The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

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:

Draw a distinction.

Watch its form.

Work its unrest.

Know your ignorance.

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 The Cybernetics of Magic and the Magic of Cybernetics:

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

  1. Well stated, high marks.

    A distinction is a fact, and I like to point out that a fact is being made. Words used are not the facts being made. We’re using words about words, and these – like a map is not the territory – are not the facts. We act as if this (words being facts) is the case. I’ll be back.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And therein lies the fundamental problem of why realists disagree with interpretivists and vice versa. They are different orders of things, both right in themselves, but in relation to each other, at crossed purposes


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