Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Cybernetics Society
The School of Pharmacy, University of London, September 1996
© Copyright D J Stewart 1996. All rights reserved.
The Heuristic Way to Knowledge
I argue that there is only one effective way to achieve knowledge: that is by the use of intellect in an incessant, logico-empirical, circular process of discovery.
Historically speaking, the main methodological discovery involved was that the search for certainty, so dear to human beings, never achieves anything; whereas the heuristic approach to knowledge-never being satisfied with what you have achieved so far, but always striving to improve understanding by further discovery-has proved itself by a spectacular and accelerating advance in knowledge and practical know-how over the last four hundred years.
It is a mistake to assert that there are other, equally valid and effective, ways to knowledge; or that there are any areas where this heuristic method cannot, or must not, be used. These mistakes arise from the fallacious belief that there are several different kinds of knowledge. Even the most vehement opponents of the broader claims of the heuristic approach are happy to enjoy the material benefits of its success, and so it has until now usually been identified with the methodology of a science and technology defined in a narrow, and consequently comparatively non-threatening, way.
This restrictiveness is one of the obstacles which cybernetics has to overcome. It is popularly described as being mostly to do with computers, robots, and the like, because its more 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.
The success of the heuristic method has implications far more profound than is usually appreciated. The discovery that there are no 'eternal truths' entails a new understanding of the nature of knowledge itself, and of the meaning of 'truth'-exchanging a dynamic conception for a static one. It also points the way to an ethic of knowledge which has the most far-reaching implications, both theoretical and practical. It opens the way to an heuristic, knowledge-based culture.