Christian Philosophy and Information Systems

Andrew Basden

Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, UK.

Copyright (c) University of Salford, 2001, All rights reserved.
Presented to Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, October 2001


Whilst investment in information technology has reached an all-time high (1.5 trillion US $ per year), the world is not seeing this amount of benefit from that investment. Many - technologists as well as sociologists, economists, etc. - recognise that there is something deeply wrong. How do we understand what is wrong? And what do we do about it?

This symposium suggests that philosophy can help us answer both of these. We first review four areas of concern - in both technology itself and in its use in real life. Philosophy is employed to give us frameworks for understanding these areas of concern, from which methodology can then be generated to help address the problems themselves. We discuss one particular type of philosophy that questions the presuppositions that have underlain Western thinking (and produced our perspectives on technology) for 2,500 years. We demonstrate how it can help us build the frameworks for understanding that we need.


1.1 The Raw Deal

Present estimates are that the current worldwide spend on information and communications technology runs at $ 1,500 billion per year (up from 300 billion a decade ago). But it is doubtful whether the world obtains 1.5 trillion dollars worth of benefit - especially if we ask ourselves whether that money (and the human resources that it represents) could be better spent. While we might argue that some people - or rather businesses and organizations - benefit, we cannot find incontrovertible evidence that the world is obtaining full benefit from this spend.

Indeed, many would argue that there is no evidence at all, and that all available evidence points in the opposite direction: for each dollar spent the world receives actual harm rather than benefit. In business, Landauer [1996] argues, productivity has actually dropped rather than improves when information technology has been employed, when we take all the relevant factors into account. Pacey [1993] argues that technology has worsened the lot of women rather than improved it. Information technology does not seem to be helping the family, overall. The optimism of those who suggest that if only we can plaster the whole of Africa with the Internet, then that continent's economy and life would benefit, is unfounded. Even among those who would expect to benefit from investing in information technology, Hirscheim [] has estimated 90% of information systems fail to meet the objectives set for them when the investment was made; this figure is up from his estimate of 70% a few years earlier. Failure in not just because the program goes wrong. Thimbleby [2001] tells of a surgeon who wanted to set the parameters for a heart device he had installed. The suppliers told him to contact the manufacturer. The manufacturer told him the programmer who wrote the software had left, and had not completed the documentation.

But what do we mean by 'benefit' of which we might hope the world will gain $1,500 billion's worth? We will discuss this below around the notion of 'shalom', a full, rich peace, prosperity, well-being and joy for the whole world, but here we must make it clear that we are not speaking about financial benefit as such (even though we might choose to express it in financial terms). The fact that I.T. increases the world's GDP by $1,500b is not seen as a benefit as such. Nor do we include as benefit the fact that I.T. workers are provided with jobs. Given that Microsoft thrives on the flaws of the earlier versions of its operating system, to include this would as bad as counting as benefit that one man digs a hole and another man fills it in again. Those human resources are wasted unless there is a real increase in 'shalom' in the world.

What other area of the economy, let alone human life, would tolerate a 90% failure rate? If you invest you expect to receive more than 100% in return, not a mere 10%. Yet we find the world as a whole is investing a huge amount in information technology and getting back only 10% of the value invested in terms of real benefits to the world. What we are investing is not only money but the strength, potential and livelihood of millions of people who service the I.T. industry. Even if we allow that some of the spend is investment in research that would not show beneficial results for some years. We cannot detect the high levels of benefit to the world coming through from research investment made 5 or 10 years ago. There are two main conundrums here:

and in this paper we will try to see how both might be addressed.

For some reason the human race (or at least those members of it who adopt or aspire to a Western lifestyle) is making huge investment of human, financial and other resources in something that is very patently not delivering the goods. This imbalance between investment and benefits is not a new phenomenon - though it has perhaps only recently become a matter of wide concern. A decade ago, when the spend was $ 300 billion, a similar imbalance could be found.

There are many reactions to this. Many of us simply ignore it, enjoying (we think) the fruits of information technology. Some reject technology altogether. Some try to fix things with yet more technology and yet more money. This paper seeks a different type of reaction: to throw light on the problem and suggest a way forward based on a certain type of philosophy that has Christian roots. We will identify four areas of concern, but then the rest of the paper will be written in reverse. Instead of arguing from the problems towards a solution, sifting out various others on the way, we look directly at the philosophical framework and, in the process of doing so, will briefly briefly discuss its significance for Information Systems (I.S.). I leave out much that should be included; but if the reader is stimulated to recognise the omission and seeking to rectify it, then I will be well pleased.

1.2 Why Philosophy? How Christian?

Because I do not hold with the divorcing of secular from sacred I will write this paper as though it were for a non-Christian reader, giving illustrations, reasons and arguments that would appear to be secular in nature. This paper does not seek to find statements in Scripture that apply to I.T.; it is not a theology of I.T. Instead, it addresses our responsibility under God towards the Creation he has given us stewardship of. Those who are Christians might care to ponder what God's view would be of this imbalance between the huge investment of human effort and the tiny amount of genuine benefit obtained for his world [Basden, 2001].

But responsibility is not the only issue. We must also look at presuppositions that have underlain both the whole enterprise of I.T. and our individual involvement with it. This is why philosophy is important. Philosophy does not normally directly solve our problems. Nor does it normally provide methods, taxonomies or theories which we can apply to solve our problems. Rather it gives us frameworks of thinking, by which we can generate methods, theories and taxonomies and then in turn address our problems. In fact, philosophy does not so much give us frameworks of thinking as help us critique and shape those we have, and perhaps suggest to us when we need new frameworks.

So in applying a 'Christian philosophy' to I.T., we are neither quoting biblical texts (except perhaps in a literary manner), nor expecting it to tell us what to do. Rather, Christian philosophy helps us see why the frameworks of thinking that have driven the I.T. enterprise at both individual and global level are deeply flawed, and how it has come about that the problems have arisen from these flaws. The element of human responsibility enters as part of this discussion, but the element of individual human responsibility, and of salvation in Christ, is perhaps underplayed in this paper. These must be discussed and added to what is in this paper in order to gain a more complete picture.

The Christian philosophy we will apply is that of the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), a Dutch scholar who was concerned about the hidden presuppositions that underlie what was, at the time, assumed to be 'neutral': science, reason and all theoretical thought. He was particularly concerned that these presuppositions made it very difficult for Christian thinkers to engage with other thinkers to bring a specifically Christian contribution to the content of thinking. His philosophy is wide-ranging and has been called a Christian philosophy because it is based on presuppositions that are not inimical to Christian thinking, and he makes frequent reference to Christian topics like creation and redemption by Christ.


We can identify at least four main areas of concern: the fashioning of technical artifacts for our own use, the development of the technologies themselves from which we fashion those artifacts, our use of the artifacts, and, standing back a little, our overall perspective on technology as such. There are problems with each of these, and as we understand them we can perhaps begin to see why there is such huge investment in I.T. and so little real return.

We should not expect the four areas of concern to be all of the same type. One area of concern might appear trivial when viewed from the perspective of another; yet all four are part of the overall problem. For example, that various technologies have a poor fit to the world might appear trivial compared with the harm inflicted on society by the idolizing of technology as such. Though all areas of concern have their roots in a wrong overall perspective, that does not mean that our only task or aim should be to correct or redeem that perspective; we must also tackle all the other problems in their own terms.

By technical artifacts we mean anything constructed from information technology that we use for some purpose. (The arguments in this paper might be extended to other technologies, but I leave that to others.) For example, a business would use a payroll program to print employees' wages, a senior manage might employ a 'mind mapping' tool to assist in formulating strategy, a researcher might employ a text search package to obtain information, a film animator might employ animation software, a game-player runs game software, and we all use word processors, email packages, web browsers and like. But the web browser is slightly different, in that its use lies not in itself but in the web pages that it acts as a window onto, so in this case the artifact is not really the browser but the web site itself, just as it is a clock, and not the glass of the clock face, that is the artifact for telling time.

2.1 Use of Technical Artifacts

In using a technical artifact, its features are inserted into the working situation and we make use of them to help us in our tasks. The naïve model of this use is that technical features lead to benefits and success. So the software sellers, developers and researchers, at least, would have us believe.

Reality is not so simple, for two reasons. One is that the artifact is sometimes difficult to use. This is especially so when the users have not been involved in the development of the artifact - which was common 20 years ago for central organization systems like order entry, and today is common in, for example, web sites.

The other is that it hinders rather than helps our tasks. A well known example of this was the London Ambulance System [Lee, 1992]. Ambulance scheduling used to be performed manually until the 1980s, allocating available ambulances to incoming calls depending on where they were in relation to the call. A computer system was introduced, which was supposed to log the calls and also, by a geographic routing system, decide which ambulance was most accesible. But the routing algorithm did not know about transient traffic congestion spots, and ambulances became stuck in traffic. Moreover, if the number of pending calls exceeded 25, calls were lost. The ambulance schedulers found their task was made more difficult, of poorer quality and less satisfying. After one particularly busy day, when many calls were lost, the system was abandoned. We refer to it again below.

Not only might the artifact hinder the user's direct task that it was designed to aid, but the problems can be compounded by:

Some of these impacts will be positive, some negative. Sometimes one stakeholder benefits while others are negatively affected. It is not uncommon for there to be short term benefit but detriment in the longer term, or for there to be visible benefit but detriment that is less visible. Considering all these complexities, it is not surprising that negative impacts normally outweigh the positive.

But the important issue here is that we have no way, at present, of predicting or planning such impacts, nor indeed of understanding them. Standard ways, such as cost-benefit analysis are insufficient because they distort. More enlightened suites of criteria, such as Green and Petre's [1996] cognitive dimensions, tend to be too narrow in focus and to ignore indirect, unintended and long term impacts.

2.2 Development of Artifacts and Information Systems

If we are to use artifacts, they must first be created or, as we usually say, developed. The developer must have three types of expertise: that of using general technologies to develop specific artifacts, that of looking forward to its use and thinking about that use, and that of relating the two so that the technical features of the artifact serve the proposed tasks and roles of the people who use it. Different types of problem plague the development of artifacts, but they are closely linked to problems of use. They are problems of methodology by which the development of the artifact is guided, planned and executed.

Until the 1990s, linear forms of methodology were common. In these, development is treated as a sequence of stages, each stage completed and signed off before the next starts (at least as an ideal). First there is analysis of user requirements, then a specification is compiled of what the proposed artifact should do, then there is overall design, then implementation, followed by testing that the artifact performs according to the specification, finally there is delivery to the intended users. This is similar to projects in the construction industry, and allows good control and communication between partners in the development project. It may be adequate for producing artifacts in situations where the information is well-defined and highly structured, and unlikely to change.

But it failed in ill-defined and ill-structured situations subject to change, because it produced artifacts that, though they were according to specification, did not meet the users' real needs and ignored many important aspects of the situation. There were two reasons for this. One was the task artifact cycle, which is what Carroll and Campbell [1989] called their observation that the use of the artifact changes the nature of the very task it was intended to aid. The other is that the very use of the artifact helps the users to understand better what the technology might do for them and stimulates them to see more clearly what they do and do not want. Users don't know what they need until they have experienced what they don't need but thought they did. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that specifications tended to be bulky documents and both those who read them and the client whose responsibility it was to agree them were busy people.

One response was Checkland's [1981] Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), which can be seen as a means enhancing the quality and richness of user requirements analysis and of the specification, so as to ameliorate some of the problems above. It has proved particularly useful in analysing situations to determine whether it is appropriate to employ technology, and for making hidden perspectives and assumptions explicit. But it has been criticised for being unable to cope with conflict and having no theoretical underpinning [Mingers, 1992].

Another response, by a different community, was iterative styles of development, often known today as 'rapid application development' (RAD). This consists of many iterations in each of which a version of the artifact is produced and given to the users so that they might suggest changes, which are then incorporated into the next version. It overcomes the problem that users don't know what they need until they experience what they don't need. A variant on this is Boehm's spiral model [1988], which tries to quantify and overcome risk in each iteration. But iterative methods can be aimless and control of the development project is poor. Also, there is no guarantee that the users will in fact discover what they need; often what they comment on during the iterations is the more obvious but less important features like the wording or layout of screens.

The problems of development have several roots, whatever methodology is used. One of these is the attitude of the developers: are they open, welcoming and keen to understand and serve the other, or are they merely doing a job? Another, that we will address in more detail below, is the ability of artifact developers to discover all the important aspects of the situation into which the artifact is to be placed, and understand the relationships between them. This is particularly important in knowledge-intensive applications such as knowledge based systems, decision support, etc.

However, the problem is perhaps even harder than the above discussion suggests. The artifact itself is only one part of the wider 'information system', which also includes the human beings. Not only must the artifact be designed, but so must all parts of the proposed information system; the people must adapt and change. We can see this in the changes in structure that are often forced upon organizations when they bring in new information technology. There are several problems. Where the human part of the I.S. is not given attention, the artifact will often fall into disuse after a time. Where the human part is given attention, but the human beings are treated as mere resources to serve the artifact, as in the London Ambulance System [Lee, 1992], then job satisfaction diminishes and the quality of functions in the organization can be jeopardized. Proper consideration of both the artifact, the human beings and the relationship between is not an easy undertaking.

2.3 Design and Shaping of Technologies

If we are to develop artifacts we must have mature technologies from which to fashion them, and sometimes standards to adhere to. For example, an expert system designed to give advice about tax affairs requires that knowledge based system technology has been researched, developed and brought to some degree of maturity. For example, a good quality set of web pages requires that web standards like HTML (Hypertext markup language, which is what all web pages are written in) have been agreed and matured, and that technologies like flash and java have been developed. Other technologies that are important include multimedia, virtual reality three dimensional modelling, spreadsheets, word processors, Internet message passing, geographic information systems, computer music, knowledge representation, and many more.

Each technology has its own distinct 'shape', which has emerged from a process of research, development and application in a community that is interested in it. This shape is an idea of what the technology should be and do, and is implemented in software and, where appropriate, as standards with which all comply. The problem is that too often the shape of any given technology is such that it does not fit the real world very well. So, in creating an artifact, we tend to distort the situation in which the artifact will be used to suit the shape of the technology available.

An example of this is the technology of logic programming, which rests on the twin notions that first order predicate logic can be employed as a statement of what an artifact should be and do, and that this is sufficient to apply to everything. While it is excellent in situations with complicated reasoning but simple, structured information, it is inappropriate for highly dynamic applications and those where the spatial aspect is important. Sophisticated means have been found by the logic programming community, however, of tackling such applications - but this means that development of artifacts in such applications is a highly expert task, and is prone to error because of its complexity.

The point at issue here is one of appropriateness, which Basden [1993] has discussed more widely. Appropriateness is related to the notion of affordance [Gibson, 1977, Greeno, 1994], which states that certain phenomena in one aspect 'afford' certain meanings in another. For example, consider the bar chart shown in Fig. 1. Length of a bar 'affords' quantitative value, so we would expect the chart to refer to something like number of each type of car made or sold in each country. In fact, it indicates the home country of each car maker. This is not a quantitative value but a relationship - which would be more appropriately be indicated by dots instead of bars, as in Fig. 3 (at the end of the paper).

Because of the complexity of living situations in which artifacts are to be applied, the technologies available for creating those artifacts should be always appropriate to serve the world. Now, this does not imply that we aim for one technology that can cope with anything; rather it means that we should identify the various distinct aspects of the situations we are likely to meet, understand each, and design features that are appropriate to each.

One thing that has hindered the development of appropriateness in technologies is the underlying presuppositions and assumptions of the researchers and developers. The logic programming community assumes the priority of logic. The current virtual reality community tends to elevate the spatial aspect, and ignores many others.

The latter has a particularly unfortunate implication because one of the major areas of application of virtual reality technology is in architecture, to allow architects to envisage a building or landscape they are designing without incurring the expense of a mock-up model. The main feature that is presented via the virtual environment is the visual. But it has been suggested that architects already place too much emphasis on the visual aspect. The result of using virtual environment technology will therefore be to exacerbate this problem of over-emphasis on the visual. In this we see a slightly different problem than that of mere appropriateness. It is related to problems of usage, especially those of unintended impact and of impact on perceptions.

Fig. 1. A Bar Chart: What Does It Tell Us?

2.4 Overall Perspectives

All the above activities of development and use are deeply influenced by the perspective that we hold on information technology. It shapes the decisions we make as users, developers or shapers, usually tacitly, so that we are unaware of the assumptions and expectations that it causes us to make, and so . However, some are aware of perspectives and try to make them explicit. A perspective contains our assumptions about the nature and role of information technology, linked to our wider world view, about the nature and meaning of life, God, ourselves, etc. It influences what we see as problem and what sorts to solutions we might allow (which is a subset of the issue of Good and Evil).

What some call perspectives are often identified by means of the interaction of two dimensions formed from pairs. For example, Kammersgaard [1988] forms four perspectives out of the individual-collective and expression-content dimensions, and Lyytinen [1987], out of individual-group and technical-social, though he also discusses other sets of perspectives. But some such perspectives are more like stances, like that of the user, the artifact developer and the technology developer, who each have different interests, goals, methods, etc.

A more fundamental type of perspective is often linked to philosophy. For example, Winograd and Flores [1986] argued that information systems had been too rationalistic, too concerned with control and assuming 'hard' data and logic, and suggested that we should move towards a perspective based on Heidegger's existentialism, including the concepts of 'thrownness' and 'breakdowns'. The move from a rationalistic or positivistic perspective to an interpretivistic, constructivistic one can be detected in many quarters of the informations systems community, including the move from strict linear methodologies to either SSM or iterative methodologies. There is a dialectic process underway, and the move is generally from an assumed philosophical realism with deterministic view of reality to a philosophical nominalism based on human interpretation.

The limitations of a rationalistic reductionism are now obvious to many, but the limitations of what dialtectically replaces it are recognised by only a few. One community that recognises the limitations of the interpretivistic perspective bases its ideas on the philosophical stream of criticial realism, and makes much use of Habermas' ideas. But this perspective also has limitations, being rather too narrowly concerned with power and emancipation, and it seems to act as a haven for Marxists who have nowhere else to go.

An awareness of different perspectives can be a useful corrective, and means to wisdom if we understand how they relate to each other. But there is also two main problems. One is that the dialectical reaction by which each new perspective emerges is never-ending and gives no hope of ever finding a full perspective that will enable us to address the whole problem of information technology.

The other is that fundamental perspectives are often held religiously, such that the holders sneer at those of other perspectives, rather than welcoming and enriching the other, with the result that information systems development and use tends to remain too narrowly focused. Noble [1997] suggests "the present enchantment with things technological ... is rooted in religious myths ..." which is surprising in his eyes because technology is "the very measure of modern enlightenment" which tried to sideline religion. If we view this from Goudzwaard's [1984] perspective of idolatry, then, as discussed later, we might begin to see why we continue to invest so heavily in I.T.


As has been mentioned, Herman Dooyeweerd [1955] was concerned about the hidden presuppositions that underlie Western thinking and all that is based on such thinking. In his major work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought [1955], he first sought to lay bare these presuppositions, painstakingly showing their roots in early Greek thought and demonstrating how most Western thinking even today is constrained by them. He argued that this is not just of historical interest to academic philosophers, but has serious negative consequences for both theory and practice and the relationship between them. However, having demolished one framework, Dooyeweerd then accepted the challenge of designing and erecting a new framework in its place, and started to demonstrate [Dooyeweerd, 1986] how this could be worked out in detail. Giorgio Delvecchio, the noted Italian philosopher, called him "the most profound, innovative and penetrating philosopher since Kant" and it is this penetrating analysis and innovative framework that I think provides some hope that we might find frameworks by which we can address the problems. Obviously, much is omitted here, and the interested reader is directed to Clouser [1991] for a useful introduction.

3.1 Ground Motives

The foundation of Dooyeweerd's critique of theoretical thought rests on his concept of ground motives, of which he identifies four that have influenced us over the last 2,500 years. The early Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle, assumed the Form-Matter motive, from Hebrew culture came the motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption, the mediaeval Roman Catholic thinkers like Aquinas combined the two to obtain the Nature-Grace motive, and the thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment replaced this with Nature-Freedom. These four are, of course, not unique to Dooyeweerd; the contribution his critique made was, perhaps, to link them and show how the three dualistic ones (Form-Matter, Nature-Grace and Nature-Freedom) lead to fundamental problems and antinomies in theoretical thinking, and how they divorce theory from practice.

Ground motives are generators and explainers of worldviews. The dualistic ground motives lead us to presuppose two 'poles' that are mutually exclusive at a fundamental level, and worldviews based on them commit to one pole or the other. Much of the history of Western thought can be seen as a dialectic process in which worldviews of the thinking community swing between opposing poles of the prevailing ground motive. Dooyeweerd traced these dialectic swings, and Tarnas [1991], who was unaware of Dooyeweerd's work, paints a similar picture. The current ground motive is that of Nature-Freedom, which opposes determinism and freedom to each other. It has led, over the last 500 years, to swings between scientific rationalism and Romanticism in philosophy, positivism and interpretivism in science, fact versus value in business and politics, predestination and free-will in theology, and many more.

3.1.1 Application to Perspectives in Information Systems

There is currently much interest in worldviews in the arena of information systems. The shift from positivist to interpretivist perspectives can be explained as worldview commitments to the nature and the freedom poles of the current ground motive. As is the nature of such deep ground motives their effect can be seen in many communities of thought. Information technology is seen either as controlling or freeing, as replacing human beings or empowering them. In artificial intelligence the opposition of symbol processing to consciousness has long been debated. The polar opposition extends throughout information systems; for example Winograd and Flores [1986] urge a shift from rationalistic to existentialist views, from 'constructor's-eye-view' to 'designer's-eye-view' [Winograd, 1995]. The shift from 'hard' positivistic approaches to 'soft' interpretivistic ones can be explained in terms of the poles of the nature-freedom ground motive.

Dooyeweerd contended, however, that poles of a dualistic ground motive can never be reconciled by means of theoretical thought because theoretical thought presupposes that very ground motive and thus the polar opposition at its heart. However, he claims they may be reconciled (and truly so) in everyday living. This includes the practice of I.S. Before understanding this, we must first understand something of the framework he proposed.

3.2 Diversity and Coherence

Dooyeweerd started from the Creation-Fall-Redemption motive - not just as a 'religious' statement but as a foundation for theoretical thought. Being less dualistic and more integrative than the other three ground motives it is better able to account for both diversity and unity. As a result, Dooyeweerd's proposal has an ability to handle interdisciplinarity and the complexity of real life application of I.S. in a powerful and natural way. It is partly because the Hebrew-inspired motive focuses on Meaning as the fundamental property of all that is, while the Greek motive of Matter-Form, together with the two that emanate from it, focus on Existence. Dooyeweerd argues that, given Meaning as primary, both diversity and coherence follow as natural consequences.

One of the most visible parts of Dooyeweerd's framework is his set of modal aspects in which we function. They are as follows.

Each aspect has a kernel meaning, placed after the name of the aspect above, which is part of the totality of Meaning.

What makes Dooyeweerd's proposal a foundation for diversity is that the aspects are irreducible, so that none can be derived from the others; he called this 'sphere sovereignty'. But sphere sovereignty on its own can lead us to fragmentation. Dooyeweerd also stressed 'sphere universality': that the aspects are closely intertwined with one another, leading to a coherence and harmony among them which takes three forms. First, later aspects depend on earlier ones for proper functioning, though they add something to them. Second, there are relationships of anticipation and retrocipation among the aspects, so that each aspect contains echoes of the others. For example, causality is a physical phenomenon, yet something like causality occurs in other aspects, e.g. logical, social, legal. Third, entities integrate the aspects in their everyday functioning; see below.

(Note that Dooyeweerd did not claim ontological validity for these fifteen aspects, because, as we shall see below, even the act of distinguishing the aspects is the result of fallible human functioning. But he did claim ontological validity for the concept of aspects. Also, for practical purposes, he would make a (pistic) commitment to his fifteen, employing them in his everyday living and defending them against detractors. Likewise, for the practical purposes of this discussion we will assume an ontological validity for these fifteen aspects, partly because Dooyeweerd himself pondered them long and widely and, via several refinements, settled upon these fifteen. And, since he had no particular axe to grind, we can perhaps trust his judgement sufficiently for this discussion.)

3.2.1 Some Implications for I.S. Development

A corollary of the irreducibility of aspects is that each aspect is necessary, and so each must be considered separately because none can be reduced to others. This is particularly important for design of information systems. Each aspect of the situation into which the I.T. artifact is to be inserted should be considered in turn, so that none is overlooked. This provides a framework for understanding I.S. design, and it contrasts with other assumed frameworks, such as the techno-centric (which focuses on technical quality and tends to elevate the formative and aesthetic aspects), user-centric (which focuses on the primary user of the computer and their experience of ease of use and tends to elevate the sensitive, lingual and aesthetic aspects), organization-centric (which focuses on the needs of the organization and tends to elevate the economic aspect), and so on. The multi-aspectual framework does, however, have more in common with the Multiview approach of Avison and Wood-Harper [1990].

A framework gives us taxonomy and methodology. The aspects themselves provide a useful taxonomy directly. Iterative methods can perhaps be seen as methodology by which the development process can be opened up to many aspects of the situation, via the responses of the users. But it is ad-hoc and usually ignores some of the later aspects (pistic, ethical, etc.), which in fact are more important as we discuss below. To overcome this Winfield [2000] has defined a Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation (MAKE) method for analysing a situation to identify all the relevant aspects thereof. His research has not only shown that MAKE encourages broader thinking, but also stimulates those involved to consider new avenues, and helps them highlight who the stakeholders of an I.S. might be. Further, he demonstrated that the aspects are easily grasped by lay people - which was a claim Dooyeweerd made. Taking a different approach, Basden, Bergvall-Kåreborn and Mirijamdotter [in preparation] discuss how Dooyeweerd's aspects can enrich existing methodology, specifically Checkland's [1981] Soft Systems Methodology.

3.2.2 Implications for Design and Shaping of Technologies

It was noted above that the technologies available to system developers can be deficient or constraining because they do not fully support what is found in the real world. If Dooyeweerd's aspects encompass the real world then we can expect them to provide a framework for technology development and research.

According to this framework the software tool that artifact developers use should implement a representation of issues in each aspect in an appropriate manner, and should provide features that make functioning in that aspect easy for the software tool's user. In the ideal, the tool should do this for every aspect, so that the artifact developer is freed from having to devise ways of forcing one aspect into another. Each aspect can provide a distinct technology. For example,

How these facilities are actually implemented within the software as data structures, procedures, functions, etc. (beneath the surface in Fig. 2) is not our primary concern to us here; we are interested only in what aspect-oriented facilities are available to the artifact developer, at the surface in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. Aspectual Facilities Available at the Surface of the Software Tool

A related issue mentioned above is that of affordance [Gibson, 1977], by which, against the expectations of philosophical nominalism, certain shapes can 'afford' certain types of meaning better than others. Affordance can be understood in terms of Dooyeweerd's ontological claim for aspects, including the analogical relationships that exist between aspects. It may be that studies of the phenomenon of affordance can help us understand these analogical relationships more intimately, and thus feed back to refine Dooyeweerd's philosophy itself. This has been made the basis of the work of Basden and Fathulla [2001] on 'SySpM' software for drawing that enables not only the shapes in the drawing but also the meaning of those shapes to be captured, in which Sy indicates the symbolic (lingual) aspect, Sp the spatial and M the mapping between them. Unlike most computer drawing packages it promises to give a basis for mixed types of diagrams, from box and arrows diagrams to contour maps and beyond, all with their diverse attached meanings.

3.3 Functioning

All that we do involves a functioning in these aspects. For example, as I write this I am functioning lingually (symbolic communication), biotically (e.g. breathing), economically (length limit on this paper), juridically (in attempting to provide what is due to the readers (and also to Pertti Järvinen to whom this paper is dedicated), pistically (in seeing myself as a responsible human being rather than a robot), and in the other aspects. Earlier aspects support the lingual functioning, later ones give it shape. Much of the functioning is tacit [Polanyi, 1967].

Human behaviour, then, is a complex, integrated functioning in many aspects, and it can only be adequately explained by reference to all the aspects. This contrasts with reductionism, which seeks a single aspect from which to explain all else (e.g. evolution (biotic), brain activity (sensitive), reason (analytical), language games (lingual)).

Each aspect has its own set of laws, to which entities respond. Those of the earlier aspects are mainly determinative while those of the later aspects are mainly normative. An entity may function as subject or object in each aspect. While all entities may function as object in all the aspects, only human beings can function as subject in all aspects; animals function as subject in aspects up to the sensitive, plants, to the biotic, and physical objects, to the physical. A computer functions as subject only to the physical aspect, but as object in any aspect, depending on the purpose of the software it is running. Dooyeweerd postulates an interesting type of relationship, enkapsis, that casts light on these matters, but we do not discuss it here; it is discussed in Basden [2002].

3.3.1 Implications for Use of Artifact

The Dooyeweerdian notion of functioning gives a grounding for understanding usage of the artifact, as one of human functioning. Hart [1984] summarizes it as "functors functioning in relationship", and Basden [1994] has delineated three layers from this for information systems usage and three distinct types of benefits: features (which enable us to function), tasks (carried out by functors) and roles (defined by relationships). This contrasts with, for example the naïve model of artifact use dismissed earlier, and also with more sophisticated ideas like Actor Network Theory [Latour, 1987], which is currently popular within several I.S. communities, but which assumes no difference between human and non-human 'actors'.

3.3.2 Application to I.S Development

We can see that the formative aspect plays an important part in the development of an information system (both of the artifact and of the structure of social relationships and human roles within it), but it is not the only important aspect in any specific development project. That is, development is always formative but other aspects become important depending on the application. This means three things.

One is that to understand and undertake I.S. development properly, we must understand the formative aspect and follow its laws, whatever the application. This means that methodology, which is of the formative aspect, will almost always play an important part in development.

The second is that development is not purely formative but is, like all human activity, multi-aspectual in nature. For example, communication (lingual aspect) amongst members of the development team and between them and the clients, users, etc. is essential. Good social functioning helps the success of the development project. Most projects are economically constrained. The project should deliver what is due to all stakeholders. Alluded to earlier as the attitude of the developer, the ethical aspect of self-giving is particularly important. And so on. All these aspects cluster around the formative, to support it and ensure a good, successful development project.

The third is perhaps the most important. It is that the formative functioning, with its supporting aspects, is not to be the master, elevated above the other aspects, but the servant. It should serve the aspects that are important in the application itself. This means that the methodology should guide developers to first seek to understand which other aspects are important and then work out how the formative processes should be adapted to those aspects.

3.4 Integrating Polar Opposites

An important element of Dooyeweerd's theory of aspects is that it integrates the poles of the various dualistic ground motives in a single framework. Form and matter as understood by the Greeks can be seen as correlating with the analytic-formative aspects and the physical-biotic-sensitive aspects respectively. Nature and grace can be seen as correlating with the pre-ethical and post-ethical aspects. Nature and freedom correlate with earlier and later aspects, with an increasing normativity in the laws of later aspects, especially post-sensitive. Thus, Dooyeweerd integrates determinism and freedom, especially, in a single framework.

3.4.1 More Application to Perspectives on I.S.

This not only enables us to understand the 'hard' and 'soft' perspectives in information systems, as we discussed above, but to hope for some integration of them. Because of the determinative aspects we can hope for reliability of working of computers. Because of the normative aspects, we can see that their use can be varied and meaningful and need not be dehumanizing.

Normative laws are often seen as constraints, but to Dooyeweerd laws serve to enable meaningful functioning. Notice how Dooyeweerd's aspects affirm the interpretivist claim that human interpretations are important and not determined: when we make interpretations, we are functioning (normatively) in the lingual and analytical aspects especially. But notice also two differences from the normal interpretivist line. One is that human interpretation, though not determined, is nevertheless guided by the aspectual laws, and the other is that interpretation can never claim a priviledged place among the other fourteen aspects. He makes a similar, but even stronger, argument in respect of rationalism. Reason, Dooyeweerd contends, is important because it is tied in with our analytical functioning, but likewise it cannot claim priviledged place among the other aspects, as it has been wont to do.

The Dooyeweerdian framework of aspects gives us a principled way of overcoming reductionism, and the suppression of diversity that attends it. Dooyeweerd would criticise positivism, not because of its interest in the deterministic aspects but because of its deliberate rejection of other aspects. But he would also see interpretivism as reductionist: it attempts to reduce all phenomena to human interpretations (lingual aspect). Though interpretivism seems to tolerate and even celebrate diversity (of interpretation), it cannot truly account for diversity, and gives little basis for coherence.

The Dooyeweerdian concept of aspects offers a sound philosophical foundation for the rich multi-perspective aspirations of Multiview [Avison and Wood-Harper, 1990], Soft Systems Thinking [Checkland and Scholes, 1990], Vickers' [1983] Appreciation, and some in the cognitive mapping community [e.g. Ackermann, Walls, Van der Meer and Borman, 1999].

3.5 The 'Shalom' Hypothesis

Though we may be free to go against the normative laws of an aspect, those laws still pertain, so that our obedience or transgression of their laws is not without repercussions. Positive repercussions occur when we function in line with the laws of an aspect, negative occur when we go against the laws. Therefore repercussions can be analysed with respect to each aspect in which we function.

Therefore, human activity - most of which is multi-aspectual - is 'healthy' to the extent that we align ourselves with the laws of all the aspects, and is harmful to the extent that we go against, or ignore, the laws of any aspect. This leads to what we might call the shalom hypothesis, that an overall 'shalom' or well-being, peace, prosperity, etc. is possible as long as we function in line with the laws of every aspect in harmony with each other. Since the aspects are irreducible to each other, we cannot assume that good functioning in one aspect always implies good functioning in another. There is therefore an imperative on us to seek to understand all the aspects and align our functioning to each of them.

Note that this shalom hypothesis rests on an assumption of a Good Creation, in which every aspect will yield positive repercussions if its laws are obeyed. In this we see, perhaps, a distinctively (Judeo-)Christian root of this philosophy. What Christians call human sin is of many forms, each of which can be seen in terms of going against the laws of an aspect. Table 1 is a speculative suggestion of the negative functioning in various aspects:

Table 1. Negative Functioning in Various Aspects

Aspect Negative Functioning
Biotic aspect killing, starving
Sensitive aspect hurting feelings
Analytical aspect non-clarity
Formative aspect laziness
Lingual aspect lying
Social aspect insults, hatred
Economic aspect waste, ingratitude
Aesthetic aspect disharmony
Juridical aspect injustice, theft
Ethical aspect selfishness
Pistic aspect pride, idolatry, non-commitment, disloyalty

The traditional view found in Christianity emphasises the pistic aspect and Dooyeweerd attaches especial importance to this aspect; orientation of heart affects all other functioning. But this opening up of the diversity of types of 'sin' can perhaps aid our understanding.

3.5.1 Implications for Use and Repercussions of Artifact

The shalom hypothesis has implications for use of information systems. It explains the many points at which information system might fail, beyond technical faults, and it suggests that use of an information system can be beneficial in some aspects while detrimental in others. An aspectual analysis of the London Ambulance System [Lee, 1992] illustrates these.

As we can see, even this over-simplified aspectual analysis can help clarify a situation and identify what is important. Some of the relationships between the aspects can be clearly seen in the above examples.

Such aspectual analysis of the obedience or transgression of aspectual laws, and of aspectual repercussions provides a framework for understanding usage of I.T. artifacts and repercussions (beneficial or detrimental) that arise from that use. Using an artifact is seen as functioning in each aspect. So if we function in line with the laws of every aspect then beneficial repercussions result, but if we go against the laws of an aspect then detrimental repercussions result; usually life is a mixture of the two. The concerns listed earlier can be understood in these terms, for example:

3.5.2 Implications for I.S. Development

The shalom hypothesis gives added emphasis to the need, discussed above, of developers to deliberately consider every aspect of the situation into which the I.T. artifact will be inserted. Ignoring any aspect is no longer a mere unfortunate omission, but could actually lead to detriment, especially in the longer term. We have a double problem in that it is the later aspects that tend to get overlooked in I.S. development, but it is those very aspects that have the most powerful and longest-lasting repercussions. So, the framework we are developing here for I.S. development would include a recognition that identifying and understanding the relevance of the later aspects is doubly important.

3.5.3 More on Perspectives on I.S.

It was noted that deep perspectives are often religious in nature, and Noble [1997] has suggested that technology has religious overtones. Religious functioning is centred in the pistic aspect. Understanding negative pistic functioning can help us build our framework for understanding perspectives.

One type of negative pistic functioning is idolatry, which is the attributing of divine status to something other than the true God. When we do this, we make commitment to it that is beyond the reach of rationality, harmony, justice or other aspects. As a result an idol is something that (based on Goudzwaard [1984]):

We can see some of these things operating with regard to I.T. While we might not actively worship I.T. (after all, we are secular people who worship nothing!), we aspire to own and use I.T., whether in the home or business. Those who question whether I.T. is appropriate are often deemed Luddites. All organizations today must have a web site or email to refer to. Things unconnected with I.T. are often seen to be of less value. Existence and destruction can be seen operating in the 1990s fad of Business Process Reengineering. Much of Western life is now determined by I.T. We sacrifice $1,500 billion worth of human effort annually - and we willingly submit to very low return on this investment. I.T. promises productivity, convenience, choice and the like, but in fact restricts these.

This gives us good reason for incorporating into our frameworks of understanding a notion of idolatry derived from the unique importance of the pistic aspect. David Noble [1997] has made a useful start, but we have much further to go.

3.6 Science, Theory and Practice

Many, especially positivists, assume that scientific knowledge and theory are somehow superior to everyday knowledge and practice. Dooyeweerd reverses this, restoring dignity to the latter.

Clouser [1991] explains this in terms of abstraction. In everyday thinking and practice we function in all the aspects, in a more or less integrated manner. The knowledge we employ is multi-aspectual and intuitive, and often tacit. But the aspects may be abstracted from the situation by means of analytical functioning (distinction-making), in two ways. In lower abstraction we focus our attention on some property qualified by one of the aspects (e.g. the beauty of a rose), but always in the context of the other aspects. In higher abstraction we isolate an aspect from all the others. We do this when we wish to study the laws of an aspect without interference from those of other aspects. This is science: isolating an aspect.

Each aspect defines a different (area of) science. A radical proposal of Dooyeweerd's is that each aspect, and thus each science, has its own distinct epistemology, and therefore different ways for knowing, different research methods that are valid, different evaluation criteria, etc. Hence each science differs from the others, fundamentally; so we should not, for instance, demand that social scientists follow the methods of physical sciences.

Scientific theory is knowledge of laws of an aspect that have thus far been discovered and distinguished. Theory is not itself the law that pertains, but is a product of human functioning, especially in the analytical aspect. So theory is always fallible and subject to interpretation, change and development, and occasional paradigmatic upheaval [Kuhn, 1970]. Yet, whatever theory is made, the laws pertain. Dooyeweerd criticised philosophical realism for conflating theory with law, and nominalism for denying law.

This brings us to the relationship between theory and practice. Practice involves everyday knowledge, which is a rich interweaving of different aspects. Though fundamentally intuitive, everyday thinking can also be informed by theory and its rational application. But theoretical thinking, though more precise than intuition and demanding special skills, nevertheless has severe limitations, owing to its foundation in analytical functioning and the process of isolation. The difference between them is likened to the difference between 'knowledge' and 'wisdom' [de Raadt, 1991].

So Dooyeweerd would hold everyday thinking to be superior, not inferior, to theoretical thinking. As we can see, this is no mere anti-intellectual reaction, but a philosophical position. Moreover, he would acknowledge that everyday thinking and intuition can themselves be deficient. This comes, not from fundamental limitations such as theory has, but from poor functioning, by the thinker, in some aspects. Indeed, deficient everyday thinking might be far more dangerous than theory can be.

3.6.1 Some General Implications

Technology is viewed by many as the application of theory to build artifacts, or perhaps transform human systems, with the main responsibility on the developer being to 'innovate' [DTI, 1992, Twiss, 1992]. The responsibility to gain benefit from the artifact is assumed to lie with its user. This results in a tension between development and use that many have commented on [e.g. Kivijarvi and Zmud, 1993, Strijbos, 1996], and the more recent systems development methodologies try to shift some of the responsibility for benefit onto the developer.

This tension may be understood from the Dooyeweerdian perspective on theory and practice, and perhaps partially resolved. Because of its roots in science and the isolation of aspects, modern technical development has limited aspectual range. (Craft-based technology is not necessarily so limited [Strijbos, 1996].) In the extreme, in techno-centric development, the formative aspect is elevated above all others. In less extreme cases, it is accompanied by a couple of other aspects, depending on the type of technology (lingual, analytical and quantitative for information technology). But still many aspects remain neglected, and this neglect manifests itself in the design of the artifact information system. As we say above, this can lead to detriment rather than benefit.

By contrast, use of the artifact in the I.S. involves multi-aspectual everyday thinking as well as specialist technical knowledge. The whole information system, artifact and all stakeholders, should function in all aspects, as we have discussed above, otherwise detrimental impacts might arise in the neglected aspects. So there is a tension between I.S. development and use that echoes that between theory and practice. As long as we presuppose the latter tension in our perspectives, so long will we have trouble with the former.

But this tension can be reduced, if not completely removed, in everyday life and application. Often the stakeholders take responsibility for deliberately activating any neglected aspects. For example, email packages are designed with only the lingual aspect in mind, but what we write is guided by the social, ethical and other aspects. In this way the information system as a whole can function with more shalom than the artifact might allow on its own. But in many cases, the artifact constrains the aspectual range (e.g. virtual reality used in architecture might exacerbate the problem of over-emphasis on the visual-aesthetic aspect of buildings).

This suggests that a shift to a Dooyeweerdian way of thinking might help us address not only the individual areas of concern but all of them together in an integrated manner.


"All else is a footnote to Plato," said Whitehead [1937], explaining how most subsequent Western thought derives from the basic presuppositions made by Plato and others or his era. We have looked very briefly at an interesting philosophical framework that is not part of Plato's footnote, and was developed from different presuppositions, including the primacy of Meaning rather than Existence, and Law as the horizon of human experience. The main protagonist of this stream of thought, Dooyeweerd [1955], not only showed the fundamental limitations and antinomies in Greek-based thinking, but constructed an alternative philosophy.

We have seen how various portions of this philosophy can help us build new frameworks for understanding four areas of concern: the use of I.T. artifacts, the development of information systems (including both artifact and human beings), the development of technologies, and perspectives on information systems. Table 2 summarises the relevance of Dooyeweerd to each. As these frameworks become worked out, they can be used to formulate methodologies, taxonomies and theories that can, in their turn, be used in practice to solve or ameliorate the huge problems we face in information systems today.

Table 2. Summary of Relevance of Dooyeweerd to Areas of Concern

Portion of Dooyeweerd Using Artifact Developing Shaping Tgy. Perspectives
Ground Motives Yes
Diversity and Coherence Yes Yes
Functioning Yes Yes
Integrating Poles Yes
The Shalom Hypothesis Yes Yes Yes
Theory and Practice Yes Yes Yes Yes

We have not addressed every problem there is. Nor have we exhausted the contribution that Dooyeweerdian philosophy might make. For example, we have not addressed the interesting question, much debated in the artificial intelligence community, of whether machines can ever be truly intelligent, conscious or loving. Nor have we said much about Dooyeweerd's theory of entities, with his notion of qualifying aspects and enkapsis, though the discerning reader will have noticed hints of these; this theory can provide a framework for understanding the nature of information systems as entities, that can help us address the A.I. question [Basden, 2002].

I am aware that in non-Christian circles Dooyeweerd's ideas are almost unknown (and those who stumble across them immediately dismiss them because they are labelled 'Calvinistic'), that many Christians completely ignore them because of their assumption that philosophy is irrelevant and even contrary to the gospel, and that many of the few Christians who are aware of his ideas have turned away from them in embarrassment because his ideas were hyped-up and mis-applied forty years ago. I hope I have shown that his ideas are worth a second look, whether by Christians or non-Christians because they can help us understand information systems. It is interesting that, in my own experience, it is those who do not profess Christian commitment that seem to be most interested in his ideas. Increasingly, it seems, the issues that are being raised in information systems as we enter the twenty-first century are the very ones that Dooyeweerd might help us address. His ideas won't solve our problems, but they can provide frameworks for understanding that might help us do so.


Fig. 3. More Appropriate Version of Fig. 1.


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Last updated: 15 October 2001