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Bernard Scott. Sociocybernetic Reflections on the Human Condition

Sociocybernetic Reflections o­n the Human Condition


Bernard Scott

ISA Forum Vienna 2016


International Center for Sociocybernetic Studies






Sociocybernetics is concerned with applying concepts from the system sciences to the social sciences. In this paper, I reflect o­n what concepts taken from sociocybernetics can contribute to our understanding of the human condition in the context of the current and emerging global world, with its major issues of ecological crisis, conflict and its consequences, global economic instability and insecurity, and exploitation and inequality. I review some data about the human condition at the global level. I also review models and metaphors concerning what it is to be human at the level the individual. I go o­n to consider how education and reflexive self-improvement may bring improvements to the human condition.

Key words: sociocybernetics, human condition, education, reflexivity, self-improvement.


1. Introduction

We can no longer afford to be the knowing spectators at a global disaster. We must share what competence we have through communication and cooperation in working together through the problems of our time. This is the o­nly way in which we can fulfil our social and individual responsibilities as cyberneticians who should practice what they preach. Responsibilities of competence, Heinz von Foerster (1972, p.4), reprinted in von Foerster, 1993). http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/cybernetics/heinz/competence/competence.pdf [1]

Sociocybernetics is concerned with applying concepts from cybernetics and the system sciences to the social sciences. Talcott Parsons was perhaps the first well-known social theorist who incorporated concepts from cybernetics and systems theory in his work. These concepts remained central in his thinking up to the time of his final meditations o­n the human condition (Parsons, 1978). By this term, I believe Parsons meant a general and profound concern with understanding what it is to be human. In this paper, I reflect o­n what concepts taken from sociocybernetics can contribute to our understanding of the human condition in the context of the current and emerging global world, with its major issues of ecological crisis, conflict and its consequences, global economic instability and insecurity, and exploitation and inequality. In contemporary sociology, Parsons is but o­ne example out of many theorists who have used concepts from sociocybernetics in their work. Others include Niklas Luhmann, Walter Buckley, Gordon Pask, Felix Geyer and Bernd Hornung.

In section 2, I consider the puzzle of who we are and go o­n to set out some aspects of being human that we are likely to agree about and some implications for what our aspirations should be, individually and collectively. In section 3, I refer to some current data about the reality of the human condition. In section 4, I briefly review the variety of categories that we use to describe the human condition. In section 5, I reflect o­n the role of education in providing insight and understanding about being human. In section 6, I discuss reflexivity, personal identity and methods of self-improvement. In section 7, there are some concluding comments.


2. The Puzzle of Who We Are and Why We Are Here

There are many dogmatic belief systems that claim to explain who we are why we are here. All share in common the requirement that certain truths are accepted in faith. There are also many belief systems that counsel against claiming to have the answers. From the Tao Te Ching we have To know not knowing supreme. To not know not knowing faulty (my translation). St Paul, whilst happy to assert many truths for which faith is required, counsels, For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. St. Paul, 1 Corinthians, 13, 12. In more recent times, we have from the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster the assertion that there are undecidable questions and that, We can choose who we wish to become when we have decided o­n an in principle undecidable question (von Foerster, 2003, p. 292) and from another celebrated cybernetician, Gordon Pask (1991), Life is ineffable and ineluctable, i.e., it is unsayable and un-unlockable. o­ne cannot get outside of it to look at it.

There are, perhaps, some things that most of us can agree o­n. Here, I would list the following, all of which are well-supported empirically and logically:

We share o­ne evolving gene pool and o­ne evolving ecosystem.

We are complex, organisationally closed adaptive systems.

We are constructors of knowledge not containers into which knowledge is transferred and deposited.

We distinguish selves and others and may distinguish ourselves doing so.

With these shared understandings, it is possible to discern some oughts, if we are to live harmonious, creative lives. From President Obamas speech at Hiroshima, we have, The radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family: that is the story we all must tell.[2] From the critical pedagogue, Paolo Freire (1970), we have Any situation in which A objectively exploits B or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is o­ne of oppression. From Heinz von Foerster (2003, p. 209), we have, A is better off when B is better off. From a wealth of wisdom literature, we have The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.[3]


3. Some data about our shared reality.

Even a cursory examination of what is happening in the world shows that, as a species, humans are far from having achieved harmony and universal love and respect for o­ne another. Here are some data:

Institute for Economics and Peaces 2015 Global Peace Index shows that o­nly 11 out of 162 countries were not involved in conflict of o­ne kind or another: http://economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Global-Peace-Index-Report-2015_0.pdf (accessed 14/09/2016). According to a list o­n Wikipedia, in the period January to September, 2016, there have been more than 1300 terrorist incidents: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents,_2016 (accessed 14/09/2016). The Global Terrorism Database is an open-source database including information o­n terrorist events around the world from 1970 through 2015. It includes 150,000 cases: https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/ (accessed 14/09/2016).

The Religion of Peace website is a non-partisan, fact-based site which examines the ideological threat that Islam poses to human dignity and freedom. It has a list of Islamic terror attacks for 2016 which records 1671 Islamic attacks in 55 countries, in which 14628 people were killed and 17797 injured: https://www.thereligionofpeace.com/attacks/attacks.aspx?Yr=2016 (accessed 14/09/2016).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Global Trends Report for 2015, 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015 (59.5 million in 2014). o­ne in every 113 people is an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee: https://s3.amazonaws.com/unhcrsharedmedia/2016/2016-06-20-global-trends/2016-06-14-Global-Trends-2015.pdf

Other global issues of serious concern for which data are available include femicide (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femicide), human trafficking (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_trafficking) andslavery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery).[4]

For data and discussion of how we are damaging the ecosystem, see Scott (2009) and Juniper (2016).

For data and discussion about global capitalism and the growth of inequalities, see Dorling (2015), Stiglitz (2013), Pickerty (2015).

Whilst all these tragic events are unfolding, we have from the G7 business as usual economics. The final communiqué from the 2016 summit in Japan set global growth as a priority for dealing with threats to the worlds economy and security http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36394905 (accessed 14/09/2016). This is like saying, In order to put out the fire, we need to throw more logs o­n it.[5]

With Friere (op. cit.), I agree that The structure of domination (false consciousness) is maintained by its own mechanical unconscious functionality. I also submit that, The structure of the myth of endless economic growth has been maintained by its own mechanical and unconscious functionality. (Scott, 2014).


4. Being Human

Our understandings of the human condition are limited by the categories we use when constructing descriptive and explanatory narratives. Many different descriptive categories and have been invoked. In English, in everyday discourse, we have, for example, heart, mind, body, soul and spirit. The influential writings of Sigmund Freud have given us id, ego, superego. The founding analytic categories of Talcott Parsons (1978) are the biological, the psychological, cultural and social. Nicholas Luhmann (1995) distinguishes three main kinds of autopoietic system: biological, psychic and social Gordon Pask distinguishes between biomechanical unities and psychosocial unities, which he refers to as, respectively, Mechanical (M-) Individuals and Psychological (P-) Individuals. G.I. Gurdjieff and his follower, P.D. Ouspensky, distinguish three main centres: the moving centre, the feeling centre and the thinking centre. In his triune theory of the human brain, Paul McLean (1990) distinguishes three kinds of brain: reptilian, paleomammalian and neomammalian.

Here is not the place to discuss, compare and contrast these categories and associated explanatory narratives. Suffice it to say that, in certain contexts, all may be of some use but none has the character of a defining, universally accepted theory. The examples I have given are familiar to educated people in the Western world. There are, of course, many, many more explanatory schemas to be found in the great variety of forms that human cultures can take. There is even some truth in asserting that every human individual has their own version of the truth as they see it. As noted below, such variety is to be welcomed, especially when it is accompanied by the understanding that human freedom rests o­n individuals being be able to decide the answers to undecidable questions for themselves, and that with that freedom goes the obligation of being responsible for the consequences of their decisions.


5. Education

Many commentators have asserted that education is the panacea for the worst ills of the world. However, given that many Islamist terrorists are well-educated by Western standards, as doctors, engineers and other professionals, there is clearly something missing and something extra imposed. How else can such well-educated persons give themselves the permission to kill, maim and enslave innocent people? We can identify pathological belief systems as those that deny the right of actors to interact, that do not apply the Golden Rule universally and that impose dogmas that stifle dissent and freedom of thought. There is also a need to identify effective countermeasures. I have argued elsewhere that, if we are to make serious inroads roads in improving the human condition, what is needed is education for cybernetic enlightenment (Scott, 2014). To put it simply, I call for an education that raises awareness concerning the mystery of our being and the existence of undecidable questions (Latin, e-ducare, to lead out).


6. Reflexivity and Self-Improvement

Whilst our educational institutions (the family, schools, colleges and so o­n) can be encouraged to provide a cybernetically enlightened education, there is more that needs to be done at the individual level. It is necessary to raise awareness that the concept of a stable, integrated self that can make rational decisions and abide by them is largely an illusion. As emphasised in particular by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (op. cit.), as well as many others in the esoteric literature, the self is a plurality, a sometimes conflicting plurality and a plurality blind to its own contradictions. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky argue for a self-improvement regime of working to remember o­neself in order to create a stable integrated self with the qualities that would-be virtuous people aspire to. There are many variants o­n this theme of technologies of the self in the self-help and psychological literatures. Mindfulness and reflective practice are two further examples. Von Foerster presents it as a possible virtue that In each and every moment, I can decide who I am(Poerksen, 2003, p.9) and I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself (von Foerster, 2003, p.257). The key idea is that o­ne can foster reflexivity. This appears to be an idea that has come of age. As Margaret Archer puts it,For the first time in human history the imperative to be reflexive is becoming imperative for all, although manifesting itself in o­nly the most developed parts of the world. (Archer, 2012, p.1)[6].

There are a course some older and ancient roots for these teachings to be found in Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Sufism (A sufi is in the presence of his God all times Scott (2011, p.101); Let us acquire the habit of recalling ourselves to ourselves through the day, and during the course of our employments, by looking simply to God, Abbé Francois de Fenelon (1651-1715) (de Fenelon, 1982, p. 178).


7. Concluding comments

My sociocybernetic reflections o­n the human condition, have led me to conclude that, whatever the many narratives we use to account for them, much of human behaviour is tragically pathological. As a species we are destroying our ecological niche and we are depriving many of our fellow humans of life and liberty. Gurdjieff (1963) bluntly asserts that war is a form of madness, a mass psychosis. I believe that more and more clearly we are as individuals been presented with a choice between the broad way of the mass psychoses of war andthe mass pursuit of economic growth and the narrow way of cybernetic enlightenment As sociocyberneticians, it behoves us to contribute to the emerging global conversation in appropriate and effective ways. The survival of human civilisations is a stake. How do we nurture ourselves without destroying our home? How do develop forms of economic activity and governance that ensure the well-being of all? How do we effectively educate for cybernetic enlightenment? How do we end war and oppression?

I agree with Paolo Freire (op. cit.). There is no true word that is not at the same time a practice. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. I also find myself recalling the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that The meek shall inherit the earth, The Sermon o­n the Mount.



Ashby, W.R. (1956). Introduction to Cybernetics. Wiley, New York

Archer, M. (2012). The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. CUP, 2012.

De Fenelon, F. (1982). Fenelons Spiritual Letters. Christian Books, Augusta ,Maine.

Dorling, D. (2015). Inequality and the 1%. Brooklyn, NY.

Freire, P. (1970). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum Publishing Company, New York.

Gurdjieff, G.I. (1963) Meetings with Remarkable Men. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

Juniper, J. (2016). Whats Really Happening to Our Planet? DK, London.

MacLean, P.D. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution. Plenum Press, New York.

Ouspensky, P.D. (1947). In Search of the Miraculous. Routledge, London.

Parsons, T. (1978). Action Theory and the Human Condition. Free Press, New York.

Pask G. (1991) The right of actors to interact: A fundamental human freedom. In: Glanville R. & de Zeeuw G. (eds.) Mutual Uses of Cybernetics and Science, Volume 2. Systemica 8: 16.

Pask G. (1996). Heinz von Foersters self-organisation, the progenitor of conversation and interaction theories. Systems Research 13(3): 349362.

Piketty, T. (2015). The Economics of Inequality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. Allen Lane, New York.

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Scott, B. (2009). The role of sociocybernetics in understanding world futures. Kybernetes, 38, 6: 867-882.

Scott, B. (2011). Morality and the cybernetics of moral development, Chapter 5 in Explorations in Second-Order Cybernetics: Reflections o­n Cybernetics, Psychology and Education. edition echoraum, Vienna: 97-107.

Scott B. (2014) Education for cybernetic enlightenment. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 21: 12: 199205. http://cepa.info/1286.

Scott, B. (2015). Minds in chains: A sociocybernetic analysis of the Abrahamic faiths.J. of Sociocybernetics, 13, 1. https://papiro.unizar.es/ojs/index.php/rc51-jos/article/view/983 .

Stiglitz, J. (2013). The Price of Inequality. Penguin, New York.

Von Foerster, H. (1972). Responsibilities of competence, J. of Cybernetics, 2, 2: 1-6.

Von Foerster, H. (2003) Understanding Understanding. Springer, New York

[1] Accessed 13/09/2016.

[3] Sadly, some faiths that espouse versions of the Golden Rule, do not apply it universally. Islam is an example (see Scott, 2015).

[4] All sites accessed 14/09/2016.

[5] In a wide ranging, popular and controversial book, Steven Pinker (2011) sets out the thesis that, over millennia, violence has declined. Although I find the thesis seriously flawed, in a short paper I cannot hope to summarise and provide a critique of Pinkers thesis. For such a critical review, I recommend an article by John Gray, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/13/john-gray-steven-pinker-wrong-violence-war-declining (accessed 01/10/2016).

[6] Interestingly, Archer does make mention of cybernetics but o­nly to give an inaccurate account of W. Ross Ashbys (1959) concept of variety. There is no mention of von Foerster and his second order cybernetic concept of reflexivity.

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