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Understanding Science

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"It cannot apply to human beings"

Cybernetics represents a frontier

Cybernetics pushes at an important frontier of knowledge, just because it takes the heuristic method into new, and possibly disputed, territory. This important contribution to knowledge—the ability to enlarge the area of problems which are studied scientifically, by offering new discoveries about human affairs—is felt to be threatening.

Although we live in a time when the material benefits derived from the success of science are an integral part of all our lives, there is also a prevailing fear of, and opposition to, science. This opposition takes many forms, and some of these have a direct effect on the development of cybernetics. Most of the opposition boils down to the claim that science cannot adequately deal with human affairs. If this claim were true, it would follow either that cybernetics is not a part of science, or that it cannot have anything to say about human affairs and had better stick to robots and computers.

Some examples of the claimed inapplicability

1 "Too technical"

"It is too technical and difficult, whereas people have to live their lives according to their abilities, so they need something easier."

Alternatively, "it is too mathematical and precise, and so cannot do justice to social and psychological subject-matter, which is by its nature fuzzy".

People do indeed find the most important parts of cybernetics difficult to understand, but that is not because they are mathematical. In fact, much of the cybernetic analysis of human affairs is quite easy to follow. Problems arise simply because it stirs up emotional resistance.

2 "It only works on a bench or if repeatable"

Another common mistake is to think of science as necessarily something that is done on a bench in a laboratory. This is tied up with the notion that the things studied have to be tightly controlled, and that this can only be done on a bench.

A particular case is the notion that phenomena have to be repeatable before they can be studied scientifically. This is sometimes taken as grounds for asserting that history, for example, could never be a science. You cannot do experiments with history (such as discover what would have happened if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo). But, if that argument were valid, neither could astronomy be a science. An extreme case is that the origins of time and of the universe are now studied heuristically.

It is worth making the point that, strictly speaking, no event is ever repeated. Even the most exact sciences only replicate experiments by engineering the occurrence of events of a theoretically similar class to those which have happened before.

And one of the main contributions that cybernetics can make is to show what are the theoretically similar classes that ought to be used in the analysis of human affairs. (This, incidentally, is what is done with Ternary Analysis and ternary mechanisms.)

3 "Human personality slips through"

The idea that good science can only be done on a bench, because that is where events can be strictly controlled, has also in its time led to the idea that psychology and sociology can never be scientific.

We have to admit that there is a serious point here. It has been necessary for those sciences to develop special methods for controlling the variables in their research. Some psychologists, Hans Eysenck for example, have claimed that only statistical methods are valid, even for the study of such apparently individual things as personality.

This leads us on naturally to the next source of opposition, which is a prevailing notion that human beings are somehow different from the rest of the Universe: they are special in a way which puts them beyond the reach of scientific understanding. It has been said that "science is a coarse mesh through which all the valuable things pass. Human personality slips through—the unique person is something that science cannot reach."

There is certainly a strong emotional need in people to believe this. Perhaps it is related to each individual's need to feel special. Remember Freud's remark about the opposition that was generated by each of the scientific theories which caused a displacement of human beings from the centre of the universe: heliocentric, Darwinian, and (he claimed) Freudian.

4 "Mechanistic conceptions deny free will"

One of the debates has been whether mechanistic conceptions of the world imply that everything is subject to determinism, and one of the consequences has been the idea that human free will is denied by a mechanistic conception.

5 "Science gives no moral guidance (or any other kind)"

This idea is usually founded on Hume's Law—that you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is'. This has led to the notion that no moral guidance can be derived from scientific studies. Unfortunately, most scientists and philosophers seem to be convinced of the truth of this. Furthermore, as Hume's Law also applies to aesthetic and other kinds of preference, it would follow, according to this view, that science cannot give any other kind of guidance either.

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© Copyright D J Stewart 1996, 2003. All rights reserved.

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