Abstract / Introduction / Encountering Cybernetics / Epistemology of the observer / Self-Organisation / Circular Causality / Cognitive Methodologies / References

Bernard Scott, April, 1996.

Second Order Cybernetics as Cognitive Methodology.

Encountering Cybernetics

I first encountered the idea of cybernetics  in 1966 when, as an undergraduate student of psychology at Brunel University, I had the good fortune to attend a course of lectures given by David Stewart, a newly appointed lecturer in psychology. In 1968, he went on to join the newly founded Department of Cybernetics at Brunel, whose first two chair holders were Frank George and Gordon Pask. David's lectures, covering such topics as information theory and automata theory, were firmly about cybernetics as conceived by Norbert Wiener and others who had participated in the series of conferences held under the auspices of the Josiah Macy Foundation between 1946 and 1952. Wiener's original definition was that cybernetics is "the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine". It is known that Wiener coined the name "cybernetics" during the lifetime of the conferences (Wiener, 1948), although their spirit and purpose is well-attested by the title that a majority of the conferences went under: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems  (von Foerster et al (eds.) 1953). As can be adduced from his editorial duties, Heinz von Foerster was very much an influential and key participant.

I had previously read Grey Walter's (1959) The Living Brain  and W. Sluckin's (1960) Men, Minds and Machines.. Both helped me appreciate the larger philosophical tradition in which problems of mind and body, freewill and determinism have been debated. I recall that Sluckin reported on developments in cybernetics and related disciplines but was not committed to cybernetics as a unifying, "transdiscipline". David Stewart's stimulating presentations helped me be aware of that possibility.

I was attracted to the thesis that cybernetics is a transdiscipline. It made sense that there should be unity in diversity. It made sense that there should be a discipline as important and as general as physics but one which was complementary to it. I grasped this as the aphorism "physics is about matter and energy; cybernetics is about control and communication". Later, I came across the same distinction in the writings of Gregory Bateson (1972), using terms from Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, with origins in gnostic, hermetic traditions. Pleroma refers to the "stuff" of the world as formless content. Creatura is the world of creatures, of distinctions made by observers.

Eventually, I read Ross Ashby's (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics. I think all of us who love cybernetics have drawn inspiration from Ashby's bold declaration that "The truths of cybernetics are not conditional on their being derived from some other branch of science. Cybernetics has its own foundations." He goes on, "Cybernetics ……takes as its subject-matter the domain of "all possible machines"". This is followed on page 4 by " Cybernetics, might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control  - systems that are "information-tight"". Here Ashby is reflecting cybernetics' primary concern with circular causality and anticipating later emphases on organisational closure.

Ashby highlights two primary uses of cybernetics: "One is that it offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts for representing the most diverse types of systems" and "The second peculiar virtue of cybernetics is that it offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored". There are perhaps those who would disagree with Ashby's claim that  cybernetics provides "a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts", pointing to the enormous proliferation of specialist vocabularies and conceptual schema within the cybernetics and "systems thinking" areas. However, I suggest that in this variety, there is enormous consensus and that there is an underlying structure of primary concepts and distinctions that makes cybernetics what it is, much  of which is captured in Ashby's formal approach. I recently attended an international multidisciplinary conference, entitled Einstein meets Magritte  and witnessed much difficulty, even distress, as physicists, philosophers, artists and humanists attempted to communicate with each other about a range of global issues. Within the larger conference there was a symposium on The Evolution of Complexity , convened by Francis Heylighen, with fifty or so participants including management scientists, biologists, systems scientist, psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, engineers, computer scientists and physicists. The remarkable thing about this symposium, in contrast to  the main conference, was that there was much effective interdisciplinary communication. This was because all the participants did have some grounding in concepts to do with complex systems and cybernetics. Indeed, many of the participants drew directly on Ashby, himself. Thus is the master vindicated.

Further reading persuaded me not only of the value of cybernetic ideas as unifying but also that cyberneticians were not naive or trivial in their epistemologies, that there was a deep sense of self-awareness in the enterprise. I soon learned that there was in fact an informal collegiate, Bateson, McCulloch, Pask, Beer, to name some of them. There appeared to be a tacit understanding that, whatever their differences, they all had a reflexive sense of responsibility for their being in the world and were united in their commitment to a common good.

The concerns with the epistemology of the observer were made explicit in a coming together of ideas in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I have alluded to some of these events in more detail elsewhere (Scott, 1996). What I have in mind are Spencer-Brown's (1969) emphasis on the primacy of the act of distinction; Gordon Pask's articulation of a cybernetic theory of conversations as self-organising systems, in which changes are quantised as "understandings" between participants (Pask, Scott and Kallikourdis, 1973, Pask, 1976); Gunther's (1971) concept of life as polycontexturality, the intersection of  observers' perspectives, including perspectives of others' perspectives; von Foerster's (1974) distinction between a first-order cybernetics of observed systems and a second order cybernetics of observing systems; Maturana's (1970) arguments for the closure of the cognitive domain based on an account of the organisational closure of living systems. Many seminal meetings took place in von Foerster's Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois. In 1972, Oliver Wells, editor of the cybernetics newsletter Artorga, convened the world's first conference on self-referential systems, in London. The participants were Gotthard Gunther, Gordon Pask, Humberto Maturana, Dionysius Kallikourdis and myself. Heinz von Foerster was unable to attend. I was fortunate to meet him, later that year, when he visited Pask's laboratory (System Research Ltd., Richmond, Surrey), where I worked, and Brunel University, where I was a postgraduate student in cybernetics.

Quite soon there was the awareness of a new consensus being established. "Cybernetic idealism" is now dismissed as naive by many in our more cynical times. In the 1970's, it gave rise to "new age" optimism. Francisco Varela was a leading spokesperson for the movement: "If everybody would agree that their current reality is a reality, and that what we essentially share is our capacity for constructing a reality, then perhaps we could agree on a meta-agreement for computing a reality that would mean survival and dignity for everybody on the planet...Thus self-reference is, for me, the nerve of this logic of paradise", (Varela, 1976). I do not know if Varela still subscribes to this view of a possible utopia. Some of us do; some of us recognise it as an inevitability in the larger logic of survival and cosmic unfoldment. The form it will take is not known. Perhaps there will be "a new heaven and a new earth" as prophesied in Isaiah.

Pask's contacts with the BCL meant we in his research group had early sight of BCL reports and papers, several of which also appeared in Artorga. It was from this source that I became aware of von Foerster's influential writings on the epistemology of the observer. As well as being a profound thinker, von Foerster is a lucid and elegant communicator. Through a series of papers his ideas have been honed and summarised and presented with a disarming directness and simplicity, especially so, it seems, when he has risen to the challenge of sharing the insights of cybernetics with non-specialist audiences (see as examples, von Foerster, 1980, 1982a, 1993). In the next section, I summarise some of his key points.

Before doing so, I should perhaps make clear how I see the concerns and methods of cybernetics relate to concerns expressed in other disciplines. Second-order cybernetics aims to explain the observer to himself and to do so in a unifying, transdisciplinary way. As the "science of all possible machines", it does so by building models, some of which may be concrete entities, as in robotics, some may be abstract logico-mathematical constructions, some may be less formal "marks on paper" (boxes, arrows). In general, the models are constructs or artefacts that are given an interpretation. The major achievement of second-order cybernetics has been that of showing how models of self-referential, self-producing systems may be constructed from more elementary relations, where a process of some sort gives rise to a product. Abstract models demonstrate logical possibilities and necessary relations. They may be interpreted as giving an account of how natural, biological systems "work" or as prescriptions for how to build concrete systems  capable of certain behaviours.

As developed in the next section, systems that are capable of acting as observers are necessarily self-referential and self-productive. As such, the "realities" they observe are constructions, relative to the systems' own behaviours. It is at this point in its development, that the concerns of second-order cybernetics become coextensive with many of those in the humanities, the social sciences and in philosophy, particularly those traditions that stress the reflexive, relativistic nature of human knowing. In recognising and clarifying similarities and differences, second-order cybernetics may serve as a unifying transdiscipline.

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