Sunday, 7 February 2016

Critical Realism and Cybernetics: A struggle for a perspective on education

I've been trying to finish a book chapter on cybernetics and education. I've got stuck. The reasons why I've got stuck have to do with changes in my orientation not just towards cybernetics, but also to the philosophical perspective which I found valuable in conjunction with cybernetics, Critical Realism.

Both critical realism and cybernetics are, on the surface at least, concerned with mechanism. Critical realism asserts that what exists in the world are causal mechanisms which are, through scientific inquiry, discoverable. There are intransitive mechanisms which exist independently of human agency (mechanisms of physics, for example), and there are transitive mechanisms which exist through human agency. Transitive and intransitive mechanisms are interconnected at different levels where the discovery of mechanisms connects empirically derived knowledge of the transitive and intransitive domains with deep mechanisms of human flourishing: Critical realism connects science to politics. Cybernetics, by comparison, is a scientific practice of building models to explore mechanisms. It is often argued in cybernetics and systems thinking that the relation between a model and reality is one of isomorphism. Cybernetic science (it is argued) can proceed by exploring the isomorphisms, improving the models and making social interventions consistent with the models. Critical realism often criticises cybernetics for considering only 'closed systems' (with feedback), for idealism and scepticism about reality, for ignoring what critical realism sees as the polyvalent structure of mechanisms (so there are mechanisms of biology and physics (intransitive) which interact with transitive mechanisms of norms, politics, positions, rights, obligations, power and so on), and for an elision between the key domains (as critical realism sees it) of human agency and social structure. Despite all this, there are many good scholars who have found the connection between critical realism and cybernetics useful, including John Mingers, Soren Brier, Loet Leydesdorff, John Shotter and Terry Deacon (to name a few). Personally I found the conjunction of cybernetics with the Critical Realist methodology of Realistic Evaluation (Pawson and Tilley) particularly useful.

For my part, I have been more sympathetic to the critical realist position than the cybernetic position - despite the fact that I identify with the cybernetic practice of building models. I tended to see cybernetics as a variety of functionalism which whilst being useful for clarifying concepts, also held within it a pathological blindness to its political implication (something which is indicated in critiques by Horkheimer, Fromm, Ilyenkov and numerous others). At the same time I was also disturbed by the dogmatism of many critical realists, and their lack of criticality concerning their own theories.

Over the last year or so - a period which also saw various personal crises - I've arrived at a different position which tends to be more favourable to the cyberneticians - or at least, to key early figures like Ross Ashby, Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster and Stafford Beer. Two things changed for me.

Firstly, I began to explore Hume's epistemology more carefully - spurred on by Quentin Meillassoux's wonderful "After Finitude" and some careful critique in Christian Smith's "What is a Person?". Hume is very important to critical realism because the CR endeavour is founded on a critique of his epistemology. Now I think Bhaskar's critique is ill-founded, and Hume's scepticism stands up more powerfully (now that we are clearing the layers of varnish off it) than it has done for 200 years. So it is not a given that mechanisms have to be real because scientific laws found in the laboratory are seen to work in open systems (by sending a rocket to the moon, for example). It may be that Bhaskar's right - but we are perhaps safer with Bohr: "physics is the study of what we can say about nature". The assertion of the reality of causes is unsafe for reasons that Hume basically got right.

At the same time, the cybernetic ideas about modelling and isomorphism are equally vulnerable (partly for reasons which critical realists like Tony Lawson identify). Modelling causal mechanisms is a dangerous business because it inevitably creates a fictional ideal world which is a poor guide to the actual environment within which we live. There are many pathologies in the use of models and statistical analysis which has led us into repeated economic and other social crises.

However, some cyberneticians were more clear-sighted in what they were doing. Ross Ashby, in particular, saw the relationship between his theorising, model building and his practical experiments as a process of identifying constraints, not causes. If our scientific knowledge is always going to be speculative (because there can be no objectivity for the cyberneticians), the scientific process is one of generating logical possibilities from models, and then exploring which of them can not be found in nature. Knowledge emerges through the identification of constraint. On reflecting on my own practice, I think this is a better description of what I do. I also think it helps shed light on a range of phenomena in education about which we have been silent - most importantly, human relations and intersubjectivity.

This is where I now am - but it has been a struggle, and my chapter is only slowly emerging. Hume remains a key figure. He was right that scientific knowledge lay in discourse. He was wrong in thinking that it was 'causes' which were agreed (he can be forgiven because it was the scholastic idea of causation which he was attacking). To say that it is constraints which are agreed opens many new doors - particularly onto the enormously complex, multi-variate (although variables have causal connotations!) and obscure phenomena we see in education.

1 comment:

Jim Williamson said...

Hi Mark - I wish I knew the answer to your dilemma, but I was very aware that when my father wrote his book on Marxism, he looked at emergent properties from scientific principles when applied through from physics, through biology and evolution to economics, he commented that he could not go into consciousness, and that is where it gets interesting. I also saw a web-site with a powerpoint explanation of the interaction of the amygdala and the cerebral cortex - an issue that seems completely ignored by the AI brigade. I feel that consciousness is in that interaction, but that we are permanently moving from analysing a partially remembered history to projecting our hopes and fears about the future.

Douglas Adams hit a writers block when writing the HitchHikers Guide, because he could not think what could happen after the certain death that would follow from being ejected from the Vogon spacecraft. He was told to re-define impossibility, and so the 'infinite improbability engine' was invented.

Find a perspective that sysnhesises both perspectives - and a very long time ago, I studied Hume under Professor Flew at Keele.