Forgotten More Than I’ve Written?

24th year of blogging and, I’m repeating myself a lot as I’m marshalling main threads into (hopefully) book and/or thesis chapters. Cycling through the topics I’m finding stuff I said years ago is pretty good to go mostly unchanged. Kind of embarrassing that I didn’t pull it all together sooner. Contexts and content of current research changed over that period, but so many of the lessons and conclusions are reinforced, just with ever more topical examples.

Fascinating to be interviewed at the weekend by Sevilla King in her “Quality Chat” series, primarily about my Pirsig-related work, and she put up the resulting video yesterday.

As well as kindly describing me as a “unifying and organising force” around the work of Pirsig – The Robert Pirsig Association – she also points out various “gems” I’d written and sufficiently forgotten that she had to remind me I’d written them and where – “very good, if I say so myself”. Anyway it was a fun hour and Sevilla had done her homework.

Very large parts of my agenda covered, even where not obvious that they do still hang very nicely off Pirsig’s evolutionary framework of values, his Metaphysics of Quality, even where the content has evolved well beyond what we might pick-up from Pirsig directly. The evolution is built-in, as apparently I’ve said before 🙂

First came across Sevilla when she introduced me to Karen Wong in “This Little Corner” of the web. First interview with Karen was a little tougher, fading light and brain running out of stamina after around 40 minutes in a full 90 minute evening session. Just realised I never did share that one, but adding here for completeness. Not as good, but still some “gems” in there,

Lots of Vervaeke follow-up for me from that one in two earlier posts.


50th Anniversary Edition of ZMM has Arrived

Not available for sale outside the US & Canada yet, the publisher very kindly let me have 3 copies of the 50th anniversary edition of ZMM published Tuesday last week.

I can confirm that as well as the new Foreword from Matt Crawford, this edition contains both the Author’s Introduction and the Afterword referring to Chris’s death, that were added at the 25th anniversary edition.

I’ll post a review in due course, but if your address is outside the US & Canada head over to the Ant McWatt Go-Fund-Me page and you can have one of the spare copies for a suitable donation.


WOSC or ISSS – “Systems Umbrella”?

(Actually published a week or so ago as a “page” for no good reason – so now as a “post”. In fact was really an early draft of a longer piece, now I have all three presentations mentioned in the final para at “END” below, before all the other post-notes.)

I’ve elaborated my own systems position once or twice before. The idea of systems referring to any “control volume of current interest”, internally and/or environmentally, were ubiquitous from my earliest education and experience, earliest schooldays even. No brainer, just a word for things that involved stuff happening. Not a word I would have worried about “defining” beyond natural language dictionary usage, and still don’t. It’s just about looking at things in terms of their functional relations with other internal and external things. How hard can it be? If something’s complex in time and space, the first step is to think about it systematically. Systems are a response to complexity of multiple things interacting some level of independence, enough to make them a distinct-but-connected thing.

When I started this research quest in 2001, over two decades now on top of over two decades of prior technical / engineering / management experience that involved “modelling” and “implementing” systems, it was Cybernetics that first caught my eye as the formal discipline for thinking about things the systems way. And it stood out from the start because despite the robotic / machine baggage the “cyber” term had picked-up in popular consciousness, it was absolutely clear it was primarily about the human animal and society from it’s conception by 1946 Macy participants, elaborated subsequently by Wiener. It’s why I switched “cyber” to “psyber” in my own work, most communications within and between humans involve the mental. The physical bit is the easy bit.

As we’ve noticed, systems are a response to complexity, and cybernetics is a name for formally considering that in the widest context of human affairs on the planet. Obviously that involves every discipline of knowledge and action known to man. And of course lots of that knowledge was known to man before Cybernetics was coined. There’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all footnotes to Plato anyway. And yet organisation of academic disciplines and communities of practice have spawned any number of competing fields for their different contexts, which given their huge overlapping interests is a recipe for turf-wars. Whose field is the more general or valuable superset of the others?

      • Cybernetics
      • Complexity Science
      • Systems Science(s) / Systems Engineering and/or Applied Systems Science
      • Operations Research / Community (or Social Systems) Operations Research / Management Science

Pleased to discover last night / this morning that plenty of others are concerned about finding more constructive progress for humanity than turf-wars.

However you attempt to fit such things within a shared ontology of disciplines is moot. But I think there are two touch-points where I think we might all agree. The first is that the point at which the rubber hits the road is about doing – about implementing action in this world. Everything before that is some level of abstraction. Thinking in terms of planning and designing the doing. Thinking about the processes and methods of planning and designing (and doing). Thinking about thinking itself – “think before you think”. This latter touch point is about understanding the whole and recognising that the whole is more than just science and engineering. Philosophy. Metaphysics, Ontology and Epistemology. “Epistemological Ontology” as I’ve claimed before, or “Epistemontolgy” as coined by Matthew Shapiro last night.

This morning, it was following-up Stuart Umpleby’s comparison of the different constituencies bulleted above, where they overlap and what makes each distinctive. Discovering that there is another umbrella organisation called WOSC to add to INCOSE and ISSS and …

World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics
WOSC was was founded in 1969, with the desire to support the communication of individuals and organisations related to systems thinking and cybernetics worldwide.

Good news is it doesn’t restrict itself to science and engineering, in name or description, indeed has “systems thinking” in its description alongside the cybernetics. We can avoid the ultimate turf-war between Science (STEM) and the rest of humanity in the world.

Last night and this morning were an ISSS session with presentations (and follow-up) by Stuart Umpleby, Gary Smith and Arantzazu Saratxaga Arregi. Have Gary’s slides – a selection from his previous thorough job on surveying the whole landscape above. Will link when I have all three.



Previously on Psybertron – I’ve suggested – before I’d heard of WOSC – we need a language to cover the whole, above and beyond the limitations of Science (STEM).

ISSS Washington conference – maybe a paper or led-discussion workshop?

“Finding Language to join-up those with focus on the science and those focussing on the humanistic (intuitive / tacit / spiritual / subjective) aspects of systems-in-action.”

Maybe seeing the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) evolving to being the “International Society for Understanding Systems” (ISUS)

There can be no single Ontology / Glossary, our language needs to span many levels of abstraction.


And this post is effectively part of this series of 4, now 5, very much reinforcing the original proposal, that need to be consolidated into a single “paper”.

1 More than (Orthodox) Science ?

2 Humanistic Cybernetics ?

3 Synergy or Emergence ?

4 What’s in a name (Psybernetics) ?

(All my posts are connected, obviously, but these 4 (now 5) specifically form a linked thread. They reflect a real-life developing dialogue, but there is a logical dialectic in the argument, so in order, do not pass go, etc. And because they were written as four (now five) stand-alone posts, there’s a fair bit of repetition in content and preamble – clearly can condense into one paper shorter than the sum of the five.)

Psybernetics ?

Never really approved of neologisms as a way of avoiding the baggage of perfectly serviceable existing words and language. Two reasons:

First, that it implies some “invention” of the concept not just the word, and that invention implies some proprietorial – copyright – interest in its use, even if the idea is as old as the Greeks. (Nothing new under the sun, but it’s a big deal in academia that people get “credit” for their own work, just look at the politicisation of the “plagiarism” wars. The “Open” movement is more concerned that humanity’s real interest is that we get the value of the greater understanding, whoever coined the term to join up existing concepts.)

Second, even if the coiner of the term has no proprietary intent, tribes form silos under banners naming their schools of thought – sometimes literal disciplines, departments and schools – with the terms that distinguish them from neighbouring tribes – the book title of their founding or inspirational hero. Coining a new term just creates an additional unnecessary competing silo, when the existing tribes already cover 99% of the same intent.

Get over it, I say. Focus on the value of the ideas and their application, to humanity that is, not to your – terminologically branded- funding stream.

Anyway, I couldn’t help notice I’d kinda already coined a term, incidentally in giving the name 20+ years ago to my own on-line research & blogging project “Psybertron”.

As well as the recent synergy vs emergence (non-)question, we’re mired in the whole branding of approaches under “systems”. Systems Thinking, Systems Science(s), Complexity Science(s), Systems Theory(ies) Systems Engineering, Operations Research, Systems Methodology(ies) each with their own qualifiers Living, Viable, Critical, Social, Community, you name it, literally. Whichever, they’re all multi-discipline and yes they all arose with some distinguishing feature – a good fence – a focus on one important aspect (eg Requisite Variety say?) among many shared features. They have their distinctions and distinct intended scopes of applicability, but they 99% overlap.

Having concluded in 2002 that the original coining of Cybernetics around Macy 1946 was already aimed at the maximum application of systems thought for humanity, life before machine, control in not control of, in Wiener’s title and in Dupuy’s own summary, I had already coined “Psybertron” in 2001 deliberately to rhyme with “Cyber” but to emphasise that human psychological focus. I already knew. Clearly, most people in the late 20th C heard cybernetics as control systems engineering even though it was never the intent of the word – not just engineered machines, but all systems, natural, human and social, involve information communications, internal and external, feeding backwards, forwards and every which way.

More recently I’ve tended to use “Systems Thinking” as the most general, neutral, innocuous abstract expression of the topic (whilst acknowledging it was already the intent of Cybernetics itself) – it just avoids unnecessary word-game-wars.

Maybe it could be Psybernetics © … 😊

Seriously, I really don’t care. I just want people to focus on all the how and why questions, the understandings and explanations, and their applications – not what we call things. And remember that “we” are humans not machines.


More on Psybertron:
This post is effectively one of a connected set of 4.

1 More than (Orthodox) Science ?

2 Humanistic Cybernetics ?

3 Synergy or Emergence ?

4 What’s in a name (Psybernetics) ?

(All my posts are connected, obviously, but these 4 specifically form a linked thread. They reflect a real-life developing dialogue, and there is a logical dialectic in the argument, so in order, do not pass go, etc.)


Synergy or Emergence?

Whichever word we choose (*1) – synergy or emergence – to represent systematic parts (internal and/or external) interacting to create “more than the sum of the parts” (*2), what really matters is that we have an explanation and understanding of how IT happens (*3). How synergy leads to emergence of entirely new entities and behaviours, not just evolution of the original entities.

(*1) All words carry baggage and all words start with a metaphorical element before they reify into a worldview of presumed reality. Words matter, but IT matters more than the word we choose. Either word here is perfectly serviceable and preferences depend on the baggage of the hearer.

(*2) The saying only expresses part of the story. Not just more than the sum, but more than the mathematically computable result. Entities, behaviours and properties arising, not only not predictable from the parts, their properties and their prior / historical arrangements, but not entirely or repeatably caused by, even with hindsight.

(*3) Explanations do exist, it’s just that logically-positive, objectively-deterministic scientists are predisposed to deny the possibility of such explanations beyond a mechanistically physical scientific orthodoxy. [There’s more to life than (orthodox) science.]  The problem is the denial not the explanations.


Surely, Conway’s (1970) “Game of Life” is the starting point (*4). Even with explicit algorithmic behaviours of the fundamental elements, even with low levels of – and low numbers of levels of – complexity we get very quickly that the “synergy” of the elements-plus-algorithms leads to “emergence” of structures whose own behaviours are not derivable from the elemental algorithms even though these structures are by definition entirely computable.

Then Hofstadter / Dennett … and all the mid-20th C heroes of systems thinking … plus the usual 18th / 19th C thermodynamic / informational sources.

Then Friston / Solms / McGilchrist / Mitchell … in the 21st C


(*4) Conway’s Game of Life:

This is an old but comprehensive Cornell description of the rules, structures and behaviours, with some early computer simulations linked too. Once you get what it’s about, there are many modern configurable computer simulations out there in 2024. (Above the “Glider Gun” by Gosper.)


More on Psybertron:
This post is effectively one of a connected set of 4.

1 More than (Orthodox) Science ?

2 Humanistic Cybernetics ?

3 Synergy or Emergence ?

4 What’s in a name (Psybernetics) ?

(All my posts are connected, obviously, but these 4 specifically form a linked thread. They reflect a real-life developing dialogue, but there is a logical dialectic in the argument, so in order, do not pass go, etc.)


Metzinger’s – Elephant and the Blind

Mentioned Thomas Metzinger a few times before, so was interested in his new book. Sadly expensive as a book, so initially on the unbought as well as unread library list, but in fact MIT Press Direct has a free online copy:

[Love that version of the image of the blind men getting to grips with a large complex problem, not a version I’d seen before, but back in the late 80’s / early 90’s every systems engineer, me included, had one in their slide deck (after the obligatory iceberg image, obviously, the small visible part of a very large obstacle).]

A Time for Reckoning?

I keep falling foul of my use of the word “computation” being taken as the formal “machine” kind intended by Turing, algorithmic at the level of interest with all the corollaries of computability and halting/decidability and Gödelian incompleteness.

I just use it to mean processing (inc. communication) of information quite generally – however it’s done, whether particles exchanging photons or electrons say (information being the complement of entropy in physical system thermodynamics) or whether organismic, human and/or social systems making decisions.

However I intend it’s use, I’m not reducing organisms to that level of deterministic physics machine, even if I’m OK with thinking of them / us as a special kind of “soft machine”. All the interesting “machines” involve formally non-computable levels of emergence, because their complexity is many layered. Dynamical systems where causation is multi-directional.

My smartphone may be a computing machine, but it’s not a very interesting one until our system control volume includes our human brains, eyes and thumbs in real time, locally and remotely. That’s an altogether different kind of “computing machine”. A system complex enough that some layers involve the “algorithm-breaking” agency of free will.

So, I still suspect the whole involves – is based-on – formal “computable” algorithmic computation, right down to fundamental physics of quantum bits, even if the biological and mental level processes are not themselves of that kind. Of course, for me, that’s a metaphysical statement about the basis of even physics long before we get to the sentient living. At this level of abstraction I’m not so interested in the details of computability, even though I appreciate many are for their own good reasons.

Maybe if, instead of “Computation”, I used the word “Reckoning” for this most generic / abstract sense of processing information for decision-making purposes.

What do you reckon?


Hat tip to Yogi Yaeger for a clarifying discussion on Mastodon.
Useful, even if all outstanding misunderstandings are mine 🙂


Whiteheadian or Not?

Just to capture a couple of new “process view” resources for me.

Naomi de Ruiter in the first and Dan Nicholson in the second:

The Dissenter Podcast on Spotify

And Brain Inspired on YouTube

Hat tip to Kevin Mitchell’s timeline for both.

Obviously Whitehead is an inspiration, an important reference used, but Dan claims not to be “a Whiteheadian”. Whitehead made his own “neologistic” word choices for process aspects he wanted to pin-down as “entities” in his metaphysics, but clearly these don’t exhaust all possibilities and still drive “exegesis” in interpreting details of what he actually intended – philosophy was ever thus. There’s an ethical choice in pinning named things into an ontology – Yay! And anyway, the real value is in the abstraction.

Yay again!
The Devil’s in the details, but 
The Angels are in the abstraction.


Dan Nicholson’s “Everything Flows” added to my book list.