The Priority of the System

The concept of a system is going to be logically prior to any other concept. This has both scientific and metaphysical ramifications. This paper seeks to explain systems’ priority and touch on the consequences thereof.

Suppose that physicalism is true. Reality consists just in matter and motion, governed by physical laws, and that reality is nothing over and above this. The physicalist thesis logically entails that all reality is a physical system.

But to even talk about a ‘physical system’ or conceive of one, we must first have the concept of a system. For now, we can think of a system as (1) composed of components, (2) composed of relations between those components, and (3) the relations between the components perform some kind of function. To think of any thing requires first the thought of a system. Even to think of a thing in isolation is to think of a system. For suppose I consider a system amounting to nothing more than a thermodynamically isolated rock. To think of a thermodynamically isolated rock, I must also think of the pieces of rock which constitute it (exactly what constitutes a rock) — and that’s going to be some relation of things. The constituents of the rock relate to each other in such a way as to function as the identity of a discrete (if isolated) object. Or consider the following. Systems are prior to even the most general and abstract scientific discipline, logic. For to even do logic requires that one have some set of sentence letters and some set of axioms. The sentence letters amount to components and the axioms define the possible relations. Often, the relations between the sentence letters function to output (or be capable of outputting) some truth-value. Logic requires the instantiation of a system.

At the inception of any new science, there is some new realm of objects that are to be investigated. These objects are components and the relations between these objects (and their functional outputs) are to be investigated. New sciences require the instantiation of new systems.

Here’s an important point about modeling that reveals something crucial about systems. For a model of any system (take, e.g., a physical system) to be a good model, it need only depend on the model’s formal characteristics. We can create a cybernetic model of an organism. A cybernetic model simulates all the behaviors (of an organism) regardless of its material constitution (and its ontological status) — all that is important to the model is the preservation of the formal relations between components, but what those components actually are is irrelevant to the functioning (of the model).1  What this suggests is that material constitution of a system is irrelevant to that system’s functioning. An organism with a biological-material structure can perform the same functions equally as well as a cybernetic mechanism — the material constitution differs, but the functioning does not. So our understanding of a system must be independent of our understanding of its material constitution. That is, the whole (the system) is a sum of logical relations or connections between objects of any ontological constitution.2  If the ontological constitution of the object is irrelevant to the system, then we may consider systems as composed of mechanical stuff, or material stuff, or mental stuff without changing the behavior of the system. In cybernetics, when we try to simulate an organism, we must always make use of strictly formal concepts or tools like feedback, information, or control. And these concepts are what actually must figure in at the level of the simulated organism’s functioning, too. In this way, a model depends only on the formal concepts and not on the physical substrate. Systems theory uses these formal tools and is more general — and this generality heralds its ontological priority.

Now consider a system S composed of subsystems S_1, S_2, and so on. In this situation, we can study the structure of just one of the subsystems (say, S_1). To S_1 we take some established science and use it to study the relations and mathematical functions that govern S_1. Then we go on to S_2 and do the same thing (using, perhaps, some different established science). And then onto S_n, and so on. After studying each subsystem, we can consider all the relevant relations and mathematical functions which hold between S_{1...z}. For example suppose we consider the system of a person (something with both mental and physical attributes). We can study the structure the body system and, independently, we can study the structure of mental life (the mental system/perceptual experience). Having done this, we can try to map features of the mental structure to features of the physical structure (aiming to achieve some sort of isomorphism) in order to understand their relevant similarities and differences and how they both importantly figure in to the overall constitution of the person. Note, however, that the person is not going to be reducible to the mental or physical subsystems (or both), because the presence of both (working in tandem [in some way]) is going to be what makes the person the system such as he is. This highlights how we can cut up and divide a system in whatever way is most fruitful to investigation, give each subsystem the scientific treatment it deserves, and then look at the relations between each of those (in a sort of general systems theory).

That systems are divisible and relatable in this way is refreshingly antimetaphysical. We do not need to be committed to metaphysical theses which maintain that all reality is a physical system. Such theses are, at any rate, impotent. For if you are given the world, knock your head against it, and say, ‘Ouch! How physical,’ then you are simply appending a label, ‘physical,’ to the world and haven’t yet said anything about it. For a physicalist thesis to have any teeth, there must be nonphysical things that do not (or maybe could not) actually exist in the world. To say that all reality is physical is to say nothing; it is tantamount to saying that all reality is just reality. (Moreover, the physicalist who claims he can not even conceive of anything non-physical renders his physicalist inert. He is not saying that all things bottom out at the physical, he is simply saying that all reality is physical. This is nothing more than an uninformative new label for ‘reality.’) Here’s another way to bring this out. Physical laws can be cast in terms of ‘information.’ We can talking about how different states give rise to different effects without ever specifying the ontological status whatever is actually in that state.3  All that matters is the position of the object in the information space.

One advantage of a ‘systems theory’ view is that it is a better ontological fit with our ways of thinking about science and scientific objectivity. Because of the reducibility problems earlier mentioned, the ‘unity of the sciences’ thesis seems not only ad hoc, but forced. Different researchers operate in different domains — it is not as though physicists are out to discover the truths of neurophysiology, but rather the motions of bodies. When we are not dogmatically trying to reduce one science to another, we tend to treat each science as more or less independent from the others. This is why a ‘systems theory’ approach sits nicely with our contemporary scientific, intellectual climate.

And a parting thought. Reality or ‘the World’ is what is mediated to us in perceptual experience. All we are directly acquainted with are the aspects of our perceptual experience. Schlick, a logical positivist and verificationist, was distinctly antimetaphysical in a similar sense. He referred to ‘the given’ as what is (possible to) present to us in perceptual experience, and claimed that ‘the given’ is the domain of all that is knowable.4  I do not think of ‘the given’ in as narrow and impoverished a way as Schlick; I will, however, admit that reality or ‘the World’ is only present to us insofar as what information we can (possibly) acquire or know about reality must be contained in our perceptual experience (or else be some kind of a priori knowledge). ‘Nature’ should be thought of as distinct from ‘the World.’ Call Nature what is not what we can be presented with in perceptual experience, but is rather our scientific construct for scientifically examining the world, and it must be mediated through language. Nature is what happens when we talk about the world, try to contain and grasp it in our language (and its corresponding concepts). Consequently, statements about Nature are going to be theory-laden. Laden with whose theory? Observation about nature will be couched in the preexisting theoretical structure of whoever the observer is. Berkeley and Newton’s conceptions of Nature are radically different, but they both ‘reach out and touch’ the same reality or ‘the World.’

When the physicalist says that reality is a physical system he is not making a claim about ‘the World.’ Rather, he is making a claim about Nature, that all empirical science is ultimately about fundamental physical particles. This has a certain intuitive appeal. But (1) reductionism is often not successful (as indicated earlier) and (2) this really just amounts to saying that we can only conceive of the objects of perceptual experience as made of material constituents (but again this just nerfs the meaning of ‘material’).


  1. This has been used to argue that psychobiological entities must be considered as nothing over and above mechanical things/processes. 
  2. Take ontological constitution to be the ontological status of the component. As an example, you might think that the ontological constitution of your body is material, whereas the ontological constitution of your perceptual experience is mental
  3. This is meant to emphasize the point about cybernetics. And also foreshadow discussion to come. 
  4. Presumably mathematical truths are either abstracted from ‘the given’ or else ‘the given’ actually refers to all that is empirically knowable. 
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