Tuesday 11 August 2015

Theory, Method and Reality in Education: A case for Cybernetic Science

All scientific and artistic activity exists at the interface between theory, practices and the experience of the lifeworld. These are three mutually-constraining dimensions. However, I don't think they are separable: they 'flow' into each other in a continuous stream. Perhaps a useful metaphor for expressing their relationship is the trefoil knot:

Theories are the concepts, mechanisms or models which are discursively produced among scientists grounded in a variety of foundations (many of which are incompatible with one another). Practice involves methods and performances which also are discursively produced from the normative practices for the acceptable investigation of theories, acceptable art, and the properties of apparatus, instruments, materials and measuring techniques. The set of available and acceptable theories is constrained by the set of available and acceptable practices, and vice-versa. Both direct their attention at the uncovering of the nature of the 'lifeworld', which may be thought of as representing all possible events in nature. Knowledge of the lifeworld is both constrained by available theories and available methods, and the lifeworld itself constrains theories and methods. The lifeworld of education provides an example: what is possible in education is constrained by conventional theories and conventional research methods, yet shifts in constraints which admit new possibilities of method or theory can then reveal possibilities in education. Scientific progress is always a revealing of the contours of mutual constraint. Scientific and social pathology is a reinforcing of constraints in ignorance or misunderstanding of how they are produced.

Both Hume and Kuhn acknowledged the role of discourse in the production of scientific knowledge. However, Hume's restricting of the production of scientific knowledge to the identification of empirical event regularities in close-system experiments (whilst working for physics where event regularities were unproblematic prior to Einstein and Bohr) doesn't work in the social sciences, and Kuhn tells us that paradigm-shifts even in the physical sciences implicate rich arrays of social phenomena beyond event regularities which are responsible for the establishment of 'acceptable' theories: much of this has to do with the normative institutional structures of science and the academy. At the same time, Popper's 'negative' approach to scientific development - the significance of falsification - presents challenges to scientists which go beyond the rationalism in their theories, and challenge basic psychological issues of ego and socio-economic issues of the social status of scientists, universities and corporations. Even those who acknowledge falsification as a fundamental criterion of scientific knowledge find it extremely hard to practice in reality - particularly in the social sciences. After all, what criteria would be used to falsify a theory of education?

If we examine the three mutually-constraining domains, it is possible to see the discoveries of both physical and social scientists in a new light. In Hume's account, 'causes' are identified in discourse in the light of event regularities. Typically, causes are expressed as descriptions of mechanisms - for example, in Newton's laws of motion, or Boyle's gas law. Hume's regularity theory can be seen as a theory about "surprising" events and "unsurprising" or "confirming" events. An experiment might produce a surprising event. The experiment itself, and its apparatus, is the product of a creative generation of possibilities emerging from available theories and material properties. The surprisingness of a new empirical event is relative to the available theories and models which can or cannot predict it. In the light of a surprise, new methods can be investigated to reproduce the surprise. If the surprise becomes unsurprising with the application of new methods, then there is sufficient ground for the adaptation of existing theory. What emerges in a new theory is a redrawing of the boundary between surprising and unsurprising events as a relation between theory, method and the lifeworld.

In the social sciences, there are similarly surprising and unsurprising events, but these are relative to individual epistemologies as well as the broader discourse. In fact, even in the physical sciences, individual epistemologies (identities, power relations, gender, etc) are also important at the boundary between the surprising and the unsurprising. Empirical practice in the social sciences pursues a different path from that in the physical sciences, and yet fundamentally its objective can remain the same in revealing the boundaries of the surprising and the unsurprising. In the way that physical science theories generate new apparatus for experiment, so social theories generate new ways of investigating society: for example, new technologies might be created. Cybernetic theories offer rich and powerful ways of generating diverse possibilities for the investigation of the lifeworld.

In the social world, some things are more surprising than others: few phenomena are completely unsurprising. Even terrorist attacks and revolutions exist within the realm of expected possibilities, however unlikely or unwelcome we may feel them to be. Revealing the contours of constraint between the lifeworld, practices and theories has a different character in the social sciences to the physical sciences. The determination of the boundary between those theoretically generated ideas which can be found in nature and those which can't entails repeated re-examination of theories and practices in the light of experiences. This is as true of the arts as it is of the social sciences. However, this reflexivity does not mean that the social sciences are not scientific in the same way as the physical sciences; it means that the contours of constraint between the theoretical, practical and experiential are more explicitly entwined than they are in the physical sciences (where at a deep level, they are also tightly integrated).

The pathologies of science result from ignorance of mutual constraint. The physical sciences make ignorance of mutual constraint possible because the regularities they focus on suggest that the human constraints of theories and practices can be bracketed-out. This results in positivism. When similar assumptions about bracketing-out of theoretical, practical or material constraints occurs in social science (as it does in much technological development in education), the result is functionalism. Managerialism is pathological because it assumes that its negative consequences of cruelty and injustice can be bracketed-out in favour of 'reliable' financial accounting: managerialism, like all pathological science, identifies contours of "reality" and blinds itself to those indicators which suggest that the assumed contour is false. Art's reflexivity, by contrast, is focused on getting at the contours which deeply confirm experience at many levels. Art's weakness is that it mystifies its practices.

Cybernetics is a scientific practice which embraces both a theoretical generation of possibilities and a practical exploration of those possibilities in nature. Illustrative of this process is Ross Ashby's cybernetic "Design for a brain". Ashby's aim was to use a body of theory about self-regulating mechanisms to reproduce the complexity of the brain. His question was "what kind of mechanism is self-adapting?" (in other words, a learning mechanism). His theory generated possibilities of hierarchies of mechanisms which would regulate each other. At each stage of his investigation, Ashby ask's himself "this is mechanism I have so far. Now is that what's going on?". In answer to the question, he is interested in the way in which experience (gained through creating machines based on his theory) does not match the mechanism. So he exposes the constraints he has not yet considered. So he thinks again, and generates more possibilities and new technological experiments in the light of a modified theory. Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask operated in much the same way when they were experimenting with biological computers.

Knowledge in cybernetic science emerges from recursively exploring the pattern of constraints between theory, practice and experience. It is gained when new constraints are revealed: when the body of current theory is at some level falsified. Cybernetics itself has become rather focused on its theories at the expense of its practice. This has been unfortunate. The need to revisit its origins lies in the fundamental scientific problems which now face us today in the physical, social and artistic domains. 

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