On the Ambiguities in Complexity:

In today’s post, I am looking at the ambiguities in complexity. I am inspired by the brilliant French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. She was a proponent of existentialism, the school of philosophy that puts emphasis on human existence first and foremost. Their motto, as noted by Jean Paul Sartre, is “existence precedes essence.” This basically means that we create the meaning of our lives. There is no authority outside of us dictating what our essence must be. We are responsible for our construction of what we become.

The ideas of existentialism have many similarities with the philosophical school of constructivism in Cybernetics. I have written about this before. Similar to existentialism, constructivism says that we construct a version of reality and that we are responsible for our construction. In the social realm, constructivists believe that we aim for consistency through our continuous interactions with the other constructors. If I am constructing a version of reality, this means that others are doing the same. The language and culture act as external frames of references to provide a stable version of reality. The emphasis is not for correctness but consistency.

De Beauvoir realized that the ambiguity of our existence is part of us. We are subjects who engage in ongoing construction of a reality, at the same time we are objects in the construction of others in the social realm. In other words, we are creators while at the same time creations in someone else’s construction. What we identify as selves is in relation to others. We aim to have autonomy in our actions, and this often comes at the cost of others autonomy. The choices we make influences the choices others make and vice versa. There are no moral authorities dictating what everyone’s role is or what everyone should be doing. These ideas resonate strongly with Cybernetics. The ideas of constructivism are at the core of second order cybernetics.

De Beauvoir advised us to identify and withstand the pressures of the constraints that the contingencies of our times such as societal norms and expectations throw at us. We are to use our freedom to maximize our potentialities and shape our own lives. We can do this only when we acknowledge the ambiguities. We find freedom when we recognize the freedom of others.

With these ideas we will look at complexity. Loosely put, complexity is the interconnectedness that we identify or experience. When we pull on a thread here, something else moves in another location. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. Complexity in cybernetics is observer dependent. This means that the magnitude and “quality” of complexity can vary depending on the observer. This is also dynamic. This means that depending on when you are asking, the “what” of complexity can change. This also means that there are no clear demarcations or domains in complexity. There are certain portions that are less “complex” and some that are more “complex”. Cybernetics is not interested in the “what” but in all of the possible behaviors seen by the observer. The observer is able to make certain states occur more often than the others by playing with the constraints. Ernst von Glasersfeld wonderfully defined cybernetics as the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints.

What does this mean if there are multiple observers? There are so many dimensions and so many possibilities. Cybernetics talks about the constructive dance between the observers. Every interaction is an invitation to understand each other. We need to talk about what we see and what think we see through others eyes. We face complexity as part of facing situations. We seek to obtain a stable state that covers certain desired attributes of the situation. In order to know this, we have to have a good understanding of the possibilities and the available constraints that can be used to achieve some of the possibilities. The constraints can be used to generate attractor states that the dynamic “system” latches onto and those attractor states will cover the desired states. There is a lot of literature about leaders with respect to complexity. Leaders are people who take up the responsibility to create conditions so that attractor states containing certain desired states are generated.

The discussion of complexity demonstrates the presence of ambiguity through and through. Who chooses what the desired outcomes should be? Who decides who should do what? Who decides to utilize the constraints for which some people may have to pay more? As noted, there are no moral authorities in these situations. Taking heed to de Beauvoir’s words, we should not run away from the ambiguities. Instead, we should embrace them. We should understand that there are always others in the social realm. We become a self through the others.

To say that there are rules for complexity would be a terrible idea. However, there are several heuristics that we can use to embrace the ambiguities. We should engage in the cybernetic dance and encourage being openminded to others’ viewpoints. We should practice empathy and try to understand the different perspectives. We should engage in dialogue more with the intent of actively listening. We should understand the power structure that is predominant and work with the marginalized groups so that their voices are also heard. We should celebrate the differences. We should look for similarities in differences and differences in similarities. We should cherish each other’s autonomy.

I will finish with some strong words from Simone de Beauvoir:

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics:

Advertisement

Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics:

In today’s post, I am looking at second order nature of Cybernetics. I have written many a times about second order cybernetics. I am inspired by the ideas of the late French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Lacan is a hard author to read. He is one of those authors that you need the dummies book for the dummies book of his ideas.

I will start with a quick introduction to second order cybernetics. The idea of the cybernetics of cybernetics was presented in 1967 by the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. She looked at cybernetics as a way of looking at things and as a language for expressing what one sees. She challenged ASC (American Society of Cybernetics) to use the ideas of cybernetics to its own organization and operation. The phrase “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” was coined by the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster. He was the editor for the Macy conference papers, and he reached out to Mead for the title of her paper. Mead was not able to respond on time, and he chose the name “Cybernetics of Cybernetics”. Von Foerster thought of first order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.

Cybernetics is closely related to a teleological activity that is based on feedback. The most common explanation is that of a steersman guiding the boat to its destination. The direction of the boat needs to be adjusted according to the water and the wind. The adjustment is based on the steersman’s ability to judge the deviation from the desired path. This is the first order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics, on the other hand, looks at aspects such as:

  • Am I on the “right” path? Is there a need to change the destination itself?
  • How can I better my navigation skills?
  • How good am I at navigating the boat? Etc.

There is a first order nature to the second order cybernetics because the same idea of feedback in the first order cybernetics is applicable in the second order cybernetics. However, the first order and second order cybernetics are on different domains. Saint Augustine, in his book “Confessions” wrote:

I have become a question to myself.

This type of questioning is not possible with first order cybernetics. Another way to look at this is using the example of ChatGPT. ChatGPT is often able to come up with excellent answers to our queries. It seems to possess “knowledge”. But does ChatGPT know that it possesses that knowledge? It is not able to use any type of knowledge until we pose the question. It “knows” the answer only when we ask the question. We don’t always know that we know something until we face a problem situation that presents a need for that knowing.

I will loosely use Lacan’s ideas of “desire” to expand on this. We are driven by a lack of something. This could be the latest iPhone model or any of the million new things that we do not have. We seem to be never fully satisfied in life and we feel that getting a new something will change this. We feel a dissatisfaction due to this lack. But once we get this new thing, our feeling of dissatisfaction does not go away. It just gets transferred to lack of some other thing. There will always be the other in our life that we want. Lacan’s brilliant insight was that what we desire is actually the desiring itself. Therefore, the object of our desire is not significant. The object itself then becomes not the goal, but rather a means to an end. Our object of desire is the subjective experience of desire itself. Desire for desiring itself becomes the churning force for us to desire more things leaving us in a flux. The things we get may make us feel temporarily complete. However, the desiring for desiring itself takes us to a new cycle of desiring for a new thing.

The desire for the object, such as the latest model of iPhone, can be viewed as a first order aspect. Understanding that what we truly desire is the desiring itself is then the second order aspect.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Another Post on Constraints:

Another Post on Constraints:

In today’s post, I am looking again at the idea of constraints in relation to Ross Ashby’s ideas and the ideas of second order cybernetics. As far as I know, Ashby did not go into the differentiation of first and second order cybernetics. A lot of what he wrote can be filed away under “First order cybernetics”. But to do so will be missing the forest for the trees. A lot of Ashby’s ideas were ahead of his time and resonate with the ideas of complexity and systems thinking.

Ashby tied the idea of constraints to variety and the observer. Variety, as I have written here before, can be loosely put as the number of possible states differentiated by an observer. So, for example, an analog light switch can be said to have a variety of two – ON and OFF. Constraint is the relational part between an observer and a “system”. A “system” here is a select number of variables chosen by an observer to represent a phenomenon of interest. To elaborate these ideas, I am taking the example of an observer who chooses a Christmas tree as an area of interest. Further, let’s consider that the tree is connected to an analog switch with a variety of two as stated before. The observer can decide they would like to leave the tree ON for the entire Christmas season to reflect the Christmas spirit.  The variety of the switch is now reduced to one, barring any unforeseen incidents. The switch is always kept in the ON position. Out of the two possibilities, a constraint was applied so that there is only one possibility.

Ashby was very clear that Cybernetics is about looking at what something is doing, instead of looking at what that “something” is. From this standpoint, we are looking at possibilities, which is a “black box” view. We are looking at how something is behaving and are not really interested in the intricacies of how things are connected together.

Ashby noted in his private notebook that “A Cyberneticist is a man[sic] who observes what might have happened, but did not.”

This idea of “something that might have happened, but did not” is related to the notion of constraints. Cybernetics is often depicted as a science of teleology. This is the first order Cybernetics. For example, we often depict the idea of a steersman moving towards a goal, where a clear path is set. From the idea of constraints, we should be looking at negative explanations. We may choose the destination, but the path is set by the constraints. Gregory Bateson, another intellectual giant in Cybernetics, noted the following about negative explanation:

Negative explanation is an aspect of cybernetic theory that emphasizes restraints. According to negative explanation, events take a particular course because they are constrained from taking other courses. Alternatively, positive explanation seeks to determine the causes of particular events. Rather than focusing on “Why?”, negative explanation involves describing the constraints under which systems operate.

We consider what alternative possibilities could conceivably have occurred and then ask why many of the alternatives were not followed, so that the particular event was one of those few which could, in fact, occur.

In a similar fashion, Ashby wrote:

Cybernetics looks at the totality, in all its possible richness, and then asks why the actualities should be restricted to some portion of the total possibilities.

The real world gives the subset of what is; the product space represents the uncertainty of the observer. The product space may therefore change if the observer changes; and two observers may legitimately use different product spaces within which to record the same subset of actual events in some actual thing. The “constraint” is thus a relation between observer and thing; the properties of any particular constraint will depend on both the real thing and on the observer. It follows that a substantial part of the theory of organization will be concerned with properties that are not intrinsic to the thing but are relational between the observer and thing.

We often emphasize on having a goal or direction, but we neglect the importance of constraints. Some constraints can be physical such as a ball rolling down a chute.  The ball will always follow the same path. Now compare this to a rock falling down a hill. It may not follow the same path if you repeat rolling it down a hill. Some paths are more likely than others. And no matter how many times you roll it down a hill, some paths are never taken due to the physical constraints of the hill. These can be understood from a first order Cybernetics standpoint. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, it is very important to understand the relational nature of constraints to the observer. What is limiting to one person can be nurturing for another. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, the constraints are our biases and other epistemic constraints that limit or enable our actions.

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was made to roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down; only to repeat this exercise again and again for eternity. He was made to do this as a punishment. Curious enough, in another part of the world, in Kerala (India), there is another mythology that talks about another character who rolled a large rock up a hill only to have it roll down. Naranath Branthan (The madman of Naranam) would roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down. He would repeat this again and again. His reason for doing this was entirely different than Sisyphus. Naranath Branthan was not doing it for punishment. But, he was doing it for fun. The stories about him said that he would laugh with joy and clap his hands as he watched the rock roll down the hill. If Sisyphus would had found joy in what he did, the Gods would have been forced to free him from the punishment since it would cease to be a punishment.

I will finish with a wonderful story about Naranath Brandan.

One day he met Kali, an Indian goddess, as he was retiring for the night. Kali was impressed by the madman and told him that she will give him a boon (blessing).

“I do not want any boons”, the madman said. He just wanted to get on with his night and go to sleep.

Kali informed him that she has to give a boon or a curse, and she insisted that he take a boon.

“I want to increase my life time by a second”, the madman replied. Kali told him that she could not do that.

“Then I want to decrease my life time by a second”, the madman said. Kali told him she could not do that either.

The madman thought for a while and asked Kali to move the elephantiasis from his left leg to the right leg. Kali complied, and the madman lived happily with elephantiasis on his right leg from that day onwards.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Stoics:

Cybernetics and the Stoics:

In today’s post, I am continuing on my thoughts on stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. In Cybernetics, we call regulation the act (art) of responding to external disturbances in order to maintain selected internal variables in a range. For example, our body maintains the internal temperature in a specific range. We have internal regulations built in through evolution to ensure that this is done. In the language of cybernetics, regulation refers to the act of countering the external variety. In order to counter the external variety, we must have requisite variety. As noted in the last post, only variety can absorb variety. If the external temperature goes up or goes down, our body should have a mechanism to react so that the internal temperature is maintained in a specific range. If it is not able to do this, we will not stay viable. The goal of requisite variety in this instance is about maintaining the status quo.

There are mainly two types of regulations in cybernetics as Ross Ashby noted – direct and indirect regulation. Direct regulation is the type of regulation where there is an established framework of counteractions that the agent can use. In the case of body temperature, heat loss can be promoted in a hot environment by many different mechanisms such as sweating or by reduction of muscular activities. Similarly, heat loss can be minimized in a cold environment using several mechanisms such as shivering or other activities to improve body insulation (reducing blood flow to the skin). There are several other mechanisms used by our bodies that are not listed here. These activities come under direct regulation because these happen without any oversight from us. Our bodies have evolved to do these things. Direct regulation is obviously limited in what it can do. For a low complex organism such as a wasp, direct regulation is adequate for survival. When the environmental conditions change or become extreme, direct regulation will no longer be able to provide requisite variety. In this case, we need indirect regulation. Indirect regulation refers to our ability to achieve requisite variety through second order activities. This involves learning mechanisms. For example, when it gets cold, we learn to move to a warmer location or to put on more clothes or to start a fire. We learned to create warm clothes or generate fire at will. This type of regulation did not come through evolution. What did come through evolution is our ability to learn to adapt. The second order refers to the ability to learn. Direct regulation is first order in nature. Second order is where you realize that the current specification is not working and that we need to change what we are doing or change the specification altogether. First order is simply realizing that there is a gap between the current state and where we want to be, and upon this realization continue on an already prescribed path.

We can see that indirect regulation has much more impact for our continued survival than direct regulation. Both types of regulation involve attenuation and amplification of variety in order to achieve requisite variety. As noted before, external variety is always higher than internal variety. Variety is directly correlated to complexity. The impact that the complexity in the world can have on us is ever increasing mainly because we are getting connected to the world in unprecedented ways. What I am typing here at my home can reach someone else in the farthest corners of the world in a matter of seconds. Something that happens locally in one location can have a direct impact on the entire world, as evidenced by the Covid 19 pandemic. How can we ensure our viability in these conditions?

Stoicism provides a lot of guidance for us in this regard. Stoicism provides us guidelines for us to improve our indirect regulatory activities. I am not discussing the dichotomy of control here since I discussed it last time. Instead, I will look at what Stoicism says about adversities in life. Most of our trouble comes from the fact that we do not orient ourselves properly. We give into direct regulation such as freeze, flight or fight. This worked for our ancestors, but this will not work, say for example, in a workplace environment. It is not easy for us to orient because we are not expecting the variety of the adversity that was thrown at us. It could be that we were put in a challenging situation where we have put ourselves or our company at a huge risk condition. Or something drastic happened that requires immediate action or our lives are in danger. How does one improve our internal variety in these conditions? How does one learn to attenuate the external variety so that we don’t focus on the noise? How do we amplify our variety so that we concentrate only on what is needed?

Stoics talk of a great tool that will help us here. It is called “premeditatio malorum”. This stands for “negative visualization”. When we start our day, think of the many ways, the day could go wrong. Think of driving in the traffic and someone cutting us off or getting into an accident. What can we do in this situation? Think of going into the important meeting and you saying something that would be perceived as silly. What would you do in this situation? Meditating on this is in many regards a way to prepare ourselves to better prepare in case such things do happen. It is obviously easy to go wild with this exercise, so we should keep it as practical as possible.

Another key insight from the stoics is the idea of seeing every experience as an opportunity. Every adversity or challenge that we face is an opportunity to learn. The big project that we are embarking upon work is an opportunity to improve ourselves. The challenges that are thrown at us actually make us better when we welcome them as challenges to finetune our skills. Many a time, stoicism is badly represented as being detached from reality. When something bad happens, the stoics are expected to be emotionless. On the contrary, stoicism is about being able to ground ourselves to reality and reorient ourselves so that we can use every experience as a learning opportunity. As with the premeditation malorum, we must exercise caution and not go out of our way looking for challenges. Instead we must take on the challenges that come our way and not run away from them. We must learn to be practical with the theory.

Seneca presents us with a paradox of fortune and laments those who were not fortunate enough to have gone through any misfortunes:

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.

Epictetus asks us who Hercules might have been without any of his adversities:

“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So, by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”

Perhaps, at this juncture the reader is reminded of resilience and maybe of antifragility. From a cybernetics standpoint, resilience is a matter of maintaining status quo after a setback. This can be done mainly through first order activities and through second order activities as needed. Antifragility, on the other hand requires second order activities which leads to post traumatic growth (PTG).

I will finish with some wise words from the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius:

Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

In today’s post, I am looking at the dichotomy of control in stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. My main source for the dichotomy of control (DoC) is the great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. One of the common interpretations of this dichotomy is that we need to realize what is in our control and what is not in our control. We should accept the things that are not in our control as they are. The only thing we can control is how we react to them. As a fan of cybernetics, I was attracted to the notion of “control”. I will discuss this idea of DoC first from a first order cybernetics standpoint, and then from a second order cybernetics standpoint. First order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, and second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems.

There are many translations out there for Epictetus’ Enchiridion. My main source for our discussion here is from the translation of Elizabeth Carter.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In Cybernetics, the notion of control is highly important. Cyberneticians talk about controlling a system through feedback. In order to control a system, the controller should have more variety than the system itself. Variety refers to the number of distinguishable states of the system. For example, a light switch generally has a variety of two (ON and OFF). With this, we are able to control how a light works. We can turn it ON and OFF, when we want. This is obviously a simple case. When we are dealing with complexity, the external variety is always greater than ours. In order to stay viable, we need to achieve requisite variety.

Requisite variety is the least amount of variety that we should possess in order to maintain our essential variables in a specific range. Essential variables are those variables such as our body temperature or oxygen level etc. that ensures that we stay viable in our environment. Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics, came up with the law of requisite variety that states only variety can absorb variety. In simple terms, if the environment is imposing a variety demand on us, we should have enough variety to respond in order to stay viable. If the environment gets cold, then we should have a means to keep our body temperature in the viable range. This could be achieved by putting on warmer clothes or by not going out in the cold weather.

As noted earlier, the external variety is going to be more than our internal variety. In order to achieve requisite variety, we must attenuate the variety coming in, and also amplify our internal variety. Attenuation of variety is generally more effective in achieving requisite variety. In the example of the cold weather, we can stay inside our house, which cuts down on the cold from reaching us. We could put on a fire to amplify our variety and stay cozy and warm.

Coming back to the dichotomy of control, we can use the cybernetic ideas of attenuation and amplification. We need to focus on the things we can control (amplify), and be indifferent to things that we cannot control (attenuate). This is a “trust the process” type approach. If you are driving to work, we should focus on how we are driving and we should be indifferent to those who cut in front of us. How we react is only up to us, and we should not give away power to others to control us. If we are going to an important business meeting, what we can control is how we prepare for the meeting, and how we manage our appearance. We cannot completely control how others will receive us. That is outside our control. But we can amplify ourselves by learning about topics and working on our people skills.

Up to this point, we were looking at a first order approach. There is a prescriptive nature to what we have discussed. From the second order standpoint, the emphasis is on understanding our understanding; in improving our process of improving. The Greek word that Epictetus used was “ep’hemin”. This was often translated as “control”. However, a better translation is “what depends on us.” The term “control” assigns a causal nature, whereas “what depends on us” assigns a dispositional nature. Using the idea of “what depends on us”, we can be ready with a simple answer to any complex question – “it depends.” Most often, we are attracted to giving specific solutions to complex situations, as if we have a complete understanding of the situation. When we step back and look at this from a complexity standpoint, a better answer is always “it depends”. It depends on the context of the situation.

Epictetus explained further about the dichotomy in Enchiridion:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

We get distressed when we do not understand the dichotomy of control. When we falsely assume how others act depends on us, we are trying to swim against the flow. What depends on us are our responsibility and nobody else owns them. From a second order cybernetics standpoint, this points to the idea of responsibility in constructivism. We construct our version of reality based on our ongoing interaction with the world around us. The more we interact, the better we can construct a stable and viable version of reality. This is our own responsibility, and we should not give this responsibility to others. At the same time, we should ensure that others are able to do the same. On a similar note, we should also not give up on this responsibility by blaming the past experiences or circumstances. We still owe it to ourselves to own this responsibility. It is up to us to find meaning and purpose to our lives. We should not give up on this responsibility.

One of the nuances that I realized with my learning with stoicism is that our emotions are not under our control. We will still get angry or frustrated, but with practice, we will be able to use these emotions to guide us to a virtuous reaction.

The early stoics were big admirers of Socrates. When faced with an adversity, they would ask “what would Socrates do in this situation?” Following second order cybernetics, we should instead ask, “what would the best version of ME do in this situation?” Our task is to understand how we understand and improve how we improve. There is no point in giving this task to someone else.

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Phenomenology of Informationally Closed Beings:

The Phenomenology of Informationally Closed Beings:

In Cybernetics, the idea of “informational closure” is an important one. This basically means that information does not enter us from the outside. We do not receive information as an input and process it to create representations. This is a remnant of René Descartes’s ideas. I will be utilizing the famous philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’s take on Martin Heidegger’s ideas. Heidegger realized that we do not create representations of the world in our minds. He noted that the world is not a set of meaningless facts which we take in and assign values to. Heidegger said that the values are more meaningless facts. Heidegger’s most famous example is that of a hammer. If we explain a hammer as a tool for hammering nails, this value statement ignores a whole lot of significance that comes with a hammer. A hammer is best understood through the act of hammering. Dreyfus wrote:

To say a hammer has the function of being for hammering leaves out the defining relation of hammers to nails and other equipment, to the point of building things, and to the skills required when actually using the hammer—all of which reveal the way of being of the hammer which Heidegger called readiness-to-hand. Merely assigning formal function predicates to brute facts such as hammers couldn’t capture the hammer’s way of being nor the meaningful organization of the everyday world in which hammering has its place. “[B]y taking refuge in ‘value’-characteristics,” Heidegger said, “we are . . . far from even catching a glimpse of being as readiness-to-hand.”

Heidegger spoke of at least three manners in which things or equipment interact with us. The first and foremost manner is that of “ready-to-hand”. This is normally how we interact with the world. When we use a hammer, the hammer itself becomes transparent to us. It becomes a part of our body. We are engaged with the hammer so much so that we do not see the materialistic object any longer. Instead, we realize the act of hammering. We do not care about the shiny metal head nor the wooden handle of the hammer. Our hands naturally and automatically form the shape of the handle so that we grab it without realizing it. We just realize hammering. We only realize the possibilities of action in terms of the hammer. There is no separation of subject and object here. This is our normal way of being in the world.

When something goes wrong or when something counters our expectations, we realize the “unreadiness-to-hand”. For example, when the hammer head slips on the handle or the handle breaks, our flow with the hammer breaks. This manner of interaction requires us to readjust our interface so that we can once again realize the readiness-to-hand of the object.

The third manner is “present-at-hand”. Here, we are deliberately breaking from readiness-to-hand and concentrating on the material properties of the object such as the shape of the hammer head, or the size of the hammer, or the color of the handle etc. This is not our normal mode of interaction in the world.

Heidegger’s ideas of readiness-to-hand goes hand in hand (no pun intended) with Gibson’s ideas of affordances. We do not see objects themselves but the action possibilities of the objects. When we come to our office and sit on the chair, we only realize the action possibility of going through the entrance by opening the door. We did not objectively see the door there. When we sat on the chair, we did not objectively see the black leather chair. We only realized the solicitation for the action of sitting. Same with the door, we only realized the solicitation for the action of opening the door. Our hands automatically formed the shape of the door handle without us consciously being aware of it. As Dreyfus wonderfully wrote, for the user, equipment is encountered as a solicitation to act, not an entity with a function feature. Heidegger used the beautiful expression “pressing into possibilities”. When we encounter the door or the chair, we are directly responding to a “what for”. The door is a “what for” for me to go through the entrance and the chair is a “what for” for me to sit down on.

Dreyfus pointed out that to an observer, I could be viewed as objectively using a certain door as a door. However, for me I am not experiencing the door as a door. Normally there is no “I” and no experiencing of the door at all but simply pressing into the possibility of going out. The important thing to realize is that, when we are pressing into possibilities, there is no experience of an entity doing the soliciting; just the immediate response to a solicitation… when we are coping at our best, we are drawn in by solicitations and respond directly to them, so that the distinction between us and our equipment—between inner and outer—vanishes.

At this point, I will go back to the idea of informational closure. As pointed out, we do not get information from the outside, process it and then respond to it. Instead, we are perturbed by the external world, and actions are solicited from us by these perturbations. For example, when a fly appears in front of a frog, the frog’s brain does not process the information that there is a fly, and then tell the tongue to lash out to catch the fly. Instead, the presence of the fly solicits the action of the tongue lashing out. The brain does not say, there is a fly, I should lash out the tongue. The image of a small moving dark object solicits that action from the frog. In fact, any small moving dark object would solicit the same action, and a motionless fly would not solicit that action. This action was deemed useful and necessary for continued viability of the frog’s species. The repeat interactions and success ensured that this action is kept and passed on from one generation to the next. This is a sort of coupling between the frog and its environment. Even though the frog is informationally closed, transduction happens at the information boundary in the form of the perturbation that solicitates the action. Here one should be cautious of the description of the fly as an input causing the action of the tongue lashing out as an output. It was the internal structure of the frog that generated the action. This is a description in terms of action possibilities. The frog is not viewing the fly as a “fly” but rather as an action possibility of lashing out the tongue.

When we view an object as soliciting an action, we can look at the response actions in terms of attractor states. When faced with a perturbation, an agent is essentially making a selection from a set of attractor states. Depending upon the significance of the perturbation, one of the attractor states is selected over the other on a more frequent basis. This view focuses on the dependence of the internal structure and the dispositionality based on past interactions. Further, it removes the need for a cause-and-effect model that is prone to reductionism.

Heidegger’s great insight was that when we are interacting with equipment, we are not dealing with representations of them in our mind, instead we are dealing directly with them. We do not create models, instead one might say that the world itself is our model. There is a totality that we are part of when we are being in the world. We interact with the world around us based on the structural coupling with the world. We are beings in the world, and the world is not separate from us. We are coupled to the world and our structure is determined by this coupling.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Magical “All Possibilities”:

The Magical “All Possibilities”:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Holmes

Imagine that you have a coin in your hand, and you are throwing it up in the air. How would you assign probabilities for the outcome? Generally, we are taught that a coin flip has a 50% chance of tails and 50% chance of heads, assuming that we are using a fair coin. The reasoning is that there are only two possible outcomes (heads, tails). Therefore, the probability of either one happening is 50%.

I have written about Bayesian epistemology before. If we evaluate the coin flip example, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The basis of all this is – from whose perspective? In Bayesian epistemology, probability is not a feature of the phenomenon such as the coin flip. The coin is not aware of the probabilities with which it should fall. The probabilities that we assign is a feature of our uncertainty, and it has nothing to do with the coin. In the example, only two outcomes were considered. Depending on the observer, this could be expanded. For example, we can consider the coin falling on its edge. Or perhaps, the coin may not land at all if we can imagine a bird catching it in midair and swallowing it, or it could be that the coin is being thrown in space. Based on our experience, we may conclude that the last two scenarios are unlikely. But the key points here are:

  1. Every description requires a describer. Every observation requires and observer. In science and in general language, we ignore the describer/observer. We engage in conversation or studies as if, we have access to objectivity. The science we have is a human science in the sense that it is a version that we have generated based on what our human interpretative framework affords.
  2. We need to be aware of how we made our observation, and be open to modifying it. Whatever we say or do if based on the current state of our knowledge/belief system. This needs to be updated based on the feedback from the environment.
  3. Any attempt at an experiment or study is to reduce our uncertainty about something. Going back to Bayesian epistemology, any expression in probability is an expression of our uncertainty. The phenomenon that we are studying are not following any rules. They do not have a mind of their own. We are projecting our “certainties” as rules onto them. A great example is the often-quoted scenario of birds flocking together to explain complexity. The birds do not know these rules. They exhibit a behavior that got reinforced through natural selection. The rules are our merely a projection of what we think is going on. In other words, the complexity of the flight of birds coming from the simple rules is just our construction.

The idea of “all the possibilities” is made quite clear in the Arthur Conan Doyle quote at the start of this post. This quote is often touted in TV shows and movies alike. However, the quote represents a fallacious idea, the root of which stems from an incorrect assumption. The assumption here is that one can eliminate ALL which is impossible. Similar to the coin toss example, this depends on the observer and their ability to know ALL that can happen, which requires omniscience. Additionally, one has to disprove every one of those possible outcomes. Only after this can one truly look at whatever remains. Aptly, this fallacy is termed as “Holmesian Fallacy”. We simply do not have access to ALL possibilities.

In Cybernetics, a key idea that is relevant here is variety. Variety is the number of possible states. This was put forward by one of the pioneers in Cybernetics, Ross Ashby. For example, we could say that a coin has a variety of 2 – heads or tails. Or we could say that a coin has a variety of 3 – heads, tails or its edge. As we can see the variety is dependent upon the observer. Being aware of this dependency is part of second order cybernetics. If we could restate the definition of variety in second order cybernetics, it would be – variety is the number of possible states as perceived by an observer. Variety is tightly linked to the concept of entropy.

Ashby noted that the initial variety that we have perceived will tend to decay over time if nothing changes. A great example that Ashby gives is the example of a wife visiting a prisoner. Let’s say that the wife wishes to convey a message to the prisoner using a cup of coffee that she can send to him. The warden is smart and he foretells the wife that he will add cream and sweetener to the coffee, and will also remove the spoon from the coffee. In addition, the coffee will always be filled to the brim. The warden has removed a lot of variety from the cup of coffee. The wife realizes now that the available variety that she has is to do with how hot the coffee is. She perceives the variety as 3 – HOT, TEPID or COLD. However, the warden is able to block this with time. If the warden is able to delay giving the coffee to the prisoner, then this variety is also lost. As Ashby put it, as time progresses the variety in the set cannot increase and will usually diminish.

On a similar note, Ashby also spoke of the law of experience. He noted that when we impose a change in a ‘system’, we tend to reduce its knowledge of its initial state or variety. The example he gave is that of a group of boys who have been to the same school – it is found that a number of boys of marked individuality, having all been through the same school, develop ways that are more characteristic of the school they attended than of their original individualities.

If we are including the idea of observer here, we see the “system” as the “system” that also includes the observer. This brings in a self-referential nature to this. If nothing changes, then our useful information regarding a phenomenon will either stay the same or decay over time. The useful variety that we have perceived will remain a constant or will decay over time. In addition, as the observer, we ourselves tend to fall along a line or conform to whichever tribe or community we belong to. We lose our original variety with time. The first step in overcoming these is to be aware. Be aware of our blindness; be aware of our limitations and biases; be aware of our shortcomings. We have to be aware that we do not have knowledge of “ALL possibilities”. We have to be open to challenging our worldviews. We have to evaluate and error-correct our beliefs on a regular basis. We do not perform error-correction on a continuous basis, but on a discontinuous basis.

I will finish with an anecdote on the apparent randomness of quantum mechanics that prompted Einstein to say that God does not play dice. As noted Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote:

When Einstein objected to quantum mechanics by remarking that “God does not play dice,” Bohr responded by admonishing him, “Stop telling God what to do.” Which means: Nature is richer than our metaphysical prejudices. It has more imagination than we do.

Einstein was worried about the uncertainties he faced with quantum mechanics and he noted that the metaphorical God does not play dice like that. In a similar way the late Stephen Hawking noted:

So God does play dice with the universe. All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible occasion… Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen. 

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

The “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am writing about the wonderful Bayesian E. T. Jaynes’ idea of “Mind Projection Fallacy” (MPF) with respect to Systems Thinking. He explained MPF as asserting one’s own private thoughts and sensations as realities existing externally in nature. Jaynes noted – One asserts that the creations of his own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus in effect projects his own thoughts out onto Nature.

Jaynes used the English language to delve into this further. In Logic, we say that If A is B, then B is A. However, when we apply this in our language, we will have issues. He used the old adage of “knowledge is power” as an example. If we then say “power is knowledge”, then we have said something that is fantastically absurd. The trouble here is with the verb “is”. As Jaynes pointed out:

These examples remind us that the verb ‘is’ has, like any other verb, a subject and a predicate; but it is seldom noted that this verb has two entirely different meanings. A person whose native language is English may require some effort to see the different meanings in the statements: ‘The room is noisy’ and ‘There is noise in the room’. But in Turkish these meanings are rendered by different words, which makes the distinction so clear that a visitor who uses the wrong word will not be understood. The latter statement is ontological, asserting the physical existence of something, while the former is epistemological, expressing only the speaker’s personal perception…

Common language – or, at least, the English language – has an almost universal tendency to disguise epistemological statements by putting them into a grammatical form which suggests to the unwary an ontological statement. A major source of error in current probability theory arises from an unthinking failure to perceive this. To interpret the first kind of statement in the ontological sense is to assert that one’s own private thoughts and sensations are realities existing externally in Nature. We call this the ‘mind projection fallacy’.

Once one has grasped the idea, one sees the Mind Projection Fallacy everywhere; what we have been taught as deep wisdom, is stripped of its pretensions and seen to be instead a foolish non sequitur.

Jaynes noted that there are two complementary forms to MPF:

The error occurs in two complementary forms, which we might indicate thus:

(A) (My own imagination) –> (Real property of Nature)

(B) (My own ignorance) –> (Nature is indeterminate)

I am more interested in the first of the two forms here in relation to Systems Thinking. The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking implies that there is a thinker. This also implies that we are doing thinking about “systems”. As MPF suggests, we are prone to assuming that our epistemological stances are in fact ontological nature. When we talk about a “system”, it is in terms of “as-if” statements. We say that the health care system as-if there actually is a physical corresponding entity in the real world. We talk about fixing “systems” as-if there is a mechanical entity that needs some switching out of parts or upgrading. When we come across a phenomenon, and we try to understand the phenomenon, we do it so by creating a narrative around it. For example, if we see an object fall to the ground, we create a narrative around how something caused the object to fall to the ground. Or if we face some adverse events, we create a narrative around having a bad day. In these narratives, there is always a “wholeness” aspect in the sense that things make sense or things happen for a reason. This wholeness aspect is what makes the narrative flow. The big rub in all this is that the narrative is done from a perspective. Usually this is from the perspective of the one doing the narration, the observer. We create “systems” in order to make sense of things around in our world. We are in situated in the world, in this place and time. How we create these grand narratives are impacted by this situatedness.

As I noted above, systems thinking requires thinkers, and no one thinker is alike. Their versions of “systems” are unique to them. If we treat our “systems” as being real, it leads us to also assume that others are also seeing the same “system” and can understand what we mean by “system”. This is the Mind Projection Fallacy in action.

Another aspect of MPF is that we tend believe that there is uncertainty everywhere. As Jaynes pointed out this “is” a very troublesome verb. Uncertainty is not existing out there in the world, but in here in our understanding. This is the whole premise of Bayesian epistemology. Probability is not a property of a phenomenon in the real world, but a property of our knowledge or belief about the phenomenon. Jaynes wrote:

that term (random) is basically meaningless as an attribute of the real world; it has no clear definition applicable in the real world. The belief that ‘randomness’ is some kind of real property existing in Nature is a form of the mind projection fallacy which says, in effect, ‘I don’t know the detailed causes – therefore – Nature does not know them.’

What does all this mean to a Systems Thinker? How does this help improve our thinking? Jaynes continues:

It seems to us that the belief that probabilities are realities existing in Nature is pure mind projection fallacy. True ‘scientific objectivity’ demands that we escape from this delusion and recognize that in conducting inference our equations are not describing reality; they are describing and processing our information about reality.

This is a second order view – we are thinking about our thinking. We are able to better think only when we realize that there are problems with our thinking. When we assume that “systems” are not real or objective but mere devices to further our understanding, we come to be more curious. We become curious about how others view the world. If we thought that others can objectively view the “system”, then there is no need for us to seek their perspectives. When we are curious about how others view the “system”, then we can really start talking about “systems”. Tweaking what the great cybernetician Heinz von Foerster once said – You cannot hold a system responsible for anything – you cannot shake its hand, ask it to justify its actions – and you cannot enter into a dialogue with it; whereas I can speak with another self, a you!

I will finish with the wise words of the grand master of Systems Thinking, West Churchman:

The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Authentic Cybernetician:

The Authentic Cybernetician:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “authenticity” in relation to existentialism. I am inspired by the ideas of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. The title of this post may be misleading. From an existentialist standpoint, to talk about an authentic person is contradicting the very ideas it stands for. An existentialist believes that existence precedes essence. This means that our essence is not pregiven. Our meaning is something that we create. It is an ongoing construction. I do admit that I find the idea of an authentic cybernetician quite fascinating. I am exploring the idea of “authenticity” in existentialism with relation to cybernetics. As Varga and Guignon note:

The most familiar conception of “authenticity” comes to us mainly from Heidegger’s Being and Time of 1927. The word we translate as ‘authenticity’ is actually a neologism invented by Heidegger, the word Eigentlichkeit, which comes from an ordinary term, eigentlich, meaning ‘really’ or ‘truly’, but is built on the stem eigen, meaning ‘own’ or ‘proper’. So the word might be more literally translated as ‘ownedness’, or ‘being owned’, or even ‘being one’s own’, implying the idea of owning up to and owning what one is and does. Nevertheless, the word ‘authenticity’ has become closely associated with Heidegger as a result of early translations of Being and Time into English, and was adopted by Sartre and Beauvoir as well as by existentialist therapists and cultural theorists who followed them.

From an existentialist standpoint, authenticity has come to be associated with freedom and responsibility. Authenticity is about freedom – of self and others. We are responsible for our actions. Our existence is contingent on many things such as the time and place where we live, the society we live in etc. This is referred to as “facticity” in existentialism. We are not limited by this and we cannot live a life as defined by others. We are autonomous beings and we are able to unfold our lives based on our choices. Having said that we are always existing in relation to others. The “I” is in relation to others. I am a husband and a father; I am also an employee; I am also a friend and so on. The “I” is a stable construction that is continuously unfolded. I am continuously constructing a stable presentation of who I am to other people and to myself. Authenticity comes in when we become aware of all this, and when we strive for the freedom of others.

The idea of unfolding is an interesting idea. It has an undertone of potentiality. The term ‘potentiality’ refers to possibilities. At any given point in time, there are a large number of possibilities, some that we are aware of and many that we are not aware of. We have the freedom to choose the specific possibility and we have to be responsible for that choice. The notion of possibilities aligns with the notion of variety in cybernetics. Variety is the number of possible states of a ‘system’. When a ‘system’ has requisite variety, it is able to stay viable. As Ross Ashby, one of the key pioneers of cybernetics, put it – only variety can absorb variety. When the ‘system’ is able to use one of the many possible states it has, to tackle a specific demand imposed on it by the external world, it is able to stay viable. This is what is referred to as the “absorption” of variety. The ‘system’ should be able to identify the available possible states it has at its disposal. This requires the ‘system’ to have some knowledge of what each possible state can do or not do. This knowledge comes from previous experiences or past interactions. The states that worked will be retained by the ‘system’, and in some cases the ‘system’ will modify certain states while interacting with the external world through a learning situation. All these notions are part of first order cybernetics. I believe that the ‘authentic cybernetician’ should be more interested in second order cybernetics. As Heinz von Foerster put it, first order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.

From the second order cybernetics standpoint, we are aware of the observing process itself. This means that we are aware of the observation of our act of observing – being aware that we have blind spots and that our observation is a construction based on our biases, experiential reality etc. This would also mean that we realize that there are others also involved in similar observations and constructions. Authenticity in existentialism is being aware of our facticity and the freedom that we have to make choices, and being responsible for our actions. The idea that we are constructing a version of reality, and that we are responsible for that construction is a key point in second order cybernetics. When I talk about ‘authentic cybernetician’, there might be an expectation that I should put forth a prescribed step-by-step formula for being an authentic cybernetician. This would be a first order viewpoint. Being authentic however, requires a second order approach. There is no prescribed methodology here. We are invited to be aware of how we are thrown into this world, and how we are situated here; how we are somewhat defined by our past actions and yet somehow, we are not necessarily bound by those actions. It is about improving our interpretative framework so that we can afford requisite variety.

I will finish with some wise words we should heed from Simone de Beauvoir:

We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Affording What’s In Your Head:

Affording What’s In Your Head:

In today’s post I am looking at the idea of “affordances”. This term is attributed to the famous American psychologist, James J Gibson. A loose explanation of affordances is something that offers ‘action possibilities’ or ‘information possibilities’. For example, a seat with its solid and flat surface affords sitting. It also affords standing on it. Gibson explains:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

Gibson was making it very clear that affordances are not exclusively the properties of something. They are the possibilities that are perceived by a user. What is perceived constitutes the affordances. His view was that values and meanings of things in environment can be directly perceived. He did not put the liability for the affordance solely on the object, nor did he put it solely on the observer. He put it instead right in the middle.

An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often supposed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental. But, actually, an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer. 

Gibson expands on the example of the seat:

If a surface of support with the four properties (horizontal, flat, extended, and rigid) is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on… We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning. 

I enjoyed Gibson’s explanation of a seat in terms of affordances. This is something that I have looked at in the past to discuss the Socratic Method. Socrates was famous for cornering a student by asking for a definition of something such as a seat. For every answer or example that the student gives, Socrates would give a counter that would perplex the student. Gibson, it seems like, would have given the excellent answer – a seat is anything that affords sitting.

Gibson’s ideas were put forth against the prevalent ideas at that time such as mind/body dualism or subject/object dualism. Gibson realized that there is a circularity between the subject and the object. The affordances are not merely properties of the object, nor are they just imaginations of the subject. The affordances lie in relation to each other. They represent the possibilities for the future. They are future oriented, situated in the present, and based on the past. Gibson building upon the ideas of affordances defines niche as a set of affordances. He differentiates niche from habitat.

A species of animal is said to utilize or occupy a certain niche in the environment. This is not quite the same as the habitat of the species; a niche refers more to how an animal lives than to where it lives. I suggest that a niche is a set of affordances… The natural environment offers many ways of life, and different animals have different ways of life. The niche implies a kind of animal, and the animal implies a kind of niche. Note the complementarity of the two.

This brings up an interesting point that when we look at an environment, it must be from someone’s viewpoint. Similarly, when we look at an agent, it must be in relation to their environment. The agent is situated in the environment; they are defined by their environment. The environment in turn is affected/molded by the agent. When we describe an environment, we are describing the affordances it offers with respect to a species, most often us since we are the ones describing it.

There is a history between the agent and the environment. The agent’s actions and inactions are defined by their niche. The agent perceives the affordance because those affordances worked in the past. This regularity of the environment is quite similar to the idea of structural coupling in cybernetics. The structure of the organism and the perturbations from the environment results in a set of interactions. As Maturana noted – “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.”

Gibson used the example of a baby to expand on these ideas further. He postulated that a baby does not notice the properties of an object. What it notices is the actionable features, the affordances. There is a nice Heideggerian undertone here. Heidegger talked about the idea of readiness-to-hand. When we engage with an object such as a hammer, we just use the hammer without paying attention to the color of the handle or the material of the handle etc. The hammer is ready-to-hand, and we use it for a specific purpose without the payment of our attention to it. What we notice is the action possibility of the hammer, and not the hammer itself.

There is much evidence to show that the infant does not begin by first discriminating the qualities of objects and then learning the combinations of qualities that specify them. Phenomenal objects are not built up of qualities; it is the other way around. The affordance of an object is what the infant begins by noticing. The meaning is observed before the substance and surface, the color and form, are seen as such. An affordance is an invariant combination of variables, and one might guess that it is easier to perceive such an invariant unit than it is to perceive all the variables separately. It is never necessary to distinguish all the features of an object and, in fact, it would be impossible to do so. Perception is economical. “Those features of a thing are noticed which distinguish it from other things that it is not—but not all the features that distinguish it from everything that it is not”.

From a cybernetics viewpoint, the environment always has more variety than us. This means that an object in the environment can have multiple uses. A seat in our previous example, can be used for sitting as well as for standing. It could be used also as firewood if it is made of wood. Another point is that the environment as we define it with respect to its affordances is incomplete. It still has an indefinite number of niches that are not yet occupied. The external variety is always higher!

There are all kinds of nutrients in the world and all sorts of ways of getting food; all sorts of shelters or hiding places, such as holes, crevices, and caves; all sorts of materials for making shelters, nests, mounds, huts; all kinds of locomotion that the environment makes possible, such as swimming, crawling, walking, climbing, flying. These offerings have been taken advantage of; the niches have been occupied. But, for all we know, there may be many offerings of the environment that have not been taken advantage of, that is, niches not yet occupied. 

I will finish with a great note from William M. Mace:

Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head is inside of. – Mace

 Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Reality for a cybernetician: