Monday, April 24, 2017

Prologue to "The Normative System"

The Universe is the first and oldest system.  All other systems are contained within it and subject to its  universal framework, bound by the forces of gravity and electromagnetic energy.

What are Systems?  Let’s call them: “ways of doing things.”

 At the end of the seventeenth Century Isaac Newton showed, in his derivation of the laws of motion, that gravitational force impacts the motion of all physical objects.

At the beginning of the twentieth Century Albert Einstein, in his theories of Special and General Relativity, showed how the dual forces of electromagnetic energy and gravity determine the very geometry of space and time.

The force of gravity defines the boundary of the Universe.    Outside that boundary there is no matter, there are no lines of force, no geometrical space, no locations, no energy, no movement, and no development.  There is no outside. Everything is inside. Everything is either a system or a part of a system.

All systems do things.  Doing things takes energy, so all systems use energy.  There is a fixed amount of energy in the Universe.  According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  

All systems use energy to do things and in so doing they make that energy less available to other systems.  This is the second law of thermodynamics.  Once energy has been utilized it cannot be re-utilized to the same degree.  Each time it is used it becomes degraded.  For example, in a living-system plants extract energy from the sun, and animals extract the chemical energy from eating plants, or from eating other animals.  Animals have to work physically harder to get the same amount of energy that plants can get just by staying in one place and soaking up the sun. That is the second law of thermodynamics at work.

All systems develop and change over time.  All systems are born, they do things, and then they die, and stop doing things.  This is obviously true of living organisms, but it is also true of  our solar system and the Universe, but on vastly larger time-scales.  

Systems form a natural hierarchy.  All systems are physical;  living systems are purposive physical systems;  Human systems are normative purposive physical systems.

I have divided systems into three nested categories:  All systems are physical systems, subject to the fundamental forces of the Universe.  Living systems are purposive physical systems.  Human systems are normative, purposive physical systems.

All systems are physical, that is, they exist within the Universe.  There is no outside.  What we refer to as “spiritual” is a human system of perception that relies on our culture and imagination and is therefore based on physical occurrences.

Living systems are purposive physical systems - they maintain and replicate themselves.  A flame resembles a living system because it gives off heat and changes it shape. A flame just goes out when it runs out of fuel. The flame is a partially self-maintaining physical system but it does not act from purpose.  In contrast,  a  living system will go look for more food before it runs out of energy.

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans have rules that they collectively agree to.  These rules create a social reality that only exists because of collective human acceptance.  I call this creation of social reality Normativity.

The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is an artificial creation of a boundary.  One between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and ignorance, beauty and ugliness, and, between meeting or not meeting countless standards of behaviour.   The boundary is not there in reality like the shoreline.  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to create this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

Normativity is a system that frames all human social activity.   The first humans began the human experiment when they agreed to live under a moral system.   Just as the Universe creates the structure of physical reality through its own gravitational and electromagnetic forces, by drawing a line between good and evil our Homo Erectus ancestors created the basis for all succeeding human systems, systems that eventually led to language and the myriad of cultural forms that we participate in today.


  1. In your 'Prologue', you make a statement that all systems are physical, before going on to discuss subsystems that are living, and human. It is here I disagree with you. Not all systems are real, some are simply abstract concepts that exist is an ethereal world.

    The fishing boats that populate a computer simulation move to a fishing zone, fish, then return to a factory to disgorge their cargo. They obey laws encoded into the simulation. Simulations can be run and rerun to mimic the effects of changes to their various parameters, with the goal of optimizing some set of outputs. Only at the electronic level is a simulation physical. It is never real, yet it is a system, made up of interacting components.

    Why do people simulate? The main reason, is that pure mathematics is incapable of giving an accurate answer. The calculations may be too complex to be solved in real time, or (more often) the problem may not be expressible mathematically. When mathematics fails them, economists resort to simulation. It looks like mathematics, but it isn't. Simulations use numbers, lots of numbers, and the results look arithmetic, but they are not mathematical.

    Kate Raworth, at the beginning of "Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like an Economist" (2017), tries to explain the failings of 20th century economics. She goes on to write: "In the 1960s, Thomas Kuhn turned scientific research upside down by pointing out that ‘scientists work from models acquired through education … often without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms’. In the 1970s, sociologist Erving Goffmann introduced the concept of ‘framing’ – in the sense that each of us views the world through a mental picture frame – to show that the way we make sense out of our jumble of experience delineates what we can then see."

    1. I have a Pragmatic theory of truth. Note my stipulative definition of 'system': "a way of doing things". Marks on a piece of paper are not a system until they are interpreted as such and utilized by someone. Computer models are part of a system if someone is using it to guide policy or make decisions. These marks and electronic marks are definitely physical, but their properties in a system are due to human actions, otherwise they are pieces of dust lying dead on the ground.

    2. By the way, what I think that I am doing is building a metaphysics based on systems theory and social contract theory. Since I define 'system' as "a way of doing things" and 'the universe' as the first system, the one that contains all other systems, and since the universe has its features because of gravity and electromagnetic energy, I have to say that all other systems are physical and subject to these laws. A theoretical system or a computer model are not physical systems because we have abstracted them in conceiving them separate from their being implemented.

    3. Thanks again for bringing your questions up Brock, they have got me thinking. Mathematical models, and intellectual theories are not physical systems, they do not do anything on their own. They are understandings, they are part of brains states that guide human action. They are abstractions. Your example of developing computer models suggests to me locating the system in your team's comparison of the model with the reality, and your effect on the reality, or its effect on you.

    4. Paradigms and Framing are general understandings of our world. These abstractions can be used to help us maintain societies if they are good enough approximations that get us to focus on vitally important things. From a pragmatic viewpoint: knowledge is neither final nor certain. It functions to keep us going. But it only works if we let reality check it, and then modify our knowledge in the light of evidence. Models don't do anything by themselves. We have to try to put them into practice, test them against reality, and continue to modify them or even abandon them if they are not working. The system is this back and forth of testing and modifying our understanding.

    5. Where Normativity comes in to all this is that in order to get a framework or model we have to agree on rules of behaviour that divide the world into what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

  2. You could say that Mathematical "Systems" are imaginary systems but they are not real in the sense that they do not do anything by themselves. They have to be checked, interpreted, and applied by humans.