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Honing an Aspect of Living Systems Theory
Posted by: Vincent Vesterby (
Date: January 15, 2006 09:19PM

This commentary was prompted by G. A. Swanson’s article, The Study of Pathology and Living Systems Theory, in Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 22, 363-371 (2005).


As pointed out on the home page of ISSS, many people working in systems science are mainly interested in the theoretical and technical aspects of systems, while others are concerned primarily with the application of systems methodologies. Many of the problems where the application of systems methodologies would be appropriate are the most complex, or largest, or intractable ever faced by humanity. They range from the health, physical and mental, of the most complex coherent system known, a human being, to rational, sustainable environmental management, and the project of achieving fair and ethical social, economic, and political systems. It takes courage, hope, and self-sacrifice to tackle these problems, and we need to be grateful to those who do so.

Real problems require real understanding and realistic methodologies. Those of us whose work involves the identification and description of system structure and processes have an obligation to those who apply system science to significant problems of providing them with accurate understanding of the nature of systems. Failure to get it right at our stage, means failure of the methodologies, failure to solve the problems, and the consequent continuance of human misery and the ongoing deterioration of ecosystems and the biosphere.

Organisms, societies, and the biosphere are systems. It is not possible to understand them, to manage, create, or sustain them without the application of systems methodology. Foundational systems science can no longer be considered merely a fascinating intellectual pursuit—there are consequences.


Miller’s Living Systems Theory, published in 1978, is a good example of the general systems approach. It recognizes the hierarchic nature of the organization of material reality. Miller works with seven levels he has selected from the hierarchy of living systems and systems with living systems as components. Living systems theory recognizes the occurrence of patterns of relationships that exist at and play roles at different hierarchic levels, for example, steady state. Swanson points out that, “It might also be expected that certain emergents at one level would not disappear at the next higher level.” (Swanson 2005 p. 369) And the theory recognizes that factors, such as Miller’s critical subsystems, that occur at the various levels develop in complexity as they occur in progressively higher levels.

It is characteristic of factors that occur at different hierarchic levels (a) to develop, to occur in more complex form in one way or another in situations that are more complex, or (b) to occur in various different forms in situations where different sets of other factors are playing roles. Many factors emerge only at certain hierarchic levels where all the supportive factors required for their existence also occur. Those factors do not occur at previous stages of development and lower hierarchic levels where there is insufficient support. However, there can occur at those previous stages and lower levels a pattern of organization that resembles, in an incomplete way, the pattern of organization of a factor that occurs in fully developed form only at a higher level. In some cases the fully developed form emerges from, develops directly from, the prior, lower, incomplete form. In these cases, the previous lower occurrence is a precursor form. A precursor form is not a case of the fully developed factor, and cannot accurately be labeled as such.

Unfortunately, the use of metaphor in systems theory has resulted in the inappropriate labeling of lower level factors with terms that accurately refer only to higher level factors. Metaphor is:

1) “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd. ed. 1993. New York: Random House.)

2) “The figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object to which it is not properly applicable;” (The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles, Third Edition. 1955. London: Oxford University Press.)

In science and in the philosophy of reality, metaphor is nothing more than mislabeling.

There is another way in which a lower level factor can be mislabeled with a term that is properly applicable only at a higher level. This is mislabeling by decision, mislabeling by way of definition. (See [] At that website click the link, Defining, under Contents) In such cases the lower level factor is usually a precursor form or a pattern of organization that is in some limited way analogous to the pattern of organization of the higher level factor. In Miller’s living systems theory this problem occurs with the factor purpose, and with the associated factor goal. As is so common in the rest of biology, living systems theory has a serious problem with inappropriate purposive language.

Purpose and goal are factors that require epistemological support. They cannot occur at levels that do not have the epistemological components that are required to support the existence of purpose and goal. There is a specific reason for this. Purpose and goal are factors with a future reference, and a future reference can occur only in the form of knowledge. For a system to have intrinsic purpose or to have a goal, that system must have a component that involves a knowledge of, or understanding of the relation of the present to the future. Such components are entirely lacking at the cellular level, and are not present at the organ level except in the case of a brain, which is an organ that has evolved to the stage of epistemological development. Prior to that stage, the notion of purpose is neither necessary nor accurately useful for description or explanation.

On page 368 of his article, Swanson makes the following statement in which he quotes Miller. “Purpose in a living system is then defined as ‘A preferential hierarchy of values that give rise to decision rules which determine its preference for one internal steady-state value rather than another’ (Miller, 1978, p. 39).” This definition of purpose does not apply to the cellular or nonepistemological organ levels. Life at these levels does not have preferences or decisions rules, nor does it make decisions. The structural and process components for preference and decision have not yet emerged at these levels. Applying the terms, purpose, goal, preference, decision, and decision rule, to the cellular level is anthropomorphic, for example when Miller says, “ amoeba has the purpose of maintaining adequate energy levels, and therefore it has the goal of ingesting a bacterium...” (Miller 1978 p. 39) (See [] At that website, under Contents, click the link Comments at Other Web Sites. Then click Anthropomorphism Is Not Science.)

Miller took particular care when choosing terms to refer to general factors, such as his labels for the various subsystems that occur at the seven levels. He was concerned that the terms be reasonably applicable at all the levels where these factors, these subsystems, occur and play roles. While he created a conceptual system, a theory, he meant for that theory and its terms to refer to real concrete systems. When it came to the concept of purpose in the theory, Miller applied it to real relations in concrete systems. The mislabeling occurs because, even though that set of relations occurs at all his levels, the lower levels are simpler than the higher levels in that they lack the components that make purpose possible at the higher levels.

Living systems maintain the order of their structure and processes by way of steady states, each of which is generally kept within a range of stability. When a living system’s steady states are operating outside their ranges of stability, the system can become (a) less fit for the requirements of its own continuing-existence, for example, inadequate or runaway metabolic processes, (b) less adapted to its environment, for example, a decrease in tolerance of environmental temperature variations, or (c) the system could die. When a steady state is made to deviate beyond its range of stability, the system is in a state of strain, and adjustment processes play roles that return the steady state to its range of stability.

According to Miller, on pages 39 and 40, purpose in this situation is “...its [the system’s] preference for one internal steady-state value rather than another.” “It is the comparison value which it [the system] matches to information received by negative feedback in order to determine whether the variable is being maintained at the appropriate steady-state value.” “...purpose is defined ... in terms of specific values of internal variables which systems maintain in steady states...”

In an example of general systems thinking, Swanson extends the notion of purpose in living systems theory from specific steady state values of particular variables to “...the relative urgency of reducing each strain in the context of all strains.” “Purpose happens in the flux of the relative urgency of reducing specific strains within the system. Purpose is the expression of the integrating together of the subsystems of a living system ...” (Swanson 2005 p. 369)

The notion of purpose is thus applied in living systems theory to two levels of organization within each of the seven levels Miller chose to study. There is the level of individual steady states, and there is the level of all the individual steady states as an integrated group. In the one case it is a specific value that maintains a particular variable in steady state. In the second case it is the relative significance of each individual steady state in relation to the others such that there emerges a group steady state.

However, at the levels of cells and nonepistemological organs, purpose does not occur with either of these sublevels. The steady state processes there, and their regulation, occur without purpose, without goals, without any reference to the future. An amoeba has no purpose of maintaining adequate energy levels. Such creatures do not have goals such as ingesting bacteria. Everything with cells and nonepistemological organs runs on automatic, solely by way of consequent-existence—what goes before determining what follows by way of its intrinsic nature without reference to the future. (See [] At that website click the link to the Glossary, and scroll down to consequent-existence)


With science, observation comes first, with hypothesis and theory following, based on the results of observation. The reason for this order of procedure is because science is about reality. It is a procedure for obtaining accurate knowledge and understanding of the intrinsic nature of what exists. To begin with observation orients the mind and the procedure to something that exists, with repeated observation and experiment maintaining the focus on reality. To begin with unfounded speculation leads to wasted time and effort studying an imaginary something that does not exist.

Miller made an error in defining. He labeled a lower level factor with a term that properly applies only to a higher level factor. It appears that he may have done so because he began with theory rather than adequate observation. It appears that he decided upon the definition first, a definition that can fit nearly all of the levels he chose to study, and then applied that definition to a level where a critical factor, the epistemological reference to the future, was absent. This looks like a theory induced error, which results in wasted time and effort in an attempt to study purpose in a system where it does not exist. For the accurate analysis and understanding of reality, it is incorrect procedure to establish definitions by decision, as when deciding the rules of a game, or as in this case, the decision to apply a theory originated definition to situations where it does not fit. In science, in the modern generalist mode, and in the philosophy of reality, defining must be based on observation, identification, and description. Observation first, definition second.

In the sequence of an argument or an explanation, once an error is introduced all else that follows is contaminated or suspect. This has occurred in living systems theory with the application of purpose to the cellular and nonepistemological organ levels. Once an aspect of cellular function has been labeled as purposive, then it is natural, logical even, to refer to other consequent aspects of cellular function as purposive. There are several examples in Swanson’s article, sometimes in his own statements and sometimes in statements he quotes from Miller.

1) “LST identifies seven general types of adjustment processes used to maintain steady states.” (Swanson, p. 366)

If maintaining steady states was actually a purpose, internal or external goal, intention, or preference of a living cell, then the purposive language “used to” would be appropriate. But as the molecular processes within a cell do not have nor require purpose or goals for their ongoing continuance, that language does not fit the described situation. The adjustment processes do maintain the steady states, but that is not their purpose—it is their consequence.

2) Discussing output processes of matter-energy, Swanson says, “The transfers are classified broadly as products or wastes depending on their relationships to the purposes and goals of the system and those of its suprasystems.” (p. 367)

This statement cannot accurately apply to the cellular level. While the transfers do play various roles in system processes, such as their effects on the continued existence of the system, and while the transfers can be recognized as products and wastes in their roles in system processes, those roles and that continued existence are not purposes or goals of the cellular level, and those transfers have no relation to purpose or goals.

3) “’When disturbed, this state is restored by the system by successive approximations, in order to remove the strain of the disparity recognized internally between the feedback signal and the comparison value’ (Miller, 1978, p. 39).” (p. 368)

At the cellular level all molecular processes occur by way simple of consequent-existence, that which goes before determining what follows without reference to the future. There is nothing in cellular molecular biology that occurs “in order” for something else to occur. Successive approximations may remove the strain of disparity between feedback and some cellular value, but they do not do so in order to have that effect. In cellular molecular processes, events do not occur so that their consequences occur. It just happens that way because of the intrinsic nature of the structural and process organization of the of the components of the cell, the elementary particles, atoms, molecules, and organelles of the cell. If the organization is there, the consequences follow. This occurs at the cellular level without reference to, knowledge of, or any causal relation with the future, other than that the future is a consequence of the present.

The misuse of purposive language has consequences. It is misleading, prompting readers to think a factor is present in the described situation when actually it is not there. Readers can then draw false conclusions based on the false language, similar to the above quotes.

There is additional anthropomorphic language used by Miller and Swanson in their discussions of living systems theory. It is again a case of misapplying terms to levels where the factors do not exist nor play any roles. For example, “Open systems are concrete systems with permeable boundaries that allow the input and output of selected kinds of matter, energy, and information.” (Swanson, p. 364) At the cellular level the action of selection does not occur. Atoms and molecules interact with one another according to what they are, according to their intrinsic qualities. When one molecule joins with another, as on the surface of a cell, it is not an event of selection, but rather the consequence of the natures of the two units. They join, under the appropriate circumstances, simply because they can.

Here is another, with Swanson quoting Miller, “Miller (1978, p. 101) hypothesizes of those critical subsystems, ‘A system cannot survive unless it makes decisions that maintain the functions of all its subsystems at a sufficiently high efficiency and their costs at a sufficiently low level that there are more than enough resources to keep it operating satisfactorily.’” (Swanson, p. 366) The anthropomorphism of cells making decisions has already been mentioned. A second case in this quote is the notion of a cell operating satisfactorily. Cells do not have the components to allow them to know or care about how they are operating. There is no such thing at the cellular level of operating satisfactorily or not satisfactorily. What is happening at the cellular level is nothing more than a chemical cascade driven by a flow of energy in relation to the factors of the organization of the cell. To apply the notion of satisfactory operation to that level is purely anthropomorphic.

Vincent Vesterby
Washington, USA

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 01/16/2006 11:15AM by Vincent Vesterby.

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