2001 Conference (May 27-29)

Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Stuart A. Umpleby

Types of More General Theories and Strategies for Winning Acceptance of them




A previous paper by this author distinguished between theories that are more general because they are more abstract and theories that are more general because they add a new dimension. Ross Ashby's theories - including the law of requisite variety and the principle of self-organization - are examples of more abstract theories. Heinz von Foerster's conception of second order cybernetics is an example of a theory that adds a new dimension - the idea that the observer should be included within the domain of science. Karl Popper praised theories that can be more extensively tested, and general theories can be. Niels Bohr proposed the correspondence principle, a criterion for judging new theories -- a new theory should reduce to the old theory to which it corresponds for those cases in which the old theory is known to hold. Wladislaw Krajewski claimed that new theories should add a new dimension, a consideration not previously considered or assumed to be zero.

The history of cybernetics in recent decades suggests that these two kinds of more general theories require different strategies to win their acceptance. It appears that the second type of theory is easier to call attention to. One need only ask how the position of the observer affects the observation. More abstract theories seem to be more difficult to call attention to, particularly when the audience is academic specialists. Specialists in one field often see no need for a more general theory that will show the relationship of theories in that field to theories in other fields. Also, more abstract theories cannot stand by themselves. They require the "domain specific knowledge" of existing disciplines to connect theories with observations. It may be that research administrators, who may perceive an advantage in catalyzing research within their institutions, will be more interested in the first type of general theory than specialists within academic disciplines.


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