General Systems Theory(ies)?

[Draft Holding Post – links being added.]

Cybernetics, like anything else, evolves, so I’m never talking about specific systems theory(ies). I’ve described my own journey every which way through systems engineering to systems thinking under the cybernetic umbrella. I have a nothing new under the sun attitude to any topic, whereby changing language may change the focus on details, but for the main part it’s really expressing a different view of the same underlying conception.

Because I settled on Cybernetics as my key word pretty early on in my Psybertron researches, and because Systems Engineering was merely my day job, I’ve tended to place Norbert Wiener at the centre of my systems constellation. He authored the book with that title as well as being one of the founders of the Macy conferences. Despite my “first cybernetics” focus from the outset on systems of human organisation and decision-making, I’ve also had a strong information and processes (ie computation) focus, so the likes of Shannon, Turing and von-Neumann feature prominently too, the latter also being part of the original Macy conferences. As well as the US axis, the British Ashby, Beer and Pask contribution has been acknowledged, though someone suggested I didn’t give enough credit to Bateson. He too was part of that founding Macy group.

I’ve also had a clear evolutionary thread – everything evolves, as I’ve already said – and in my case thanks to Dennett, like a thousand others I’ve bought the information and computation view to evolution beyond biological genetics – the bridge between the physical and the psychological. It was only through recent Friston-Solms work I really joined-up my cybernetic “systems thinking” with the thinking of evolution as universal computation – even though I’ve had an information / computation metaphysics since I started.

Levenchuk (Systems Thinking 2020)
Solms (Friston-FEP to Conscious Will 2021)

Bridging the physical (biological) with the psychological has been the primary philosophical consideration. The shortcomings of science when it comes to conscious will – I did mention Dennett. Solms and particularly McGilchrist have been very important recently in characterising what those shortcomings are and where their solutions lie.

The backdrop to all of this in the 21st C has been the God vs Science wars – faith vs rationality, whether we think of faith as blind or more broadly pragmatic, and rationality as based solely on relations between objective quantities or including more broadly qualitative and categorical reasoning? One consequence of this “war” has been a much wider polarisation whereby if you’re “anti-God” you are Science-led in everything – as if scientific rationality is the only yardstick of wider knowledge, and thus making it much harder to point out that it isn’t. The polarisation reinforced by the thin-end-of-a wedge response to any concession from the pro-science camp.

Funny thing is I have a part-read copy of von-Bertalanffy’s (1949) “Problems of Life” because it is ex-libris the Library of the Rationalist Press Association. It’s the (1952) version published by Watts and Co – founder of the Rationalist Press whose legacy is now managed by The Rationalist Association & New Humanist, of which I am an active member and until recently served on the Board of Trustees. Very much part of the “free-thought” movement, promotion of rational, natural and secular humanism countering the every-day effects of super-natural & dogmatic faith-based religions. I’ve already found the Sacred Naturalism middle-ground – the common ground between these seemingly incompatible spheres is actually enormous – but that’s a story for another day.

What I had failed to join-up was that, as well as being part of that secular free-thought movement, was von-Bertalanffy’s role in positing General Systems Theory. And what I only just then recalled is that von-Bertalanffy is a significant source reference in McGilchrist’s “The Matter With Things” – particularly for talk of systems as organismic rather than mechanistic machines. Those of us with a fundamental information bent do happily talk of algorithms and computing machines – but we really do mean the organismic “soft-machine” kind. This is exactly how Friston > Solms resolves organic, emergent subjectivity through Markov-Blankets and Active-Inference with causation of wholes more than determined by their parts. It’s another bridge I’m trying to build – when we talk of systems and information processing no-one needs to think of electro-mechanical computing machines – computers. (After all, for most of history, computers were humans.)

So, anyway, I’m reading von-Bertalanffy more closely again – lots of good stuff already. (He even mentions ergodicity, or does he?!) Standby.

2 thoughts on “General Systems Theory(ies)?”

  1. I taught Systems Ecology for 40 odd years at Cornell Univ, Univ Montana and SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. I used V Bertalanfy’s “General Systems Theory” as one of my readings. While I focused on natural ecosystems I was also interested in teaching the generality of many things: e.g. that Ohm’s law of electron transfer, Ficke’s law of molecule movement, Fourier’s law of heat transfer, Darcy’s law of ground water flow , when written in the same unis, were all just Flow = difference in pressure times conductivity (J= k(Q1-Q2) ) .

    Instead of teaching systems as equations and from books I started with a lovely and intense field trip over a weekend in an upstate NY stream where we measured the flow of energy from the sun to the plants to the herbivorous (insects mostly) to the primary carnivores to the top carnivores. The class of 25 or so was divided into 6 teams with lieutenant physical, lieutenant fish and so on. (I was General Hall). It was an exhausting but exhilarating experience. Then I gave the students increasingly difficult and sophisticated assignments to take the data they gathered themselves and turn it into quantitative computational relations in the computer and eventual simulations.

    The last few lectures focused on human societies as ecosystems and economics as properly the study of the flow of energy in society.

    All of this is published and if you are interested contact me at . I am unlikely to find anything posted here.

    Charlie Hall

  2. Hi Charlie, thanks for that. I’m guessing you must have been on yesterday’s talk to follow-up that link, I’m grateful for the comments.
    Yes, I like the flow analogy at all scales across different “energy” systems – written about that elsewhere.

    Also been promoting a physical hands-on version of the Computation (Registry Assembly Programming) exercise for school kids.
    Something my teacher did with us way back in 1972/3 but I’ve never seen mentioned since in a classroom context.

    I would be interested in what you have published – so will contact by email too.


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