Book Notes & Thoughts: The Sciences of the Artificial, by Herbert Simon


The Sciences of the Artificial, First Edition, by Herbert A. Simon

This book has been on my reading list for a long time. I started keeping a reading list in Evernote when I started graduate school. I’m making progress!

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Now that I have focused my dissertation topic on looking at instructional leadership through the lens of design, which builds on my advisor’s framework of education as design for learning, Simon’s book is usually cited as the foundation for design as a separate endeavor from the natural sciences.

To my delight, this book was wonderful to read – straightforward language, clear logical arguments – not like most of the older texts I have picked up! It was originally a series of lectures, so I could almost hear it as I read, thinking of how he is making his point to the audience.

Reading this has given me a solid grounding in how to conceptualize design, and language to talk about problem-solving, satisficing, the design of complex systems, representation, and the search for appropriate solutions.

Here are some quotes:

“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design. The possibility of creating a science or sciences of design is exactly as great as the possibility of creating any science of the artificial.” (p.xi)

“Artificiality is interesting principally when it concerns complex systems that live in complex environments” (p.xi).

“The central task of a natural science is to make the wonderful commonplace: to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity; to find pattern hidden in apparent chaos” (p.1).

“We speak of engineering as concerned with “synthesis,” while science is concerned with “analysis.” Synthetic or artificial objects – and more specifically, prospective artificial objects having desired properties – are the central objective of engineering activity and skill. The engineer is concerned with how things ought to be – ought to be, that is, in order to attain goals, and to function. Hence, a science of the artificial will be closely akin to a science of engineering” (p.5).

“With goals and ‘oughts,’ we also introduce into the picture the dichotomy between normative and descriptive. Natural science has found a way to exclude the normative and to concern itself solely with how things are” (p. 5).

“Given an airplane, or given a bird, we can analyze them by the methods of natural science without any particular attention to purpose or adaptation, without reference to the interface between what I have called the inner and outer environments. After all, their behavior is governed by natural law just as fully as the behavior of anything else” (p.7).

“The first advantage of dividing outer from inner environment in studying an adaptive or artificial system is that we can often predict behavior from knowledge of the system’s goals and its outer environment, with only minimal assumptions about the inner environment” (p.8).

“Description of an artifice in terms of its organization and functioning – its interface between inner and outer environments – is a major objective of invention and design activity” (p.10).

“The device we have just described illustrates in microcosm the nature of artifacts. Central to their description are the goals that link the inner to the outer system. The inner system is an organization of natural phenomena capable of attaining the goals in some rang of environments; but ordinary there will be many functionally equivalent natural systems capable of doing this. The outer environment determines the conditions for goal attainment” (p.11).

“The behavior takes on the shape of the task environment” (p.12).

“We are seldom interested in explaining or predicting phenomena in all their particularity; we are usually interested only in a few properties abstracted from the complex reality” (p.16).

“The possibility of building a mathematical theory of a system or of simulating that system does not depend on having an adequate micro-theory of the natural laws that govern the system components. Such a micro theory might indeed be simply irrelevant” (p.19-20).

“By watching a man, or an automaton, perform in this problem environment, what could we learn about him? We might well be able to infer what strategy he followed” (p.31).

And the path he follows is really a map of the terrain/environment:

“In large part human goal-directed behavior simply reflects the shape of the environment in which it takes place” (p.34).

Argument for a social construction of behavior:

“Insofar as behavior is a function of learned technique rather than ‘innate’ characteristics of the human information-processing system, our knowledge of behavior must be regarded as sociological in nature rather than psychological – that is, as revealing what human beings in fact learn when they grow up in a particular social environment. When and how they learn particular things may be a difficult question, but we must not confuse learned strategies with built-in properties of the underlying biological system” (p.35).

Chapter 3: The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial

“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design” (p.56).

“In the view of the key role of design in professional activity, it is ironic that in this century the natural sciences have almost driven the sciences of the artificial from professional school curricula…. The stronger universities are more deeply affected the the weaker, and the graduate programs more than the undergraduate.… As professional schools … are more absorbed into the general culture of the university, they hanker after academic respectability. In terms of the prevailing norms, academic respectability calls fro subject matter that is intellectually tough, analytic, formalizable, and teachable. In the past, much, if not most, of what we knew about design and about the artificial sciences was intellectually soft, intuitive, informal, and cookbooks. Why would anyone in a university stoop to teach or learn about designing machines or planning market strategies when he could concern himself with solid-state physics? …. Thus we are faced with a problem of devising a professional school that can attain two objectives simultaneously: education in both artificial and natural science at a high intellectual level. This too is a problem of design – organizational design” (p.56-57).

“The kernel of the problem lies in the phrase ‘artificial sciences.’ In my two previous chapters I have shown that a science of artificial phenomena is always in imminent danger of dissolving and vanishing. The peculiar properties of the artifact lie on the thin interface between the natural laws within it and the natural laws without. What can we say about it? What is there to study besides the boundary sciences – those that govern the means and the task environment? The artificial world is centered precisely on this interface between the inner and outer environments; it is concerned with attaining goals by adapting the former to the latter. The proper study of those who are concerned with the artificial is the way in which that adaptation of means to environments is brought about – and central to that is the process of design itself. The professional schools will reassume their professional responsibilities just to the degree that they can discover a science of design, a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process” (p.57-58).

“We must start with some questions of logic. The natural sciences are concerned with how things are…. Since the concern of standard logic is with declarative statements, it is well suited for assertions about the world and for inferences from those assertions. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals. We might question whether the forms of reasoning that are appropriate to natural science are suitable also for design. one might well suppose that introduction of the verb ‘should’ may require additional rules of inference, or modification of the rules already imbedded in declarative logic” (p.58-59).

“Since the optimization problem, once formalized, is a standard mathematical problem- to maximize a function subject to constraints – it is evident that the logic used to deduce the answer is the standard logic of the predicate calculus on which mathematics rests. How does the formalism avoid making use of a special logic of imperatives? It does so by dealing with sets of possible worlds: First, consider all the possible worlds that meet the constraints of the outer environment; then find the particular world in the set that meets the remaining constraints of the goal and maximizes the utility function. The logic is exactly the same as if we were to adjoin the goal constraints and the maximization requirement, as new ‘natural laws,’ to the existing natural laws embodied in the environmental conditions. We simply ask what values the command variables would have in a world meeting all these conditions and conclude that these are the values the command variables should have” (p.61-62).

“Since there did not seem to be any word in English for decision methods that look for good or satisfactory solutions instead of optimal ones, some years ago I introduced the term ‘satisficing’ to refer to such procedures” (p.64).

“The condition of any goal-seeking system is that it is connect to the outside environment through two kinds of channels: the afferent, or sensory, channels, through which it receives information about the environment; and the efferent, or motor, channels, through which it acts on the environment” (p.66).

“how goal-directed action depends on building this kind of bridge between the afferent and the efferent worlds” (p.67).

The Logic of Search

“It is characteristic fo the search for alternatives that the solution, the complete action that constitutes the final design, is built from a sequence of component actions. The enormous size of the space of alternatives arises out of the innumerable ways in which the component actions, which need not be very numerous, can be combined into sequences” (p.68).

“Now the real worlds to which problem solvers and designers address themselves are seldom completely additive in this sense. Actions have side consequences (may create new differences) and sometimes can only be taken when certain side conditions are satisfied…. Under these circumstances, one can never be certain that a partial sequence of actions hat accomplishes certain goals can be augmented to provide a solution that satisfies all conditions and attains all the goals (even though they be satisficing goals) of the problem. For this reason, problem-solving systems and design procedures in the real world do not merely assemble problem solutions from components but must search for appropriate assemblies. In carrying out such a search, it is often efficient to divide one’s eggs among a number of baskets – that is, not to follow out one line until it succeeds completely or fails definitely, but to begin to explore several tentative paths, continuing to pursue a few that look most promising at a given moment” (p.68-69).

“Design solutions are sequences of actions that lead to possible worlds satisfying specified constraints. With satisficing goals, the sought-for possible worlds are seldom unique; the search is for sufficient, not necessary, actions for attaining goals” (p.69).

Design as Resource Allocation

“There are two ways in which design processes are concerned with the allocation fo resources. First, conservation of scarce resources may be one of the criteria for a satisfactory design. Second, the design process itself involves management of the resources of the designer, so that his efforts will not be dissipated unnecessarily in following lines of inquiry that prove fruitless” (p.69). e.g. cost-benefit analysis applies

“to main notions: first, the idea of specifying a design progressively from the level of very general plans down to determining the actual construction; second, the idea of attaching values to plans at the higher levels as a basis for deciding which plans to pursue to levels of greater specificity” (p.70).

“the evaluation of higher level-plans performs two functions. First, it answer the question ‘Where shall I search next?’ Second, it answers the question ‘When shall I stop the search and accept a solution as satisfactory?’ Thus it is both a steering mechanism for the search and a satisficing criterion for terminating the search” (p.71).

“Thus search processes may be viewed – as they have been in most discussions of problem solving – as processes for seeking a problem solution. But they can be viewed more generally as processes for gathering information about problem structure that will ultimately be valuable in discovering a problem solution” (p.72).

“When we come to the design of systems as complex as cities, or buildings, or economies, we must give up the aim of creating systems that will optimize some hypothesized utility function; and we must consider whether differences in style of the sort I have just been describing do not represent highly desirable variants in the design process rather than alternatives to be evaluated as ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Variety, within the limits of satisfactory constraints, may be a desirable end in itself, among other reasons, because it permits us to attach value to the search as well as its outcome – to regard the design process as itself a valued activity for those who participate in it. We have usually thought of city planning as a means whereby the planner’s creative activity could build a system that would satisfy the needs of a populace. Perhaps we should think of city planning as a valuable creative activity in which many members of a community can have the opportunity of participating – if we have wits to organize the process that way” (p.75). Participatory design!

Problem Solving as Change in Representation

“All mathematical derivation can be viewed simply as change in representation, making evident what was previously true but obscure. This view can be extended to all problem solving – solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent. If the problem solving could actually be organized in these terms, the issue of representation would indeed become central. But even if it cannot – if this is too exaggerated a view – a deeper understanding of how representations are created and how they contribute to the solution fo problems will become an essential component in the future theory of design” (p.77).

“Since much of design, particularly architectural and engineering design, is concerned with objects and arrangements in real Euclidean two-dimensional or three-dimensional space, the representation of space and of things in space will necessarily be a central topic in a science of design” (p.77-78).

The Taxonomy of Representation

Classification of representations: ex. verbally – in natural language; mathematically – algebra, geometry, topology; physical objects – floor plans, renderings, 3D models; actions – flow charts and programs

“I have called my topic ‘the theory of design,’ and my curriculum a ‘program in design.’ I have emphasized its role as complement to the natural science curriculum in the total training of a professional engineer – or of any professional whose task is to solve problems, to choose, to synthesize, to decide.” (p.81).

Design as a unifying theory or part of the common core of knowledge: “ A common understanding of our relation to the inner and outer environments that define the space in which we live and choose can provide at least par of that significant core.” (p.81).

“What I am suggesting is that they can carry on such a conversation about design, can begin to perceive the common creative activity in which they are both engaged, can begin to share their experiences of the creative, professional design process” (p.82).

“The proper study of mankind has been said to be man. But I have argued that man – or at least the intellective component of man – may be relatively simple; that most of the complexity of his behavior may be drawn from his environment, from his search for good designs. If I have made my case, then we can conclude that, in large part, the proper study of mankind is the science of design, not only as the professional component of a technical education but as a core discipline for every liberally educated man” (p.83).

“We have shown thus far the complex systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms than if there are not. The resulting complex forms in the former case will be hierarchic” (p.98-99). This strikes me as a salient point to scaling a design or an educational intervention and explains why the build it small and then make it bigger over time works. You build small, stable intermediate forms that you can then build on, rather than trying to implement the entire thing at once. This increases the overall stability of the change.


One thought on “Book Notes & Thoughts: The Sciences of the Artificial, by Herbert Simon

  1. Pingback: Article Thoughts: Interaction Analysis, by Jordan and Henderson (1995) | Julie Kallio

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