In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of constructivism in Cybernetics. The title of the post is a nod to the famous philosopher John Locke’s idea of “Tabula Rasa” or “blank slate”. Locke believed that we are born with blank slates and that our experiences in the world lead to knowledge of the world. Constructivism in Cybernetics does not align with the idea of a blank slate, but it does align with the idea of our experiences in the world leading to knowledge of the world. From the time of enlightenment, the belief became dominant that we have access to an objective world and the knowledge of this world can set us free. Constructivism starts with the idea that we construct knowledge of our world, but we do not have access to the objective reality. We are not born with a blank slate. We are born with gene patterns that were passed on from our ancestors through evolution. For example, when we are born, we already know how to grip or reach out to warmth etc. We are also born with an operationally closed framework for learning. Similar to what Immanuel Kant would say about categories of understanding, we have a framework that we use to “see” the world. This framework is similar to other humans, but different enough to make them unique to us. How we experience the world becomes unique to us.
One of the main impedances to understanding this viewpoint is the notion that we have access to an objective world. Another notion that I would like to slightly challenge is the idea that we have representations of the world. Similar to Martin Heidegger’s ideas, our default mode of us is as beings in the world. This means that the world itself is our representation. We act in the world without first creating a representation. When we walk around, open doors, hold things etc., our body conforms to the environment naturally. We are situated in the world as a part of the world itself. When we open a door, our hand conforms to the shape of the door knob without us having to create a representation of the door knob. This does not mean that we cannot make representations, if needed. We can of course think in concepts, but this is not our default mode of being in the world.
From a constructivism standpoint, we have an embodied mind. This means that the mind is not separate from the body, and the body is not separate from the mind. We are ultimately meaning makers. We cannot ignore the “we” in this view. Rene Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” A fallacy that is often overlooked in this, is that he started the sentence with an “I”. He already snuck in the “I” before trying to demonstrate the existence of the “I”. It’s like asking “who created the universe?”. By asking “who”, one is already sneaking in a creator and therefore starting with a bias. In cybernetics, the emphasis is on the stable correlations that we establish in a social realm. What we construct is reinforced and often corrected by the others in the social realm. In order for this to be effective, we need repeat interactions. The more we interact with a phenomenon in a social realm, the more “real” it becomes to us. In addition to other people, the social realm also includes the language, the script and other societal aspects such as culture, moral implications etc. We are creatures of habit and our times.
A great example to understand how we construct stable correlations without having access to the objective world comes from Lynn Hoffman. I have slightly modified it for our purposes. Imagine rubbing a crayon on a piece of paper over a coin. The first time you rub, you may not be able to make out the coin, but the more you rub the crayon back and forth, the better the coin gets visible on the paper. What we have is the paper and we do not see the coin. The coin becomes “real” to us as what we constructed on the paper with the repeat interactions. The differences on the surface of the coin stand out to us as we interact more with it. This helps us construct the coin based on what we know already without a direct access to the coin. Traditionally, in philosophy there is a tendency to separate ontology (study of what exists) and epistemology (study of knowledge). Cybernetics is not about the world itself (what exists?); it is about us in the world, in the social realm, and how we make sense of it. In this worldview, ontology feeds epistemology as much as epistemology feeds ontology.
Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was OC Curve and Reliability/Confidence Sample Sizes: