Toward a System Type Structure
Keywords:system types, system modeling, holism, ontology
A system can only be understood holistically. If our goal is to understand systems we must develop holistic descriptions. That conclusion seems inescapable.
Systems occur naturally in hierarchies and interact with a context consisting mostly of other system hierarchies. Systems reside in large, highly interoperating networks, meaning that a truly holistic view of a system has no clear outer limit. The great complexity and scope of such systems present a barrier to reaching a holistic view. Surmounting this barrier should be a goal of systems thinking.
Starting from a system of interest and working upward and outward is not the only possible approach. A system influences its parts as well as vice-versa. Complementary to a bottom-up approach from a system of interest is a top-down approach starting with a large encompassing system.
All systems are part of the universe, about which much is now known. A top-down approach could start by examining the universe as a whole in terms of the types of systems it contains and how they are related. Indeed, the universe constitutes the ultimate whole. Starting with the whole, even a distant and immense whole, seems especially appropriate when seeking wholeness.
Of course, the universe can never be described in full detail, but it could be described from a systems perspective in a way that would facilitate all other system inquiries. The universe embodies the general architecture and ground rules for the integration of all systems. Eventually top-down development and the many bottom-up inquiries would meet, enabling pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
Much valuable systems knowledge is available but it is highly fragmented. Unification is the only remedy for fragmentation. A single top-down approach would provide unification in the form of a common framework and dialect into which all other knowledge can be fit and made coherent. The universe is coherent; otherwise science could never succeed. The fact that our descriptions are not coherent must be the fault of our descriptions not of reality. Hence, in principle they can be fixed and a common coherent description developed.
This paper addresses a universal holistic view through a global system type structure. The type structure is represented in the form of a Unified Modeling Language (UML) generalization-specialization hierarchy, a well-proven approach.
System thinkers have repeatedly called for a comprehensive system classification, but to my knowledge none exists. The notion of a system is extremely general and so has a great many variants. Many definitions of particular system types and partial type structures exist, but no comprehensive, coherent structure. A coherent universe must allow a coherent description given the right approach; here we consider one. A global system type structure is an incomplete and insufficient holistic description but it provides a good starting point.
This paper addresses both a preliminary system type structure and the kind of approach needed to develop and perfect it. It also calls for collaboration to go forward with the project.