Boulding’s “Skeleton of Science”: And What Complexity and God Mean to Knowledge

This post is a quick introduction to a field in engineering management and modeling and simulation called systemic science. The author of this field, a Quaker, captures beautifully how god plays into the way we think about complex problems.

In 1956 Kenneth E. Boulding published “General systems theory: The skeleton of science.” This piece identifies nine levels in the hierarchy of complex systems in the study of systems science. These levels elucidate the level at which empiricism is possible. Each level becomes more complex, reducing the ability to empirically study a phenomenon. Hard science dominates the first four levels; this is followed by less precise sciences, such as social and psychological fields where empiricism is less probable, and eclectic measures are often taken to approach explanation. These levels keep me gainfully employed! At the ninth level empiricism is impossible, but speculation and questions remain. Here’s a quick rundown.

The Hierarchy of Complexity

Level 1: Level of “frameworks,” or “static structure”

  • Stuff the universe is made out of
  • Ex. Crystal structures

Level 2: “Simple dynamic system with predetermined, necessary motions”

  • Clockwork systems
  • Ex. Motion of the solar system

Level 3: Closed loop control mechanisms

  • The maintenance of equilibrium in a system
  • Ex. A thermostat

Level 4: Structural self maintenance in an open system

  • “The level at which life begins to differentiate itself from not-life.”
  • Ex. A biological cell

Level 5: The genetic-societal level

  • Low-level organisms with functional parts, growth, reproduction
  • Ex. A plant

Level 6: Animal level

  • Brain to guide movement, learning, behavior
  • Ex. A cat

Level 7: Human level

  • Self-consciousness, knowledge, symbolic language
  • Ex. A human being

Level 8: Sociocultural systems

  • Norms, values, cultures, roles
  • Ex. The nation

Level 9: Transcendental systems

  • “Inescapable unknowables”
  • Ex. God

Boulding beautifully sums up the ninth level (p. 136):

To complete the structure of the systems we should add a final turret for transcendental systems, even if we may be accused at this point of having built Babel to the clouds. There are however the ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable unknowables, and they also exhibit systematic structure and relationship. It will be a sad day for man when nobody is allowed to ask questions that do not have any answers.

Boulding’s hierarchy provides us with a blueprint to identify where the gaps in our knowledge rest. As empiricism becomes increasingly more unlikely at each level, the gaps should become wider. These continuously fuel the scientific community with deeper questions. The gap in the “God” level is infinitely wide, fueling society with an endless array of unanswerable, but interesting, questions, which might explain why humans are so want to debate what a god is, what its intentions are, and how we should worship one (or many).

Each level becomes more and more complex until, ultimately, complexity is all that remains. The “God” question is therefore rather interesting, despite its relative meaninglessness to all other debates, where empiricism at least maintains a fighting chance.

On the flip side to this I could change Boulding’s assertion: It will be a sad day when nobody is allowed to ask questions because we already have all the answers. Thank God for complexity!

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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