second-order cybernetics

by Sebastian Benthall

The mathematical foundations of modern information technology are:

  • The logic of computation and complexity, developed by Turing, Church, and others. These mathematics specify the nature and limits of the algorithm.
  • The mathematics of probability and, by extension, information theory. These specify the conditions and limitations of inference from evidence, and the conditions and limits of communication.

Since the discovery of these mathematical truths and their myriad application, there have been those that have recognized that these truths apply both to physical objects, such as natural life and artificial technology, and also to lived experience, mental concepts, and social life. Humanity and nature obey the same discoverable, mathematical logic. This allowed for a vision of a unified science of communication and control: cybernetics.

There have been many intellectual resistance to these facts. One of the most cogent is Understanding Computers and Cognition, by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores. Terry Winograd is the AI professor who advised the founders of Google. His credentials are beyond question. And so the fact that he coauthored a critique of “rationalist” artificial intelligence with Fernando Flores, Chilean entrepreneur, politician, and philosophy PhD , is significant. In this book, the two authors base their critique of AI on the work of Humberto Maturana, a second-order cyberneticist who believed that life’s organization and phenomenology could be explained by a resonance between organism and environment, structural coupling. Theories of artificial intelligence are incomplete when not embedded in a more comprehensive theory of the logic of life.

I’ve begun studying this logic, which was laid out by Francisco Varela in 1979. Notably, like the other cybernetic logics, it is an account of both physical and phenomenological aspects of life. Significantly Varela claims that his work is a foundation for an observer-inclusive science, which addresses some of the paradoxes of the physicist’s conception of the universe and humanity’s place in it.
y hunch is that these principles can be applied to social scientific phenomena as well, as organizations are just organisms bigger than us. This is a rather strong claim and difficult to test. However, it seems to me after years of study the necessary conclusion of available theory. It also seems consistent with recent trends in economics towards complexity and institutional economics, and the intuition that’s now rather widespread that the economy functions as a complex ecosystem.

This would be a victory for science if we could only formalize these intuitions well enough to either make these theories testable, or to be so communicable as to be recognized as ‘proved’ by any with the wherewithal to study it.