In today’s post, I am looking further at constraints. Please see here for my previous post on this. Ross Ashby is one of the main pioneers of Cybernetics, and his book “Introduction to Cybernetics” still remains an essential read for a cybernetician. Alicia Juarrero is a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Prince George’s Community College (MD), and is well known for her book, “Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System”.
I will start off with the basic idea of a system and then proceed to complexity from a Cybernetics standpoint. A system is essentially a collection of variables that an observer has chosen to make sense of something. Thus, a system is a mental construct and not something that is an objective reality. A system from this standpoint is entirely contingent upon the observer. Ashby’s view on complexity was regarding variety. Variety is the number of possible states of a system. A good example of this is a light switch. It has two states – ON or OFF. Thus, we can state that a light switch has a variety of 2. Complexity is expressed in terms of variety. The higher variety a system has, the more possibilities it possesses. A light switch and a person combined has indefinite variety. The person is able to communicate via messages simply by turning the light switch ON and OFF in a certain logical sequence such as Morse code.
Now let’s look at constraints. A constraint can be said to exist when the variety of a system is said to have diminished or decreased. Ashby gives the example of a boys only school. The variety for sex in humans is 2. If a school has a policy that only boys are allowed in that school, the variety has now decreased to 1 from 2. We can say that a constraint exists at the school.
Ashby indicated that we should be looking at all possibilities when we are trying to manage a situation. Our main job is to influence the outcomes so that certain outcomes are more likely than others. We do this through constraints. Ashby noted:
The fundamental questions in regulation and control can be answered only when we are able to consider the broader set of what it (system) might do, when ‘might’ is given some exact specification.
We can describe what we have been talking about so far with a simple schematic. We can try to imagine the possible outcomes of the system when we interact with it and utilize constraints so that certain outcomes, P2 and P4 are more likely to occur. There may be other outcomes that we do not know of or can imagine. Ashby advises that cybernetics is not about trying to understand what a system is, but what a system does. We have to imagine a set of all possible outcomes, so that we can guide or influence the system by managing variety. The external variety is always more than the internal variety. Therefore, to manage a situation, we have to at least match the variety of the system. We do this by attenuating the unwanted variety and by amplifying our internal variety so that we can match the variety thrown at us by the system. This is also represented as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety – only variety can absorb variety. Ashby stated:
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.
Ashby talked about several versions of constraints. He talked about slight and severe constraints. He gave an example of a squad of soldiers. If the soldiers are asked to line up without any instructions, they have maximum freedom or minimum constraints to do so. If the order was given that no man may stand next to a man whose birthday falls on the same day, the constraint would be slight, for of all the possible arrangements few would be excluded. If, however, the order was given that no man was to stand at the left of a man who was taller than himself, the constraint would be severe; for it would, in fact, allow only one order of standing (unless two men were of exactly the same height). The intensity of the constraint is thus shown by the reduction it causes in the number of possible arrangements.
Another way that Ashby talked about constraints was by identifying constraint in vectors. Here, multiple factors are combined in a vector such that the resultant constraint is considered. The example that Ashby gave was that of an automobile. He gave the example of the vector shown below:
(Age of car, Horse-power, Color)
He noted that each component has a variety that may or may not be dependent on the other components. If the components are dependent on each other the final constraint will be less than the sum of individual component constraints. If the components are all independent, then the resultant constraints would be the sum of individual constraints. This is an interesting point to further look at. Imagine that we are looking at a team here of say Person A, B and C. Each person here is able to come up with indefinite possibilities, the resultant variety of the team would be also indefinite. If we allow for the indefinite possibilities to emerge, as in innovation or invention of new ideas or products, the constraints could play a role. When we introduce thinking agents to the mix, the number of possibilities goes up.
Complexity is about managing variety – about allowing room for possibilities to tackle complexity. Ashby famously noted that a world without constraints is totally chaotic. His point is that if a constraint exists, it can be used to tackle complexity. Allowing parts to depend upon each other introduces constraints that could cut down on unwanted variety and at the same time allow for innovative possibilities to emerge. The controller’s goal is to manage variety and allow for certain possible outcomes to be more likely than others. For this, the first step to imagine the total set of possible outcomes to best of their abilities. This means that the controller also has to have a good imagination and creative mind. This points to the role of the observer when it comes to seeing and identifying the possibilities. Ashby referred to the set of possibilities as “product space.” Ashby noted that its chief peculiarity is that it contains more than actually exists in the real physical world, for it is the latter that gives us the actual, constrained subset.
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.
A keen reader might be wondering how the ideas of constraints stack up against Alicia Juarrero’s versions of constraints. More on this in a future post. I will finish with a wonderful tribute to Ross Ashby from John Casti:
The striking fact is that Ashby’s idea of the variety of a system is amazingly close to many of the ideas that masquerade today under the rubric “complexity.”
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Towards or Away – Which Way to Go?
In today’s post I am pondering the question – as a regulator, should you be going towards or away from a target? Are the two things the same? I will use Erik Hollnagel’s ideas here. Hollnagel is a Professor Emeritus at Linköping University who has a lot of work in Safety Management. Hollnagel challenges the main theme of safety management as getting to zero accidents. He notes:
The goal of safety management is obviously to improve safety. But for this to be attainable it must be expressed in operational terms, i.e., there must be a set of criteria that can be used to determine when the goal has been reached… the purpose of an SMS is to bring about a significant reduction – or even the absence – of risk, which means that the goal is to avoid or get away from something. An increase in safety will therefore correspond to a decrease in the measured output, i.e., there will be fewer events to count. From a control point of view that presents a problem, since the absence of measurements means that the process becomes uncontrollable.
He identifies this as a problem from a cybernetics standpoint. Cybernetics is the art of steersmanship. The controller identifies a target and the regulator works on getting to the target. There is a feedback loop so that when the difference between the actual condition and the target is higher than a preset value, the regulator tries to bring the difference down. Take the example of a steersman of a boat – the steersman propels the boat to the required destination by steering the boat. If there is a strong wind, the steersman adjusts accordingly so that the boat is always moving towards the destination. The steersman is continuously measuring the difference from the expected path and adjusting accordingly.
Hollnagel continues with this idea:
Quantifying safety by measuring what goes wrong will inevitably lead to a paradoxical situation. The paradox is that the safer something (an activity or a system) is, the less there will be measure. In the end, when the system is perfectly safe – assuming that this is either meaningful or possible – there will be nothing to measure. In control theory, this situation is known as the ‘fundamental regulator paradox’. In plain terms, the fundamental regulator paradox means that if something happens rarely or never, then it is impossible to know how well it works. We may, for instance, in a literal or metaphorical sense, be on the right track but also precariously close to the limits. Yet there is no indication of how close, it is impossible to improve performance.
The idea of the fundamental regulator paradox was put forward by Gerald Weinberg. He described it as:
The task of a regulator is to eliminate variation, but this variation is the ultimate source of information about the quality of its work. Therefore, the better job a regulator does, the less information it gets about how to improve.
Weinberg noted that as the regulator gets better at what it is doing, the more difficult it is for them to improve. If we go back to the case of the steersman, perfect regulation is when the steersman is able to make adjustment at a superhuman speed so that the boat travels in a straight line from start to end. Weinberg is pointing out this is not possible. When 100% percent regulation is achieved, we are also cutting off any contact with the external world. This is also the source of information that the regulator needs to do its job.
Coming back to the original question of “away from” or “towards”, Hollnagel states:
From a control perspective it would make more sense to use a definition of safety such that the output increases when safety improves. In other words, the goal should not be to avoid or get away from something, but rather to achieve or get closer to something.
While pragmatically it seems very reasonable that the number of accidents should be reduced as far as possible, the regulator paradox shows that such a goal is counterproductive in the sense that it makes it increasingly difficult to manage safety… The essence of regulation is that a regulator makes an intervention in order to steer or direct the process in a certain direction. But if there is no response to the intervention, if there is no feedback from the process, then we have no way of knowing whether the intervention had the intended effect.
Hollnagel advises that we should see safety in terms of resilience and not as absence of something (accidents, missed days etc.) but rather as the presence of something.
Based on the discussion we can see that “moving towards” is a better approach for a regulator than “moving away” from something. From a management standpoint, we should deter from enforcing policies that are too strict in the hopes of perfect regulation. They would lack the variety needed to tackle the external variety thrown at us. We should allow room for some noise in the processes. As the variety of the situation increases, we should stop setting targets and instead, provide a direction to move towards. Putting a hard target is again an attempt at perfect regulation that can stress the various elements within the organization.
I will finish with some wise words from Weinberg:
The fundamental regulator paradox carries an ominous message for any system that gets too comfortable with its surroundings. It suggests, for instance, that a society that wants to survive for a long time had better consider giving up some of the maximum comfort it can achieve to return for some chance of failure or discomfort.
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In today’s post, I am looking at Wittgenstein and parallels between his ideas and Cybernetics. Wittgenstein is often regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. His famous works include Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (referred to as TLP in this article) and Philosophical Investigations (referred to as PI in this article). TLP is one of the most intriguing books I have read and reread in philosophy. His style of writing is poetic and the body of the book is split into sections and sub-sections. Wittgenstein is one of the few philosophers who has written two influential books that held opposing views in linguistic philosophy.
The Early Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein was very much influenced by Bertrand Russel’s logical representation of mathematics. Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that language also resides in a logical space. He realized that the problems in philosophy are due to a lack of understanding how language works. He opens TLP with the succinct declaration – “The world is all that is the case.” He followed this up with – “What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.”
Wittgenstein is saying that the world is not made up of things, but that the world is the totality of facts. For example, if we take the example of a house, we cannot simply point to the table, the chairs, the rooms and identify a house from the different things. Instead, we have to say that there is a brown dining table in the dining room, and there are six chairs around it. This statement is a representation of a fact. The fact contains objects depicted in a relation between them. The objects by themselves lack the complexity to denote the world. The statement is a state of affairs between the objects, and the state of affairs is a combination of objects in a specific configuration.
Let’s bring up the famous idea of “picture theory” here. The story goes that Wittgenstein read about a judiciary proceeding in France where a road accident was depicted using a model of the road with the cars, buildings, pedestrians etc. This gave him the idea of the picture theory. The picture theory is simply a model or a representation of a state of affairs that corresponds to the specific configuration of the objects in the world. The picture is a model of reality. If we say that there is a cat on the mat, then we can picture this as a cat being on the mat. There are other possible configurations possible such as the cat being on the side of the mat or the mat being on top of the cat. However, in this particular case, the picture of the cat on the mat depicts to the reality of the object “cat” being on top of the object “mat”. The relationship between the two objects is that the cat is on top of the mat. What we talk about using language can be represented by the model with the different objects in the statement having a specific relation between the objects.
Wittgenstein’s main idea was that the use of language is to represent the states of affairs in the world. We can make propositions or statements in language that are pictures of reality. These statements are true if and only if the pictures map onto a corresponding reality in the world. Whatever we can speak of using language are senseful only if they talk about states of affairs in the world. If we talk about supernatural things, then they are not depicting a state of affairs in the real world, and thus are senseless or nonsense. Wittgenstein then used this approach with thoughts by seeing a logical picture of facts as a thought. A thought thus becomes a proposition with sense. With this approach, Wittgenstein showed that the problems of philosophy arise from a poor understanding of knowing how language works. We can solve these problems only when we understand the logic of language. Wittgenstein said that everything that can be thought can be thought clearly, and everything that can be put into words can be put clearly. Everything else is nonsense. Wittgenstein famously stated that the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Wittgenstein ended TLP with the following – What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
The Later Wittgenstein:
In PI, Wittgenstein came to the realization that his earlier views were dogmatic. Instead of using the idea of picture theory where language corresponded to the world, the later Wittgenstein concluded that the meaning of a word is in its use. He realized that we should not provide definitions of words, but instead provide descriptions of use. Instead of picture theory, Wittgenstein introduced the idea of language games. We are all engaged in language games when we interact with one another. Wittgenstein never gave a definition for language games but, he gave several examples. Loosely put, we engage in a language game when we converse with each other. We follow certain rules; we act and counteract based on these rules. Things make sense only when we follow these rules. Wittgenstein viewed language as a tool box with all kinds of different tools, and each tool has multiple uses depending on the context. Let’s take the example of a surgeon performing a surgery. The surgeon at times might say “scalpel” or at times simply gesture. The assisting nurse or doctor understands exactly what the surgeon is asking for without the surgeon making a clear statement about the state of affairs. They are all engaged in a language game where the word “scalpel” or the simple gesture of an open hand has a specific meaning unique to that context. If the surgeon is in a restaurant and gestures with an open hand, he might be given a breadstick instead of a scalpel.
One of the other ideas that Wittgenstein brought up in PI that requires our attention is that of private language. Wittgenstein concluded that a private language is not possible. Language has to be public. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”. Wittgenstein used the example of a beetle in the box to explain this.
Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.
The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.
With these introductions, I will now try to draw parallels between Wittgenstein’s ideas and Cybernetics.
First Order Cybernetics and Early Wittgenstein:
When I look at the ideas of early Wittgenstein, I am seeing a lot of parallels to first order cybernetics. First order cybernetics is described of study of observed systems. Here the observer is independent of the observed system, and can make a model of how the observed system works and try to control it. The observer creates a model by looking at how the system works. Here the “system” refers to a selection of variables of interest with relation to a phenomenon chosen by the observer. One can see how this corresponds to the picture theory, where the picture is a model of reality depicting relations between objects.
Additionally for Wittgenstein, the logical space contains all possible combinations of the objects. Wittgenstein noted:
If all objects are given, then at the same time all possible states of affairs are also given.
Each thing is, as it were, in a space of possible states of affairs. This space I can imagine empty, but I cannot imagine the thing without the space.
In Cybernetics, this set of all possible combinations is viewed as the variety of the system. ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ is a statement about my variety. ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence’ is Wittgenstein’s advice to cut down on the extraneous variety. This can be viewed as the application of Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety”. Ashby explained this law as – only variety can absorb variety. The external variety is always greater than our internal variety. Therefore, to manage external variety thrown at us, we have to cut down the external variety coming our way so that we can focus and manage our abilities to cope with the world. For example, our brains have evolved so that we do not pay attention to every minute detail of the world around us.
We manage the world around us by making models of the world, and by interacting with the world through these models. We are able to sustain our viability by managing variety.
Second Order Cybernetics and Later Wittgenstein:
With the later ideas, I am seeing correlations to the ideas in Second order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems. Here the observer is not seen as independent of the observed system, rather the observer is part of the observed system. The idea of meaning as use brings in the need to look at the context. The context of an observed system is the observer doing the observation. The observer is doing the observation with a specific purpose in mind. We cannot remove the observer out of the observation. To be aware of our biases and preconceived notions is important. We need to also be mindful about the other observers in the social realm. We need to see how they view the system. A second order cybernetician is aware of the potential blind spots in our observations.
The second idea that resonated with me is the idea of language games. Language games imply that there is more than one player. We are in a social realm and our reality is a stable representation derived from the ongoing interactions with other participants in the social realm. The reality is formed from the specific rules of the game we engage in. Language games require practice just like any other game.
Third Order Cybernetics?
Wittgenstein viewed philosophy as therapy and I welcome Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as a therapy. To me, it is a second-order activity. I make sense of the world by describing it and therefore the limits of my understanding are based on the limits of my language. This viewpoint is liberating. When I view philosophy as second order cybernetics, I can conclude that there is no need for third order cybernetics. There is no need for a philosophy of philosophy. Wittgenstein talked about whether second order philosophy is needed:
One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without then being second-order.
Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a process for coming up with descriptions instead of explanations. When we try to come up with explanations of things, most often we fall prey to the philosophical problems that Wittgenstein exposed. We come into the realm of nonsense and we try to make sense of things by providing explanations where none can suffice. Wittgenstein said – Don’t think but look. Cybernetics teaches us to look how the system behaves rather than trying to understand what the system is. We need to look at descriptions rather than explanations. I will finish with a great explanation from Marie McGinn:
What we are concerned with when we ask questions of the form ‘What is time?’, ‘What is meaning?’, ‘What is thought?’ is the nature of the phenomena which constitute our world. These phenomena constitute the form of the world which we inhabit, and in asking these questions we express a desire to understand them more clearly. Yet in the very act of framing these questions, we are tempted to adopt an attitude towards these phenomena which, Wittgenstein believes, makes us approach them in the wrong way, in a way which assumes that we have to uncover or explain something. When we ask ourselves these questions, we take up a stance towards these phenomena in which they seem suddenly bewilderingly mysterious, for as soon as we try to catch hold of them in the way that our questions seem to require, we find we cannot do it; we find that we ‘no longer know’. This leads us deeper and deeper into a state of frustration and philosophical confusion. We think that the fault lies in our explanations and that we need to construct ever more subtle and surprising accounts. Thus, we ‘go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties, which in turn we are after all quite unable to describe with the means at our disposal. We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers’. The real fault, Wittgenstein believes, is not in our explanations, but in the very idea that the puzzlement we feel can be removed by means of a discovery. What we really need is to turn our whole enquiry round and concern ourselves, not with explanation or theory construction, but with description. The nature of the phenomena which constitute our world is not something that we discover by ‘digging’, but is something that is revealed in ‘the kind of statement we make about phenomena’, by the distinctive forms of linguistic usage which characterize the different regions of our language. The method we really need is one that ‘simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. —Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain’. It is by attending to the characteristic structures of what already lies open to view in our use of language that we will overcome our sense of philosophical perplexity and achieve the understanding we seek; the difficulty lies only in the fact that we are so unwilling to undertake, and so unprepared for, this task of description: ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)’
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “informationally closed”. The idea of informational closure was first proposed by Ross Ashby. Ashby defined Cybernetics as a study of systems that are informationally tight. Ashby wanted cyberneticians to look at all the possibilities that a system can be in. Here the system refers to a selection of variables that the observer has chosen. Ashby noted that we should not look at what individual act a system produces ‘here and now’, but at all the possible behaviors it can produce. For example, he asked why does the ovum grows into a rabbit, and not a dog or a fish? Ashby noted that this is strictly related to information, and not energy:
Growth of some form there will be; cybernetics asks “why should the changes be to the rabbit-form, and not to a dog-form, a fish-form or even to a teratoma-form?” Cybernetics envisages a set of possibilities much wider than the actual, and then asks why the particular case should conform to its usual particular restriction. In this discussion, questions of energy play almost no part – the energy is simply taken for granted. Even whether the system is closed to energy or open is often irrelevant; what is important is the extent to which the system is subject to determining and controlling factors. So, no information or signal or determining factor may pass from part to part without its being recorded as a significant event. Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy by closed to information and control – systems that are information-tight.
Ashby’s main point regarding this is that the machine or the system under observation selects its actions from a set of possible actions, and this will remain the same until there is a significant event that causes it to alter the set of possible actions. The action of the system is entirely based on its structure, and not because an external agent is choosing that action for the system. The external agent is only triggering or perturbing the system, and the system in turn reacts. This idea of informational closure was further taken up by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. The idea of “informationally closed” is a strong premise for constructivism – the idea that all knowledge is constructed rather than perceived through senses. They noted that as cognizant beings, we are informationally closed. We do not have information enter us externally. We are instead perturbed by the environment, and we react in ways that we are accustomed to. Jonathan D. Raskin expands on this further:
People are informationally closed systems only in touch with their own processes. What an organism knows is personal and private. In adhering to such a view, constructivism does not conceptualize knowledge in the traditional manner, as something moving from “outside” to “inside” a person. Instead, what is outside sets off, triggers, or disrupts a person’s internal processes, which then generate experiences that the person treats as reflective of what is outside. Sensory data and what we make of it are indirect reflections of a presumed outside world. This is why different organisms experience things quite differently. How Jack’s backyard smells to his dog is different from how it smells to him because he and his dog have qualitatively different olfactory systems. Of course, how Jack’s backyard smells to him may also differ from how it smells to Sara because not only is each of them biologically distinct but each has a unique history that informs the things to which they attend and attribute meaning. The world does not dictate what it “smells” like; it merely triggers biological and psychological processes within organisms, which then react to these triggers in their own ways. The kinds of experiences an organism has depend on its structure and history. Therefore, what is known is always a private and personal product of one’s own processes.
Raskin gives an example of a toaster or a washing machine to provide more clarity on the informational closure.
Maturana asserts that from the point of view of a biologist living systems are informationally closed–that is, things don’t get in and they don’t get out. From the outside, you can trigger a change, but you cannot directly instruct. Think of it as having a toaster and a washing machine. And, the toaster is going to toast no matter what you do. And, the washing machine is going to wash no matter what you do. And they both can be triggered by electricity. But the electricity doesn’t tell the toaster what to do. The toaster’s structure tells the toaster what to do. So similarly, we trigger organisms, but what they do has to do with their internal structure–including their nervous system–and the way it responds to various perturbations.
The idea of informational closure forces us to bring a new perspective to how we view the world. How are we able to know about reality? From a constructivism standpoint, we do not have a direct access to the external reality. What we can truly say is how we experience the world, not how the world really is. We do not construct a representation of the external world. This is not possible, if we are informationally closed. What we do is actually construct how we experience the world. As Raskin points out, the world is not a construction; only our experience of it is.Distinguishing experiential reality from external reality (even a hypothetical, impossible-to-prove-for-sure external reality) is important in maintaining a coherent constructivist stance.
All knowledge from this standpoint is personal, and cannot be passed on as a commodity. In constructivism, there is an idea called as the myth of instructive interaction. This means that we cannot be directly instructed. A teacher cannot teach a student with a direct and exact impact. All the teacher can do is to perturb the student so that the student can construct their personal knowledge based on their internal structure. Raskin notes – once people’s internal systems are triggered, they organize their experiential responses into something meaningful and coherent. That is to say, they actively construe. Events alone do not dictate what people know; constructive processes play a central role as people impose meaning and order on sensory data.
The more interactions we have with a phenomenon, the better we can experience the phenomenon, and it aids in our construction of the stable experiential reality of that phenomenon. Repetition is an important ingredient for this. Ernst von Glasersfeld notes:
Without repetition there would be no reason to claim that a given experiential item has some kind of permanence. Only if we consider an experience to be the second instance of the self-same item we have experienced before, does the notion of permanence arise.
From this point, I will try to look at some questions that might help to further our understanding of constructivism.
What is the point of constructivism if it means that we cannot have an accurate representation of the real world? The ultimate point about constructivism is not about an ontological stance, it is about viability. It is about being able to continue to survive. All organisms are informationally closed, and they continue to stay viable. The goal is to fit into the real world. Raskin explains – the purpose of this knowledge is not to replicate a presumed outside world but to help the organism survive. In Cybernetics, we say that we need to have a model of what we are trying to manage or control. This “model” does not have to be an exact representation of the “system” we are trying to control. We can treat it as a black box where we have no idea about the inner workings of the system. As long as we are able to come up with a set of possibilities and possible triggers for possible outcomes, we can manage the system. A true representation is not needed.
How would one account for a social realm if we are informationally closed? If each of us are informationally closed, and our knowledge are personal, how we do account for the social realm, where we all acknowledge a version of stable social reality. Raskin provides some clarity on this. He notes:
Von Glasersfeld held that people create a subjective internal environment that they populate with “repeatable objects.” These repeatable objects are experienced as “external and independent” by the person constructing internal representations of them. Certain repeatable objects–those we identify as sentient, primarily other people–are treated as if they have the same active meaning-making abilities that we attribute to ourselves. Consequently, we are able to experience an intersubjective reality whenever other people respond to us in ways that we interpret as indicating they experience things the same way we do. Once again, this alleviates concerns about constructivism being solipsistic because people do relationally coordinate with one another in confirming and maintaining their constructions.
For von Glasersfeld, it means that people construe one another as active meaning makers and consequently treat their personal understandings as communally shared when others’ behavior is interpreted as affirming those understandings. As I stated elsewhere, “when experiencing sociality or an intersubjective reality, we come to experience our constructions as socially shared to the extent that they appear to be (and, for all functional purposes, can be treated as if they are) also held by others”.
Each one of us construct an experiential reality of the external world. This external world includes other people in it. Our ongoing interaction with these people enhances and updates our own experiential world. We come to see the external world as a social construction. Our personal construction gets triggered in a social setting resulting in a social version of that construction. The more frequent and diverse interactions we get, the more viable this construction becomes. The other people are part of this experiential reality and thereby become cocreators of the social reality. In many regards, what we construct are not representations of the external world, but more a domain of constraints and possibilities. Making sense of the external world is a question about viability. If it does not affect viability, one may very well believe in a God or think that the world is flat. The moment, the viability is impacted, the constructions of the reality will have to adjusted/modified.
The image I have chosen for the post is an artwork by the Japanese Zen master, Nakahara Nantenbō (1839 – 1925). The artwork is a depiction of ensō (circle). The caption reads:
Born within the ensō (circle) of the world, the human heart must also become an ensō (circle).
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of ‘category mistake’ by the eminent British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle was an ardent opponent of Rene Descartes’ view of mind-body dualism. Ryle also came up with the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’ to mock the idea of dualism. Cartesian dualism is the idea that mind and body are two separate entities. Descartes was perhaps influenced by his religious beliefs. Our bodies are physical entities that will wither away when we die. But our minds, Descartes concluded are immaterial and can “live on” after we die. Descartes noted:
There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.
Ryle called this idea the official doctrine:
The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exceptions of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a mind. His body and his mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function.
Ryle referred to the idea of Cartesian dualism as the dogma of the ghost in the machine – the physical body being the machine, and the mind being the ghost. Ryle pointed out that Descartes was engaging in a category mistake by saying that mind and body are separate things. A category mistake happens when we operate with an idea as if it belongs to a particular category. Loosely put, it is like comparing apples to oranges, or even better, comparing apples to hammers. The two items do not belong to the same category and hence, a comparison between the two is a futile and incorrect attempt. The mind is not separate from the body. In fact, the two are interconnected and influence each other in a profound manner. Ryle talked about the idea of dualism as the absurdity of the official doctrine:
I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category-mistake. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.
Ryle explained the category mistake with some examples. One of the examples was that of a foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge:
A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your ‘University’. It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong.
The foreigner committed the category mistake by assuming that the university is a material entity just like different buildings he saw. He could not understand that the university is a collective whole made up of the different buildings, the students, the staff etc. I will discuss one more example that Ryle gave:
The same mistake would be made by a child witnessing the march-past of a division, who, having had pointed out to him such and such battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc., asked when the division was going to appear. He would be supposing that a division was a counterpart to the units already seen, partly similar to them and partly unlike them. He would be shown his mistake by being told that in watching the battalions, batteries and squadrons marching past he had been watching the division marching past. The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.
Similar to the foreigner, the child was looking for a separate entity called “the division”. He could not understand that the division is what he is seeing. It was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.
Ryle also gave another example of a visitor who was getting an explanation of the game of Cricket. He saw and understood the different players in the field such as the batsman, the bowler, the fielder etc. After he looked at each one of the players, he asked who is in charge of the team spirit. “But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit. I see who does the bowling, the batting and the wicket-keeping; but I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.” Ryles explained:
Once more, it would have to be explained that he was looking for the wrong type of thing. Team-spirit is not another cricketing-operation supplementary to all of the other special tasks. It is, roughly, the keenness with which each of the special tasks is performed, and performing a task keenly is not performing two tasks. Certainly exhibiting team-spirit is not the same thing as bowling or catching, but nor is it a third thing such that we can say that the bowler first bowls and then exhibits team-spirit or that a fielder is at a given moment either catching or displaying esprit de corps.
The reader would have noticed that I titled the post – The Ghost in the System. I am alluding to the category mistakes we make in systems thinking. Most often we commit the category mistake of assuming that the system is a standalone objective entity. This is an ontological error. We talk of a hospital system or a transportation system as if it is a physical entity that is visible for everyone to see and understand. We talk about optimizing the system or changing the system as if it is a machine that we can repair by changing out a faulty part with another. In actuality, the system we refer to is a mental construct of how we imagine the different chosen components interact with each other producing specific outcomes we are interested. When we talk of the issues haunting the hospital system, we might be meaning the long waits we have to endure, or the expensive tests that we had to go through. Each one of us construct a version of a “system” and yet we use the same term “system” to talk about different aspects. It is a category mistake to assume that we know what the others are saying. Coming back to the example of the hospital system, when we speak of a hospital system, we point to the hospital buildings, the equipment in the hospitals, the waiting rooms, the doctors, the staff, or the patients. But that is not a hospital system, not really because a system is mental construct that is entirely dependent on who is doing the observing. The observer has a specific thing in mind when they use that word. It is a category mistake to assume that you know what was said. The artifacts are not the system.
Ryle viewed category mistakes occurring due to problems in vocabulary. He wrote:
These illustrations of category-mistakes have a common feature which must be noticed. The mistakes were made by people who did not know how to wield the concepts University, division and team-spirit. Their puzzles arose from inability to use certain items in the English vocabulary.
Wittgenstein famously wrote – The limits of language are the limits of my world. Our use of language limits what we can know or tell about the world. To go further with this idea, I am looking at the idea of systems from West Churchman’s viewpoint. Churchman advised us that a systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. We live in a social realm and by social realm, I mean that we live in a world where “reality” is co-constructed with the other inhabitants of the realm. We define and redefine reality on an ongoing basis through continual interactions with the other cocreators. We should have a model or an image of what we are trying to manage. But if social realm is cocreated, we need to be aware of others in the realm and treat it as a cocreation rather than an objective reality that we have access to. Systems do not have an objective existence. Each one of us view and construct systems from our viewpoint. Thus, how we define a system is entirely dependent on us, the observers. What we have to do is to seek understanding before we rush in to change or optimize a system. The first step is to be aware of the others in the realm. The next step is to seek understanding and see how each one of them views the world. We have to better our vocabulary so that we can speak their language.
There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine.
I will finish with a wonderful reflexive nugget from Ryle:
In searching for the self, one cannot be the hunter and the hunted.
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In today’s post, I am looking the second order view of complexity. While I was thinking of a good title for this post, I went from “A constructivist walks into a Complexity bar” to “The Chernobyl model of Complexity”. Finally, I settled with “The Cybernetics of Complexity.” What I am looking at is not new by any means. I am inspired by the ideas of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Heinz von Foerster, Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch and Ralph Stacey.
I start from the basic premise that complexity is a description rather than a property of a phenomenon. This would indicate that the complexity is dependent on the one doing the describing, i.e., the observer. Complexity is a description, which means it needs someone describing it. This is the observer. The same thing can be perceived as complex and complicated by two different people. Tsoukas and Hatch explain this further:
in order for cognitive beings to be able to act effectively in the world we must organize our thinking… one way of viewing organizations as complex systems is to explore complex ways of thinking about organizations-as complex systems; which we call second order complexity. We further note that entering the domain of second-order complexity – the domain of the thinker thinking about complexity – raises issues of interpretation (and, we argue, narration) that have heretofore been ignored by complexity theorists.
What is complexity? It is our contention that the puzzle of defining the complexity of a system leads directly to concern with description and interpretation and therefore to the issue of second-order complexity.
Tsoukas and Hatch references Jim Casti to explain this further:
complexity is, in effect, in the eye of the beholder: ‘system complexity is a contingent property arising out of the interaction I between a system S and an observer/decision-maker O’. To put it more formally, the complexity of a system, as seen by an observer, is directly proportional to the number of inequivalent descriptions of the system that the observer can generate. The more inequivalent descriptions an observer can produce, the more complex the system will be taken to be.
Casti’s definition of complexity is an interesting one for it admits that the complexity of a system is not an intrinsic property of that system; it is observer-dependent, that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. Consequently, if an observer’s language is complex enough (namely, the more inequivalent descriptions it can contain) the system at hand will be described in a complex way and thus will be interpreted as a complex system. What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as nonlinearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence. It is not that those features could not have been described before, but that they now have been brought into focus and given meaning. To put it another way, physics has discovered complexity by complicating its own language of description.
Here, the language of description comes from the observer. One of the best examples that I have to provide some clarity is a scene from HBO’s wonderful show Chernobyl, adapted from the Chernobyl tragedy. In the scene, Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief Engineer was alerted of things going wrong by the other engineers taking part in a test. Dyatlov stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. He asked the engineer, “What does the dosimeter say?” The response was. “3.6 Roentgen, but that’s as high as the meter..” Dyatlov, in the show cut him off midsentence and famously state, “3.6. Not great, not terrible.”
Dyatlov firmly believed that the reactor could not explode. Even though he was informed that the meter can go only as high as 3.6 roentgen, he found the situation to be manageable. Later it is revealed using a different gage with higher range, the actual rate was 15,000 roentgen per hour. This scene is truly remarkable because there were different people looking at a phenomenon and coming to different conclusions with terrible consequences.
In philosophy, we talk about ontology and epistemology. Ontology is about what exists and epistemology is about how you come to know things. We are all born with a set of “gages” (to loosely put). But each one of our gages have different ranges. The set of gages is unique to our species. For example, we can only see a small part of the light spectrum. We can only hear only a small part of the sound spectrum. We are informationally closed. This means that we generate meaning within a closed interpretative framework/mechanism. Information cannot come in directly. Rather, we are perturbed by the environment and we generate meaning from it. It might make it easier if we can come up with a way to quantify complexity.
A loose way to do this is to view complexity in terms of the number of possible interactions the phenomenon can have. This in turn is related to the number of states of the phenomenon. In cybernetics, complexity is viewed in terms of variety. Variety is the number of states of a phenomenon. I have discussed this concept at length before. To explain it loosely with an example, the variety of a simple light switch is two, the two states being ON and OFF. A variable light switch on the other hand has a whole lot more variety. The other insight regarding variety is that it is dependent on the observer since the observer is the one describing the number of “possible” states. Now this is where the possible rub comes in for some people. I see complexity as dependent upon the observer. Do I reject that there is nothing out there that is not in my head? That is a question about ontology. I am not very keen on just looking at ontology. I am looking at this from an epistemological viewpoint. Going back to the Chernobyl show, if my gage is inadequate, then that determines my reality which determines my action. If I have a better gage, then I can better understand what is going on. If I have others around me with more gages, then I can do a comparison and come to a general consensus on what is going on so that our general viability is maintained.
We have learned through evolution as a species to cut down on the high variety thrown at us so that we can remain viable. As noted earlier, we have evolved to see only a narrow band of the light spectrum, same with the sound and other natural phenomena. This has led to us having a set of “gages” unique to our species so that we can continue being viable. When these gages become inadequate, then our viability is in question. The purpose of gages is to make sense of what is happening so that we can act or not act. We don’t register everything that is coming in because we don’t need to. Our genetic makeup has become tuned to just what we need.
When I say complexity is in the eyes of the beholder, I mean that our range of gages are different dependent upon the observer. What we sense directly impacts how we act. Some of us can manage situations better because they are able to make sense better. Whether a situation is complex or complicated changes based on who is doing the observing. The term observer here means the person interacting with the situation. You can call him an actor or an agent, if needed.
Tsoukas and Hatch expand on this:
If practitioners are to increase their effectiveness in managing paradoxical social systems, they should, as Weick recommends, ‘complicate’ themselves. But complicate themselves in what way? By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practitioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely, in logico-scientific terms, to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage, or, in narrative terms, to enact it.
In Cybernetics, this aligns with Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety. This law states that only variety can absorb variety. To simply put, we have to cut down excess external variety coming in and find ways to amplify our internal variety so that the internal variety matches the external variety. A good way to cut down the external variety is to focus on only what matters/values to us. A good way to amplify our internal variety is to keep on learning and to be open to other perspectives. Of course, there are a lot of other ways to do this. A specific procedure cannot be made because everything is dependent upon the context. The phenomenon itself is changing with time, and so are we as the observers.
We have to welcome how the other practitioners describe the phenomenon. We have to engage with them so that we can come to a stable narrative of the phenomenon. This is not possible if we see ourselves as external to the phenomenon and if we believe that we all experience a single objective phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note – Expanding the focus from the system itself (first-order complexity) to also include those who describe the system as complex (second-order complexity) exposes the interpretive-cum-narrative dimensions of complexity. A complex system is said to have many specific characteristics including non-linearity, feedback loops, etc. But these are all descriptions of an observer describing the phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note:
Although you may call non-linearity, scale dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions and emergence properties of the system, they are actually your descriptive terms – they are part of a vocabulary, a way of talking about a system. Why use such a vocabulary? Is it because it corresponds to how the system really is? Not quite. Because the system cannot speak for itself, you do not know what the system really is. Rather, you use such a vocabulary because of its suspected utility – it may enable you to do certain things with it. A new vocabulary, notes Rorty, ‘is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide’.
What we have to then do is to understand that seeing complexity as a description of a phenomenon helps us in understanding how we understand the phenomenon. This is a second-order act, a cognitive act. We need to be aware of our blind spots (realization that we have inadequate gages). We need to improve our vocabulary so that we can better describe what we experience. Some models of complexity recommend bringing in experts for complicated phenomenon. Complicated phenomenon are cases where the complexity is slightly higher, but a cause-and-effect relationship still exists. The reason for bringing in the experts is because they are able to describe the phenomenon differently than a layperson. This again shows that complexity is dependent on the observer. It also indicates that we can improve our sensemaking capabilities by improving our vocabulary by keeping on learning. I will try to loosely explain my ideas based on a one-dimensional depiction of complexity. I am not saying that this is a correct model. I am providing this only for clarity’s sake. The chart below shows the complexity in terms of variety. The green line starts at 0 and ends at 100 to show complexity on a spectrum. Depending upon the capability of the observer to distinguish possible varieties, two observers perceive and understand complexity as shown below. The observer 2 in this case is able to manage complexity better than observer 1. Please note that to manage complexity means to cut down on the excess external variety and amplify internal variety. The other point to keep in mind is that the observer is informationally closed, so the observer is able to generate meaning of only those characteristics that perturbs the observer. In other words, the observer can distinguish only those characteristics that the observer’s interpretative mechanism can afford.
When we look at a phenomenon and try to make sense of it, we try to do it in terms of a whole narrative, one that makes sense to us. This adds a uniqueness to how each one of the practitioners approach the phenomenon. The same complex phenomenon can have different contexts for different people. For example, the same Covid pandemic can be a problem of health crisis for one person, while for another it could be about freedom and government regulation. A stable social reality is achieved through continuous interaction. The environment changes, so we have to continuously interact with each other and the environment and continue to reframe reality. This social stability is an ongoing activity.
I had indicated that this post is about a second order view of complexity. In order to improve our understanding of complexity, we have to understand how we understand – how we come to know about things that we can describe. I do not propose that there is an objective reality out there that we all experience equally. All we can say is that we each experience a reality and through ongoing interaction we come to a stable version of reality. One of the criticisms to this approach is that this leads to solipsism. The main version of Solipsism is that others may not really exist and that only one’s mind is sure to exist. This is a no-win argument that I find no appeal in. I am happy that other smarter people exist because my life is better because of them. Another criticism to this approach is that it supports relativism. Relativism is the idea that all perspectives are equally valid. This also is a terrible idea in my view. I support the idea of pluralism. I have written about this before here. Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, a pluralist is open to understanding other people’s belief systems.
What I am hoping to achieve from this constructivist view is epistemic humility. This is the stance that what we know is incomplete, and that it may also be inadequate. We have to keep on learning, and be open to other viewpoints.
I will finish with a wonderful quote from Heinz von Foerster:
properties that apparently are associated with things are indeed properties that belong to the observer. So, that means the properties which are thought to reside in things turn out to be properties of the observer. I’ll give you immediately an example. A good example, for instance, is obscenity. You know that there is a tremendous effort even going up to the Supreme Court which is almost a comedy worthy to be written by Aristophanes. Who wants to establish what is obscene? Now it’s perfectly clear that “obscene” is, of course, a property which resides in the observer, because if you take a picture and show it to Mr. X, and Mr. X says, “This picture is obscene,” you know something about Mr. X, but nothing about the picture.
In today’s post, I am continuing from the last post, mainly using the ideas of Dirk Baecker. We noted that every observation is an operation of distinction, where an observer crosses a line, entering a marked state. This is shown in the schematic below. Here “a” refers to the marked state that the observer is interested in. The solid corner of a square is the distinction that was used by the observer, and “n” refers to the unmarked state. The entire schematic with the two sides and the three values (“a”, “n” and the distinction) are notated as a “form”. The first order observer is observing only the marked state “a”, and is not aware of or paying attention to the distinction(s) utilized. They are also not aware of the unmarked state “n”. When a second order observer enters the picture, they are able to see the entire form including the distinction employed by the first order observer.
However, it is important to note that the observation made by the second order observer is also a first order observation. This means that they also have a distinction and an unmarked state, another “n” that they are not aware of. Baecker explains this:
We have to bring in second-order observers in order to introduce consciousness or self-observation. Yet to be able to operate at all, these second-order observers must also be first-order observers… Second-order observers intervene as first-order observers, thereby presenting their own distinction to further second-order observation.
We also discussed the idea of “reentry” in our last post. Reentry is a means to provide closure so that the first order and second order observations taken together leads to a stable meaning.
So, to recap, the first order observer is interested in “a”.
The second order observer observes the first order observer, and understands that the first order observer made a distinction. They see where the first order observer is coming from, and the context of their observation. Let’s call the context as “b”. This will be the unmarked state for the first observer.
The second order observer engages with the first order observer in an ongoing back and forth discussion. The second order observer is able to combine both their “dealing with the world” approaches and come together to a nuanced understanding. This understanding is an effect of distinguishing “a” from “b”, and also combining “a” and “b” – an action of implication and negation taken together. This is an operation of sensemaking in the medium of meaning. This is depicted as the reentry in the schematic below.
Baecker explains reentry further:
Any operation that is able to look at both sides of the distinction – that is, at its form – is defined by Spencer Brown as an operation of reentry. It consists of reentering the distinction into the distinction, thereby splitting the same distinction into one being crossed and the same one being marked by another distinction that is deferred. The general idea of the reentry is to note and use the fact that distinctions occur in two versions: the distinction actually used, and the distinction looked at or reflected on.
Let’s look further at the form by using a famous syllogism from philosophy to further enhance our understanding:
All Men are Mortals;
Socrates is a man;
Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.
This can be depicted as a form as shown below:
By distinguishing Socrates from Men, and Men from Mortals, and by putting it all together, we get to “Socrates is Mortal”. In this case, we did not have to do a lot of work to come to the final conclusion. However, as the complexity increases, we will need to perform reentry on an ongoing basis to bring forth a stable meaning. Reentry introduces temporality to the sensemaking operation. No matter how many distinctions we employ, we can only get to a second order observation. All observations are in all actuality first order observations. And what is being distinguished is also dependent entirely on the observer.
I will also look at another example. A manager is required to maintain the operations of a plant while at the same time they need to make modifications to the operations to ensure that the plant can stay viable in an everchanging environment. In other words, the operations are maintained as consistent as possible until it needs to be changed. This can be depicted as shown below:
Another way to look at this is to view a plant as needing centralized structure as well as decentralized structure or top-down and bottom-up structure. This can be depicted as shown below. Here the two states are not shown as nested, but adjacent to each other.
Dirk Baecker saw a firm as follows:
Baecker notes that the product is the first distinction that we have to make. Our first distinction is the distinction of the product. Whatever else the firm may be doing, it has to recursively draw the distinction of which product it is to produce. This may be a material or immaterial, a tangible or intangible, an easy or difficult to define product, but it has to be a product that tells employees, managers and clients alike just what the firm is about. He continues- The technology is part of the form of the first distinction. Indeed, it is the outside or the first context of the first distinction, as observed by a second-order observer who may be the first-order observer observing him/herself. This means that a firm distinguishes only those products for which it has, or hopes to acquire, the necessary technology. Technology here means all kinds of ways of making sure that we can do what we want to do. This includes material access to resources, knowledge of procedures, technologies, availability of people to do the job and ways to convince society that you are doing what you are doing in the proper way.
Baecker explains “work” as follows:
We add the assumption of communication between first-order observers who at the same time act as second-order observers. The firm observes itself. By working, it relates products to technology and technology back to products.
Additional information can be found on Dirk Baecker’s The Form of the Firm.
In all that we have seen so far, we have not yet talked about the unmarked state. The unmarked state “n” is always present in the form and is not accessible to the observer. The observation can have as many distinctions as needed, dependent on the observer. The “n” represents everything that can be further added to the distinctions to improve our “meaning” as needed. The more distinctions there are, the more complex the observations. The observers deal with the complexity of the phenomena to be understood by applying as many or as few distinctions as needed.
We are able to better help with someone else’s problems because we can engage in second order observations. As second order observers, we can see the distinctions they made which are not accessible to them in the first order observation. The second order observer is able to understand the distinctions that the first order observer was able to make. The distinctions lay in the blind spots for the first order observer. The second order observation can be completed by the first order observer themselves as an operation of self-reflection. As cognitive beings, we must reproduce existing patterns by continually engaging with the external world, our local environment. We have to keep evaluating and adjusting these patterns on an ongoing self-correcting basis.
The basic structure of what we have discussed so far can be depicted as the following form:
We need to be mindful that there is always “n” that is not part of our observation. We may gain a better understanding of our distinctions if we engage in second order observation, but we will still not be able to access the unmarked state. We will not be able to access the unmarked state unless we create a new distinction in the unmarked state cutting “n” to a marked state and an unmarked state, yielding a new “n”. Second-order observation, noting one’s own distinctions, can lay the groundwork for epistemic humility.
This brings into question – how many distinctions are really needed? We will answer this with going to the first distinction we made. The first cross that we started with leading to the first distinction is the most important thing that we care about. Every other distinction is based on this first one. To answer – how many distinctions are really needed? – we need as many distinctions as needed until we are fully satisfied with our understanding. This includes understanding our blind spots and the distinctions we have made.
I will finish with a Peter Drucker story from Baecker. Peter Drucker was working with a hospital to improve their Emergency Room. Baecker noted that it took the hospital staff two days to come up with the first distinction, their “a”. Their “a” was to bring immediate relief to the afflicted. The afflicted needing relief may not always be the patient. In Drucker’s words:
Many years ago, I sat down with the administrators of a major hospital to think through the mission statement of the emergency room. It took us a long time to come up with the very simple, and (most people thought) too obvious statement that the emergency room was there to give assurance to the afflicted.
To do that well, you have to know what really goes on. And, much to the surprise of the physicians and nurses, it turned out that in a good emergency room, the function is to tell eight out of ten people there is nothing wrong that a good night’s sleep won’t take care of. You’ve been shaken up. Or the baby has the flu. All right, it’s got convulsions, but there is nothing seriously wrong with the child. The doctors and nurses give assurance.
We worked it out, but it sounded awfully obvious. Yet translating that mission statement into action meant that everybody who comes in is now seen by a qualified person in less than a minute. That is the mission; that is the goal. The rest is implementation.
Some people are immediately rushed to intensive care, others get a lot of tests, and yet others are told: “Go back home, go to sleep, take an aspirin, and don’t worry. If these things persist, see a physician tomorrow.” But the first objective is to see everybody, almost immediately — because that is the only way to give assurance.
In today’s post, I am looking at observation. This will be a general overview and I will follow up with more posts in the future. I am inspired by the ideas of George Spencer-Brown (GSB), Niklas Luhman, Dirk Baecker and Heinz von Foerster. In Cybernetics, observation does not mean just to utilize your eyes and look at something. It has a deeper “sensemaking” type meaning. Observation in Cybernetics does not follow the rigid subject-object relationship. Toth Benedek explains this:
Heinz von Foerster tried to develop a point of view that replaces the linear and rigid structure of the object-subject (observer-observed) distinction. According to von Foerster, the observer is really constructed by the observed and vice versa: ‘observation’ is nothing else but the circular relation between them. Observation as a relation defines the observer and the observed, so the observer refers not only to the observed, but also to himself by the act of observation.
Observation is an operation of distinction. The role of an observer is to generate information. If no information is being generated, then no observation has been made. An observation is an act of cognition. GSB in his seminal work, Laws of Form noted:
A universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in the plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.
GSB advises us to draw a distinction. He proposed a notation called as “mark” to do this. A basic explanation of a mark is shown below. It separates a space into two sections; one part that is observed and the other that is not observed. We can look at a space, and identify a difference, a distinction that allows us to identify a part of the space as something and the remaining of that space as NOT that something. For example, we can distinguish a part of a house as kitchen and everything else is “not kitchen”. At that point in time, we are looking only at the kitchen, and ignoring or not paying attention to anything else. What is being observed is in relation to what is not being observed. A kitchen is identified as “kitchen” only in the context of the remaining of the house.
Dirk Baecker explains this:
Spencer-Brown’s first propositions about his calculus is the distinction being drawn itself, considered to be “perfect continence”, that is to contain everything. A distinction can only contain everything when one assumes that it indeed contains (a) its two sides, that is the marked state and the unmarked state, (b) the operation of the distinction, that is the separation of the two sides by marking one of them, and (c) the space in which all this occurs and which is brought forth by this occurrence.
From the context of GSB, we can view a distinction as a first order observation. We can only see what is inside the box, and not what is outside the box. What is outside the box is our “blind spot.”
Hans-Georg Moeller explains this very well:
A first-order observation can simply observe something and, on the basis of this, establish that thing’s factuality: I see that this book is black—thus the book is black. Second-order observation observes how the eye of an observer constructs the color of this book as black. Thus, the simple “is” of the expression “the book is black” becomes more complex—it is not black in itself but as seen by the eyes of its observer. The ontological simplicity is lost and the notion of “being” becomes more complex. What is lost is the certainty about the “essential” color of this book.
The first order observer is confident about the observation he makes. He may view his observation as necessary and not contingent. However, a second order observer is able to also see what the first order observer is not. The second order observer is able to understand to an extent how the first order observer is making his distinctions. The second order observer thus comes to the conclusion that the distinction made by the first order observer is in fact contingent and somewhat arbitrary.
The most important point about the first order observation is that the first order observer cannot see that he does not see what he does not see. In other words, the first order observer is unaware that he has a blind spot. A second order observer observing a first order observer is able to see what the first order observer is not able to see, and he is also able to see that the first order observer has a blind spot. This is depicted in the schematic below:
As the schematic depicts, the second order observer is also making a distinction. In other words, what he is doing is also a first order observation! This means that the second order observer also has a blind spot, and he not aware that he has a blind spot! As Benedek further notes:
the first order of observation (our eye’s direct observation) is unable to get a coherent and complete image about the world out there. What we can see is something we learnt to see: the image we “see” is a result of computing processes.
The second order observation can also be carried out as a self-observation, where the observer doing the first order observation is also the observer doing the second order observation. This may appear paradoxical. GSB talked about an idea called “reentry” in Laws of Form. Reentry is the idea of reentering the form again. In other words, we are re-introducing the distinction we used onto the form again. The reentry is depicted in the schematic below:
Dirk Baecker explains:
Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form consists in developing arithmetic with distinctions from a first instruction—”draw a distinction”—to the re-introduction (“re-entry”) of the distinction into the form of distinction, in order to be able to show in this way that the apparently simple, but actually already complex beginning involved in making a distinction can only take place in a space in which the distinction is for its part introduced again. The observer who makes this distinction through it becomes aware of the distinction, to which he is himself indebted.
Self-observation requires a reentry. In order to become aware that we have cognitive blind spots, we have to perform reentry. The re-entry includes what was not part of the original distinction. This allows us to understand (to a point) how we make and utilize distinctions. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we come to see when we realize that we cannot see.
The reentry is a continuous operation that is self-correcting in nature. There is no end point to this per-se and it oscillates between the inside and the outside. This leads to an emergent stability as an eigenform. As noted before, the second order observation is still a form of first order observation even with reentry. There are still cognitive blind spots and we are still subject our biases and limitations of our interpretative framework. We are affected by what we observe and we can only observe what our interpretative framework can afford. As noted at the start of the post, the role of the observer is to generate information. If the observer is not able to make a distinction, then no information can be generated. This has the same effect as us being in a closed system where the entropy keeps on increasing. Borrowing a phrase from Stafford Beer, this means that observers are negentropic pumps. We engage in making dynamic distinctions which allows us to gather the requisite information/knowledge to remain viable in an everchanging environment.
The discussion about first order and second order observations may bring up the question – is it possible to have a third order observation? Heinz von Foerster pointed out that there is no need for a third order observation. He noted that a reflection of a reflection is still a reflection. Hans-Georg Moeller explains this further:
While second-order observation arrives at more complex notions of reality or being, it still only observes—it is a second-order observation, because it observes as a first-order observation another first-order observation. It is, so to speak, the result of two simultaneous first-order observations. A third-order observation cannot transcend this pattern—for it is still the first-order observation of a first-order observation of a first-order observation… No higher-order observation—not even a third-order observation—can observe more “essentially” than a lower-order observation. A third-order observation is still an observation of an observation and thus nothing more than a second-order observation. There is no Platonic climb towards higher and higher realities—no observation brings us closer to the single light of truth.
I will finish with some wise words from Dirk Baecker:
In today’s post, I am looking at magic and cybernetics. From a young age, I have been a fan of magic. I have talked about magic here before. I see magic as the art of paradoxes. The word paradox stems from the Greek words – “para” and “dokein”, and taken together it means contrary to expectation.
Take for example a simple magic trick where the magician shows you an open empty hand. The magician closes the hand, and does a gentle wiggle and then opens his hand to reveal a coin. He again closes his hands, and does another gentle wiggle and then opens the hand to show that his hand is empty. The magic happens from a self-referential operation. The spectator (or the observer) sees an empty hand and describes it to themselves as an empty hand. Later, when the magician shows their hand again, the hand now contains a coin. The spectator has to reference back to the previous state of empty hand, and face the moment of paradox. The hand that was empty now has a coin. The moment of magic comes only when the spectator can reference back to the empty hand. If we denote the empty hand as A, the value of the hand now is !A or in other words, not an empty hand. If the spectator cannot reference back to their original observation, they will not see the magic. From the magician’s standpoint, he should take care to make sure that this experience is as strong as possible. For example, he should take care to maintain the image of the hand with and without the coin, the same. This means that the position of the fingers, the gap between them, the gesture etc. are all maintained the same for the two states – one where the hand has no coin, and the second where the hand has a coin. This reinforces the “magic” for the spectator.
The idea of self-reference is of great importance in cybernetics. In logic, the idea of self-reference is shunned because it normally leads to paradoxes. A great example for a paradox is the liar paradox. One of the oldest forms of liar paradox is the statement that Epimenides, the Cretan made. He said that, “all Cretans are liars.” Since he himself was a Cretan, that would mean that he is also a liar, but that would mean that what he is saying is true, which means that he must be a liar… and so on. This goes into a paradox from the self-reference. There have been many solutions suggested for this conundrum. One of the ways to resolve any apparent paradox is to introduce temporality into this sentence. We can do this by making the statement slightly ambiguous and add the word “sometimes”. So, the sentence becomes, “all Cretans are liars sometimes.” The temporality suggests that the value for the statement and the person uttering the statement changes with time and this dissolves the paradox.
Paradoxes don’t exist in the “real world.” The reasonable conclusion is that they have something to do with our stubborn and rigid thinking. When we are unwilling to add temporality or ambiguity, we get stuck with our thinking. Another way to look at this is from a programmer’s standpoint. The statement a = a + 1, is valid from a computer program standpoint. Here the variable, “a” does not stand for a constant value. It is a placeholder for a value at a given point in time. Thus, although the equation a = a +1 is self-referential, it does not crash the computer because we introduce temporality to it, and we do not see “a” having one unique value at all times.
In Cybernetics, self-reference is accepted as a normal operation. Cyberneticians talk about second order concepts such as “understanding understanding” and “observing observing”. One of my favorite description of Cybernetics comes from Larry Richards. He describes cybernetics as a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it – cybernetics – is one). This is form of self-reference.
In Cybernetics, self-reference does not lead to paradox. Instead, it leads to a stable outcome. As cognizing agents, we build a stable reality based on self-reference. We can do activities such as thinking about thinking or learning about learning from this approach. Louis Kauffman talks about this:
Heinz von Foerster in his essays has suggested the enticing notion that “objects are tokens for eigen behaviors.” … The short form of this meaning is that there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition that “arises between them.” It is this stability that constitutes the object (and the perceiver). In this view, one does not really have any separate objects, objects are always “objects perceived,” and the perceiver and the perceived arise together in the condition of observation.
We identify the world in terms of how we shape it. We shape the world in response to how it changes us. We change the world and the world changes us. Objects arise as tokens of behavior that leads to seemingly unchanging forms. Forms are seen to be unchanging through their invariance under our attempts to change, to shape them.
My post was inspired by the ideas of Spencer-Brown, Francisco Varela and Heinz von Foerster. I will finish with another gem from Heinz von Foerster:
I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.
Recently, I came across an interesting insight at the Toyota Global website. The section of interest is shown below:
Eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears, meaning any operator can use the line to produce the same result. Only then is the jidoka mechanism incorporated into actual production lines. Through the repetition of this process, machinery becomes simpler and less expensive, while maintenance becomes less time consuming and less costly, enabling the creation of simple, slim, flexible lines that are adaptable to fluctuations in production volume.
I was taken aback by the first sentence of the paragraph – eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears! Generally, we talk about increasing the value-added activities in Lean or TPS (Toyota Production System). Here, Toyota seems to be stating a paradox – We should get so good at what we do that we do not add value anymore. We keep finding better and better ways at doing what we do that it does not necessarily need us or even a human to do that job.
The website details the ideas of TPS, mainly Jidoka. Jidoka is the idea of building-in quality so if a defect is produced, the line stops automatically. I have talked about it on my website before – here and here. Toyota is advising us to make the operations as simple as possible. We are advised to remove the complexity of the operation. The operator does not have to face unwanted complexity. This complexity should be absorbed by the Engineers or Management designing the assembly line or the operation. This is an idea similar to Tesler’s law that I have discussed before. Before we can implement the ideas of Jidoka, we need to make the operation as stable as possible by avoiding unwanted variation from the operations. By doing this, multiple machines can be handled by one operator.
The paradoxical message might seem to be promoting automation. It is not so simple. Toyota focuses on work done by hand. The website states:
The work done by hand in this process is the bedrock of engineering skill. Machines and robots do not think for themselves or evolve on their own. Rather, they evolve as we transfer our skills and craftsmanship to them. In other words, craftsmanship is achieved by learning the basic principles of manufacturing through manual work, then applying them on the factory floor to steadily make improvements. This cycle of improvement in both human skills and technologies is the essence of Toyota’s jidoka. Advancing jidoka in this way helps to reinforce both our manufacturing competitiveness and human resource development.
The emphasis on doing the work by hand ensures that we understand all the aspects of the operation. Even if a robot is doing the work, it has to be most efficient. This allows for maximum flexibility. The robot imitates a human activity whether it is to grab or move or transform something. When most companies are going for automation, Toyota focuses on simpler activities that might be done with simple machines rather than state of the art robots. The push is to simplify the operation even for a robot! The manufacturing world has to adapt to ever changing demands, and this means that the assembly lines or the operations will have to be changed as needed. The environment has a lot more variety than what we can tackle. Thus, the goal is not to get stuck with a monument of expensive and large automation but simple and small machines/robots that can be easily moved or modified as need to meet the demand. The website continues:
Human wisdom and ingenuity are indispensable to delivering ever-better cars to customers. Going forward, we will maintain our steadfast dedication to constantly developing human resources who can think independently and implement kaizen.
We are to do our jobs so that we can keep “dehumanizing” the activities so that we have more time to focus on making more improvements. By “dehumanizing”, I mean that we keep improving our work so that we are not engaged in repetitive activities that can be done by a machine. The more time we spend on making improvements, the more efficient and effective we become. The machine can be viewed as a closed system. It keeps doing what it is programmed to do. When we interact with the machine, we provide it with new information that allows it to do something new.
Taking this idea of the paradox further – in an ideal world, when we do our jobs effectively, we are engaging in eradicating our jobs all together. For example, a doctor should be engaging in activities to create conditions where a doctor is no longer needed!
I will finish with Taiichi Ohno’s wise words:
It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know and do instinctively.