I am writing this post after a short break. My topic for the post is “reality”. I have always been fascinated with the idea of ontology in philosophy. It is loosely described as the study of existence or reality and it comes under metaphysics in philosophy. I have written about it many times before and it seems that there are always more and more nuances regarding it. I have come to see myself as a cybernetician, so today’s post is about reality for a cybernetician.
Another philosophical term that is thrown around a lot is epistemology, or the study of knowledge. I see ontology intertwined with epistemology. As a cybernetician, I see the existence of circularity between the two. Ontology, the study of reality, has a circular relationship with epistemology, the study of knowledge. Why is this the case? As a cybernetician, I am of the view that reality is constructed. When you construct something, you construct using what you already know. The more you construct, the more you know about “stuff” that you can use for better construction. The better results the construction yield, the more you make note of the “stuff” used for construction. This idea of better results is termed as “viability” in cybernetics. The emphasis in cybernetics is for viability, and not for truths. Truth is something that does not make a lot of sense. To say that one has access to truths, it would mean that one has access to an unadulterated objective world out there. As the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster (HvF) put it, “Truth is the invention of a liar”. Does this mean that I can simply make statements such as “I can fly” or “I am invisible”? The answer to this goes back to viability. Does the statement, “I can fly” yield a successful result when I jump of a cliff? Of course, not. A student of philosophy can see that cybernetics has links to pragmatism and postmodernism.
Reality for a cybernetician is based on an observer. It is a description that is made by an observer. To say that this is objective means that the description is independent of the observer. In other words, the description has no relationship to the describer. We live in a human world, not a feline or canine world. Our human world is a stable construction built in a social realm, where you and I can sustain viable existences. Our world is based on what as a human can see, or hear, or taste or feel or any of the other sensory experiences. If we cannot experience, then we cannot construct. Our knowledge is experiential knowledge and our reality is experiential reality. As Detlef Lafrentz beautifully put it:
If the observer’s characteristics are supposed to be excluded, then so too should his capacity to describe be set aside. But description is precisely what an observer does… Every observation first says something about the observer him- or herself. Anyone who claims to speak the truth says something about himself but not about the truth. That is the meaning of HvF’s sentence: “Truth is the invention of a liar… each person calculates his/her own world. This entails that human perception is not a depiction of reality but instead created out of one’s own inner resources. The biology of human perception shows that a large part of what we perceive has nothing to do with what is happening “out there”. HvF is not saying there is no world “out there”, only that we don’t know what it looks like. The observer would do well to be aware of that.
When I have had interactions online regarding these ideas, one of the pushbacks I have received is that this leads to solipsism. If the reality is constructed, then does that mean that reality is entirely in the mind? Of course not. Does this mean that reality is entirely independent of the mind? Of course, not either. The reality that we spoke of is a human reality. One cannot speak of an objective reality. This does not mean that reality is entirely subjective either. This would be similar the solipsistic idealist viewpoint. The notion of ontology without epistemology, and epistemology without ontology is nonsensical. As a human being living in a social realm, our reality is purely based on what our interpretative frameworks can afford. This framework gets corrected and “upgraded” or modified to continue the suitability of it to support the viability notion that we spoke of earlier. One paradoxical idea in this regard is that the reality for each of us is unique to us and cannot be shared with one another. However, it is entirely based on our relationship with one another. The language that we use is public and the values that we align ourselves to are also based on this social realm. The idea of “I” needs an “us”. We are situated in this world, in this time and in this culture. And this has a tremendous influence on who we are. This situatedness of the world is a given, but the world itself is not. The static nature (stability) comes from the dynamic nature of our relationships with our environment and the other co-constructors. As I had noted before, a seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals. The stability comes from continued successes that are assigned a desirableness leading to a structural coupling between the interacting elements.
If we do not engage in the construction, then our reality gets constructed for us as part of others constructing their own versions of reality. We get stuck and our purpose in life gets written for us. If we do not choose to throw ourselves into our bright futures, we get pushed into a corner. As Carl Jung put it neatly, “the world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.” We are responsible for our construction of the reality. The flipside of this is that it is also our responsibility that we ensure that others have the freedom to construct theirs.
I will finish with some beautiful words from Simone de Beauvoir:
Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning.
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Ashby’s Trowel: