Eternal Philosophical Questions
Principia Cybernetica Web

Eternal Philosophical Questions

The Principia Cybernetica Project aims to develop a complete philosophical system or "world view". This philosophy tries to answer the fundamental questions, which every person reflecting about the world and his or her place in it has been asking throughout the ages. The PCP philosophy is organized as a complex network of mutually dependent concepts and principles. Therefore, the answers to these questions are scattered throughout the different "nodes" of the web.

The present document brings these different questions and answers together, in the form of a "FAQ" (Frequently Asked Questions). The answers given here are by necessity short. They barely scratch the surface of a profound and complex issue. However, where available, we have included links to other documents which discuss the problem in more detail. The present document can be seen as a roadmap, which will help philosophically interested readers to better explore the Principia Cybernetica world view.

What is?
This question defines the domain of ontology. We believe that the fundamental stuff of being, the essence of the universe, consists of elementary processes or actions, rather than matter, energy or ideas. Complex organizations, such as atoms, molecules, space and time, living beings, minds and societies emerge out of these actions through the process of evolution.

Why is there something rather than nothing?
The universe arose spontaneously, through self-organizing evolution, based on the self-evident principles of variation and natural selection. Any possible variation (for example a "quantum fluctuation of the vacum") would be sufficient to set the self-organizing process in motion, thus generating a complex universe with its diverse components and structures.

Why is the world the way it is?
The specific state of the universe or the world in which we live is partially a historical accident, since evolution is an indeterministic process, partially the result of a lawful process of self-organization, which leads predictably to higher levels of organization through the mechanism of metasystem transition.

Where does it all come from?
We can reconstruct in some detail the subsequent stages in the evolution of the universe, leading from the Big Bang, elementary particles, atoms and molecules to living cells, multicellular organisms, animals, people and society. Thus the history of evolution, conceived as a sequence of metasystem transitions, tells us how and in which order all the different types of phenomena we see around us have arisen.

Where do we come from?
Humans evolved out of animals that had the capacity to learn associations from the environment, by additionally acquiring the capacity to think, that is, autonomously control these associations. Human thought is rooted in the emergence of symbolic language.

Who are we?
As far as we know, humans occupy the provisionally most advanced level in the hierarchy of metasystems. Our capacity for thought distinguishes us from the animals by giving us uniquely human characteristics, such as self-consciousness, tool making, imagination, planning, play, sense of humor and esthetic feelings.

Where are we going to?
The theory of metasystem transitions helps us to extrapolate present, on-going progress into the future. Recent developments point to a new metasystem transition which will bring us to a yet higher level of complexity or consciousness, transcending individual thought. This emergent level is perhaps best described by the metaphor of the social superorganism and its global brain.

What is the purpose of it all?
Evolution does not have a purpose, in the sense of a fixed goal to which it is advancing. However, although evolution is largely unpredictable, it is not random either. Selection can be seen as having the implicit goal of maximizing survivability or fitness. This implies a preferred direction of evolution, which is in practice characterized by increasing complexity, adaptivity and intelligence.

Is there a God?
Since the mechanisms of self-organizing evolution satisfactorily explain the origin and development of the universe, and our place in it, there is no need to postulate a personal God, in the sense of a conscious entity outside of the universe which created that universe. But since in our ontology every action is assigned to, or labelled by, an agent, it is possible to define God as the agent of the Big Bang. Similarly, it is possible to consider the universe as a whole, or the process of evolution itself, as God-like, in the spirit of pantheism.

What is good and what is evil?
The evolutionary mechanism of natural selection makes an implicit distinction between "good" or "fit" situations (those which survive in the long term), and "bad" or "unfit" ones (those which are eliminated sooner or later). Therefore, we might equate good or higher values with anything that contributes to survival and the continuation of the process of evolution, and evil with anything that destroys, kills or thwarts the development of fit systems.

What is knowledge?
This question defines the domain of epistemology. Knowledge is the existence in a cybernetic system of a model, which allows that system to make predictions, that is, to anticipate processes in its environment. Thus, the system gets control over its environment. Such a model is a personal construction, not an objective reflection of outside reality.

What is truth?
There are no absolute truths. The truth of a theory is merely its power to produce predictions that are confirmed by observations. However, different theories can produce similar predictions without one of them being right and the other wrong. "True" knowledge is the one that best survives the natural selection for predictive power.

What is consciousness?
Even the most primitive cybernetic agent must be able to sense its environment in order to reach its goals. More complex agents can integrate different sensations into a global awareness of their situation, and use subsequent experiences to learn and improve their mental functioning. Only people are moreover conscious of their own experiences, and thus able to control them. Such consciousness is an eminently subjective relation between the agent and the relevant internal and external aspects of its situation. It is not some mysterious kind of substance or fluid, and there is no intrinsically "hard" problem of consciousness.

Do we have a "free will"?
The unpredictability implied by quantum mechanics has done away with the Newtonian world view, in which all future events are predetermined. In our evolutionary worldview, there always is a choice: a variety of possibilities, some of which are retained by selection. The defining characteristic of a cybernetic agent is some degree of control over that selection. Because of their capacity for thought, people, moreover, are not only free to choose between given possibilities, but able to conceive novel possibilities and explore their consequences.

How should we act?
Effective action is based on a clear sense of goals or values, and a good model of the environment in which you try to reach these goals. By applying problem-solving methods, you can explore the possible situations in your model to find the most efficient path from your present situation to your goal. You can then try out this action plan in practice, taking into account the feedback you get in order to correct your course.

How can we be happy?
People are happy when they are "in control", that is, feel competent to satisfy their needs and reach their goals. Happiness is most common in societies which provide sufficient wealth, health care, education, personal freedom and equality. Happy people tend to be self-confident, open to experience and have good personal relations. Promoting these social and personal values should increase our overall quality of life.

Why cannot we live forever?
Evolution has predisposed us to age and die because fitness is achieved more easily by fast reproduction than by long life. Aging is the result of a variety of deterioration processes. Therefore, it is unlikely that we will achieve biological immortality in the near future, in spite of a constantly increasing life span. However, we can still aim for cybernetic immortality: survival of our mental organization, rather than our material body.

What is the meaning of life?
This question in a sense summarizes all previous questions. It is usually understood as: "What are the highest values, the Supreme Goals which I should try to achieve?". We stress that every human being must freely set those goals for himself or herself. The supreme goal which we choose derives logically from our cybernetic world view: to make a constructive contribution to the evolution of humanity, in order to maximize our long-term chances of survival (immortality). In essence, the meaning of life is to increase evolutionary fitness.

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn, V. Turchin,

Sep 6, 2000 (modified)
Oct 24, 1997 (created)


Introduction to Principia Cybernetica

Prev. Next

What is the meaning of life?


Add comment...