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Ternality Theory

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Cybernetics introduced binary mechanism

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, science was conceived as being about matter and energy on the move. The concepts of entropy, information, and probabilistic laws were introduced around a hundred years ago, and, from that time on, science consisted of two domains—the classical one of matter and energy, and a secondary one to accommodate the new concepts.

By the time cybernetics was founded, the Josiah Macy conferences were able to recognise that, in the description of feedback systems, it is the information returned to the input, rather than the energy, that is important (McCulloch, 1955).


Figure button   McCulloch's summary


That constituted the original insight of cybernetics, and it is now well established that cybernetics is an information science, in the sense that there are two domains of scientific concept—the classical one of matter and energy, and the secondary one of information—and that much of the time the first domain is taken for granted.

Following Ashby (Ashby,1956), cybernetics is often conceived of as being entirely concerned with the secondary domain.


Figure button   Ashby's view of cybernetics


From the beginning, cybernetics was recognised as proposing a conception of purposiveness which was mechanistic. The classical one-domain mechanism—concerned only with matter and energy—had traditionally been seen as being inconsistent with teleology, but the mechanisms proposed by cybernetics in its conception of purposiveness were binary—or two-domain—being concerned with information as well as with matter and energy. The information was returned to the input as negative feedback, and this was claimed to be sufficient for purposiveness.

However. it turned out to be a mistake to regard this problem as solved. Cybernetics was accused of distorting the concept of purpose (Taylor, 1950a) (Rosenblueth & Wiener, 1950) (Taylor, 1950b) and evidence that a problem remains even now is the fact that people in the outside world, even after fifty years of cybernetics, continue to insist that no mechanistic conception, as commonly understood, can be adequate for dealing with human affairs. The reason for the difficulty is that the two-domain mechanisms of cybernetics, even though they are more sophisticated than the one-domain mechanisms of the mechanical sciences, still do not make provision for the purpose of the human manager, designer or user.


Figure button   Taylor's objection


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© Copyright D J Stewart 1987, 1998, 2003. All rights reserved.

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