The Principle of Selective Retention
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The Principle of Selective Retention

Stable configurations are retained, unstable ones are eliminated

This principle is tautological in the sense that stability can be defined as that what does not (easily) change or disappear. Instability then is, by negation, that what tends to vanish or to be replaced by some other configuration, stable or unstable. The word "configuration" denotes any phenomenon that can be distinguished. It includes everything that is called feature, property, state, pattern, structure or system.

The principle can be interpreted as stating a basic distinction between stable configurations and configurations undergoing variation. This distinction has a role in evolution which is as fundamental as that between A and not A in logic. Without negation, we cannot have a system of logic. Without (in)stability we cannot describe evolution. The tautology plays a role similar to the principle of contradiction: "A and not A cannot both be true". The distinction between stable and changing is not as absolute as that between A and not A, though. We do not require a principle of the excluded middle, since it is clear that most configurations are neither absolutely stable nor absolutely unstable, but more or less stable. In this more general formulation, the principle would read:

More stable configurations are less easily eliminated than less stable ones

Reference: Heylighen F. (1992): "Principles of Systems and Cybernetics: an evolutionary perspective", in: Cybernetics and Systems '92, R. Trappl (ed.), (World Science, Singapore), p. 3-10.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Nov 1991


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