Structures and Systems in Kihbernetics

Table of Contents

In 1973 Stafford Beer recorded six radio broadcasts for the CBC’s Massey Lectures under the title “Designing Freedom“. The transcript of the lectures (with the associated drawings) can be found here. In the first lecture Beer identifies a wave with a “happy white crest” he is just “looking at now in the bay” as a dynamic system under the imminent threat of “catastrophic collapse“.

He tells us that:

The wave is not a surviving dynamic system, because its destruction is built into its organization.

This, he says, is in contrast with other dynamic systems that are “survival-worthy” because “they are capable of a trick we call adaptation, which waves are not.

According to a kihbernetic point of view, Beer is forced to add the second qualifier to the word “system” (surviving) after the first one (dynamic) only because he is thinking of a common dynamic structure (the wave) as if it was a dynamic system.

The fact is that all systems have structure(s), but not all things that have structures are systems. The difference between structures and systems is that systems, unlike structures (such as waves), are not under the complete influence of natural forces acting in their environment, but have also an agency of their own governed by arbitrary rules.

In Kihbernetics, we are of the opinion that the classification of systems and structures should be much more nuanced because, unfortunately, Beer’s confusing point of view is not uncommon (actually it is prevailing) in systems thinking.

Some standard definitions

Merriam Webster defines Structure as:


1 : the action of building: construction
2a : something (such as a building) that is constructed
b : something arranged in a definite pattern of organization – a rigid totalitarian structure
3 : manner of construction: makeup – Gothic in structure
4a : the arrangement of particles or parts in a substance or body – soil structure
b : organization of parts as dominated by the general character of the whole – economic structure – personality structure
c : coherent form or organization – tried to give some structure to the children’s lives
5 : the aggregate of elements of an entity in their relationships to each other – the structure of a language

It is obvious that the noun applies primarily to specific (static) arrangements of interrelated parts, a set-up, configuration, framework, etc. made of a number of individual elements interconnected in such a manner that can be distinguished against their environment as a whole. The term is closely related to that of Architecture, which is used to identify a particular class of similarly organized structures (e.g. a distributed software architecture).

It is interesting that the definition hints at the fact that structures might be dynamic in nature (personality, economic, life), but does not have an example of a physical dynamical structure such as Beer’s wave.

A few caveats may be in order at this point:

  1. The elements of a structure must be different from each other in shape, function and/or nature, otherwise, the structure is just a heap of the same material;
  2. A structure is also passive, that is, a structure is completely under the influence and is not able to pare or evade any disturbance originating from the environment.
  3. A structure may be static or dynamic in nature but it must be stable enough to be observed and perceived as a whole (e.g. a static bridge or a dynamic wave or tornado).
  4. In all these cases, the organization, state, and behavior of a structure at any given moment depend only on inexorable natural laws and that makes it predictable.

If we look in the same dictionary for the definitions of the word System we can see that they are very similar to what we’ve seen above:


1 : a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole – a number system : such as
a(1) : a group of interacting bodies under the influence of related forces – a gravitational system
a(2) : an assemblage of substances that is in or tends to equilibrium – a thermodynamic system
b(1) : a group of body organs that together perform one or more vital functions – the digestive system
b(2) : the body considered as a functional unit
c : a group of related natural objects or forces – a river system
d :a group of devices or artificial objects or an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose – a telephone system – a heating system – a highway system – a computer system
e : a major division of rocks usually larger than a series and including all formed during a period or era
f : a form of social, economic, or political organization or practice – the capitalist system
2 : an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole – the Newtonian system of mechanics
3a : an organized or established procedure – the touch system of typing
b : a manner of classifying, symbolizing, or schematizing – a taxonomic system – the decimal system
4 : harmonious arrangement or pattern : order – bring system out of confusion— Ellen Glasgow
5 : an organized society or social situation regarded as stultifying or oppressive : establishment sense 2 —usually used with the

Now, it might become obvious, when analyzing this (second) list of definitions, that most of them can be applied equally to the previously described term structure defined as “an arrangement of interrelated elements that can also be identified as a whole“.
The only definitions for the word system that seem somewhat different from those for the word structure are those that include concepts such as function, or being for something instead made of something, or having a purpose, like b(1), b(2) and d.

In Kihbernetics, if we want to see if some observed phenomena can be identified as a system we ask not the question “what is it made of?“, but rather “what is it for?“. If the answer is not immediately obvious, the thing is probably a structure. Terms like “software system” and “system of systems” do not actually say anything about the “system” except for what it is made of.

In fact, the stuff the system is made of is important only when speaking about its structure(s). The structures that make the system can consist of matter, energy, or information elements. When defining a system, what is important is the behavior and purpose) of the whole and the functions of its components (elements). The ambiguous term “software system” is, for example, often used to identify both a “software product” (a structure) and the system in which the product is used, for example, in an “air traffic control system“, or even a “software development system” used to produce the software product (structure).

In Kihbernetics we would identify a gravitational or planetary system as a mere dynamical structure, because, even if there are clearly structural relationships that can be identified, there is no input-output relationship between, let’s say, the Solar system and its environment (the surrounding void) or any functional dependency between the elements that are part of such a “system“. The state of this dynamical structure at any given point in time is fully predictable and can be precisely calculated by using Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation. That’s one of the reasons people are able to go to the Moon or to Mars.

The insistence on this difference might look like “splitting hairs“, but after decades of working in “Systems Engineering” one starts to appreciate the subtle but important difference between developing a “product” and a “system“. On too many occasions I saw the consequences of failing to understand the difference between the two by claiming that we are developing the system while investing a disproportionate amount of attention and resources to the development of just the product structure and not enough on the other two necessary structural components of the real, so-called, “Socio-technical system (STS)“, the people and process that will use that product.

With an increasing interest in “Systems Thinking“, various “Systems Approaches” and “Complex Systems Theory” it is important to agree on the meaning of fundamental terms, among which system and structure have a prominent role. Kihbernetics is primarily interested in non-linear “dynamical systems with memory” sometimes identified also as “autonomous agents“, “autopoietic” or “living” systems that definitely have recognizable structure(s) “built” from components, have inputs and outputs, and not only are they “more than the sum of their parts”, but also, as Beer would say, are “survival worthy”.

So, how can we, with some degree of certainty, tell the difference between a system and a structure? I hope the next section may shed some more light on the issue.

A Cybernetic classification

In the article published in 1943 “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” that, by all accounts, was the start of the Cybernetics movement, Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow (RW&B) will classify behavior and discuss the concept of purpose.

Their classification has 5+ levels and starts with the distinction between active and passive behavior where the immediate response of an object to external stimuli is produced by either internally stored energy (active), or the behavior is passive where “the input directly energizes the output“. For the later (passive) behavior they provide the (somehow questionable) example of a soaring flight of a (live) bird.

RW&B further classify active behavior as purposeful or purposeless (or random, as they call it). They link the concept of purpose with voluntary activity directed toward attaining a goal. Machines such as a clock or a gun are made for a user’s intended purpose but as the authors explain (emphasis is mine):

The view has often been expressed that all machines are purposeful. This view is untenable. First may be mentioned mechanical devices such as a roulette, designed precisely for purposelessness. Then may be considered devices such as a clock, designed, it is true, with a purpose, but having a performance which, although orderly, is not purposeful — i.e., there is no specific final condition toward which the movement of the clock strives. Similarly, although a gun may be used for a definite purpose, the attainment of a goal is not intrinsic to the performance of the gun; random shooting can be made, deliberately purposeless.

Some machines, on the other hand, are intrinsically purposeful. A torpedo with a target-seeking mechanism is an example. The term servo-mechanisms has been coined precisely to designate machines with intrinsic purposeful behavior.

Their classification goes further and divides the purposeful active behavior into two classes: that with negative feedback (teleological) and that without feedback. The negative feedback (a measure of how far the object is from attaining the goal) must be continuously available for this behavior “that modifies and guides the behaving object“. For a purposeful active behavior without feedback RW&B provide the example of a “frog striking at a fly, with no visual or other report from the prey after the movement has started“:

Indeed, the movement is in these cases so fast that it is not likely that nerve impulses would have time to arise at the retina, travel to the central nervous system and set up further impulses which would reach the muscles in time to modify the movement effectively.

A teleological purposeful active behavior can then be, according to RW&B, further divided into predictive (extrapolative) or non-predictive. An amoeba following a source of food is according to RW&B an example of a non-predictive purposeful active behavior, while a cat chasing a mouse is considered a first-order predictive behavior. The authors then provide an example for a higher-order prediction as throwing a stone at a moving target, which they fail to recognize is kind of very similar to the “lower” kind of purposeful behavior without feedback, i.e. the frog and the fly.

In Kihbernetics, we simplify this classification by focusing on the internal functions of the system in contrast to RW&B’s focus on the external (observable) behavior of the system. By doing that, we can identify a number of criteria that define a Dynamical System with Memory (DSwM) which is the primary object of interest in Kihbernetics. A typical DSwM will have the following three characteristics:

  1. A DSwM is an organized composition of multiple interrelated structures made of mater, energy and/or information;
  2. A DSwM is “active” in the sense that it has a temporary storage capacity in any or all of these three structures.
  3. A DSwM is “adaptive” in the sense that it can use this internal stock of matter, energy or/and information to maintain its organization.

Note that these simple criteria do not include either purpose, feedback, or prediction because in Kihbernetics we are of the opinion that those are not defining but rather emerging properties (consequences) in the existence of a Dynamical System with Memory.

Intelligence in Dynamical Systems with Memory

C.R. Evans in his 1979 bookThe Mighty Micro: Impact of the Microchip Revolution” identifies the following six elements that need to be present in a system (biological or other) before we can consider it to be intelligent:

The first three criteria are all related to the handling of the input data acquired from the system’s environment. More variety in the acquired data makes the system more intelligent, as it does a greater storage capacity and faster processing speed. We list the other three criteria in the bottom row under Data Processing because we think they are all related to the program (“Software”) used to make sense of the acquired and stored data. Efficiency has to do with the economy, or how much time or energy is spent on processing the same amount of data. The obvious idea is that between two programs with the same data processing capability the one with “fewer lines of code” is more efficient and probably also faster. Of the last two criteria, flexibility relates to the ability of the same program to adapt to changing environmental needs in the system’s normal niche, while range relates to the capability of a program to be used in a completely different domain (niche), or what M. Mitchel calls “Analogy making“.

Even if Evans thinks that “automatic self-programming is not a prerequisite for high intelligence” he admits that: “In practice, though, most highly intelligent systems would have to be self-programmable to a significant degree.

Laws vs. Rules

And finally, after this short overview of the role that programming sequences have in Dynamical Systems with Memory we get to a very interesting recent book from Dennis Waters in which he builds upon the work of physicist and evolutionary biologist Howard Pattee. Pattee’s life work revolves around the finding of the mechanisms that are behind “the matter to symbol process” which is for him “equivalent to the problem of the origin of life” and responsible for “matter becoming symbols“, as well as the converse problem of “How genetic messages control the dynamics of material structures?” and “How do thoughts cause actions?”, what he calls “the general symbol matter problem“.

As Waters explains in his book:

To Pattee, laws—like the laws of physics—have three characteristics. First, they are universal, which means they hold true at all places and times, even on distant planets. Second, they are inexorable, which means they cannot be evaded or modified, even by determined legislatures. Finally, they are incorporeal, which means they are obeyed without the need for any external mechanism. A piano falling from a crane does so without any help.
Pattee’s rules are the opposite of laws. They do not hold true at all places and times, they can be evaded or modified, and they are dependent upon external mechanisms in order to function. In other words, rules are local, arbitrary, and structure-dependent.

A “piano falling from a crane” does not need a system to sustain its fall and there is nothing the piano (as a structure) can do to prevent the fall.

Structures made of matter (things) and energy (waves) are fully under the influence and “must obey” the laws of nature. Physics and chemistry cannot be avoided. They are the same and apply to everything and everywhere. However, once those structures start their interplay and start (in)forming new (composite) structures where matter is used to contain (store) and for channeling (directing) energy, which is, on the other hand, the “vital force” needed to change matter … the laws can be (ab)used or bent (at least temporarily) in the way that the system as a whole can behave according to some emergent, arbitrary (local) rules that are applicable only here and now for this system.

Or in other words, the easiest way to differentiate structures from systems is this:

Structures must obey Laws while Systems can follow Rules

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