Publication 892

Umpleby S. A. (2008) Ross Ashby’s general theory of adaptive systems. International Journal of General Systems 38(2): 231–238. Fulltext at
In the 1950s and 1960s Ross Ashby created a general theory of adaptive systems. His work is well-known among cyberneticians and systems scientists, but not in other fields. This is somewhat surprising, because his theories are more general versions of the theories in many fields. Philosophy of science claims that more general theories are preferred because a small number of propositions can explain many phenomena. Why, then, are Ashby’s theories not widely known and praised? Do scientists really strive for more general, parsimonious theories? This paper reviews the content of Ashby’s theories, discusses what they reveal about how scientists work, and suggests what their role might be in the academic community in the future. Relevance: Since Ashby defines a system as a set of variables selected by an observer, his work is quite compatible with second order cybernetics even though Ashby never directly addressed the issue of the observer or second order cybernetics.

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