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Contemporary Philosophy

The Significance of System Cybernetics for Contemporary Philosophy- Post-Modernity in System Cybernetics

Keizo Satoh
Saitama University

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ABSTRACT: I call the union of cybernetics and systems theory 'Systems Cybernetics.' Cybernetics and systems theory might be thought of a major source of today's striking development in cyber-technology, the science of complex adaptive systems, and so on. Since their genesis about the middle of this century, these two have gradually come to be connected with each other such that they have now formed an integrative theory which can be called Systems Cybernetics. This article pays attention to its aspects which are often overlooked, but which have profound significance for contemporary philosophy and our handling of various problems posed by modern societies. I insist that the dominant factors of European modernization are primarily economic and technological, though modernity has often been characterized by philosophical and scientific rationalism. I also insist that there are several problems which deserve particular attention but are made invisible by the economic and technological inclination of the modern mind. In such a context, the problem of reductionism in modern science and the concept of subject detached from its surroundings are discussed. In order to cope with these problems, main theories of System Cybernetics are applied. Post-modern System Cybernetics — which will be illustrated — is also expected to play an active part.

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I am Japanese, and now feel keenly that Japan has been under an accelerating modernization. For example, we are now facing to so-called cyber-revolution, financial Big Ban and so on. On the other hand, the international conference for preventing the temperature rising of the earth caused by carbon dioxide was held in Kyoto just in December, 1997. These situations have made me convinced more and more firmly that system cybernetics has a particular significance for our consideration of the problems in modernization.

I specialize in philosophy of science ('theory of science' in a more exact expression), and have long been interested in N. Wiener's cybernetics as well as General System Theory founded by L. von Bertalanffy, while proposing for a decade or so to call the union of these two 'system cybernetics'. In this paper, the significance of system cybernetics in dealing with the problems related to modernization, and its post-modernity as well, will be discussed, together with its relation to philosophy.

I am very grateful for the opportunity of submitting this article which may be published just in 1998, the fiftieth memorial year since the publication of Wiener's book, Cybernetics.

First, some remarks have to be made on the accepted view of the role of philosophy and science in the European modernization.

1. Was the European Modernization led by Philosophy and Science?

It is a matter for regret that I have to make first a comment which throws doubt on common high estimate of the role of philosophy and science in the European modernization. It is often said that the European modernization was brought about and led by the philosophy and science of the 17th century, especially by Descartes and Newton. If it is true, it will be quite delightful for me, because I have great respect for philosophy and science. But we have to know what actually happened.

Many books on the European history of science tell us that before the 17th century there had already been a great many events to be considered to prepare for modernization. They are, for example, absorption of the philosophy and science of ancient Greek, introduction and European way of usage of Oriental technology such as gunpowder and magnet compasses which opened the era of the World-wide Voyage, and so on. Above all, the most remarkable is the 16th century when the very pioneers of modern industry appeared, including Agricola, and Biringuccio. In this century occurred also punishment of Thomas More in England which accompanied England's rejection of the reign by Pope and opened the way to the establishment of the first definite form of modern nation state in Europe.

So, it may be concluded that the philosophy of Descartes, and of Francis Bacon as well, were not so much the fathers of the modernization as the consequences of the many preceding movements. At least, it must be denied that modernization suddenly began with Descartes and Newton as if there had previously been no preparation for it. The rising of science was more delayed, because what can truly be regarded as science, say Newton's Principia, appeared as late as 1687. Moreover, it seems reasonable to think that the dominant and effective factors of the European modernization are closely related to economic and technological activities which started at a couple of centuries or so before the 17th century and are still now becoming more and more powerful. In this respect, the beginning of Japanese modernization is suggestive. We know that Japanese modernization started with the visit of Perry, an American Admiral, of 1853. Since then, Japan came to have contacts with the Western modern civilization. But, most of what came to be known to Japanese since then were the overwhelming and threatening military and industrial powers, rather than philosophical and scientific rationalism or democratic idea of politics.

Now, we may think the dominant factors, penetrating through the whole history of the European modernization and even now expanding toward the many regions in Asia, to be of primarily econo-technological nature. Then, putting in an exaggerated expression, as philosophy was a servant of theology in the medieval times, so philosophy as well as science are subordinated to economy and technology today. It may clearly be seen now in the fact that many Japanese young students are rich enough to be able to enjoy luxurious shopping and carry with them portable telephone apparatus while most of them hate mathematics and physics and know neither of Plato nor of Russell. They have scarcely received valuable and important messages from science and philosophy. Then, are we allowed to be satisfied with or misled by a comfortable illusion that the modern age is the age of science and philosophy? It is in such a context as this that system cybernetics is discussed in the next section.

2. System Cybernetic Theories

As I already noted, cyber-revolution is now going on. In a sense, this means a striking development in cybernetics which was proposed by Wiener as a science of control and communication. On the other hand, the success in launching and manipulating many space ships may be thought as glorious victories won by system engineering. So, certain aspects of system cybernetics have gained distinguished results and are well known. But I should like to pay attention mainly to its other aspects some of which still remains ignored.

To begin with, it has to be made clear that Wiener and Bertalanffy severely censured a strong inclination of modern mind for commerciality and technology. In a sense, they were vigorous critics of the modern civilization. But, it does not mean that system cybernetics denies or ignores modern science. While it has opened new perspectives for contemporary science, it has kept up a permanent interest in modern science. Moreover, it has been trying to turn attention not only to what modern science is liable to overlook but to what belongs to modern science but is apt to be ignored. Now, I should like to give a selective account of theories of system cybernetics.

a. On Cybernetics.

It is queer that what was shown as the core of cybernetic viewpoint by Wiener has not yet attracted so much attention. I think his thought is extremely insightful and its deep significance deserves to be paid public attention. In his book, The Human Use of Human Beings, he wrote that life finds its home in some of the local enclaves in which there is a limited and temporary tendency for organization to increase. Its direction is opposed to that of the universe at large which is governed by the law of increase of entropy (the second law of thermodynamics).

This concept of life applies to individual human beings and social systems and so-called complex adaptive systems which have come to be well known in Japan by the publication of not a few books dealing with studies carried out at Santa Fe Institute in USA. Wiener emphasized that these systems can exist only owing to rare and peculiar conditions and are destined to perish after all. His ideas are undoubtedly based upon thermodynamics and statistical dynamics on the one hand, and the evolution theory by Darwin on the other. From these results which had been brought about by modern science, he derived his own ideas and positively constructed a new integrative framework which is quite different from Cartesian and Kantian ones and departed resolutely from the traditional conception of eternity of life and soul connected with conception of Creation of the world by God.

b. On General System Theory

As to General System Theory, it seems to be well known that Bertalanffy offered a holistic thought and argued that there is not something like 'life substance'. He specified life as an emergent property of the whole of an organism formed by its material constituents. In this way, reductionism was criticized and Cartesian dualism of matter and mind was rejected. For, there is neither life nor mind that can exist independently of matter. G. Bateson, one of the most excellent system cyberneticians, offered a similar view in his book, Mind and Nature.

It must be added that the above system cybernetic point of view on mind and matter could be reached only after a great deal of efforts made by modern scientists. It is true that Bertalanffy asserted holism. But he did not say that analytical reductionism of modern science is quite valueless. He argued that it is indispensable but insufficient.

c. On Theory of Dissipative Structures by I. Prigogine

Bertalanffy also proposed the concept of open systems which consist of dynamic processes of exchange between them and their environment. As was in Wiener, here was pointed out the autonomous aspect of the system as well as its dependence on its environment. The theory of dissipative structures presented in thermo-dynamics of non-equilibrium systems by I. Prigogine, which I think to be included in system cybernetics, describes clearly and exactly the conditions for formation of organized structures. According to it, the organized structures can appear and exist within a flow of much energy which accompanies transition from a non-uniform to a uniform distribution of energy (that is increase in entropy ).

d. On Autopoiesis Theory

Autopoiesis theory has made clear another important property of living systems. It is their striking ability to make themselves. The theory also points out that living systems make their boundary by themselves, not by something exterior to them. This theory pointedly emphasizes differences between it and the older forms of cybernetics and system theories. So, system cybernetics seems to be urged to incorporate the autopoiesis theory. Above all, its idea of an inner view-point is particularly relevant to what is discussed in this paper. It makes a marked contrast with detached viewpoint of modern science which only carries out observation and analysis from outside.

e. On Entropy Economics by N. Georgescu-Roegen

Finally I should like to refer to Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's entropy economics, thereby asserting that it is an important constituent of system cybernetics. It introduces the concept of entropy into economics. Usually, energy is paid much attention as one of the central problems of economics. But, as the conservation law of energy tells us, energy neither increases nor decreases even if it takes various forms. Therefore, it should be silly to be anxious about depletion or shortage of energy. What matters is degree of its entropy. The lower its entropy is, the more it is valuable.

Entropy economics says that every object of economic value has a highly ordered structure, hence a low entropy. It also says that man's economic activity cannot elude the entropy law. It means not only that we cannot get something for nothing but that the cost of any economic enterprise is always greater than the product. Therefore, it must be denied that we can overcome every kind of difficulties and obstacles by our economic efforts and advancement of technology.

It is often said that everything has to be considered in a relational viewpoint. We can find such a relational thinking in each of the system cybernetic theories described above. Especially, it is evidently asserted in them that existence and activities of everything are necessarily supported by something else and is inevitably accompanied by some by-products or by-effects. Before the relevance of these system cybernetic theories to philosophy is examined, it must be noted again that considerable parts of these understandings could be obtained from the results brought about by modern science. What is decisive is whether one is willing to take notice of them or not. To those who are not willing to see them, they are invisible. There seem to be many things which modern inclination to economy and technology makes invisible.

3. Philosophy and System Cybernetics.

From Aristotle to Descartes, philosophy and science were not separated. But later, and chiefly by Newton and Kant, they came to be separated. While science has become empirical knowledge, philosophy has established itself as metaphysics. Then, while science has been mainly related to the material world and expected to serve for economic and technological ends, philosophy seemed to form its own world detached from the material world. Thus, it looks like now as if there still remains that Cartesian dualism. What system cybernetics dares to challenge is this dualism. It is noteworthy that there is an outstanding nature common to the two regions separated by the dualism. This can be made clear by examining reductionism.

Modern science is often characterized by reductionism. It prescribes reduction of the whole into its most basic elements. Descartes proposed to apply this most rigorously for certain philosophical reasons. I should like to put my own interpretation here from what I think a sort of system cybernetic point of view. Let's consider from two aspects.

The first is a philosophical or epistemological one. In this aspect, I regard reductionism as a method to be expected to gain a complete understanding and explanation of every object. This method seems to me to promise, in advance as it were, to banish ambiguity and to give us intellectual satisfaction. Man perhaps feels anxiety without it. In this sense, reductionism is a tool employed to give modern man feeling of safety and satisfaction.

The other aspect is practical or industrial. If we are able to know the constituent units of a complex whole, we are in a position to construct it. Really, it must be quite indispensable and perhaps the most reliable means to make what we want to have. Actually, admirable results have already been attained by this way. One of the most successful and outstanding examples of this is genetic engineering where the discovery of genes enables us to manipulate reproduction and growth of organisms.

Needless to say, system cybernetics adopts a holism, though it never denies reductionism entirely. It tries to see an object as a system. Moreover, I have to emphasize here that, in system cybernetics, self thinks himself as a system and sees both himself and its object similarly as systems. At the same time, it also acknowledges that the self is never able to leave the observed world and stand completely outside the world. From this viewpoint, reductionism looks like a typical modern way of thinking. For, it is firmly believed that reductionism can succeed in discovering the laws which determinately specify the behaviors of all the constituent elements of the objects, and it enables us to manipulate the objects as we please. We are also allowed to intervene the world or detach from it as we like. These typically modernistic thoughts can be found not only in econo-technological regions but also in philosophical regions. Thus, it shows a sort of parallelism between econo-technological way of thinking and philosophical or metaphysical way of thinking.

System cybernetics, not only receiving the rich results attained by modern science but also producing new results in the field of science of systems and information, pays a special attention to the problem of relation between subject and object, and between mind and matter. It seems to be unavoidable to think mind quitely related to matter, if we know that software of a computer cannot work at all without its hardware as a physical existence. The same relation holds between mind and body or brain. Not only mind cannot get rid of material constraints but also the mind requires matter as indispensable condition for its operations.

4. Post-Modernity in System Cybernetics

In this section, post-modernity of system cybernetics as summarized by me will be presented. I know some critical comments on the concept of post-modernity made by authors including I. Hacking. Some authors criticize post-modernism by saying that it is polluted by commercialism. I think the concept of post-modernity is important and cannot agree with critics who dislikes it because of its connection to commercialism. In my opinion, what is polluted by commercialism is not post-modernism but modernism.

Whether concerned with commercialism or not, remember that system cybernetics requires a relational way of thinking according to which nothing should be considered and evaluated without taking into account its relation to others and the situation where it finds itself. Everything including economics and technology cannot be judged good or bad independent of its relation and the situation. Then post-modernity of system cybernetics can be found in the concepts such as balance, degree, and moderation. So, post-modernism of system cybernetics seeks for adequate way and moderate degree of development of economy and technology, rejecting the absolute reliance on technology and economics.

At any rate, the concept of post-modernism is not so simple and clear. Then, I will try to bring out the contrast between modernism and post-modernism in the following way. It shows what I think post-modernism is.



* on theory of science aiming at prior establishment of methodology, at least in principle (as in philosophy of science)

start with the achievements attained by modern science (as in system cybernetics as naturalized philosophy and philosophized science)

distinction of science from non-science... demarcation by Popper

boundary of science made by science itself (autopoiesis theory of science)

how to explain scientific activities

how to make effective use of scientific knowledge

* on way of knowing objects seek after the ultimate elements (to manipulate or explain) life is nothing but the sum of genes

see everything as a system (for taking care of a system) quark, water flea, jaguar and we are all systems

isolation, purification, and estimate independent of context

degree, balance, and moderation

*on other aspects thinking activity considered in the sphere of software and virtual world

neuro-computer model of thinking connected to material and bodily sphere

unrestricted expansion of investigation and conquest of the world

sense of thanks and awe through scientific knowledge

illusionary belief in economy and technology

moderate and well-balanced development of economy and technology

Harrodian, Samuelsonian economics

Georgescu-Roegenian economics

selfish gratification of pleasure and curiosity with no reservation

observing myself from outside and observing others from their inside


We are systems, but peculiar systems as human beings. Among many properties unique to human beings, the most characteristic seems to be their ability of self-examination. I hope that philosophy will co-work with science and system cybernetics so as to make us see and examine what techno-economic inclination of modern ages makes invisible to us.

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