SYSTEMS THINKING

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POST 14 – 27-05-2014

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Rays at dawn 2

This photo was taken at dawn but is facing west – so I cannot see how it has the appearance of sunrays when the sun was behind me!

CONTENTS

  1. SYSTEMS THINKING
  2. NEW SPECIES
  3. WHY DO WE STILL LECTURE?
  4. CULTURE RULES
  5. WHAT IS BEAUTY?

 

  1. SYSTEMS THINKING

Backtracking from the sciences in a sort of cosmic archaeology has led scientists to formulate theories, which when tested have added to our knowledge of how we came to be here. The implications of Darwin’s discovery may not have been addressed adequately by scientists interested in cosmology perhaps because they are not biologically fluent. Bringing together systems thinking, information theory and Darwin’s great discovery seems to me to be a great field for research. I have recently read “Universal Darwinism: the path of knowledge” by John Campbell and am currently struggling through a book called “The Origin of Everything” by DB Kelley. These two authors are making a point that seems important to me, but I find that they both stretch my ability to grasp the implications of their theory as applied to quantum mechanics and to information theory. The second book has an added disadvantage in that it is rather incoherent in its explication of the theory. If their theory is correct it will no doubt be taken up by others with greater literary skill – eventually. If I am correct, they are saying that the algorithm underlying Darwinism is also applicable to any and all system throughout nature. Their story seems to be that the whole of nature is comprised of systems that have two interacting aspects, namely substance and function and that each system (and sub-system) operates cyclically in a process which replicates the information they contain. The Darwinian process is defined by Campbell as:

  1. Replication of information
  2. Inheritance of some characteristics that have variation among the offspring.
  3. Selection or differential survival of the offspring according to which variable characteristics they possess.

The two authors are suggesting that the underlying process occurs in all systems from the quantum through physics, chemistry, biology and culture as well as particular elements such as a solar system, a galactic system, a climatic system and many more. They say that the underlying function of a system is to achieve stability which is achieved by adaptive interaction with the environment in which it operates. To try to sort this out I have started to study “systems thinking” and am still trying to sort out what they are proposing, The several ways to think of and define a system include:

  • A system is composed of parts.
  • All the parts of a system must be related (directly or indirectly), else there are really two or more distinct systems
  • A system is encapsulated, has a boundary.
  • The boundary of a system is a decision made by an observer, or a group of observers.
  • A system can be nested inside another system.
  • A system can overlap with another system.
  • A system is bounded in time.
  • A system is bounded in space, though the parts are not necessarily co-located.
  • A system receives input from, and sends output into, the wider environment.
  • A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.
  • A system is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose. (Car is not a system. Car with a driver is a system.)

Systems science thinkers consider that:

  • a system is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit;
  • energy, material and information flow among the different elements that compose the system;
  • a system is a community situated within an environment;
  • energy, material and information flow from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries;

2. NEW SPECIES New species are being found all the time and their characteristics usually tell us why they have been discovered so recently. To see some really strange species have a look at these Top Ten New Species found this year – 2014. Some wonderful adaptations to their environment can be seen. All inherited characteristics are the result of adaptive interaction between genes and environment.

  1. WHY DO WE STILL LECTURE?

I have always thought that a concentration on teaching seems to place the onus on the teacher while it should be placed on the student. Student-centred approqches are now common and are respected but this article stresses it further.

Lectures do not work! So what’s the alternative?

Rather than the perfect lecturer performance or PowerPoints, active approaches privilege “what the student does”. Courses built around active learning require students to spend class time engaged in meaningful tasks that lead to learning. These tasks might be online or face-to-face; solo or in a group; theoretical or applied. Most of our popular learning and teaching buzzwords at the moment are active approaches: peer instruction, problem-based learning, and flipping the classroom are all focused on students spending precious class time doing, not listening. 3. CULTURE RULES   We accept that our biological heritage influences our behaviour and our freedom to make decisions is limited by our biological instincts and impulses. Some psychological theories put a lot of weight on biology rather than culture and learning. This article stresses the cultural influence. Prinz never suggests that genetic and biological considerations should be absent, but cautions against overreliance on such explanations. Near the end of his least technical book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (W. W. Norton, 2012), he writes, “Every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait—every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment.” But in chapters on human intelligence, language, gender, and more, Prinz makes the case that culture’s influence dwarfs that of biology. Culture, history, and experience form the environment that, for Prinz, shapes what we become. He contends that those external factors determine everything about us—everything, down to such biological fundamentals as fear. “I think everything I do is an entry into the nature-nurture debate,” he says. “More specifically, I’m interested in nurture. I think human behavior is interesting precisely because it’s so plastic.” 4. WHAT IS BEAUTY?   Scientists are often quoted as saying that theories need to be beautiful and that beautiful theories are more likely to be true. We all have different ideas in mind when the word beauty is used. What do those scientists mean when they stress the importance of beauty? We have to ask: what is this beauty they keep talking about? Some scientists are a little coy about that. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac agreed with Einstein, saying in 1963 that ‘it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment’ (how might Greene explain that away?). Yet faced with the question of what this all-important beauty is, Dirac threw up his hands. Mathematical beauty, he said, ‘cannot be defined any more than beauty in art can be defined’ – though he added that it was something ‘people who study mathematics usually have no difficulty in appreciating’. That sounds rather close to the ‘good taste’ of his contemporaneous art critics; we might fear that it amounts to the same mixture of prejudice and paternalism. Given this history of evasion, it was refreshing last November to hear the theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed spell out what ‘beauty’ really means for him and his colleagues. He was talking to the novelist Ian McEwan at the Science Museum in London, during the opening of the museum’s exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider. ‘Ideas that we find beautiful,’ Arkani-Hamed explained, ‘are not a capricious aesthetic judgment’: It’s not fashion, it’s not sociology. It’s not something that you might find beautiful today but won’t find beautiful 10 years from now. The things that we find beautiful today we suspect would be beautiful for all eternity. And the reason is, what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them. There are very few principles and there’s no possible other way they could work once you understand them deeply enough. So that’s what we mean when we say ideas are beautiful.

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