skip to main content

Title: Stephen Jay Kline on systems, or physics, complex systems, and the gap between.

At the end of his life, Stephen Jay Kline, longtime professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, completed a book on how to address complex systems. The title of the book is 'Conceptual Foundations of Multi-Disciplinary Thinking' (1995), but the topic of the book is systems. Kline first establishes certain limits that are characteristic of our conscious minds. Kline then establishes a complexity measure for systems and uses that complexity measure to develop a hierarchy of systems. Kline then argues that our minds, due to their characteristic limitations, are unable to model the complex systems in that hierarchy. Computers are of no help to us here. Our attempts at modeling these complex systems are based on the way we successfully model some simple systems, in particular, 'inert, naturally-occurring' objects and processes, such as what is the focus of physics. But complex systems overwhelm such attempts. As a result, the best we can do in working with these complex systems is to use a heuristic, what Kline calls the 'Guideline for Complex Systems.' Kline documents the problems that have developed due to 'oversimple' system models and from the inappropriate application of a system model from one domain to another. One prominentmore » such problem is the Procrustean attempt to make the disciplines that deal with complex systems be 'physics-like.' Physics deals with simple systems, not complex ones, using Kline's complexity measure. The models that physics has developed are inappropriate for complex systems. Kline documents a number of the wasteful and dangerous fallacies of this type.« less
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Report Number(s):
TRN: US201118%%334
DOE Contract Number:
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Research Org:
Sandia National Laboratories
Sponsoring Org:
Country of Publication:
United States