Systems theory is about what happens when individual items are connected and become a system. “Items” in this context can be anything physical and/or abstract, which gives you a pretty huge scope. Systems are ubiquitous. Examples include mechanical systems such as vehicles; social systems such as organisations or countries; and logical systems, such as software. Many of these systems can cause disasters when they fail, as in the examples of nuclear power plant safety systems or autopilot systems in aircraft; systems are important.
There are regularities in how systems behave, and some of those regularities are both counter-intuitive and extremely important. That’s a potentially dangerous combination.
If you understand systems theory, then the world makes a lot more sense, particularly if you combine it with game theory, which will be the topic of one of my next articles. Most questions that start with “Why don’t they…?” can be answered either with “Resources” or “Systems theory” or “Game theory”.
In this article, I’ll look at some core concepts from systems theory.
So what is Occam’s razor anyway, and why should anyone care?
The core concept is brief: Other things being equal, we should choose the simplest valid explanation whenever possible.
Amateurs often view this concept as a clean blade of truth, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. It’s widespread in politics, often phrased as “common sense” analysis.
That’s a nice idea, but reality is more complex, and Occam’s razor often causes more problems than it solves. Like the damaged, time-worn razor in the picture below, it’s far from being a flawless blade.
This article is about why simple-looking explanations often turn out to be complicated in reality, and why apparently complicated explanations often turn out to be simple.
This is a replica handaxe that I made in my archaeology days. It’s turned out to be invaluable as a demonstration of assorted useful concepts, though I didn’t expect that when I made it.
What would your response be if someone asked you whether that handaxe is Windows-compatible? You’d probably be surprised by the question, because it’s meaningless. As for explaining why it’s meaningless, though, that’s not so immediately obvious.
This is where range of convenience comes in. It’s from George Kelley’s approach to psychology, namely Personal Construct Theory (PCT). It dates from the 1950s, but still has a strong following today because it offers a clean, systematic, rigorous way of modeling how people think. PCT has a rich, well-developed set of concepts for handling language and categorisation and ideas. Range of convenience is one of those concepts.