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