18 October 2016

Cybernetics Seminar

I went to a seminar at the uni today on cybernetics. Most of the participants seem to be speaking different versions of English - a kind of self-defeating vocabulary in which none of the questions seem to make sense to the invited guest (and didn't make sense to me). I wasn't very impressed. Smart people often seem to make things more difficult than they need to because otherwise they get bored.

The invited guest kept talking about an "ontology of unknowability" and unfortunately I didn't get the chance to point out that this was an oxymoron - knowability is the domain of epistemology. Ontologies tell us nothing about whether or not something is knowable. Which is why question about the knowledge of non-existent things causes such confusion - the ontological status of a phenomenon tells us nothing about it's knowability.

He also kept insisting that science was an ontology in which everything was knowable. But this hasn't been true since the 1920s when the quantum mechanics established problems like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The quantum universe clearly exists (ontology) but it is almost completely unknowable (epistemology). What we do know has radically changed human culture since it made electronics possible.

The take away was a pragmatic question which was opposed to the usual philosophical question. In ontology we ask what the world is like, but in pragmatics we might ask, "What does the world do?" I think this is an interesting question. One that takes us out of a purely cognitive approach to understanding the world and moves us into an experiential approach.

It's like we focus on what impact the world has on us, which leads to the question of how we respond to that impact, rather than worrying what to think about things.

The other take away is the cybernetics seems to be closely allied to behaviourism and game theory in it's distrust of minds and people. The aim seems to be to remove people from decision making processes and replace them with automatons that specifically do not employ knowledge based or cognitive approaches to problem solving. The human analogue is the physical reflex in which a pain stimulus in the limbs travels to the spinal chord where a response is initiated without involving the brain. And people do not seemed suited to this role.

I'm reminded also of that important component of NeoLiberalism, i.e. free-market economics, where the "market" is a blackbox that magically produces the optimum price for commodities (even though economists have known since the mid-1970s that the mathematics of supply and demand theory don't work - with more than one product or consumer the demand curve can be *any* shape and slope. There is no linear relationship between demand and price in any real world case.

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