Humberto Maturana is one of my favorite authors who has helped me further my learning of cybernetics. Sadly, he passed away recently. In today’s post, I am inspired by Maturana’s ideas. One of Maturana’s famous ideas is “autopoiesis.” I have written about this here. A closely related idea from Maturana is the difference between objectivity without parentheses and objectivity in parentheses. He explains this as follows:
There are two distinct attitudes, two paths of thinking and explaining. The first path I call objectivity without parentheses It takes for granted the observer-independent existence of objects that – it is claimed – can be known; it believes in the possibility of an external validation of statements. Such a validation would lend authority and unconditional legitimacy to what is claimed and would, therefore, aim at subjection. It entails the negation of all those who are not prepared to agree with the “objective” facts. One does not want to listen to them or try to understand them. The fundamental emotion reigning here is powered by the authority of universally valid knowledge. One lives in the domain of mutually exclusive transcendental ontologies: each ontology supposedly grasps objective reality; what exists seems independent from one’s personality and one’s actions.
The other attitude I call objectivity in parentheses; its emotional basis is the enjoyment of the company of other human beings. The question of the observer is accepted fully, and every attempt is made to answer it. The distinction between objects and the experience of existence is, according to this path, not denied but the reference to objects is not the basis of explanations, it is the coherence of experiences with other experiences that constitutes the foundation of all explanation. In this view, the observer becomes the origin of all realities; all realities are created through the observer’s operations of distinction. We have entered the domain of constitutive ontologies: all Being is constituted through the Doing of observers. If we follow this path of explanation, we become aware that we can in no way claim to be in possession of the truth but that there are numerous possible realities. Each of them is fully legitimate and valid although, of course, not equally desirable. If we follow this path of explanation, we cannot demand the subjection of our fellow human beings but will listen to them, seek cooperation and communication, and will try to find out under what circumstances we would consider to be valid what they are saying. Consequently, some claim will be true if it satisfies the criteria of validation of the relevant domain of reality.
Maturana is a proponent of objectivity in parentheses. Maturana teaches us that it is impossible to establish an observer-independent point of reference. Everything said is said by an observer. He agrees that there seem to be objects independent of us. The use of parentheses is to acknowledge this – to signal a certain state of awareness. In other words, we do not discover reality, but we invent a reality. We construct an experiential version of reality that is accessible to our interpretative framework. This is a version that is built through a circular causal loop between us and our environment in which we are embedded in. We are embodied minds embedded in our world, and not bodies with minds separated from the world. The latter view represents objectivity without parentheses.
Our version of reality becomes stable from our history of interactions with our environment. The environment contains everything outside our closed interpretative framework. This includes other beings also. The history of interactions provides us an opportunity to generate correlations that we can assign meanings to. For example, as a child, we learn that crying generally leads to situations where we can find comfort in the form of food, attention etc. However, as we grow older, most of us have to relearn that crying does not lead to comfort. We have to try other means to get what we need – learning to speak a common language. There is an error correction that goes on in the social realm where we can find commonalities in the realities that we construct. However, this can also lead to clans and tribes, where as a group we isolate from other clans and tribes with opposing ideas. An important point to be made at this juncture is that the success of the constructed reality is based simply on viability of the construction. If the constructed reality continues to stay viable over time, then it has merit. There is no external point of reference utilized here. There is no external authority who decrees what is right and wrong, or what is moral or immoral. The only way we would be willing to change the construction is if we realize that it is no longer viable based on either an internal reference point or when something happens in our environment that challenges our survival altogether. The first case is where we have to change our internal structure. This could be based on a perturbation from outside such as conversing with a person with an opposing view or reading a book that presents a powerful argument that challenges our paradigm. The second case is where our organization itself gets changed, and we cease to exist.
Systems in Quotes:
The more I have learned about cybernetics, especially second order cybernetics and the works of thinkers such as Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana, the more I start to question the use of “systems”. The word “system” is used in many ways to represent many things. Sometimes it could be the biological system (our body); sometimes it could be the education system; sometimes it could be the network system; on and on. To use a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, “This word has been so stretched and has taken on so broad a meaning that it no longer means anything at all.” Sartre was talking about existentialism. But I think it is quite suitable here. My statement might come across as quite irrational to some of the readers. Please bear with me as I try to explain my view. There is after all nothing rational about the complexity of what we try to represent with the word “system”. The “system” could mean different things to different people. It all depends on who is doing the description. Let’s take the example of an organization. It is quite common for management consultants to say we need to learn to change the “system” or fix the “system”. Or we should not blame the “system”. The emphasis here is that the “system” is something that we can change or it is something real that we can fix. As I have pointed out often here on the blog, my view is that “systems” are mental constructs used to make sense of the world around us. It is a construction of the observer, and they decide what all parts go within the boundary, and where the boundary of the “system” is drawn. There is nothing objective about a “system”. “Systems” are part of the experiential reality of the observer. Since we are informationally closed, we cannot share this experiential reality.
When I talk about “systems”, in the spirit of Maturana, I am differentiating between Systems in quotes, and systems without quotes. If we replace the word “objectivity” with “system”, and “parentheses” with “quotes” in Maturana’s explanation, perhaps my position would become clearer. My concern with not using quotes is that we are removing the observer from the observation; the describer from the description. To put it in other words – a cat doesn’t know that it is a cat. The distinguishing characteristics come from the distinguisher than the distinguished. In the case of an organization, if we are going to blame the “system”, where will we start? The assumption is that we all know what we mean by the “system” here. The first step in systems thinking is to try to view the world from the other person’s viewpoint. This is part of understanding the boundaries and how the other person views the world. In other words, we are looking for actively perturbing our closed interpretative framework. We are looking to actively engage to change our minds. How often do we do this? Is this what the consultants look to do when they talk about fixing the “system”? Maturana follows up on his objectivity in parentheses idea that I find is quite apt here:
They might – possibly – follow the path of objectivity in parentheses and, therefore, be capable of reflection: They would respect differences, would not claim to be the sole possessors of truth, and would enjoy the company of others. In the process of living together, they would produce different cultures. Consequently, the number of possible realities may seem potentially infinite but their diversity is constrained by communal living, by cultures and histories created together, by shared interests and predilections. Every human being is certainly different but not entirely different.
When we hear of the word “system” being thrown around, our first reaction should be – can you please elaborate on what do you mean by “system”?
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Being-In-the-Ohno-Circle: