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Papers on Ternality Theory
and Ternary Analysis


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Paper presented to the 15th International Congress on Cybernetics,
Namur, Belgium, in August 1998
© Copyright D J Stewart 1998. All rights reserved.

What is Gained by Adding a Third Ontological Domain to those of Energy and Information?

Human Factors Research, UK


It is argued that cybernetics should be using a stratified ontology based on three domains—which respectively contain matter and energy, information, and imparity, and are separated by two discontinuities—rather than the furcated ontology offered by ancient metaphysics, with its single discontinuity between two concrete forms of reality—cosmology and psychology. Stewart (1) proposed that we construct a ternary domanial structure by making use of two discontinuities, each of which was already separately established in the literature, but which had not previously been used together in this way.

Most people still cling to the ancient metaphysics—of matter and mind—and think of the choice offered as about whether to eliminate one of them and, if so, which one. Even if they manage to avoid a surface dualism by denying one of these forms of reality, they may still fall into deep dualism by accepting the validity of the menu. Those who have rejected a surface dualism, while retaining a deep one, are often much occupied with questions of reductionism. It can be demonstrated that, although it is mechanistic, the proposed stratified ontology is not reductionist.

Both the theory and the practice of cybernetics require an ontology that includes categories for goals, policies, conventions, and other entities involved in mechanisms of purposive or directed activity. It is here suggested that rotation of the structure, to give a stratified ontology, is an elegant response to modem discoveries and ways of thinking The menu then becomes mainly about choosing which layers to accept.

This argument ultimately led to the postulation of a Principle of Ternality, and the concept of a 'tern'. This enables us to work with structure across domains, as well as within domains. It also enables us to legitimise the inclusion of imparity and related tertiary matters within the structure in a way that was not possible with previous structured paradigms. These ideas can give a new coherence and elegance to some of the concepts, principles and laws which we need in cybernetics, and can even enable us to discover some new ones. The outcome was a technique of Ternary Analysis.

The positivist assault on metaphysics has left a suspicion about the kind of fundamental propositions that form the substance of this paper, and it is sometimes asked how these proposals may be verified. In reply, it is suggested that their verification lies in their heuristic productivity—which is still an empirical matter.

(1) Stewart, D J, Kybernetes 18, 4, 19-28, 1989.


Namur 1998


© Copyright D J Stewart 1998. All rights reserved.