CEPA eprint 1670 (HVF-089)

On Cybernetics of Cybernetics and Social Theory

Foerster H. von (1981) On Cybernetics of Cybernetics and Social Theory. In: Roth G. & Schwegler H. (eds.) Self-Organizing Systems. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main: 102–105. Available at http://cepa.info/1670
I am extraordinarily impressed by what is going on at this university and in Paderborn, and by the cooperation between Bremen and Paderborn. I think this is the only place in the world where a serious attempt to develop a social theory Is being made. Let me briefly say what I mean by a serious attempt of a social theory.
The fundamental problem of a biologist, of a brain theoretician, of a social scientist, is from a classical, or let’s say from a standard scientific point of view, that nolens volens the theoretician, or the describer of the system he is going to describe, is himself an element of the system. The social scientist excludes himself from the society of which he would like to make a theory. This is not a social theory because he is separated, and he can’t handle himself in that theory, If he is a brain scientist exploring the functioning of the brain, be will find that in the most standard description of the operation of the brain it is always the other brain which is being discussed, but not one’s own brain. Usually, developing a theory of the brain is very easy: I go and open up somebody else’s skull, I put the electrodes into somebody else, then I wiggle something in front of his eyes, and then I see what the brain is doing inside, and then I see and know how the brain reacts. Unfortunately, it is only the other brain that I watch. So, the problem is: how can a brain scientist develop a theory of the brain when the theory of the brain is written in such a fashion that it writes itself? If it does not write itself it is not the theory of the brain, or it is insufficient because it cannot write the theory of the brain. If we would like to discuss the problem of biological entities – we are ourselves biological entities – we have to include ourselves as the observers in the description. So, any theory which is dealing with problems of this sort must be a theory which is – as the usual expression is – self-referential, it must include the observer in the descriptions, and this must be done not implicitly, but explicitly. Orthodox science refuses to allow such inclusions of the observer in the descriptions because in orthodox science it has been observed that at the moment the observer is included in the description paradoxes may arise. Not only may, but always arise sooner or later.
The oldest and a classical paradox is, of course, the one of the man from Crete who says “All Cretans are liars”, or, to make it shorter, “I am a liar.”
Propositions of that sort, which I will make a little bit clearer, have the troublesome property that they are false when they are true and that they are true when they are false. This is of course very painful because you need propositions, one thinks, that are true or false.
The simplest case to be observed is, I think, to see from what a harmless state of affairs, from a proposition not at all weird, something very funny immediately arises. One of the more beautiful expressions of a paradox is the barber in the village who is shaving everybody in the village who does not shave himself. That is, of course, very logical – why should he shave anybody who shaves himself? – as long as he does not ask himself: what should he do with himself? Does he shave himself? Of course, he can’t shave himself because if he would shave himself he would not shave himself because he is one of the people who are shaving themselves. But if he does not shave himself then of course he has to shave himself because he is one of the people who do not shave themselves. So, if he is not shaving himself he has to shave himself and if he shaves himself he mustn’t shave himself… There is the troublesome situation!
According to the classical scientific approach propositions of that sort must be eliminated. Therefore all self-referential allusions must be eliminated, they cannot be included in scientific operation.
Why do I present this point? Because this point arose out of a cybernetic concept in the early stage of cybernetics which I will call .first-order cybernetics or, as my friend Peter Hejl says, “Opa’s steam cybernetics”, an expression I like very much. It comes out, of course, of the ;nineteenth century, from the steam engine etc. By the way, the steam engine was originally also refused by the Royal Society when Watt presented it! They said, it cannot work, you see, there is circular causality here. You see, the valve which is moved back and forth and which opens and c loses, or shifts the entry of the steam into the cylinder, is being operated by the cylinder which in turn is operated by the valve. So it is circular causality, and therefore the steam engine will sit there quietly and never move. But when Watt operated it, it went t–t–t–t–t–t… and it moved very nicely! And circular causality was working very beautifully, and you really need it! You need it all the time, otherwise nothing works.
This means that if you have a paradox, as W. Ross Ashby already pointed out, what is so difficult with a paradox, where A implies B and B implies A, or truth implies falsity and falsity implies truth, you have a bi-stable state, just a system which flip-flops between two states. One you may call True and the other one you may call False. The doorbell is exactly such a system: you press a button, the magnet is activated and pulls the clapper against the bell. The moment the current is interrupted the system is False, the whole thing falls back and goes to the magnet again, so it is True, therefore the magnet is pulling the clapper against the bell, so False again, and you get thus a bi-stable state. On is doing the Off and Off is doing the On. Why such a fuss? That is just a different way of handling logical situations: bi-stable states-of-affairs, monostable states-of­affairs!
Our cybernetics which was essentially beginning with a theory of observing – I would like to call it cybernetics of the first order – is a cybernetics of observed system. I look at the whole thing: what is the system doing? Can I make an interpretation for it, can I make an interpretation in the sense of what is the purpose of that system etc. etc.?
But a second later one asks oneself: how come that I am observing this thing? What are the necessary requirements for observation? What are the functions of observing? So second-order cybernetics became then the “cybernetics of observing systems.” Now, in making that statement there is a pun because it can mean two things: cybernetics of observing systems in the sense that I look at that thing and it is an observer, and what is the theory of an observer?
The second thing that I see: I have the theory of observing, I am myself an observer, so I am doing the observing, I am including myself into the loop of argumentation. And in which way can I handle that? So, my proposition here is now that in the second phase of cybernetic evolution a serious attempt was made to cope with the epistemological and the methodological Grundlagen propositions that appear if you begin seriously to include the observer in the descriptions of his observations. With the first appearance of Maturana’s autopoietic system for us all who were working in this field the suggestion was immediately made that for the first time we can start here with a biological theory of autonomy, because if we do not stipulate autonomy, observation is not an act of interaction or something like that, observation would just be a transducer kind of an idea, the concept of observation will not appear, only the concept of a transducer, a recorder. And this observer that is working here is of course not an observer, it is a recorder, it does not make a transformation onto what is called an input. It turns out of course that language, or an utterance when I hear it, is not an input. It is important to see that language is not unambiguous. The fabulous thing with language is that it is ambiguous, because if it were unambiguous it would not allow for interpretation, and if it does not allow for interpretation it would remain in the domain of reflexology: I am kicked in the behind, and I react like that etc. – and that is not really language at all.
Autonomy is a basic concept for developing a social theory because if you do not have autonomous entities comprising a social system, then you can just forget about the whole theory of a social system because what you get then is only a glue, and you make it an aggregate, or you may have a set of independent parts, you have a glued-together aggregate of elements which are run according to some other device. This means allonomy or heteronomy, and not autonomy. So, starting with this biological foundation of autonomy which is suggested in the concepts of autopoiesis, I would say, some very fascinating pieces of work can come out from this group. The concept of autopoiesis will be more fundamentally grounded, perhaps on the one hand in a formalism which I do not know yet, or maybe in some other devices, so that it will be freed from the narrow contexts which come out directly from biological considerations, and becomes a very wide concept, This would be one beautiful extension. The second thing, if one has such a formal theory or a more expanded theory of autonomy and of autopoiesis, one can begin to think about a social theory which indeed includes the participants, the elements of the social system, in the theory of the system, What I feel here at this conference is indeed that the starts for such concepts are being made. I think the ideas of all the participants are in that direction and I feel this is a very worthwhile direction. The only thing I can say: I would like to encourage you all to participate in this because you would be really among the first in the scientific domain carrying out this programme and take it seriously.
Thank you very much for allowing me to make these comments.
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