A new look at how we know what we know

Principles of description

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. Now a chapter in “the book” at https://bit.ly/2yXGImr. Last updated 24/02/2021 15:33


The first half the book addresses the questions: What is a system? How does system theory apply to the description of business and software systems? The second half address a more fundamental question: What is a description? This chapter is a brief abstract of principles to be introduced and explained in the chapters to follow.


Descartes is famously said to have started his philosophy from the premise “I think therefore I am”. Psycho-biologists presume more. They presume that, in space and time, there exist animals that can perceive phenomena, remember them and communicate about them.


Implicit in those premises is the idea that there was no description of reality before life. The Darwinian view is that both memories and messages are biological phenomenon that evolved to help animals survive. Remembering and sharing descriptions helps animals to understand, predict and manipulate things in reality, and so, improves their chance of reproducing.

The evolution of intelligence and civilization

“A biological approach to human knowledge naturally gives emphasis to the pragmatist view that theories [descriptions of reality] function as instruments of survival.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Chapter 7a starts with the idea that knowledge is a biological phenomenon. It describes the emergence of human intelligence and civilization from the biological evolution of animals, with reference to symbolic languages and the sharing of knowledge in writing. It discusses the following three principles.


Knowledge and description evolved in biological organisms

The "second order cyberneticians" claimed that

·       knowledge is a biological phenomenon (Maturana, 1970), that

·       each individual constructs his or her own "reality" (Foerster, 1973) and that

·       knowledge "fits" but does not "match" the world of experience (von Glasersfeld, 1987).

Stuart A. Umpleby (1994) The Cybernetics of Conceptual Systems. p. 3.


A good regulator has a description of what it regulates

Here, a regulator is an animal or a machine that either has a model or has access to a model. So, read this triangle from left to right: regulators <have and use> models, which <represent> systems.


The good regulator


<have and use>           <represent>

Regulators    <monitor and regulate >   Systems


The question is not whether an animal or a business has a model; it is how complete and accurate is the model? To which the answers might be both “very incomplete and somewhat inaccurate” and “remarkably, complete and accurate enough”. Thinking about this leads inexorably to the view of description and reality outlined in the following chapters.


Consciousness enables us to compare the past, present and future

Consciousness is a process that, among other things, enables us to compare descriptions of past, present and possible future phenomena.

Describing reality 1: a cybernetic view of description

Chapter 7b identifies three kinds of description (our main interest is in symbolic description) and details the semantics of the epistemological triangle used to illustrate points in other chapters. Read the triangle from left to right: describers <create and use> descriptions, which <represent> phenomena.


Our epistemology


<create and use>              <represent>

Describers <observe and envisage> Phenomena


Descriptions created (in mind, in speech, in writing, in mathematics, wherever) appear at the apex rather than the left of the triangle.

Describing reality 2: a type theory

Chapter7c may be seen as foundational to how we describe things. Alternatively, you can see it as an academic aside of interest to those with a mathematical bent. This chapter declares three principles (below) related to the creation and use of types, and discusses fuzziness in how well real-world things and phenomena instantiate types.


To describe a thing is to typify it in terms of types already understood

“No statement which refers to a ‘reality’ transcending the limits of all sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance” Chapter 1 of “Language truth and logic” A J Ayer.



Every type is a description

There are several set and type theories. In our type theory, a type is an intensional definition; it is a description of one set member.


Type name

Type elaboration

“Even number”

a number divisible by two”.

“Triangle corner”

“an angle between the two lines in a corner of a triangle”


“an animal with feathers and a beak”

“Bird of prey”

“a bird which feeds on other animals”


“a bird of prey with a wide wing span”


Together, the type name and elaboration make an intensional definition or predicate statement of the form illustrated below.


Intensional definition pattern

Predicate statement type

Intensional definition example

Predicate statement instance

A thing

of the named type

is a thing of a more general type

with these particular features.

A thing

of the even number type

is a number

which is divisible by two.


Every description is a type

“The fact is that one cannot in language point to an object without describing it… And in describing a situation, one is not merely ‘registering’ a sense-content; one is classifying it in some way or other, and this means going beyond what is immediately given.” Chapter 5 of “Language truth and logic” A J Ayer.


A description is not categorical – it cannot pin down a single object – since it applies equally to any object in universe that shares the same description. E.g. Physicists say there is nothing in their description of the universe that prevents parallel universes from existing. Think of any particular thing; a molecule, a game of chess, a galaxy, whatever. Write down a description of it. Perhaps the thing you have described is unique. But there is nothing to prevent your description being realized in more than one particular thing. To describe one thing is to create a type to which other things might conform.

Communicating information

Chapter 7d outlines some information and communication theory. It features a WKID hierarchy, and the principle that in symbolic communication, coding is ubiquitous. It goes on to describe how message senders communicate, and so share knowledge, with message receivers. It discusses the following two principles.


A description is meaningful to an actor only in the process of creating or using it

The table below helps us to discuss a social system of communicating actors.





the ability to apply knowledge in new situations.


information that is accurate enough to be useful.


meaning created/encoded or found/decoded in data by an actor.


a structure of matter/energy in which information has been created/encoded or found/decoded


Coding is ubiquitous in the creation, sharing and use of symbolic descriptions

A brain can encode some information in the structure of its memory, which becomes useful later, when the brain decodes it, by reversing the encoding process. Similarly, a brain can direct the mouth to encode some information in spoken words, which become useful when a receiver hears and decodes the message (using the language it was encoded in). The information/meaning in the structure of memory or message exists in the processes of encoding and decoding it.


Ashby observed that coding is ubiquitous in thought and communication. To create a description is to encode a model that represents some feature(s) of a phenomenon. To use a description is to decode it, then use it to respond to or manipulate whatever is described.

How we share knowledge and verify truth

Chapter 7e discusses how we clarify information by reducing noise and ambiguity, and verify the truth, or at least the usefulness, of information by and empirical, logical and social means. In doing so, it rejects extreme interpretations of relativism and perspectivism.


We share knowledge by verifying descriptions we share

We clarify the information in a description by reducing noise and ambiguity, and verify the truth of information by empirical, logical and social means.


In short, the principles of description introduced above are.

·       Knowledge and description evolved in biological organisms

·       A good regulator has a description of what it regulates

·       Consciousness is a process that enables us to compare the past, present and future.

·       To describe a thing is to typify it in terms of types already understood

·       Every type is a description

·       Every description is a type

·       A description is meaningful to an actor only in the process of creating or using it

·       Coding is ubiquitous in the creation, use and sharing of symbolic descriptions

·       We share knowledge by verifying descriptions we share


Chapter 8 summarizes some implications of these principles for

·       system architecture – as defined in ISO/IEC 42010.

·       semiotics – notably Peirce and Popper.

·       philosophy – including the problem of universals

·       mathematics – did numbers exist before life?



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