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- An earlier draft was prepared for a conference on Mutual Uses of Cybernetics and Science, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 27-April 1, 1989.
- Department of Management Science, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052.
Recent developments in cybernetics have challenged key tenets in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science constitutes a theory of knowledge which is often called realism. However, the philosophy of science is not a unified field, there are a variety of points of view. Contemporary cybernetics, meanwhile, is developing a philosophy called constructivism. This paper compares cybernetics with two important schools of thought within the philosophy of science, lists several different assumptions which lead to misunderstandings between scientists and cyberneticians, and then suggests a way of resolving the differences, not by rejecting science but by enlarging it.
Cybernetians now focus on the observer in addition to what is observed (Segal, 1986). They are developing a philosophy of constructivism as an alternative to realism (Von Glasersfeld, 1987). Rather than the idea that scientific laws are discovered, as one might discover an island in the ocean, cyberneticians claim that scientific laws are invented to explain regularities in our experiences. Rather than believing that science describes reality, cyberneticians assert that each individual constructs a personal "reality" which fits his or her experiences. One of the motivations for developing this theory is the belief that if people adopt this view, they will become more tolerant of others.
Cyberneticians have distinguished the recent work in cybernetics on constructivist epistemologies from the earlier work on control systems by using the term "second order cybernetics." This term was first used by Heinz von Foerster who defined first order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, whereas second order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observing systems (Von Foerster, 1979). Von Foerster intends the term "observing systems" to be interpreted in two ways -- either systems which observe or the act of observing systems. Gordon Pask made a similar distinction when he defined first order cybernetics as dealing with the purpose of a model, whereas second order cybernetics deals with the purpose of the modeler. Francisco Varela suggested that first order cybernetics is concerned with controlled systems, whereas second order cybernetics is concerned with autonomous systems.
I have proposed two additional conceptions of second order cybernetics (Umpleby, 1979). First order cybernetics can be said to be concerned with interactions among the variables in a system, whereas second order cybernetics is concerned with the interaction between the observer and the observed. The final definition goes beyond the one-brain problem of psychology or artificial intelligence and focuses instead on the n-brain problem of communities or societies. First order cybernetics can be illustrated by theories of social systems, whereas second order cybernetics deals with the interaction between ideas and society. For a summary of the definitions of first and second order cybernetics, see Table 1. 
Table 1. Definitions of First and Second Order Cybernetics FIRST ORDER SECOND ORDER AUTHOR CYBERNETICS CYBERNETICS Von Foerster the cybernetics of the cybernetics of observed systems observing systems Pask the purpose of the purpose of a model a modeler Varela controlled systems autonomous systems Umpleby interaction among interaction between the variables in a observer and system observed Umpleby theories of social theories of the systems interaction between ideas and society
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- ↑ See also 1976/Bateson.