Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

In today’s post, I am looking at the dichotomy of control in stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. My main source for the dichotomy of control (DoC) is the great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. One of the common interpretations of this dichotomy is that we need to realize what is in our control and what is not in our control. We should accept the things that are not in our control as they are. The only thing we can control is how we react to them. As a fan of cybernetics, I was attracted to the notion of “control”. I will discuss this idea of DoC first from a first order cybernetics standpoint, and then from a second order cybernetics standpoint. First order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, and second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems.

There are many translations out there for Epictetus’ Enchiridion. My main source for our discussion here is from the translation of Elizabeth Carter.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In Cybernetics, the notion of control is highly important. Cyberneticians talk about controlling a system through feedback. In order to control a system, the controller should have more variety than the system itself. Variety refers to the number of distinguishable states of the system. For example, a light switch generally has a variety of two (ON and OFF). With this, we are able to control how a light works. We can turn it ON and OFF, when we want. This is obviously a simple case. When we are dealing with complexity, the external variety is always greater than ours. In order to stay viable, we need to achieve requisite variety.

Requisite variety is the least amount of variety that we should possess in order to maintain our essential variables in a specific range. Essential variables are those variables such as our body temperature or oxygen level etc. that ensures that we stay viable in our environment. Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics, came up with the law of requisite variety that states only variety can absorb variety. In simple terms, if the environment is imposing a variety demand on us, we should have enough variety to respond in order to stay viable. If the environment gets cold, then we should have a means to keep our body temperature in the viable range. This could be achieved by putting on warmer clothes or by not going out in the cold weather.

As noted earlier, the external variety is going to be more than our internal variety. In order to achieve requisite variety, we must attenuate the variety coming in, and also amplify our internal variety. Attenuation of variety is generally more effective in achieving requisite variety. In the example of the cold weather, we can stay inside our house, which cuts down on the cold from reaching us. We could put on a fire to amplify our variety and stay cozy and warm.

Coming back to the dichotomy of control, we can use the cybernetic ideas of attenuation and amplification. We need to focus on the things we can control (amplify), and be indifferent to things that we cannot control (attenuate). This is a “trust the process” type approach. If you are driving to work, we should focus on how we are driving and we should be indifferent to those who cut in front of us. How we react is only up to us, and we should not give away power to others to control us. If we are going to an important business meeting, what we can control is how we prepare for the meeting, and how we manage our appearance. We cannot completely control how others will receive us. That is outside our control. But we can amplify ourselves by learning about topics and working on our people skills.

Up to this point, we were looking at a first order approach. There is a prescriptive nature to what we have discussed. From the second order standpoint, the emphasis is on understanding our understanding; in improving our process of improving. The Greek word that Epictetus used was “ep’hemin”. This was often translated as “control”. However, a better translation is “what depends on us.” The term “control” assigns a causal nature, whereas “what depends on us” assigns a dispositional nature. Using the idea of “what depends on us”, we can be ready with a simple answer to any complex question – “it depends.” Most often, we are attracted to giving specific solutions to complex situations, as if we have a complete understanding of the situation. When we step back and look at this from a complexity standpoint, a better answer is always “it depends”. It depends on the context of the situation.

Epictetus explained further about the dichotomy in Enchiridion:

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

We get distressed when we do not understand the dichotomy of control. When we falsely assume how others act depends on us, we are trying to swim against the flow. What depends on us are our responsibility and nobody else owns them. From a second order cybernetics standpoint, this points to the idea of responsibility in constructivism. We construct our version of reality based on our ongoing interaction with the world around us. The more we interact, the better we can construct a stable and viable version of reality. This is our own responsibility, and we should not give this responsibility to others. At the same time, we should ensure that others are able to do the same. On a similar note, we should also not give up on this responsibility by blaming the past experiences or circumstances. We still owe it to ourselves to own this responsibility. It is up to us to find meaning and purpose to our lives. We should not give up on this responsibility.

One of the nuances that I realized with my learning with stoicism is that our emotions are not under our control. We will still get angry or frustrated, but with practice, we will be able to use these emotions to guide us to a virtuous reaction.

The early stoics were big admirers of Socrates. When faced with an adversity, they would ask “what would Socrates do in this situation?” Following second order cybernetics, we should instead ask, “what would the best version of ME do in this situation?” Our task is to understand how we understand and improve how we improve. There is no point in giving this task to someone else.

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Phenomenology of Informationally Closed Beings:


2 thoughts on “Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

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