Re: Models with Meaning LO1166

Michael McMaster (
Fri, 12 May 1995 07:28:47 +0000

Replying to LO1137 --

I don't know whether to enter this conversation. I assume that it's
open so I'm invited. The place of description, explanation and use
of a narrative IMHO is one of the most important conversations that
we can have if we are interested in learning and/or change in
intelligent organisations.

In my attempt at understanding systems thinking, I'm grappling with
these issues so that it can be a useful tool for me, have integrity
with its field, and yet not be applied where it doesn't help. I
haven't been able to sort through this yet but this conversation is
the one that will allow it - for me at least.

Rick says:
>As to Systems thinking being a "descriptive science," I believe we can
>distinguish descriptive models (such as Kepler's "laws" which describe
>planetary motion) from structural models which contain a reasonably
>sufficient explanation of how and why

To which Ketan's response was,
> Describing the "forces" is still a description - how things happen(and that
> level, the "why") are not a true explanation - they don't have "meaning"

And Rick responds,
> I can make the analogy more easily in the physical sciences, so I'll
> start there. Kepler's laws, although a huge breakthrough at the time, were
> only descriptive. He said "Planets move in an ellipse." But, he couldn't
> say why this should be the case.

Bateson's development of "an explanatory principle" may be useful
here. In fact "gravity" was one of the terms he used to make the
point - although I think "instinct" was the better known one. In each
case, the "explanation" stops the inquiry at that point. It's not
whether or not the explanation is valid nor useful. It's just that,
so far in history, the inquiry has stopped at the current meaning of
the term. Fish return to their streams "by instinct" was the end of
the conversation - until someone came up with a useful explanation
that went beyond "instinct".

Rick says:
>(Newton) provided the why and how; a structural explanation,
> that was reasonably complete and satisfying. Operationally, it's good
> enough to sent satellites into orbit, man to the moon, even the Voyager
> probe to the outer planets.

Here, I think, is the problem. "a reasonably complete and
satisfying" explanation has as its standard something other than a
pragmatic test. "instinct" was a reasonably complete and satisfying
explanation. And probably still is for many people for many things.
However, it "explains" nothing. More like, it explains it away. Its
the second part of what Rick puts forward that is key for me. That
is, _operationally_ its "good enough to send satellites into orbit."

Now _I_ don't need another explanation. What I'll want is
satisfaction that I have a "likely story" that is in fact related to
the pragmatic effect of putting something into orbit.

What I want to say here is that practice (successful action) doesn't
come from theory and theory doesn't come from practice. They
co-evolve as iterative, interactive processes. "Truth" and even
"descriptions of reality" are removed from the conversation.

Einstein developed a formulation of this as he explored how creative
new theories are developed. He said that we do not describe reality
accurately - ever. The old approach was to link "reality" to
experience to concept in a necessary and directional chain. He
suggested that "reality" is unknowable and that what exists is an
intuitive and iterative relationships between experience and concept
- and experience is the pragmatic test of "will it take us to the
moon" or, in advertising terms, "will the dogs eat it".

I think this is more of what Rick is saying. Most of system dynamics
thinking doesn't occur as intuitive for me and its applications seem
to work only in the hands of a few masters. As the mastery, so far,
doesn't seem to be transferable, it generally fails my pragmatic

Yet I do have a place for it. It's just that the place is not nearly
as broad as generally proposed. I look forward to clarifications
that I can operationalise.

Michael McMaster