Literature/1990/Umpleby

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Umpleby, Stuart A. (1990). "The Science of Cybernetics and the Cybernetics of Science," Cybernetics and Systems, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 109-121.

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Recent developments in cybernetics have challenged key tenets in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science constitutes a theory of knowledge which is often called realism. However, the philosophy of science is not a unified field, there are a variety of points of view. Contemporary cybernetics, meanwhile, is developing a philosophy called constructivism. This paper compares cybernetics with two important schools of thought within the philosophy of science, lists several different assumptions which lead to misunderstandings between scientists and cyberneticians, and then suggests a way of resolving the differences, not by rejecting science but by enlarging it.

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Cybernetians now focus on the observer in addition to what is observed (Segal, 1986). They are developing a philosophy of constructivism as an alternative to realism (Von Glasersfeld, 1987). Rather than the idea that scientific laws are discovered, as one might discover an island in the ocean, cyberneticians claim that scientific laws are invented to explain regularities in our experiences. Rather than believing that science describes reality, cyberneticians assert that each individual constructs a personal "reality" which fits his or her experiences. One of the motivations for developing this theory is the belief that if people adopt this view, they will become more tolerant of others.

Cyberneticians have distinguished the recent work in cybernetics on constructivist epistemologies from the earlier work on control systems by using the term "second order cybernetics." This term was first used by Heinz von Foerster who defined first order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, whereas second order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observing systems (Von Foerster, 1979). Von Foerster intends the term "observing systems" to be interpreted in two ways -- either systems which observe or the act of observing systems. Gordon Pask made a similar distinction when he defined first order cybernetics as dealing with the purpose of a model, whereas second order cybernetics deals with the purpose of the modeler. Francisco Varela suggested that first order cybernetics is concerned with controlled systems, whereas second order cybernetics is concerned with autonomous systems.

I have proposed two additional conceptions of second order cybernetics (Umpleby, 1979). First order cybernetics can be said to be concerned with interactions among the variables in a system, whereas second order cybernetics is concerned with the interaction between the observer and the observed. The final definition goes beyond the one-brain problem of psychology or artificial intelligence and focuses instead on the n-brain problem of communities or societies. First order cybernetics can be illustrated by theories of social systems, whereas second order cybernetics deals with the interaction between ideas and society. For a summary of the definitions of first and second order cybernetics, see Table 1. [1]

  Table 1.  Definitions of First and Second Order Cybernetics

                    FIRST ORDER              SECOND ORDER
AUTHOR              CYBERNETICS              CYBERNETICS

Von Foerster        the cybernetics of       the cybernetics of
                    observed systems         observing systems

Pask                the purpose of           the purpose of
                    a model                  a modeler

Varela              controlled systems       autonomous systems

Umpleby             interaction among        interaction between
                    the variables in a       observer and
                    system                   observed

Umpleby             theories of social       theories of the
                    systems                  interaction between
                                             ideas and society

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  1. See also 1976/Bateson.
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The shade of the bar looks invariant in isolation but variant in context, in (favor of) sharp contrast with the color gradient background, hence an innate illusion we have to reasonably interpret and overcome as well as the mirage. Such variance appearing seasonably from context to context may not only be the case with our vision but worldview in general in practice indeed, whether a priori or a posteriori. Perhaps no worldview from nowhere, without any point of view or prejudice at all!

Ogden & Richards (1923) said, "All experience ... is either enjoyed or interpreted ... or both, and very little of it escapes some degree of interpretation."

H. G. Wells (1938) said, "The human individual is born now to live in a society for which his fundamental instincts are altogether inadequate."