Cybernetics and the Stoics:

In today’s post, I am continuing on my thoughts on stoicism through the lens of cybernetics. In Cybernetics, we call regulation the act (art) of responding to external disturbances in order to maintain selected internal variables in a range. For example, our body maintains the internal temperature in a specific range. We have internal regulations built in through evolution to ensure that this is done. In the language of cybernetics, regulation refers to the act of countering the external variety. In order to counter the external variety, we must have requisite variety. As noted in the last post, only variety can absorb variety. If the external temperature goes up or goes down, our body should have a mechanism to react so that the internal temperature is maintained in a specific range. If it is not able to do this, we will not stay viable. The goal of requisite variety in this instance is about maintaining the status quo.

There are mainly two types of regulations in cybernetics as Ross Ashby noted – direct and indirect regulation. Direct regulation is the type of regulation where there is an established framework of counteractions that the agent can use. In the case of body temperature, heat loss can be promoted in a hot environment by many different mechanisms such as sweating or by reduction of muscular activities. Similarly, heat loss can be minimized in a cold environment using several mechanisms such as shivering or other activities to improve body insulation (reducing blood flow to the skin). There are several other mechanisms used by our bodies that are not listed here. These activities come under direct regulation because these happen without any oversight from us. Our bodies have evolved to do these things. Direct regulation is obviously limited in what it can do. For a low complex organism such as a wasp, direct regulation is adequate for survival. When the environmental conditions change or become extreme, direct regulation will no longer be able to provide requisite variety. In this case, we need indirect regulation. Indirect regulation refers to our ability to achieve requisite variety through second order activities. This involves learning mechanisms. For example, when it gets cold, we learn to move to a warmer location or to put on more clothes or to start a fire. We learned to create warm clothes or generate fire at will. This type of regulation did not come through evolution. What did come through evolution is our ability to learn to adapt. The second order refers to the ability to learn. Direct regulation is first order in nature. Second order is where you realize that the current specification is not working and that we need to change what we are doing or change the specification altogether. First order is simply realizing that there is a gap between the current state and where we want to be, and upon this realization continue on an already prescribed path.

We can see that indirect regulation has much more impact for our continued survival than direct regulation. Both types of regulation involve attenuation and amplification of variety in order to achieve requisite variety. As noted before, external variety is always higher than internal variety. Variety is directly correlated to complexity. The impact that the complexity in the world can have on us is ever increasing mainly because we are getting connected to the world in unprecedented ways. What I am typing here at my home can reach someone else in the farthest corners of the world in a matter of seconds. Something that happens locally in one location can have a direct impact on the entire world, as evidenced by the Covid 19 pandemic. How can we ensure our viability in these conditions?

Stoicism provides a lot of guidance for us in this regard. Stoicism provides us guidelines for us to improve our indirect regulatory activities. I am not discussing the dichotomy of control here since I discussed it last time. Instead, I will look at what Stoicism says about adversities in life. Most of our trouble comes from the fact that we do not orient ourselves properly. We give into direct regulation such as freeze, flight or fight. This worked for our ancestors, but this will not work, say for example, in a workplace environment. It is not easy for us to orient because we are not expecting the variety of the adversity that was thrown at us. It could be that we were put in a challenging situation where we have put ourselves or our company at a huge risk condition. Or something drastic happened that requires immediate action or our lives are in danger. How does one improve our internal variety in these conditions? How does one learn to attenuate the external variety so that we don’t focus on the noise? How do we amplify our variety so that we concentrate only on what is needed?

Stoics talk of a great tool that will help us here. It is called “premeditatio malorum”. This stands for “negative visualization”. When we start our day, think of the many ways, the day could go wrong. Think of driving in the traffic and someone cutting us off or getting into an accident. What can we do in this situation? Think of going into the important meeting and you saying something that would be perceived as silly. What would you do in this situation? Meditating on this is in many regards a way to prepare ourselves to better prepare in case such things do happen. It is obviously easy to go wild with this exercise, so we should keep it as practical as possible.

Another key insight from the stoics is the idea of seeing every experience as an opportunity. Every adversity or challenge that we face is an opportunity to learn. The big project that we are embarking upon work is an opportunity to improve ourselves. The challenges that are thrown at us actually make us better when we welcome them as challenges to finetune our skills. Many a time, stoicism is badly represented as being detached from reality. When something bad happens, the stoics are expected to be emotionless. On the contrary, stoicism is about being able to ground ourselves to reality and reorient ourselves so that we can use every experience as a learning opportunity. As with the premeditation malorum, we must exercise caution and not go out of our way looking for challenges. Instead we must take on the challenges that come our way and not run away from them. We must learn to be practical with the theory.

Seneca presents us with a paradox of fortune and laments those who were not fortunate enough to have gone through any misfortunes:

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.

Epictetus asks us who Hercules might have been without any of his adversities:

“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So, by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”

Perhaps, at this juncture the reader is reminded of resilience and maybe of antifragility. From a cybernetics standpoint, resilience is a matter of maintaining status quo after a setback. This can be done mainly through first order activities and through second order activities as needed. Antifragility, on the other hand requires second order activities which leads to post traumatic growth (PTG).

I will finish with some wise words from the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius:

Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

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 Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:


2 thoughts on “Cybernetics and the Stoics:

  1. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. You distinguished – selected – some ideas from other distinguished others. Spinoza, one of my favourite distinguished thinkers, also used a lot of concepts from Stoics.

    Variety, as any useful concept, has a paradoxical nature. With an idea like internal and external variety, leading to the Law of the Requisite Variety (only variety can absorb variety), one makes distinctions, borders, a boundaries.

    In dealing with variety, one tends to reduce it – steering towards a goal. And by doing so, increases it – create entropy (aka climate change). These interacting interactions happen with the only velocity (direction and speed) possible.

    In making a distinction one distinguish-er both distinguishes oneself and the distinctions made. Like in Bateson’s “information is a difference making a difference”, variety is variety making variety. Distinction is a distinction making a distinction. That’s why we call some people “distinguished” 🙂

    I tend to think however, that “second order” primes “first order”. Being natural beings, one encounters natural things first and learns about learning later (second order). Nature natures natural beings, encountering natural things. In other words “first order cybernetics” requires (!) existence of what we call “second order cybernetics”. The “second order” – in my view – predates the first and even induced”first order”.

    (I must add, that I’ve never felt at home with distinctions between first and second order. Any order is just a way of ordering things.)

    I would say, this resembles Spinoza’s distinction between “natura naturans” or naturing nature (substance, everything in God) – and “natura naturata” or natural nature – material universe (stuff, things). We’ve got common access to natural nature, which appears for us first. While taking part in naturing nature, which we observe only through “first world access”.

    Spinoza goes on to describe a psychology of human emotions, feeling, which he derived from the notion of becoming more whole (happy, lucky) or less whole (unhappy, sad). Nature – undistinguishable from God – is; neither right or wrong, good nor bad.,

    Liked by 3 people

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