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Bernard Scott. Sociocybernetic understandings of consciousness. Sociocybernetic Reflections on the Human Condition

Sociocybernetic understandings of consciousness

Bernard Scott


International Center for Sociocybernetic Studies


RC51, Colombia, 2017

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The aim of this paper is to show how sociocybernetics can usefully combine biological, psychological and sociological concepts to provide conceptual clarification and insightful understandings of human consciousness. Following a brief discussion and critique of how the term “consciousness” is used in contemporary cognitive science, awareness and consciousness are characterised in cybernetic terms as the dynamics of self-organising, autopoietic systems and their interactions. Sociocybernetic models of conscious systems are presented and discussed. It is argued that in order to characterise human consciousness it is necessary to make a distinction between bio-mechanical systemic unities and psychosocial systemic unities. Reflexively, this gives rise to a second-order cybernetics in which the observer explains herself to herself. Finally, there is a discussion of how sociocybernetic understandings of consciousness can give guidance for how to create and sustain communities in which good will prevails.

Keywords consciousness, awareness, sociocybernetics




“Everything is in interaction and reciprocal”, Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Cited in Wulf, The Invention of Nature (2015, p. 59).

The aim of this paper is to show how sociocybernetics, using abstract concepts from cybernetics, can usefully combine biological, psychological and sociological concepts to provide conceptual clarification and insightful understandings of human consciousness. The cybernetic concepts that are central in my account include feedback, circular causality, self-organisation, adaptation, organisational closure, autopoiesis and variety management. I also draw o­n ideas, models and empirical work that I have discussed in a number of previous papers and weave them together to construct what I hope is a coherent narrative.

The motivation for writing this paper is to add to our understanding of the human condition. As a species, we live in ‘an age of unreason’, in which we are destroying the ecosystem that supports us (our home), we are killing and oppressing each other, population growth is out of control, we have pathological belief systems in so-called ‘religious faiths’[1], in science, politics and economics.

The paper is structured as follows. There is a brief discussion and critique of how the term ‘consciousness’ is used and abused in contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science (philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence). As a preface to a cybernetic approach to this topic, there is a brief discussion of reflexive cosmogony and process metaphysics. This is followed by a cybernetic characterisation of awareness and consciousness. With these characterisations, we can then say that conscious systems are objects of study in sociocybernetics.Some sociocybernetic models of conscious systems are then presented and discussed. There is then a discussion of how these sociocybernetics understandings of consciousness can give ethical guidance for how to characterise, create and sustain “healthy” communities in which good will prevails. Finally, there are some concluding comments.

Use of the term ‘consciousness’

In cognitive science (which includes cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind) “consciousness” is frequently treated as a kind of “essence” found in subjective experience. Explaining how this essence arises – or may arise – in natural and artificial is referred to as the ‘hard problem’. [2] [3] This approach may be seen as dualistic, in that an o­ntological distinction is made between the world of experience (mind, subjectivity) and the world of matter (brain and body) and also as interactionist, in that a search is made in the latter for that which gives rise to the former. In contrast, in cybernetics, and its precursors in the American pragmatist philosophy (for example, in William James Principles of Psychology, first published in 1898), it assumed that for all subjective experience there is a material (brain, body) correlate, captured in the aphorism, “A thought in the head is like a fist in the hand.”[4]

I propose that the term “consciousness” should be used as proposed by the cyberneticians Warren McCulloch (1965), Heinz von Foerster (2003), Gordon Pask (1975, 1986) and Richard Jung (2007) to refer to “knowing with” (L. con-scire), where the knowing can be with another or with o­neself.[5][6] This usage distinguishes consciousness as a primarily human phenomenon from the more general phenomenon of “awareness” observed in living systems.

Pask, in several early papers and in his book (1975) book, Conversation, Cognition and Learning, presents a cybernetic account of awareness. Awareness is characterised cybernetically as the dynamics of a self-organising, autopoietic (pace, ‘organisationally closed’) system. Such systems are active ‘eaters of variety’. They seek novelty by exploring, and thus enlarging, their environmental niches. They actively adapt to environmental perturbations in an o­ngoing process of variety (uncertainty) generation by exploration and variety (uncertainty) reduction by anticipation. This process can be found in all living systems.[7] According to Pask, it finds its highest expression in humans, who exhibit “a need to learn” (Pask, 1968, p.1). This thesis is the cornerstone of Pask’s work o­n adaptive teaching machines, in which the machines aim to optimise the rate of learning in human learners by presenting problems of increasing difficulty as learning takes place, in such a way as to avoid boredom or overload.

In summary, an observer may distinguish all living systems as showing awareness.[8] She may attribute consciousness to those with whom awareness can be shared as a ‘knowing with’ in a conversational interaction.

Reflexive cosmogony and process metaphysics

“Life is ineluctable and ineffable” (Gordon Pask); “There are undecideables” (Heinz von Foerster); “The world .. is constructed in order to know itself .. Whatever it sees is o­nly partially itself.” (George Spencer-Brown).

I begin this section with the above quotations to emphasise that we humans are a mystery that is part of a mystery. We are faced with undecideable questions such as: How did the world begin (cosmogony)? Is there a purpose to it all? What is life? How does the body work? Are there transcendentals? What happened before the big bang? As von Foerster emphasises, as human beings our ultimate freedom resides in how we choose to answer these undecideable questions. Our answers about our world take the form of stories we tell ourselves, cosmogonies. Insofar as these stories address questions about who, what and why we are, they are reflexive cosmogonies. Where should our stories begin? Answering this question takes us into the realm of metaphysics. Here are some examples of metaphysical starting points.

Pleroma (formless stuff) and Creatura ( the world of distinctions) (Carl Jung, 1916, also cited by Gregory Bateson, 1972); Void (full emptiness) and Not-Void (empty fullness) from Hindu philosophy; Indefiniteness and Form (Richard Jung, 2007); the void and the form of distinction (George Spencer-Brown, 1969). Essentially, these distinctions are saying the same thing: there is the world of undifferentiated, undescribable all; there is the world of distinction and description constructed by observers. Alfred Korzybski (1933) refers to the former as ‘the territory’ and the latter as ‘the map’ in his famous aphorism, “The map is not the territory.”[9]

From classical times, a distinction has been made between cosmogonies that emphasise what the world is made of (its being) as ultimate, unchanging essence or substance and those that emphasise the processes of change (the world’s becoming) as the o­nly constant.[10] To anticipate, cybernetic theories are oriented towards process, how things behave, and look for explanation not in what those things are made of but in how they are organised. Aristotle, often cited as the ‘father of biology’ as well as the ‘father of logic’ has also been claimed (by Gregory Bateson amongst others) as the ‘father of cybernetics’[11] To anticipate the discussion of explanation in cybernetics, the reader may find it helpful to recall Aristotle’s doctrine of the four ‘causes’ necessary to have knowledge of the world around us[12]. In brief, the four causes are ‘material cause’ (what a thing is made of), ‘necessary cause’ (what had to happen to bring the thing about), ‘formal cause’ (the form or idea of a thing), ‘final cause’ (the purpose to which a thing is put).

Erhardt von Demarus, in his (1967) thesis “The Logical Structure of Mind”, offers a variant o­n Aristotle’s schema. He takes the concept of ‘an occasion of experience’ from the ‘organic realist’ process philosophy of Andrew North Whitehead and applies it phenomenologically to the experience of an observer. For von Demarus, such an occasion of experience has four aspects: ‘passage’ in time, ‘extension’ in space, ‘idea’ (the forms distinguished by the observer) and ‘intention’ (the purpose of the observer).

In similar spirit, Richard Jung in his (2009) book, Experience and Action, develops a cybernetic phenomenology in which he distinguishes four explanatory metaphors: two for things that move or behave (ens movens): organisms’ (which respond to stimuli), ‘machines’ ( which perform); and two for things that show purpose (ens volens):mind’ (intentions to act), and ‘templates’ (a ‘semantic plexus’, rules for conduct).[13]

The significance of these schema for cybernetics is that they make clear the richness of phenomena that the study of purposive systems must take into account, whether building purpose (anticipation, goal seeking, goal maintenance, adaptation) into mechanical systems or explaining and modelling purpose in biological, psychological and social systems.

Cybernetic Modelling and Explanation

Ashby (1956 p. 2) states that cybernetics is the study of “all possible machines”. Ashby uses ‘machine’ as a synonym for ‘system’ where a system is that which persists. In Ashby’s view the abstract principles, concepts and principles of cybernetics can be used to model any o­ntological category of system. Cybernetic models feature ‘circular causality’, circuits in which signals about the outcomes of processes are fedback so as to control those processes. Cybernetic models are explanatory. They aim to show how a system is organised. They require interpretation as part of a narrative. Thus a theory is a model together with its interpretation.[14]

In similar spirit, Gordon Pask (1975a, p. 13) states “Cybernetics is the science or art of manipulating defensible metaphors; showing how they can be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence.”

Our interest here is in modelling living systems, which cybernetics categorises as self-organising and autopoietic, self-creating (Maturana and Varela, 1980).I like von Foerster’s succinct definitions: “Autopoiesis is that organization which computes its own organization”; “Autopoietic systems are thermodynamically open but organisationally closed.” (von Foerster, 2003, p. 281).

A propos of our interest in conscious systems, those with which the observer may converse, it is useful to note Pask’s (1969) distinction between taciturn systems and language oriented systems. Taciturn systems are distinguished and observed by an external observer who infers or builds in their goals. Language oriented systems are self-distinguishing and set their own goals. They are interacted with (conversed with) by a participant observer. Aspects of Pask’s distinction were later summed up by von Foerster in his (1974) distinction between a first order cybernetics (the cybernetics of observed systems) and a second order cybernetics (the cybernetics of observing systems, the observation of observation). Thus to attempt to model and understand conscious systems is to study language oriented systems and to engage in second order cybernetics.

With second order cybernetics, the observer is explaining herself to herself in a never-ending hermeneutic narrative and conversational circularity, a spiral of storytelling, agreements, disagreements, understandings and misunderstandings (see figure 1). Here we see the limits of what can be modelled, what can be explained, as alluded to in our earlier discussion of metaphysics and undecideable questions. As Pask (1969) points out, these limits should not be taken as a reason for despair, rather they show the open-ended and creative nature of our attempts to understand ourselves and the world we live in. We can hope for deeper and better understandings of what it is to be human.

Von Foerster insists that social cybernetics[15] is a second order cybernetics: “Social cybernetics must be a second-order cybernetics – a cybernetics of cybernetics – in order that the observer who enters the system shall be allowed to stipulate his own purpose … If we fail to do so, we shall provide the excuses for those who want to transfer the responsibility for their own actions to somebody else.” (von Foerster, 2003, p. 286)

In contrast to positivist approaches to the social sciences (e.g., network science, complexity studies and other approaches in the systems sciences), I agree with a majority of the great sociologists (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, for example)[16] that a distinct category of “the social” is required in the social sciences. This accords well with our earlier discussion of von Demarus’ metaphysical categories: passage, extension, idea and intention (von Demarus).


In the theorising that follows, I make an analytic distinction between organisationally closed bio-mechanical systemic unities, which exhibit passage and extension and organisationally closed psychosocial systemic unities which exhibit idea and intention. I have taken this distinction from Pask who in his cybernetic theory of conversations, refers to the former as Mechanical (M) Individuals and the latter as Psychological (P) Individuals. A P Individual (qua psychosocial unity) has the organisational form of a conversation and may be embodied in o­ne or more M Individuals.[17]

Sociocybernetic models of conscious systems

Cybernetic models help us understand how the brain functions as a complex command and control system. Classic studies include Ross Ashby’s (1948)work o­n ‘ultrastability’ (the brain’s ability to adapt to perturbations), Kilmer, McCulloch et al’s (1969) work o­n the heterarchical organisation of the reticular formation and the brain’s ability to make virtually instantaneous decisions about what ‘mode’ to put the body in (fight, flee, eat, sleep and so o­n), Maturana’s understanding of the brain as an operationally closed neural network and von Foerster’s work o­n how the brain constructs a stable ‘reality’.

I class as ‘sociocybernetic’ those models that address human psychological processes and human interaction.

Figure 2 is an attempt to show the complex dynamic processes that occur as a human learns. The brain/body system is a bio-mechanical unity (M Individual) that actively seeks and processes variety. As it adapts and habituates to the stimuli captured by the sensory systems, it seeks more variety. A number of bodily processes guide and affect the systems. In figure 2, these are labelled: kinaesthesia, with subsystems the proprioceptive and vestibular systems; interoception (sensing of the body’s internal state), algedonic (pain, pleasure) feedback: endocrine and immune systems. There is also feedback through the environment. Motor responses affect sensory inputs, which inform the learner about where she is and what is happening around her. Familiar settings call forth learned responses. Unfamiliar settings induce learning and adaptation that reduces uncertainty. The figure shows the parts of the system where there is awareness and the learner is conscious with herself of what is happening. As an embodied psychosocial unity (P Individual) the learner may set her own goals and direct her own attention.


Figure 2. The dynamics of learning and awareness


As a graduate researcher, under the supervision of Gordon Pask, I carried out a series of studies of how learners acquire keyboard skills. Learners followed different regimes. In control groups, learner’s followed conventional drill and practice methods. In experimental groups, others were taught using adaptive teaching machines that presented stimuli indicating which keys to press at rates which were adapted to the learner’s degree of success. As part of these studies, in 1975, I constructed a computer program model that gave an account how learning takes place. As an aid to exposition, the model had several versions of increasing complexity. The most complex model was called the “Full Typist” model.[18] Here I give a brief description of how the model works. For more about the Typist models and the experimental studies o­n which they were based, see Scott and Bansal (2013, 2014)

The model simulates the acquisition of the skill of touch typing. It explains why proficient touch typists (1) lose access to a conscious knowledge of the skill structure and (2) are frequently aware that an error has been made, prior to the receipt of feedback.

The learner is modelled as a dynamical self-organising system in which achievement of goals is subject to a “free energy” economy. Stimuli (key board characters) are presented as a series of discrete events in which the learner has a limited time in which to respond. Feedback is provided about whether or not the response was successful.

Learning is simulated as an evolutionary process: successful ‘operators’ which decide which finger to move in which direction, are selected from a population of possible responses. If energy is available, complex operators, which combine a particular move with a particular finger, may be constructed from simple operators. There is an advantage from doing this as applying a complex operator takes less energy than applying its simple operators separately. A ‘map’ of the keyboard is constructed so inference rules (logical operators) can be used to reduce the set of possible responses. The interaction of operators applied concurrently is simulated by a set of serial executions of the operators that exhausts the set of possible interactions. With proficiency, conscious knowledge of the keyboard ‘map’ is lost.

Proficient performance is characterised by the state of affairs where “which finger with which move” operators are immediately available and applied and where the keyboard map serves o­nly as an internal template or description of the desired goal that non-consciously confirms or disconfirms what was done. A disconfirmation in the model simulates the situation where the proficient typist becomes aware of making an error: his/her daydream is interrupted and he/she is called upon to attend consciously to the task at hand. The theoretical justification for the form of the simulation is that the cognition of the typist is seen as a unitary organisation in which particular processes go o­n concurrently, autonomously and unconsciously so when they do not conflict. When there is conflict there is uncertainty; the learner becomes aware that something requires her attention. The uncertainty is reduced when the learner decides how to resolve the conflict.

Conversation Theory

The Typist model can be generalised for domains other than touch typing as follows.

In the model, operators are created and evolve that bring about finger movements and key pressing. In general, there are cognitive operators or processes that bring about or maintain a relation in a (given) universe of interpretation. A useful general name for such processes is ‘concepts’. (See figure 3.) Also in the model there are operators (processes) that create and maintain the processes that bring about finger movement and key pressing. In general there are cognitive operators that bring about or maintain concepts, ‘concepts of concepts’. A useful general name for such processes is ‘memories’. In the Full Typist model, the overall process of acquiring and performing the skill has a cyclic form: knowing leads to doing which leads to further knowing and further doing. The process is a whole that reproduces itself in the context of the domain of touch typing.


Figure 3. A concept is a cognitive process that brings about, recalls, recognises or maintains a relation, R.

A stable (organisationally closed) system of concepts and memories is what Pask refers to as a P-Individual (Psychological Individual). (See figure 4.) The terminology is due to Pask as used in conversation theory (Pask, Scott and Kallikourdis 1973, Pask 1975). Conversation theory had its beginnings in studies of skill-learning; its scope was much enlarged by studies of the learning of academic subject matter (Pask and Scott 1972, 1973). Scott (1993) provides an historical account of the development of conversation theory. Scott (2009) provides a summary of conversation theory’s key concepts.


Figure 4. A P-Individual

The Typist model explains key aspects of human cognition: how consciously constructed knowledge becomes proceduralised, how conflict in concurrently executed process may engender the conscious awareness of error and uncertainty.The explanations are necessarily second-order: they explain the observer to herself. As constructor of the model and narrator of the theory that gives it significance, I am aware, in conversation with myself, that in writing this article I have been engaged in learning and the acquisition and performance of skills. Suitably generalised, the theory provides an account of its own genesis. o­ne’s intention to solve a problem and o­ne’s understanding of relevant principles serve as constraints to which evolving concepts must fit. The construction of a satisfactory new concept may happen within a few milliseconds or may require deep thought and gestation over a period of days, weeks or a life time.

Pask’s general term for the dynamics of the cognitive processes of constructing and reconstructing concepts that occur in conversations with o­neself or with others is ‘conceptualisation’. Conceptualisation is conserved (one cannot not conceptualise). This is the o­ngoing process of thinking, imagining and problem solving. Concepts may be refined as new distinctions are made (for example, dogs are distinguished as different breeds. Concepts may be generalised as distinctions are voided (for example, dogs are seen as members of the class, animals). Concepts are applied in particular contexts of action and interaction (as examples: cycling, doing algebra, playing chess). Pask refers to these as ‘conversational domains’. The domains are related by analogies which map similarities and differences (for example, chess has similarities with draughts and other games). We conceptualise selves and others (see figure 5.)


Figure 5. Conceptualising self and others (original drawing by Gordon Pask)

In conversations, the participants conceptualise each other and each other’s perspectives of the others’ perspectives in the dance of reciprocity. Participants ‘provoke’ (Pask’s term) each other to answer questions, explain matters and demonstrate procedures. They teach their understandings back to each other. They agree and may agree to disagree. In so doing the conversation itself takes the form of a P-Individual, a psychosocial unity.

Creating and maintaining healthy communities

“ Speech has enabled ..us.. to conquer every square inch of landsubjugate every creature … and the creation of an internal self ..” Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (2016), p.165.

“With our growing self-consciousness and increasing intelligence we must begin to control tradition and assume a critical attitude toward it, if human relations are ever to change for the better” Albert Einstein (1949).

Thus far I have said little about how consciousness arises and how selves are formed in child development nor have I discussed the central role of language (or ‘languaging’, to use Maturana’s preferred term) in these processes. I have dealt with these topics at some length in other papers (Scott, 2007a, 2011c) drawing o­n classical studies by Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead, John and Elizabeth Newson, Humberto Maturana and others. Rather than revisit these topics in detail, I sum up my thinking in figure 6. There I include my concern with how, if we understand the processes in question, we may, beginning with socially embedded activities (working, playing, learning, teaching and child rearing) and the conversations that arise in them, cultivate communities and societies that exhibit the best practices of creative and harmonious living and what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘cybernetic enlightenment’.[19]

Figure 6. Learning, as communities, to do things better.

Sociocybernetic understandings of consciousness can give ethical guidance for how to characterise, create and sustain ‘healthy’ communities in which good will prevails. They also make it possible to characterise pathologies of consciousness, pathological belief systems and pathological communities and to find effective ways of healing them. If we make progress in these matters, we may o­ne day attain the ideal of a ‘truly human society’ as described by Humberto Maturana.

“A truly human society is …. a non-hierarchical society for which all relations of order are constitutively transitory and circumstantial to the creation of relations that continuously negate the institutionalization of human abuse” (Maturana and Varela, 1980, Introduction, Point 15).

As noted earlier, the business of exploring and understanding the human condition is a creative, open-ended process.


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[1] For a discussion of this concept and the associated concept of pathological belief systems, see Scott (2015).

[3] Following the demise of behaviourism in psychology and its prohibition o­n discussions of consciousness and subjective experience, there has been an explosion of interest in consciousness. See, for example, the Journal of Consciousness Studies, whose first issue was produced in 1994. More than 160 issues have been published since then. The journal’s homepage states that it addresses three key questions: How does the mind relate to the brain? Can computers ever be conscious? What do we mean by subjectivity and the self? (http://www.imprint.co.uk/product/jcs/. (Accessed 14/02/2017).

[4] According to McCulloch (1965), this aphorism originated in Stoic philosophy from the first century AD.

[5] McCulloch (1965) uses the example of medicine, where a physician is tasked to determine whether a patient is “conscious” or not. Both doctor and patient have to be present for each other.

[6] Von Foerster (2003) notes that the term ‘conscience’ has the same etymological roots as ‘conscious’.

[7] In this way, living systems can be seen to be systems that reverse the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy (disorder) in the universe always increases. Living systems generate ‘orderliness’ (also referred to as ‘negative entropy’ or ‘negentropy’. See Avery (2016) for a recent discussion of these dynamics. See Schroedinger (1948) and von Foerster (1960) and Prigogine (1980 )for classic discussions.

[8] See, for example,The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2017).

[9] Von Foerster in his writings frequently cites Korzybski’s aphorism with approval. At a later stage in his thought von Foerster (2003) wryly notes that, given our ignorance of anything else, the map is the territory.

[10] Democritus with his theory of indivisible ‘atoms’ is the classic example of the former; Heraclitus is the most frequently cited philosopher who emphasises change. In more modern times, Shapere (1977) has characterised scientific theories that emphasis what the world is made of as ‘compositional’ and theories of how the world and things in it come into being as ‘evolutionary’.

[11] Since cybernetics emphsasises forms of organisation, rather than particular embodiments, there is a case to be made for claiming Plato also to be a ‘father of cybernetics’.

[12] A useful introduction to this topic can be found here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/ (accessed 12/09/2017).

[13] It would be remiss not to mention in this context the distinction made by Descartes between ‘res extensa’ and ‘res cogitans’. However, it should be noted that Descartes is positing an o­ntological dualism; the schemas I discuss are proposing analytic distinctions, i.e., distinctions made by observers.

[14] See Frank George (1960, chapter 3) for an elegant discussion of this view.

[15] ‘Social cybernetics’ is the term commonly used in the English speaking world. ‘Sociocybernetics’ is more favoured by non-speakers of English. See, for example, https://sociocybernetics.wordpress.com/ .

[16] I particularly like the arguments put forward for the by Peter Winch in his (1958) book, The Idea of a Social Science.

[17] It may be helpful to note that Aristotle referred to living creatures as being ‘empsucho’, ‘ensouled’ by that which organises and animates them (Greek, psuche, in English, soul or ‘psyche’). The ‘souls’ of plants empower growth and reproduction; the ‘souls’ of animals in addition empower sensation and movement; the ‘souls’ of humans add to this the power to reason.


[18] In recent years, with the help of Abhinav Bansal, the Typist models have been reconstructed. The several versions of the models can be accessed o­nlinehttp://

(accessed 13/09/2017).

[19] In Scott (2011b), I set out proposals for a curriculum, adaptable for all ages, that aims to provide ‘education for cybernetic enlightenment’. In Scott (1987, 2002, 2007b, 2010), there are more general discussion of human systems and ‘learning communities’.


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 Obama’s 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 Peace’s 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 world’s 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). Fenelon’s 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). What’s 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: 1–6.

Pask G. (1996). “Heinz von Foerster’s self-organisation, the progenitor of conversation and interaction theories”. Systems Research 13(3): 349–362.

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.

Poerksen, B. (2003). ““At each and every moment, I can decide who I am””, Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 10, 3-4: 9-26.

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: 1–2: 199–205. 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 Pinker’s 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 Ashby’s (1959) concept of “variety”. There is no mention of von Foerster and his second order cybernetic concept of reflexivity.

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