Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Question:
    What is the contribution of cybernetics to our understanding of systems which determine their own goals?

    Answer by Paul Pangero:
    My interpretation of the question would depend on how he is using the words system, determine, and goal. From the point of view of an external observer, any entity that adapts to changing circumstances by adjusting the limits on its "essential variables" is altering its goals, if we, as observers, choose to use the word "goal" to describe what we see (the ultra stable system). Many scientists/philosophers talk about living systems, and some other adaptive systems, as having this capability. I have some reservations about whether the use of the word "system" would be appropriate here. These entities--living and adaptive--may better be referred to as organisms or mechanisms which, in the context of an environment, form an ecosystem. However, I question whether the word "goal" is appropriate when talking about an ecological system--an organism(s) AND its environment.

    The use of the word "determine" leads me to think that the questioner may have in mind something else, namely entities that experience choice. The phenomenon of choice--the conscious selection from alternatives--is experienced by an observer, arising from within themselves as autonomous entities/systems. The experience of choice among alternatives also includes  the experience of choice among goals. When I observe this in other entities, I am projecting my experience onto that which I am observing.  Without my own experience of choice, I would have no basis for observing it in others. I may describe the behavior of another entity from either the point of view of choice or the point of view of adaptation, depending on what is useful to me at the time, but I refuse to give up the notion that I have the ability to choose.

  2. Question:

    Greetings! I'm a high school student researching the profession of the cyberneticist. I would like some help. Could you please send me information on necessary training, cost of that training, job opportunities, available pay, and anything else which you may think is relevant. Sincerely Yours, John Cirilli

     "Cyberneticist" is not really a profession but a scientific
     specialization in which you can do research on various topics concerned 
    with complex systems and their organization and behavior. There are no official BSc or MSc
     degrees in cybernetics as far as I know, but some universities offer MSc
     programs in systems science, which is closely related, or PhD's in
     cybernetics. For a partial list of centers providing such education see Most people doing cybernetics
     research have a degree in a related discipline, e.g. computer science,
     engineering, mathematics, biology or psychology, and then have
     specialized in cybernetics afterwards.
     Job opportunities and related pay depend on your specific specialization.
     Applications in computer technology or web development are likely to
     offer many job opportunities while specializations in the more theoretical side
     of cybernetics will offer much less. For all other information, please
     check the web page and the pages
     linked to it.

  3. Question:

    Today I got an email from a young faculty member requesting that I tell him the name of a good book for freshmen to study about systems science. This brought me back to a favorite subject: namely my belief that systems science is almost a null set, and so is cybernetics. (Ouch, I am expecting to be pilloried.) There is a subject called the "mathematics of structure". If you look at Flew's Dictionary of Philosophy, you will see that he recognizes Hilbert's view that mathematics consists of just elements and symbols that relate them--series of strokes that are not interpretable. This is a view that I share.

    To organize a science well, one has an obligation to ask (but not to assume) that there may be one or more branches of mathematics that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with concepts from living. The mathematics of structure is particularly important in this regard. It will not do to claim that advocates of this branch are positivistic, insensitive to people, etc., etc. On the contrary, advocates of this are concerned about careful, precise communication in a world filled with ambiguity. This mathematics lends a non-pejorative, non-anything, point of view about hiearchy and cycle. They are seen as structural concepts, but not in terms of any particular type of relationship other than directed connection. Symmetric connection is equally prominent with non-symmetric connection. It is a great pity that systems scientists and cyberneticists continue to ignore this subject which, in its inherent beauty and generality, can provide a foundation to make these subjects more presentable and teachable and yes, learnable.

    It is a great pity that the systems science field was corrupted early in its era by drawing down on differential equations, and that the cybernetics field suffered linguistic pollution by taking up terms that were ill-defined at the source: something that was a key interest of Foucault's.

    As Foucault remarked in some published interviews, communists thought him a fascist, and fascists thought him a communist. I suppose cyberneticists will think him a systems person and systems people will think him a cyberneticist, or perhaps he will not be honored by either group.

    It's true that Foucault was interested in power. But he was not interested in it as most envisage the subject. Rather he was interested in by what means people gained power over others, as a fundamental subject of inquiry. He was also interested in by what means people attain their self image. It is thrust upon them as a means of cementing power over them, as he sometimes discussed? It is something that science defines for them? Is it something they choose knowingly for themselves?

    But most of all he was interested in the foundations of what we call "knowledge". When people assert that something is known, he will ask "what is the history whereby this subject became known, and what is the route by which you came to accept it as known? In this respect, his views were very compatible with those of Charles Sanders Peirce, who is almost totally unknown in both the systems and cybernetics communities, even though he is now coming to be known as America's greatest philosopher (as many moderns now attest). Are systems people and cyberneticians not interested in the origins of their vocabulary? Yes, it is true that Maturana's concept of a shared linguistic domain is a critical one for today--but it is also true that it is worthy to question how such a domain arises.

    One of Foucault's answer is that it arises from founders of discursivity. This answer surely must raise questions like "who invented the language of cybernetics?" Did no one think of those ideas before? (The first paper on a "regulator", i.e., an open-loop controller, appeared in Russian in 1875. Do you know who wrote it?) (Have you ever read the 1934 Bell Labs patent by Black on a "feedback amplifier"? And do you know a use of the term that appeared before that? Do you know why the word "feedback" was chosen by Black? Do you know how Hendrik Bode, also at Bell, described feedback (almost totally differently from Black)? Or does your history begin at a later time, with Wiener or Ashby (fine people, but not in at the founding)?

    I have to tell you that, after editing two systems journals for a grand total of 13 years, I still have no confidence that there exists a systems science, or even much of a systems philosophy? I am sorry. I tried to help it to happen. I am still trying.
    John Warfield

    John and Klaus: Below is my response to Lynne Oetjen-Gerdes question. I
    have not been able to convert what I want to say into mathematical terms,
    in spite of trying. At this point, I consider that a strength of what I am
    trying to point to. If I could say what I want to say in mathematical
    language, I would lose an important aspect of the complexity that I wish
    to convey and one of the key distinctions between these two
    perspectives/approaches. While I agree with you, John, about being clear
    and precise, I do not want the clarity and precision to hide the
    complexities, nuances, and ambiguities of the phenomena being described,
    and which interest me. Perhaps the attempt to be precise and clear in
    natural language contributes to the linguistic pollution of which you
    refer--certainly a dilemma for scientists, but a mecca for artists. For
    now, I find natural language to offer more variety than other languages,
    including graphics, music, dance, etc., although I wish I were fluent in
    all. A mix of descriptions has something to offer, particularly when
    teaching concepts to a group of learners with multiple learning styles. To
    Lynne, on General Systems Theory (GST) and Cybernetics:
    I describe the approach of GST as one that focuses on the purposiveness of
    systems. That is, the way to study (and learn and know and understand) a
    system is to identify its purpose in the context of an environment and to
    draw conclusions about the behavior of the system from the relations
    between it and its environment. Because all systems of any consequence are
    purposeful or purposive, isomorphic mappings across system types, and
    hence across disciplines, become possible and desirable. What is learned
    in one discipline from the point of view of systems theory can be
    generalized to other disciplines.
    In modern cybernetics, the observer serves as the starting point for
    inquiry. The observer is treated as integral to the system being observed
    (experienced), creating closure in the dynamics of observation and action.
    (We can't view a system from some external standpoint.) What we observe as
    behavior is a consequence of the dynamics of operation of our cognitive
    structure; this is not a mapping between a system and its environment, nor
    between an observer and its environment. What we accept as reality is a
    system of explanations that conserve our living as humans. This is not a
    purposive system, simply one (of many) that arises out of our language and
    interaction with each other. As humans, we live in language, and all that
    we know and understand we do in language. With interaction in language
    arises awareness and self-consciousness, and with self-consciousness
    arises the concept of purpose, the idea that we can be deliberate in our
    action. In this context, to use the word purpose as a descriptor of a
    system is to project this quality we attribute to ourselves as humans to
    the system being observed. While this is often a useful way of explaining
    behavior, cybernetics wants to ensure that we are aware of what we are
    doing when we do that.
    While you are correct that the rise of complex adaptive systems and
    self-organization has created some overlaps of interest between those who
    claim to be studying modern cybernetics and those who claim to be studying
    GST, there are still some fundamental distinctions between the two. The
    concept of closure in cybernetic explanation/description implys that all
    phenomena are self-organizing in some way or another, although we may
    choose not to describe them that way; in this case, self-organization does
    not become a distinguishing characteristic of anything except when we
    choose to use it. In GST, systems can be described as open to an
    environment, so that self-organization characterizes some systems and not
    others. In cybernetics, self-organization and dissipation are two sides of
    the same process.
    In modern cybernetics, complex adaptation is a process whereby an organism
    alters its structure in response to perturbations to its dynamics of
    operation in such a way as to conserve its dynamics of operation as a
    living entity. In GST, complex adaptation is a process whereby an organism
    alters its structure in response to changes in its environment; the
    openness of the organism to this environment permits a relational
    arrangement between system variables (organism) and environment variables.
    In cybernetics, any distinction between system and environment is a part
    of the (closed) cognitive structure of an observer, and cannot describe
    the adaptation of the observer herself. The explanation of adaptation must
    be in the dynamics of operation of the observer, not in relational
    arrangements with an environment. It is our language--the language in
    which we live, and the logic(s) embedded therein, that makes this
    GST is useful as a way of thinking about phenomena as an external
    observer, particularly physical phenomena or phenomena that can be treated
    as though they are a part of a physical reality. My interest in modern
    cybernetics stems from an interest and concern with human phenomena,
    interaction between humans, and the human predicament. I find this
    approach quite useful (and desirable) as a way of thinking about language,
    conversation, awareness, self-consciousness, choice and decisionmaking,
    participation, thought and ways of thinking themselves. The recursive
    aspect of a way of thinking about ways of thinking renders cybernetics a
    dynamic way of thinking--constantly changing. It does not and cannot seek
    absolute truth, and as such is not a science in the usual sense. Biology
    may be the only area of inquiry where science has made some sense out of
    this, and in so doing has transformed biology as a science. GST (unless it
    has changed a lot since I was involved with it) assumes that the world can
    be known, and that with that knowledge, we can realize our purpose in it.
    It is not clear to me how GST differs from modern science in this respect.
    I'm sure that I can be corrected on my characterizations of these fields,
    particularly GST. I welcome comments. Larry Richards
    Lou may see a mathematical way of presenting these thoughts; he is one of
    those rare mathematicians who is also an artist in his medium. I echo his
    concern about the rigidity that usually follows the characterization of a
    phenomenon with mathematical structure. The complexity of the distinction
    I am attempting above is in the distinction between looking systems in
    terms of variables and relations (GST) and looking systems in terms of
    dynamics/processes. Cybernetics actually oscillates between these two ways
    of looking, as language does not permit description in pure dynamics. To
    remain true to this way of looking, I need to present the distinction in a
    language that is itself dynamic--changing and changeable. Can mathematics
    serve this role? Lou does it in his presentations of mathematical ideas,
    but the traces left on the paper afterwards do not. Mathematics is a
    formal language, right Lou?. Perhaps that is my problem. However, I am not
    alone. Have at it! Larry

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