While structured as an autobiography, this memoir exemplifies ways in which classic contributions to cybernetics (e.g., by Wiener, McCulloch & Pitts, and von Neumann) have fed into a diversity of current research areas, including the mathematical theory of systems and computation, artificial intelligence and robotics, computational neuroscience, linguistics, and cognitive science. The challenges of brain theory receive special emphasis. Action-oriented perception and schema theory complement neural network modeling in analyzing cerebral cortex, cerebellum, hippocampus, and basal ganglia. Comparative studies of frog, rat, monkey, ape and human not only deepen insights into the human brain but also ground an EvoDevoSocio view of “how the brain got language.” The rapprochement between neuroscience and architecture provides a recent challenge. The essay also assesses some of the social and theological implications of this broad perspective.
Open peer commentary on the article “Cybernetic Foundations for Psychology” by Bernard Scott. Upshot: Scott’s proposal is well-founded and opens interesting possibilities. We selected some critical aspects of his argumentation and discuss them in the context of the constructivist perspective. We highlight as Scott’s “blind spot” his statement - presented without further argument - of the need for a conceptual and theoretical unification of psychology from the perspective of second-order cybernetics. We find this especially worrisome as it is based on only one version of cybernetics.
Arnoldi J. (2006) Autopoiesis. Theory, Culture & Society 23(2–3): 116–117. https://cepa.info/6282
Asaro P. (2007) Heinz von Foerster and the bio-computing movements of the 1960s. In: Müller A. & Müller K. H. (eds.) An unfinished revolution? Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory, BCL, 1959–1976. Edition Echoraum, Vienna: 253–275. https://cepa.info/6625
Excerpt: As I read the cybernetic literature, I became intrigued that as an approach to the mind which was often described as a predecessor to AI, cybernetics had a much more sophisticated approach to mind than its purported successor. I was soon led to Prof. Herbert Brün’s seminar in experimental composition, and to the archives of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) in the basement of the University of Illinois library. Since then, I have been trying to come to terms with what it was that was so special about the BCL, what allowed it to produce such interesting ideas and projects which seem alien and exotic in comparison to what mainstream AI and Cognitive Science produced in the same era. And yet, despite its appealing philosophical depth and technological novelty, it seems to have been largely ignored or forgotten by mainstream research in these areas. I believe that these are the same concerns that many of the authors of the recent issue of Cybernetics and Human Knowing (Brier & Glanville, 2003) express in regard to the legacy of von Foerster and the BCL. How could such an interesting place, full of interesting things and ideas have just disappeared and been largely forgotten, even in its own home town?
Asaro P. M. (2006) Computers as models of the mind: On simulations, brains and the design of early computers. In: Franchi S. & Bianchini F. (eds.) The search for a theory of cognition: Early mechanisms and new ideas. Rodopi, Amsterdam: 89–116. https://cepa.info/5026
Excerpt: The purpose of this essay is to clarify some of the important senses in which the relationship between the brain and the computer might be considered as one of “modeling.” It also considers the meaning of “simulation” in the relationships between models, computers and brains. While there has been a fairly broad literature emerging on models and simulations in science, these have primarily focused on the physical sciences, rather than the mind and brain. And while the cognitive sciences have often invoked concepts of modeling and simulation, they have been frustratingly inconsistent in their use of these terms, and the implicit relations to their scientific roles. My approach is to consider the early convolution of brain models and computational models in cybernetics, with the aim of clarifying their significance for more current debates in the cognitive sciences. It is my belief that clarifying the historical senses in which the brain and computer serve as models of each other in the historical period prior to the birth of AI and cognitive science is a crucial task for an archeology of AI and the history of cognitive science.
Asaro P. M. (2006) On the origins of the synthetic mind: Working models, mechanisms, and simulations. . https://cepa.info/4732
This dissertation reconsiders the nature of scientific models through an historical study of the development of electronic models of the brain by Cybernetics researchers in the 1940s. By examining how these unique models were used in the brain sciences, it develops the concept of a “working model” for the brain sciences. Working models differ from theoretical models in that they are subject to manipulation and interactive experimentation, i.e., they are themselves objects of study and part of material culture. While these electronic brains are often disparaged by historians as toys and publicity stunts, I argue that they mediated between physiological theories of neurons and psychological theories of behavior so as to leverage their compelling material performances against the lack of observational data and sparse theoretical connections between neurology and psychology. I further argue that working models might be used by cognitive science to better understand how the brain develops performative representations of the world.
Atkinson B. J. & Heath A. W. (1990) Further thoughts on second-order family therapy – This time it’s personal. Family Process 29: 145–155. https://cepa.info/4097
A series of articles has recently appeared in which implications of second-order cybernetics for the practice of family therapy have been discussed. In this article, we attempt to advance the discussion by addressing ideas that we think have not been adequately emphasized thus far. Specifically proposed are ideas about conditions that might facilitate the emergence of consciously pragmatic strategy informed by the kind of systemic wisdom that delicately balances natural systems without the benefit of human planning. It is argued that a shift in the personal habits of knowing and acting that typically organize individual human experience is required. After attempting to specify what this shift might involve, implications of these ideas for the practice of family therapy and for human action in general are discussed.
Baecker D. (1996) A note on composition. Systems Research 13(3): 195–204. https://cepa.info/2929
It is characteristic of Heinz von Foerster’s approach to the cybernetics of cybernetics that it combines a sense of tight reasoning with the acknowledgment of fundamental ignorance. The article attempts to uncover an epistemological relationship between the reasoning and the ignorance. The relationship is provided for by a razor which reads: what can be described in relation to its composition, is described in vain in relation to its substance. The razor asks for second-order terms instead of first-order terms, or for ontogenetics instead of ontology.
The paper recalls some skeptical comments Norbert Wiener made regarding the potential use of cybernetics in social sciences. A few social scientists were seduced by cybernetics from the beginning, but cybernetics never really caught on in sociology. The paper argues that one reason for this may lie in the mathematical theory of communication entertained by early cybernetics. This theory which maintains that there are probability distributions of possible communication is at odds with the sociological theory’s idea of a communication driven by improbable understanding. Yet the move from first-order cybernetics to second-order cybernetics, by re-entering the observer into the very systems she observes, provides for a bridge between cybernetics and sociology.
With reference to three seminal books on cybernetics, communication theory and the calculus of distinctions, this article discusses some main threads in Niklas Luhmann’s sociological systems theoretical thinking. It argues that the systems theory, despite its still lively reputation in some quarters of the humanities, is not technocracy’s last attempt to cope with the complexity of modern society. Rather, it is an inquiry into the improbability of communication and into its translation into social structure, or better, into social form.