Principia Cybernetica: An introduction

Human beings have always asked questions about the meaning of life. Where do we come from? What is knowledge? What is truth? What are good and evil?

Every time has its own approach to these eternal philosophical questions, deriving from its knowledge and technology. We hold that in our time, the age of information, it is systems science and cybernetics, as the general sciences of organization and communication, that can provide the basis for contemporary philosophy. Therefore, this philosophical system is derived from, and further develops, the basic principles of cybernetics.
The people who started the Principia Cybernetica Project believe that it must be possible to form a philosophical world-view that answers some of the questions above, and that is entirely built upon notions of cybernetics and systems theory. Since there are some very strong foundations to this approach, the PCP system is not just another amalgamation of fragments from different sciences. It is a true integration of existing knowledge. These days, there's a great need for this kind of integration, because knowledge is being fragmented and we don't have an overview of what's going on in different fields of science:
... a failure to generate any firm foundations on which theory can be constructed. We believe that it is this latter condition that Cybernetics and Systems Science has indeed found itself in today. Even a cursory examination of current systems literature will reveal a veritable zoo of advanced, highly sophisticated theories which have only a loose and metaphorical relation to each other. A clear and elegant underlying theory on which they could be reconciled is simply lacking.

So the main goal of the PCP project seems to be creating an interdisiplinary overview of cybernetics and systems science. And at the same time, it tries to build a new philosophy, a new world-view, entirely built upon cybernetic theory. How do the PCP-people achieve this goal? They play a little game of meta- thinking: the principles of cybernetics are being applied to themselves!

As cybernetic theory informs our philosophy, so cybernetic technology lets us do things that philosophers of other times could only dream of. Using computer technology, we develop a large philosophical text from many nodes which are linked together with different relationships. Readers can navigate among the many concepts, guided by their individual understanding and interests. Disparate material can be integrated together while being written and read by collaborators from all around the world, undergoing variation and selection. Thus we apply theories about the evolution of cybernetic systems to the practical development of this very system of philosophy.
In other words, the PCP Web is still growing, thereby simulating a giant cybernetic organism, and it will probably never reach a final steady state. You can find the PCP web at . The text you are now reading is only a small introduction to PCP, including some parts of an electronic interview I had with Valentin Turchin and Cliff Joslyn, two devoted founders of the project.


We have multiple goals at different levels, and they interact in a rather complex way. Our primary goal is to construct a coherent, whole philosophy from the perspective of cybernetics and systems theory (see cybsysth.html); and we want to do that by moving towards consensus-building over a long period of time collaboratively among the editors, our community of colleagues, and the wider community as well.

Another goal is to have the content and the form of that philosophy affect each other. Reflecting Whitehead and Russel's Principia Mathematica, which attempted to develop mathematical principles in terms of themselves, Principia Cybernetica attempts to develop cybernetic principles using cybernetic principles themselves. In this context, it means cybernetic technology. Thus we try to use computer and web-based technologies to implement a knowledge-structure both about and using the concepts of freedom, constraint, control, evolution, and meta-system transitions.

In order to elaborate on the principles of the Principia Cybernetica Project and its fundamental philosophy, a few things have to be clarified. For instance, the notion of "meta" should be explained. It's a word that everyone in computer science uses every now and again, but we have to be very specific here. How would you explain the term "meta" to a layman?


"Meta" in Greek meant "after", but in modern usage has come to mean "self-application". This is "of"-ness in English: meta-history is history-of-history; meta-language is a language-of-language: a language in which you discuss another language; meta-analysis is a study of other studies; etc. In cybernetics, a meta-system is a system-of-systems, or a system whose parts are in turn other systems.

The correct use of the term can be very important. For example, in the PCP Web ( sup-meta.html), we describe meta-beings strictly as organisms-of-organisms. We are, in fact, meta-beings, since each cell in our body is in fact another organism. Meta-beings are distinguished from super-beings like societies, which are collections of organisms, but not organisms in their own right. The society-as-organism metaphor is very strong in social thought, but fails in some important conditions, and we feel that this lack of distinction can cause serious problems in understanding and analysis.

Informally, "meta" is something which includes control of one entity over other entities (typically, many other entities). A metasystem transition is creation of such a system from individual "lower level" entities. Formation of multicellar organisms from individual cells is an example. The term "control" is understood in a very wide sense, including investigation, modification, reproduction. Control is not necessarily compulsion, by no means! If somebody takes your hand and shows a way out of a maze, this is one of the forms of control.

Secondly, it would be a good idea to give a short introduction to the field of cybernetics, so that we all know what we're talking about. Cybsysth.html would be a good place to get this introduction. We can compare cybernetics to mathematics in the following way:

Both mathematics and cybernetics are in the first place metadisciplines: they do not describe concrete objects or specific parts of the world; they describe abstract structures and processes that can be used to understand and model the world. In other words they consist of models about how to build and use models: metamodels (Van Gigh, 1986). This meta-theoretical point of view is emphasized in particular in the so-called "second order cybernetics" (von Foerster, 1979; 1981), which studies how observers construct models.

Let us proceed with the differences between cybernetics and mathematics. Mathematics is characterized by the following assumptions: simplicity, regularity and invariance; the separability of systems into independent elements; and the objective, context-independent, value-free character of knowledge. Cybernetics, on the other hand, emphasizes complexity, variety and process; the fact that elements always interact; and the subjective, context- and value-dependent nature of knowledge. Cybernetics does not deny the value of mathematics; it assumes it but goes beyond it, by trying to encompass phenomena which cannot be represented in a static, unambiguous, formal framework.

OK. So now that we have an understanding of what "meta" means, and we've had an introduction to cybernetics, we can ask about the fundamental principles on which the PCP philosophy is based. What are the basic concepts and assumptions?


Our most important concepts, are, alas, not very fundamental. The central idea is that of the Meta-System Transition (MST), the process whereby new levels of nature emerge through the construction of new levels of control over lower-level subsystems. This is a very complicated idea, however; so as MST Theory is dedicated to a view of systems and nature as an evolving hierarchy of control systems, so much of our work has been devoted to "unpacking" these somewhat simpler, but just as important, concepts of "evolution" and "control" in terms of even simpler ideas.

Below "control" we have a cluster of fundamental concepts which shift in relation to each other depending on which of us you're talking to and what we're thinking at the time, but which we more or less always circle around (see wfissue.html referencing my paper "Semantic Control Systems" in a special issue of the journal World Futures on MSTT which we edited). Perhaps the most important are the dual concepts of freedom and constraint, which have many synonyms: variety and selection, choices and determinism.

Similarly, below "evolution" we have a similar cluster of concepts surrounding "action" and the nature of and kinds of change: equilibration, adaptation, etc. Here also are important concepts surrounding "will" and the nature of ethical action.

You claim that you're sort of "applying the theory to itself" by allowing the Website to grow as people come in and add new stuff. The "selection" of new text-material is the motor of this process. How does this selection take place? Who decides? On what criteria? How "open" is your view? It has to be open if it wants to be able to evolve, I suppose.


This has been a central concern since the beginning of the project. The three editors have developed a great deal of common thought, but of course that can (and should) only be very partial. We also work with many colleagues whose interaction we value very much. But we were also definitely reacting to what we perceived as a lack of consensus in our academic field, the lack of a solid theoretical foundation.

So here self-application of cybernetic principles means first avoiding both the extreme constraint of censorship and the extreme variety of anarchy. And moreover, self-application means using cybernetic systems to solve the problem, that is, allowing the new forms of computer-based knowledge systems to flexibly represent everything from individual to grand consensual opinion simultaneously.

Our first idea was separate nodes for consensus statements, disagreement, and individual discussions. Later we saw that this could be generalized within a highly multidimensional document to allow any level of "collaborative granularity", where communities of differeing sizes could form regions of agreement and disagreement of whatever complexity they could tolerate. In general, the size of the consensual granule and the specificity of its statement are inversely related: the more vague the statement, the easier it is to get everyone to agree.

Actually implementing these ideas has been harder than simply expressing them. We are actively developing mechanisms for such participation and structuring of collaborative work. Watch this space!

We will. In the meantime, are you receiving any support or criticism from the general public?


Both. Different parts of the project draw different responses. The most difficult part is about the future. A superficial reader easily misunderstands our views and gets outraged, calling them anti-Western and totalitarian.
Well, meaby your ideas are quite new. Personally, I think the world isn't quite ready for this kind of big changes in mentality and ways of thinking. Or are they?


We have had a slow, steady interest from the world at large. Obviously, most of our community are from the academy, but I'm constantly surprised at the breadth of backgrounds and the number of countries that we now represent. Most respondents are very positive; a few are skeptical; and a very few are critical. In one famous incident early in the project's history, we were accused of being Stalinists! The idea of the world as a large, hierarchical control system is decidedly out of fashion these days. On first consideration, I can see how someone could make that mistake. The amount of rehabilitation that these ideas require reflects the distance we need to go to get our ideas accepted.
New paradigms and philosophies are always developed by small groups (or even individuals) initially. They are accepted only when (and if) it becomes necessary, as in a time of crisis. Or near crisis. The more radical is the change of the paradigm, the longer it waits to be accepted.

During the Christmas Holidays, I finally found some time to read Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance, a book of which I didn't know it was such a classic. It really made an impression on me, because it puts the entire body of western thinking and science into a different perspective. I get the feeling that projects such as the PCP are sort of doing the same thing, but from another angle.

What do you think of the future of Western thinking?


The history of Western thinking is a history of critical analysis and self-knowledge. I think this will go on. In the ethical dimension, Western thought has been destructive of traditional non-critical solutions. This lies at the root of our current social problems of ethics and human values. It is of vital importance to find a logical place of constructive -- not destructive -- ethics in the frame of critical science-based thinking. One important (maybe the most important) part of PCP is an attempt to grope for a solution of the problem of ethics. Hence my concept of `the will for immortality' in its various forms.
And what about the future of the entire world? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Was the Club of Rome right?


There are only two serious objections that I've every heard of the Club's basic Malthusian analysis. The first is technological escapism: since all prior forecasts of doom were foiled by the capacity of technological advance to increase carrying capacity, therefore future predictions of doom are invalid. This objection is dubious on its face for a variety of reasons, not just the lack of necessity for history to repeat itself, but also that it's a rate-chasing-rate problem: we can already see that exponential population growth will catch up to the necessarily non-exponential technological growth -- in the long run. But, as an economist once said, in the long run we'll all be dead.

The other objection is of the possibility of a victory of rationality: that people will in fact control their populations. This would, indeed, be an MST on an enormous scale: where previously populations were freely at the mercy of the ecological-economic environment (as enabled by their technological capabilities), these would become constrained through the growth of a higher level of control. And I'm not talking necessarily about any Huxlien totalitarian dystopia: MST Theory sees control as much as a bottom-up process where free actors increase their freedom by integration in a whole as of a top-down process with control imposed from above. And indeed, the evidence of fertility dropping with wealth points exactly in that direction. But any "soft landing" for human populations could only come to a vastly impoverished (per capita average) world of the mid-21st century.

- Meer over de toekomst van het westerse denken.

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