Cybernetics and its practitioners ask questions.
What does it mean to know something scientifically? What is truth? What are scientific facts? Turning such questions around — how do living organisms know and therefore navigate their world? Are there different orders of such knowing in different classes of organism? How can one think about these different classes? Are they fundamental or constructs of the human mind? Behind all such questions are such existential questions as, Who am I? How am I related to the world? What is it that actually appears in my field of observation and how is this related to what is and what is knowable? What does this mean for an effective and sufficient form of science?
Questions such as these are far from merely academic — although they are profoundly scholarly. They are also far from being the personal questions of an uncertain mind. Cybernetics has dramatically transformed our understanding of the world and how the world behaves and in the process shifted not only our knowledge of it but our very way of knowing it.
Ultimately, there can be no scientific discipline nor indeed any practice that can divorce itself completely from such questions. Cybernetics has no special ownership of these questions. Nevertheless they sit profoundly within its practices because it brings a unique perspective to understanding how every living organism from the humblest to the most advanced exists in a process that can be called ‘knowing its world and thereby navigating it’. Cybernetics begins when it takes into account the activity of the observer in response to a context, something interpreted out of the matrix of the world. What it learns from this is of value to ecology, biology, sociology, design, business and indeed every other field, perhaps especially when it involves the human being.
Cybernetics involves observers
Cybernetics begins when it takes into account the activity of the observer in response to a context.
In a sense, while modern science did a service by calling for an exact and rigorous path to knowledge, it did so from the outside only, the “objectivist stance” that also creates distance. Cybernetics calls also for a kind of rigorous empathy, the bird’s eye view of the bird’s world for example. this opens up new paths too knowing.
Hence, the Knowing metatag on this site covers many fields, including history & philosophy of science, epistemology, ontology, cognitive science, neuroscience, noetics, paradigms, cognitive bias and assumptions. Consequently it is also relevant to principles of scientific method and cybernetic’s influence on these. It also includes first and second orders of science — i.e. the claimed objective versus recursive and observer-dependent modes — as well as cybernetics’s relation to these. It can therefore explore how science is divided as well as the possibilities of transdisciplinary working. Because cybernetics is profoundly related to the contingent on qualitative dimensions of the situation, ümwelt, or milieu of the observer experience, it necessarily includes the qualitative in its methods and practices. Yet modern science progressively aimed to exclude just this contingent aspect since the early 1600s. Galileo wanted to test phenomena empirically to produce repeatable measure ( and numeric) data. Bacon wanted to eliminate deductive logic. Descartes wanted to remove the untrustworthy emotion. An opera like Cosi Fan Tutte is a play between the libretto’s rational enlightenment that treats the emotions of people as just so much personal noise in their embodied similarity and the music that finally inspires further truths, the ‘pathos’ or emotion soon to guide the Romantic movement.(1)
Are these three — how, why, and why we do it — not of the first importance as humanity navigates the awesome global challenges of the 21st century?
At the same time, same time, cybernetic practitioners tend to have a deep interest in the practical. In his book on The Cybernetic Brain and other writings, Prof Andrew Pickering FCybS highlights what he calls the ontological in the development of cybernetics — it might also be called the down-to-earth. One of the reasons why early members of the community tended to build machines is because they wanted to test their ideas — the theory — in practice. Some like Gordon Pask and Pail Pangaro also created artworks for the same reason. The best model is the thing itself. Thus if a robot can do something, then it means the theory is correct. The robot embodies the theory much as Goethe thought the leaf embodied his theory of metamorphosis. The difference is that the scientist know they have already put their theory into practice in the design and can therefore now be confident that it demonstrates its validity within certain limits. Similarly, if it is possible to design change on a regular basis reliably, then the cybernetic design theory of change, metamophology, is correct. If it turns out in a project that it is difficult to achieve change, then the theory that is being used is not adequate or the practitioner not skilled enough. If the experience of the building as desired or enjoyed by people or if its is functional and corresponds to what is wanted — for example as a study or play space — then again the ideas and practice have worked.
A profound principle belongs to this — indeed several. Cybernetic practitioners want to understand how things work — one of the most famous and enjoyed stories in the community is of James Clark Maxwell, as a child, taking apart to the dismay of his parents the clockwork train he has just been given, because he wanted to understand the “go” of it. And to do that they are interested in the two fundamental levels of universal theory and on the ground video-level detail, shorn of mid-level abstractions. This is why cybernetics is also called a theory of common sense and on this site a science of achievement. But it also wants to know why it works. This combination is why theory, praxis, and adept practice (or skilful coping as Dreyfus called it) are all valued and all taken into account in the recognition of members as Members and Fellows. What further belongs to this is an appreciation of the effects installed in the action, the consequences of design, which intends precisely to create outcomes. Thus the ethical, not just why it works but why do it, is also of great importance in the work and work of many cyberneticians. Are these three not of the first importance as humanity navigates the awesome global challenges of the 21st century?
If this has often meant machines and software and robotics, it has also meant urban development and ecologies and legal systems, government, therapies and change management.
Cybernetics calls for a kind of rigorous empathy, the bird’s eye view of the bird’s world.
In such ways cybernetics has turned or is turning, or surely must turn around scientific methods, our understanding of the causal nexus, and what we know about knowing. It has entwined itself into dozens of fields, often without other members of those fields even knowing that they are using cybernetics. We believe it would be helpful to both the discipline and ongoing development of cybernetics and these other fields if there was a better understanding of the relationship between them.
Why? Because both would evolve. We would probably be developing new scientific methods for research design and new intervention methods into the very many problem areas of the world that we have today. In this, design sits as a mediating principle since it applies to both the design of the research process and the design of interventions, whether that is the creation of a new autonomous car or the conditions for the restitution of the habitat of the Large Blue butterfly.
— Angus Jenkinson, FCybS, 10.5.2021
(1) Gombrich, E. H. “Così Fan Tutte (Procris Included).” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 17, no. 3/4, 1954, pp. 372–374. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/750328. Accessed 2 July 2021.