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Cybernetics and the Integration of Knowledge

The need for integration

It is a common observation that our present culture lacks integration: there is an enormous diversity of "systems of thought" (disciplines, theories, ideologies, religions, ...), but they are mostly incoherent, if not inconsistent, and when confronted with a situation where more than one system might apply, there is no guidance for choosing the most adequate one. Philosophy can be defined as the search for an integrating conceptual framework, that would tie together the scattered fragments of knowledge which determine our interaction with the world. Since the 19th century, philosophy has predominantly relied on science (rather than on religion) as the main source of the knowledge that is to be unified.

After the failure of logical positivism and the mechanistic view of science, only one approach has made a serious claim that it would be able to bring back integration: the General Systems Theory (von Bertalanffy; Boulding). Systems theorists have argued that however complex or diverse the world that we experience, we will always find different types of organization in it, and such organization can be described by principles which are independent from the specific domain at which we are looking. Hence, if we would uncover those general laws, we would be able to analyse and solve problems in any domain, pertaining to any type of system.

Many of the concepts used by system theorists came from the closely related approach of cybernetics: information, control, feedback, communication... In fact cybernetics and systems theory study essentially the same problem, that of organization independent of the substrate in which it is embodied. Insofar as it is meaningful to make a distinction between the two approaches, we might say that systems theory has focused more on the structure of systems and their models, whereas cybernetics has focused more on how systems function, that is to say how they control their actions, how they communicate with other systems or with their own components, ... Since structure and function of a system cannot be understood in separation, it is clear that cybernetics and systems theory should be viewed as two facets of a single approach. In order to simplify expressions, we will from now on use the term "cybernetics" to denote the global domain of "cybernetics and general systems theory". If you prefer, you may substitute "systemic" or "systems scientist" each time you will read "cybernetic" or "cybernetician".

Cybernetic applications vs. cybernetic theory

The fundamental concepts of cybernetics have proven to be enormously powerful in a variety of disciplines: computer science, management, biology, sociology, thermodynamics... A lot of recently very fashionable approaches have their roots in ideas that were proposed by cyberneticians several decades ago: artificial intelligence, neural networks, complex systems, man-machine interfaces, self-organization theories, systems therapy ... Most of the fundamental concepts and questions of these approaches have already been formulated by cyberneticians such as Ashby, von Foerster, McCulloch, Pask, ... in the forties and the fifties. Yet cybernetics itself is no longer fashionable, and the people working in those new disciplines seem to have forgotten their cybernetic predecessors.

What is the reason that cybernetics does not seem to get the popularity it deserves? What distinguishes cyberneticians from researchers in the previously mentioned areas is that the former stubbornly stick to their objective of building general, domain-independent theories, whereas the latter focus on very specific applications: expert systems, psychotherapy, thermodynamics, pattern recognition, ... These applications attract attention insofar that they are useful, concrete or spectacular. On the other hand, the aim of general integration remains too abstract, and is not sufficiently successful to be really appreciated.

But why then is cybernetics less successful than these more trendy approaches? Clearly the problem of building a global theory is much more complex than any of the more down-to-earth goals of the fashionable approaches. But we may also say that the generality of the approach is dangerous in itself if it leads to remaining stuck in abstractions, which are so far removed from the everyday world that it is difficult to use them, interact with them, test them on concrete problems, in other words, get a feel on how they behave and what are their strengths and weaknesses.

Unifying theory and applications

Our contention here is that the goal of global integration is still, if not more, of an essential importance, but that cybernetics has a number of lessons to learn from its more specialised applications. Whereas cybernetics aims to unify science, it is in itself not unified. Instead of looking down on practical applications, it should try to understand how those applications can help cyberneticians in their task of unifying science, and first of all unifying cybernetics. It should look upon them as tools, that can be used for tasks that may extend much further than the ones they were originally designed for.

Where the theory of cybernetics can be enriched by its applications, we may similarly expect that the applications will be enriched by a closer contact with the general theory from which they originated. There is now already a trend in many of those fashionable approaches such as expert systems design, robotics, man-machine communication, etc., to acknowledge the limitations of their specific paradigm, and to look back to a broader, "cybernetical" framework for inspiration on how to overcome them. In conclusion, what we are arguing for is a cross-fertilization between cybernetics and its various recently fashionable applications.

The reason we believe that the time is ripe for such an approach is that both cybernetics and its applications have reached a sufficient level of maturity that it seems realistic to integrate them in practice. The present situation in cybernetics may be compared with the situation in Mathematics at the end of the previous century. What cybernetics needs is support for coping with the practical complexity of its problem domain, and a concrete filling in of some of the main "slots" in its empty framework. What the applications need is a framework in which they can be fitted, brought into contact, and situated the one with respect to the other. This should bring cybernetics back into contact with reality, and help it to succeed in its overall goal of integrating the different systems of thought.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

11 Dec, 1991


Introduction to Principia Cybernetica

The Need for Principia Cybernetica

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