Korzybski at the Gemba:

Alfred_Korzybski

In today’s post, I am looking at the ideas of Alfred Korzybski, a Polish American philosopher and the father of General Semantics. General Semantics is a doctrine and educational discipline intended to improve the habits of response of human beings, to their environment and one another. Korzybski wanted to understand humanity and why we don’t always get along.

If a visitor from Mars should come, Korzybski showed, and on a tour of inspection should see our bridges, our skyscrapers, our subways, and other engineering feats, and were to ask, “How often does one of these collapse?” man here would say that if the engineering of these projects were correct in all respects, the material used in their construction carefully inspected, and the work well done, they would never collapse. 

Taken to our libraries the visitor from Mars, he declared, shown the histories of the world, would be appalled that the same men who could engineer non-collapsible bridges and skyscrapers could build a civilization which was collapsing at some point every year. And the reason, he pointed out, for the difference, lay in the fundamental beginnings of the logic that had built each.

Korzybski is most famous for his idea – the map is not the territory. He wrote his magnum opus “Science and Sanity” in 1933. In reading his ideas, we can find many aspects of systems thinking. Korzybski’s main idea can be expressed by one word – “abstraction”. His view was that what we know is based on the structure of our nervous system and the structure of our language (dependent on the nervous system). Our brain cannot directly access the world outside. Our brain understands the world outside through our sensory organs. Our sensory organs do not directly transfer the “what”, but the amount of the stimuli received. The brain abstracts meaning based on all the previous correlations. The brain selects the data to make the most meaningful abstraction at that point in time. For example, the eyes do not tell the brain that there is a black cat on the mat. The entire experience of sensory data is abstracted into “black cat”.

Korzybski stated:

The only link between the verbal and objective world is exclusively structural, necessitating the conclusion that the only content of all “knowledge” is structural. Now structure can be considered as a complex of relations, and ultimately as multi-dimensional order. From this point of view, all language can be considered as names for unspeakable entities on the objective level, be it things or feelings, or as names of relations. In fact… we find that an object represents an abstraction of a low order produced by our nervous system as the result of a sub-microscopic events acting as stimuli upon the nervous system.

800px-StructuralDifferential.svg

Image source – WIkipedia

An important outcome of this idea is that objective reality is lost in translation. All that we have and can have access to are abstractions. Thus, two observers can come to two different conclusions while witnessing the same phenomenon. Both may have some access to the same phenomenon but not to each other’s abstractions. This idea is very well articulated in the famous “the map is not the territory.” Korzybski came up with a structural differential, a multilayered structure for abstraction. The higher you are on the structure differential, the closer you are to the phenomenon/event and the closer you are to the “reality.” The further down you go, the level of abstraction increases. The loss of the data was shown by holes in the structure. We use words to express real things, forgetting that the words are not the real things. They are abstractions.

Korzybski wrote:

‘Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say is not it.’ Or, in other wordsː ‘Whatever you might say the object “is”, well it is not.’

When we assume that an abstraction is a real thing, it leads to “allness”. We start to believe that we have access to the Truth and that we know all there is to know about something. We also engage in taking things apart, falsely assuming that the collective holistic meaning is maintained. Korzybski called this elementalism. Korzybski advised that we should not verbally separate what we would not empirically separate. The ideas of holism/reductionism in Systems Thinking can be viewed here. Elementalism leads to false dichotomies and linear thinking. “If you are not with me, you are against me.” Or “If I put the best players, we will have the best team.”

Korzybski believed that humans are time binding. This meant that as a species, we are able to transfer knowledge that allow us to stand on the shoulders of the giants and build on what others have done so far. Korzybski wrote:

“All human achievements are cumulative; no one of us can claim any achievement exclusively as his own; we all must use consciously or unconsciously the achievements of others, some of them living but most of them dead.”

This is also applicable for the individual. I build my ideas based on what I already know from the past. An important idea from this is to understand that a thing from yesterday is not the same as the thing from the present. Similar to the Heraclitus quote, “you cannot step into the same river twice”, Korzybski adviced that we should not mistake that things would remain the same. Some of the ideas he proposed to address this were:

  • Indexes – This is the idea in mathematics, where we write x1, x2 etc. Korzybski advised that we should differentiate things with indexes. Each one of us is unique. Korzybski wrote – “When I talk about humanity, I am always conscious that every member of our species is absolutely unique.”
  • Dating – Similar to the idea of indexes, Korzybski advised using dates for anything we write down or document. My knowledge is based on what I know already. My knowledge last month is different from what I know now. Everything changes and change is the only constant. Thus, dating is a way to differentiate and keep track of our understanding.

When we become aware of the structure differential, we can influence how we make meanings and how we react to things. Some more ideas he proposed in this regard were:

  • Quotation mark – When you talk about an abstraction and you really want to point out that it is an abstraction and to be careful in how it is understood, we can use quotation marks. For example, I can say – “Systems” do not exist.
  • Hyphen – Korzybski was influenced a lot by Albert Einstein and his idea of space-time. Einstein went against the existing paradigm that space and time are different, which could be viewed as elementalistic, and came up with space-time, where the three-dimensional space and time are intertwined and time is the fourth dimension. The use of a hyphen can sometimes alleviate the confusion that arises from false dichotomies.
  • Multiordanality – This is the idea that words can have different interpretations depending on the level of abstraction on the structural differential. This is a way to ensure that we don’t lose the context when we assign meaning to words.

Final Words:

Philosophers tends to take positions such as the correspondence theory of truth (our experience should correspond to the actual reality of the world), and the coherence theory of truth (our experience should cohere with what we already know). It appears to me that Korzybski’s ideas are a mix of correspondence in terms of structures and coherence in terms of the holistic notions. We are all different and alike at the same time depending on the abstraction level we use. Korzybski’s ideas resonate wonderfully with the ideas of Soft Systems theory. We humans cocreate the social reality. The purpose and meaning for an individual should not be stipulated by another. I will finish with wonderful reminders from Korzybski. I see them as his ‘ethical imperatives.’

Any organism must be treated as-a-whole; in other words, that an organism is not an algebraic sum, a linear function of its elements, but always more than that. It is seemingly little realized, at present, that this simple and innocent-looking statement involves a full structural revision of our language.

Korzybski, in 1933, called his theory “general semantics” because it deals with the nervous reactions of the human organism-as-a-whole-in-environments, and is much more general and organismally fundamental than the “meanings” of words as such, or Significs.

To regard human beings as tools — as instruments — for the use of other human beings is not only unscientific but it is repugnant, stupid and short sighted. Tools are made by man but have not the autonomy of their maker — they have not man’s time-binding capacity for initiation, for self-direction, and self-improvement.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Storytelling at the Gemba:

I also encourage the reader to check out the ideas of Korzybski and General Semantics.

You may also want to check out my related posts:

Newton’s Eye/Bodkin Experiment and the Principle of Undifferentiated Coding:

The Map at the Gemba:

Storytelling at the Gemba:

SuperVariety

In today’s post, I am looking at storytelling. We are sometimes referred to as Homo Narrans or humans who tell stories. Storytelling, oral or otherwise, is part of our culture, and part of who we are. Joseph Campbell, the American literary professor, talks about the universal nature of all stories in his famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s thesis, like those of the ancients—and as put forth also, but in different ways, by Freud, Jung, and others—is that by entering and transforming the personal psyche, the surrounding culture, the life of the family, one’s relational work, and other matters of life can be transformed too. Campbell’s ideas have been distilled into the famous Hero’s Journey. Loosely put, this story structure describes a hero who starts off as ordinary, faces adversities, goes through a transformation, and in the end becomes triumphant. I am inspired by Campbell’s work, but I am looking at the ideas I learned in Cybernetics.

Variety:

One of the most important ideas in Cybernetics is that of variety, a brainchild of the brilliant Ross Ashby. Ashby described variety as:

Given a set of elements, its variety is the number of elements that can be distinguished.

For example, if we consider a set of elements in {g b c g g c}, the variety is 3. Another easy example to consider is that of a light switch. A light switch has a variety of two (ON or OFF). Ashby created his most famous Law of Requisite Variety from this simple idea. The Law of Requisite Variety can be simply stated as “only variety can destroy variety.” If the regulatory agency of a system does not have the requisite variety to match the variety of its environment, it will not be able to adapt and survive. Ashby explained this using the example of a fencer:

If a fencer faces an opponent who has various modes of attack available, the fencer must be provided with at least an equal number of modes of defense if the outcome is to have the single value: attacked parried.

How does this come into play with stories? Stories are interesting only if there are conflicts. The villain is shown to have more variety than the hero. This puts the villain in control of the situation because to be in control means to have the appropriate amount of variety over the situation. The hero has to somehow overcome the lack of variety he has. In a superhero movie, if the superhero has more variety than the supervillain, then the story is not at all interesting. Per the Hero’s Journey structure, the superhero has to face adversities to make the story more interesting. This brings up the idea of variety engineering, proposed by another brilliant mind, Stafford Beer.

We can depict the varieties as below. The supervillain has much more variety than the superhero. This is shown by the larger font size for “v” depicting the variety. We can see that the variety of the supervillain is much more (>>) than that of the superhero. This is the major adversity that the superhero must overcome. This conflict makes the story interesting.

Hero1

As Stafford Beer might say, the superhero has to find ways to attenuate or reduce the variety of the supervillain, and at the same time find ways to amplify his own variety. This allows him to have the requisite variety to overcome the supervillain. The squiggly line towards right in the schematic below shows the attenuation of the variety coming from the supervillain, while the curved line with the triangle on it shows the amplification of the variety from the superhero. In the below schematic, the varieties are shown to match, as indicated by the same font size for “v” in the middle. This also is an important part of the story since the final fight should not be easy for the superhero. Now we have a good superhero story. The attenuation of the variety may be achieved by not getting scared by the antics shown by the villain. The amplification may be achieved by the use of valuable information that the villain does not have access to, or by coming up with a plan that allows the hero to use his special skill.

Hero2

The same structure can be seen across many of the blockbuster movies or TV shows. The interesting part is always how the variety engineering is done, and how the requisite variety is achieved by the hero, whether it is a Marvel superhero movie or “The Last Kingdom” or “Rick and Morty.”

Role of the Observer:

Ross Ashby gives further insight into this. He brings in the importance of the observer. He noted:

If two observers differ in the distinctions they can make, then they will differ in their estimates of the variety.

An easy example is to consider the set, {b a c c C a B a}. Depending on the observer, the variety of the set can be said as 3 (3 letters) or 5 (3 lowercase letters and 2 uppercase letters). The idea is easily illustrated in a Sherlock Holmes story, where the same crime scene is witnessed by Holmes and Watson. Holmes is able to make more distinctions than Watson, allowing him to achieve the requisite variety needed to solve the crime. One of the most important definitions of information in the light of distinctions come from Gregory Bateson, who described information as the difference that makes the difference. Bateson noted:

What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever. Differences are the things that get onto a map.

Bateson’s idea of difference that makes a difference was possibly introduced as part of an Alfred Korzybski lecture. And of course, the observer determines which differences are meaningful to be selected, and which selected differences must be further amplified. Uncertainty can be described as the lack of useful information. With this idea, the observer can reduce uncertainty by making useful distinctions.

Abstractions, an act of attenuating variety, allow an observer to identify that two things are similar, or that the two same things are different. There is no contradiction here because abstractions are not equivalencies. All we have and can have access to are abstractions. Thus, two observers can come to two different conclusions while witnessing the same phenomenon. Both may have some access to the same phenomenon but not to each other’s abstractions. This is exemplified in the Alfred Korzybski’s quote – “The map is not the territory” or the Alan Watts’ quote – “The menu is not the meal.”

We can use a great piece of advice from the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer to further understand variety and uncertainty:

“Reality” always stands in a horizon of desired or feared or, at any rate, still undecided future possibilities. Hence it is always the case that mutually exclusive expectations are aroused, not all of which can be fulfilled. The undecidedness of the future permits such a superfluity of expectations that reality necessarily lags behind them.

From the observer’s standpoint, we realize that the most powerful tool to manage variety becomes the control of information. If one is able to not allow or hinder the other person’s ability to make distinctions, he can control the narrative and be in charge. We see this played out in real life too often.

People Principle:

Another important idea that comes from all of this is that the requisite variety always come from the people on the front, in the midst of facing adversities. We can notate this as:

People Principle: In any organization, the requisite variety always come from the people.

The organizational structures lack the variety needed. The requisite variety is provided as needed by the front-end employees, if they are able to.

Final Words:

“Story can mend, and story can heal.” (Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

We are storytellers. We live and live on in stories. Make yours a good one.

I will finish with excellent advice on tackling writer’s block from one of my favorite storytellers, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). He puts a nice “Go to the Gemba” touch:

Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can’t turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on, I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life–that’s the stimulant for a story writer.

For those interested, I have shared some of my really short stories or Flash fiction here.

I also welcome the readers to check out the following posts that are applicable to the topic on hand:

Purpose of a System in Light of VSM:

Exploring The Ashby Space:

OODA Loop at the Gemba: (OODA loop also looks at how preventing the adversary to generate new useful information puts you in control)

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hermeneutics at the Gemba:

Hermeneutics at the Gemba:

Hgadamer

In today’s post, I am looking at Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a branch of philosophy that deals with interpretation. It started off as a study of interpreting religious texts. The word has its origin from the Greek God Hermes, who was also the messenger of the Gods (herald) to humans. Hermes’ job was to interpret the words of the many Greek gods to humans. As you go back in time, there was only one interpretation to a religious text, and it was usually provided by the chief priest in charge. The common folk were not allowed to read or contemplate the text and try to interpret the meaning. As time went by, this view changed. The readers were encouraged to be in the shoes of the author and try to interpret the meaning by contemplating what the author meant by trying to be in the same mindset as the author. Important contributions from philosophers such as Heidegger and Gadamer emphasized the role of the observer or the interpreter in seeking understanding. This meant that the prejudices, biases, belief systems, traditions etc. of the interpreter are important in the act of interpretation. It is meant to be a tango, rather than merely watching a solo dance. My post is heavily inspired by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer.

One of the ideas in Hermeneutics is that of the Hermeneutic circle. A good example to explain this is to imagine an interpreter reading a sentence of a text. He starts with a word and as he reads the word, he is trying to figure out what the word means in the context of a sentence. He has an idea of what the word means. As he finishes reading the sentence, he re-evaluates the meaning of the word in the context of the full sentence, and he gains an additional understanding of the word, which in turn yields an additional understanding of the sentence. Contrast this with the idea of the parts to a whole. Understanding a part provides an understanding of the whole, which in turn provides an understanding to the part, and so on the circle goes. One can use the same idea with a sentence and the paragraph, a paragraph and the chapter, and a chapter and the book. The meaning is truly holistic and greater than the sum of individual meanings of the words. The order of the words matters very much in the final meaning of the sentence. The relationship of the part to the whole is depicted in the hermeneutic circle below. Analysis is the act of taking things apart, while synthesis is the act of putting things together.

Hermeneutic Circle

Today, hermeneutics does not stand for interpreting texts alone. It has come to represent the art of interpreting to improve understanding. This could be in relation to what another person is saying or related to learning a subject and so on. The most important act of hermeneutics is the act of asking questions. From this standpoint, the guiding principle to keep in mind is that the most important question is the one that has not yet been asked. This aligns with the hermeneutic circle, in the sense that we have to keep going back and forth to generate improved understanding. This is an ongoing process and never meant to be just one iteration. I like the representation of the hermeneutic circle as a spiral, where the spiral gets smaller and smaller, indicating a churning or generation of improved understanding. I have also seen it as a diverging spiral where the coil gets larger and larger to indicate an expansion of understanding.

Spiral

The circle or the spiral depicts a dialectic movement that the interpreter has to take. Each turn of this movement should result in a better understanding of both the part and the whole. Gadamer was strongly against the idea of viewing this as an objective act where the text author is outside and the meaning of the text can be obtained objectively without engaging in introspection. Gadamer wanted the interpreter to bring his prejudices, pre-understanding, fore-meanings etc. to the act of understanding. Above all, Gadamer wanted the interpreter to have openness to meaning.

Gadamer believed that the prejudices or fore-judgments are the source of all our learning. This does not mean that the act of learning will leave the prejudices untouched. The act of learning will in turn modify/update our prejudices for our next hermeneutic act. Gadamer did not belive prejudices to be bad or assign the negative connotation that we normally project.

One analogy that Gadamer used in his hermeneutics was a “horizon.” Much like in the horizon of a landscape that we see, Gadamer used the horizon to depict the limits of our understanding. Gadamer expressed the horizon as the totality of all that can be realized or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture. Gadamer said:

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point… A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby, but to being able to see beyond it

The concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.

Similar to the landscape, the epistemic horizon changes depending on where we stand and what our perspective is. Where we are situated is based on our tradition, history, belief system etc. and is also bounded by the cultural and societal underpinnings. One may have an urge to see the horizon as a constraint holding us back, but Gadamer, similar to his view or prejudices, expresses horizons as fertile constraints enabling us to further our understanding rather than limiting our understanding. We are bringing something to the new understanding, something that is internal to us rather than relying solely on the experts or the people around us. This is the idea of Hermeneutics for Gadamer. An important idea that Gadamer talks about is the fusion of horizons. This is such a beautiful expression. We should resist the urge to explain this away as simply combining two different horizons or perspectives or the larger idea swallowing up the smaller idea or the weak idea giving way to the stronger idea. Gadamer views the fusion as a transformation which is prompted by the differences in the horizons. Gadamer wants input from both horizons to generate the fusion. This can happen only if we are open and willing to understand while at the same time not ignoring that we have our own perspectives that might need to be changed to gain a better understanding of the phenomenon in question.

Contrast this with the view of just doing as we are told or learning subjects in a rote fashion. Gadamer wants us to bring something from us, our horizon to the hermeneutic act. We should do so, so that we can change ourselves in the process. Gadamer wrote:

What I described as a fusion of horizons was the form in which this unity [of the meaning of a work and its effect] actualizes itself, which does not allow the interpreter to speak of an original meaning of the work without acknowledging that, in  understanding it, the interpreter’s own meaning enters in as well.

We will never be able to stand in another person’s shoes or try to interpret their perspective in an objective fashion. Gadamer is pointing out that we have to do it from our own horizon since that is all that we have access to. When we hear about “respect for people”, we should start with the question, “what does it mean to me?” What does it mean from where I am situated right now? With an open mind, if I start reading about this subject, I may gain a better understanding. This understanding is made better when I allow my horizon to be transformed. The transformation also requires the understanding of what “respect for people” means to Toyota. I cannot ignore my prejudices but rather I should use them to my benefit. The label “handle with care” does not mean that I should not handle the box at all. But rather that my interaction or my handling of the box should be with care. The hermeneutic act is dynamic, personal and perpetual.

I will finish with a quote from Gadamer to reflect further:

“Understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it. We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said.”

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Newton’s Eye/Bodkin Experiment and the Principle of Undifferentiated Coding:

Newton’s Eye/Bodkin Experiment and the Principle of Undifferentiated Coding:

INewton

I work in the field of ophthalmic medical devices. I recently came across one of Sir Isaac Newton’s set of notes at the Newton project. In the notes, one particular experiment stood out to me. Newton pushed against his eye ball using a bodkin (a blunt needle) and recorded the optical sensations produced by the pressure on the eye. The schematic below drawn by Newton himself denotes the experiment. He noted:

Newton

I took a bodkin gh and put it between my eye & the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could: and pressing my eye with the end of it (soe as to make the curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared several white dark & colored circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye with the point of the bodkin, but if I held my eye & the bodkin still, though I continued to press my eye with it yet the circles would grow faint & often disappear until I renewed them by moving my eye or the bodkin.

He went on to note that there were different colors and types of sensations depending on if he was in a dark room or a well-lit room. I enjoyed reading through his notes because of my profession and also because it was an opportunity to peek inside a genius mind such as Newton. The experiment remined me of another great idea in Cybernetics called ‘the principle of undifferentiated coding’. This idea was proposed by another brilliant mind and one of my heroes, Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster said:

The response of a nerve cell does not encode the physical nature of the agents that caused its response. Encoded is only ‘how much’ at this point in my body, but not what.

The brain does not perceive light, sound, heat, touch, taste or smell. It receives only neuronal impulses from sensory organs. Thus, the brain does not “see light,” “hear sounds,” etc.; it can perceive only “this much stimulation at this point on my body.” The practical consequence is that all perceptions, let alone “thoughts,” are deductions from sensory stimuli. They cannot be otherwise. All observations are therefore partly the function of the observer. This situation renders complete objectivity impossible in principle.

Ernst von Glasersfeld, the proponent of Radical Constructivism stated:

In other words, the phenomenological characteristics of our experiential world – color, texture, sounds, tastes and smells – are the result of our own computations based on co-occurrence patterns of signals that differ only with regard to their point of origin in the living system’s nervous network.

Cognition is an autonomous activity of the observer. The state of agitation of a nerve cell only codifies the intensity, not the nature of its cause. What is understood or constructed is unique to the observer. This goes against the idea that if we provide information to a person, he or she will understand what is being provided. Von Foerster would say that the hearer not the utterer determines what is being said. In Newton’s experiment, the sensations were not caused by the eye seeing lights, but due to the physical interaction on the eye. This idea is further explored by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela with the idea of autopoiesis. As an autopoietic being, we are all organizationally closed and any information generated is an autonomous activity of our cognitive apparatus.

Bernard Scott expands this idea further:

Von Foerster begins his epistemology, in traditional manner, by asking, “How do we know?” The answers he provides-and the further questions he raises-have consequences for the other great question of epistemology, “What may be known?”

there is no difference between the type of signal transmitted from eye to brain or from ear to brain. This raises the question of how it is we come to experience a world that is differentiated, that has “qualia”, sights, sounds, smells. The answer is that our experience is the product of a process of computation : encodings or “representations” are interpreted as being meaningful or conveying information in the context of the actions that give rise to them. What differentiates sight from hearing is the proprioceptive information that locates the source of the signal and places it in a particular action context.

Another key aspect to add to this is the idea of circularity, where the output is fedback into the cognitive apparatus.  We continue to learn based on what we already know. Thus, we can say that learning is a recursive activity. What we learn now helps further our learning tomorrow. There is no static nature when it comes to knowledge and learning. The great French philosopher Montesquieu said, “If triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.” The properties of the world (seen and unseen) are dependent on the constructor/observer. The construction/observation is ongoing and reflexive. Montesquieu also said, “You have to study a great deal to know a little.” In other words, the more you learn, the more you realize how less you know. Or simply put, “the more you know, the less you know.”

I will finish with a wonderful von Foerster story from Maturana.

Maturana tells of a time when Heinz von Foerster and the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead went to visit Russia. While there, they went to visit a museum. Mead was using a walking stick at that time. At the entrance they learned that she could not carry her walking stick inside. Mead decided that she would not go in since she could not walk long without using the walking stick. Von Foerster convinced her to go with him. He suggested that he would hide the stick in his clothing, and once inside he would give the stick back to her. His thinking was as follows:

ln this country, whether by perfection or by design, people do not commit mistakes, therefore, any guard that sees us Inside with the walking stick will be forced to admit that we were granted a special permit because otherwise we would not be Inside with it.’

 As the story goes, they were able to visit the museum without any problems. Maturana concluded:

Heinz, by not asking beyond the entrance whether they could or not carry a walking stick, behaved as if he considered that through his interactions with the guards he could either interact with the protection system of the museum as a whole, or with its components as Independent entities, and as if he had chosen the latter. He, thus, revealed that he understood that the guards realized through their properties two non-intersecting phenomenal domains, and that they could do this without contradiction because they operated only on neighborhood relations. This allowed Heinz and Margaret Mead to move through the museum carrying what a meta- observer would have called an invisible forbidden walking stick.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The System in the Box:

The System in the Box:

W

In today’s post, I am looking at the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The Beetle in the Box” analogy.

Wittgenstein rose to fame with his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he proposed the idea of a picture theory for words. Very loosely put, words correspond to objects in the real world, and any statement should be a picture of these objects in relation to one another. For example, “the cat is on the mat.” However, in his later years Wittgenstein turned away from his ideas. He came to see the meaning of words in how they are used. The meaning is in its use by the public. He came to realize that private language is not possible. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”.

The beetle in the box analogy is detailed in his second book released posthumously, Philosophical Investigations:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.

I love this thought experiment because we all assume that we can tell what others feel like. We talk as if we are all talking about the same world. We talk about the beetle as if everybody has the same beetle in their boxes. Everyone’s world is different, and their worlds are constructed based on their worldviews, mental models, schemas, biases etc. The construction is a dynamic and ongoing process. The construction is a recursive process in the sense, our construction influences how we interact in the world, which in turn influences the ongoing construction of the world. From this standpoint, we can see that reality is multidimensional and that there are as many realities as the number of participants. There is no one reality, and we cannot assume that our reality is the correct one. What exists is a cocreated reality with others, and this co-constructing activity is on a delicate balance. Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something. Nobody has access to a true reality. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see it as it is, it is as we see it.

We all talk about systems as if we all know what they mean. We say that we need to think about the purpose of the system or that it is the system, not the people. Systems are mental constructs we create based on our worldviews to make sense of phenomena around us. Most of the time when we talk about systems, we are speaking about a “part”. For example, when we talk about the “transportation system”, we are actually meaning the bus that is running late. Similar to the beetle in the box, my system is not the same as your system. My view of the healthcare system changes when I become sick versus when I am healthy. The same system has a different meaning and purpose if you are a healthcare worker versus if you are on the board of the hospital. We cannot stipulate a purpose for the system because systems do not have ontological status. We cannot also stipulate a purpose of a co-creator. To do so will be to assume that we can see the beetle in their box. The great Systems Thinker West Churchman said that systems approach starts when one sees the world through another person’s eyes. Wittgenstein would say that this is impossible. But I think what Churchman was getting at is to realize that our “system” is not the only system. What we need is to seek understanding. With this view, Churchman also said that, there are no experts in the systems approach. Werner Ulrich, who built upon the ideas of Churchman said the following:

The systems idea, provided we take it seriously, urges us to recognize our constant failure to think and act rationally in a comprehensive sense. Mainstream systems literature somehow always manages to have us forget the fact that a lack of comprehensive rationality is inevitably part of the conditio humana. Most authors seek to demonstrate how and why their systems approaches extend the bounds of rational explanation or design accepted in their fields. West Churchman never does. To him, the systems idea poses a challenge to critical self-reflection. It compels him to raise fundamental epistemological and ethical issues concerning the systems planner’s claim to rationality. He never pretends to have the answers; instead, he asks himself and his readers a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions.

Even though systems are not real, we still use the word to further explain our thoughts and ideas. Ulrich continues:

What matters is ultimately not that we achieve comprehensive knowledge about the system in question (an impossible feat) but rather, that we understand the reasons and implications of our inevitable lack of comprehensive knowledge.

 The crucial issue, then, is no longer “What do we know?” but rather “How do we deal with the fact that we don’t know enough?” In particular, uncertainty about the whole systems implications of our actions does not dispense us from moral responsibility; hence, “the problem of systems improvement is the problem of the ‘ethics of the whole system’.”

 A book on morals is not moral. We cannot assume full access to the real world and stipulate purposes for our fellow cocreators. The purpose of language is to not expose our thoughts, but to make them presentable. In today’s world where complexity is ever increasing due to increasing connections, the beetle in the box analogy is important to remember.

 Similar to the famous credit card ad, I ask, “What is in your box?

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Map at the Gemba:

The Map at the Gemba:

Map

In today’s post I am looking at “The map is not the territory.” This is a famous statement that is often cited to indicate that what we have is a model and not the real thing. Another statement that is quite similar is “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The “map statement” is attributed to the Polish philosopher and the man behind General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski. A lot of Korzybski’s ideas are very well aligned with Cybernetics and Systems Thinking.

Korzybski was inspired by a paragraph in the great Bertrand Russell’s “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”. Russell was referring to Josiah Royce’s ideas with a map. Russell wrote:

One of the most striking instances of a “reflexion” is Royce’s illustration of the map: he [Royce] imagines [making] a map of England upon a part of the surface of England. A map, if it is accurate, has a perfect one-one correspondence with its original; thus our map, which is part, is in one-one relation with the whole, and must contain the same number of points as the whole, which must therefore be a reflexive number. Royce is interested in the fact that the map, if it is correct, must contain a map of a map, which must in turn contain a map of the map of the map, and so on ad infinitum. This point is interesting, but need not occupy us at this moment. In fact, we shall do well to pass from picturesque illustrations to such as are more completely definite, and for this purpose we cannot do better than consider the number series itself.

Korzybski was very much interested in the idea of relationships of structures (internal and external). He came up with three main ideas for his General Semantics. He wrote:

The premises of the non-Aristotelian system can be given by the simple analogy of the relation of a map to the territory:

  1. A map is not the territory.
  2. A map does not represent all of a territory.
  3. A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an ‘ideal’ map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.

Applied to daily life and language:

  1. A word is not what it represents.
  2. A word does not represent all of the ‘facts’, etc.
  3. Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.

We make sense of the world by abstracting a model of the world inside our mind. We are map makers and we create maps to make sense of the world around us. However, the maps themselves are not real. We should not mistake our version of the world to be real, and the true version. We are modeling the world, not the other way around. We should not try to make the world match our model. For example, when we say the word “apple”, the utterance is not the object “apple”. The meaning of a word does not lie in the word itself. The meaning is in the people who use the word. Apple can be a fruit, or it can be a company that sells iPhones. Or it could stand for an inside joke that others are not aware of.

Our understanding is never complete. It does not possess ALL the details. Korzybski called this non-Allness. We should not assume that we know ALL the details. Using the map analogy, a map cannot have all the details of the territory. The map is a static abstraction, and its usefulness comes from the abstraction. A map that is as big as the territory is not at all useful. The world around us has lot more variety than what we can handle. To make sense of the world, we have to filter out a lot of details and focus on the details that we are interested in. Every observation is an abstraction of the phenomenon. Every description is an abstraction of the observation. All of this is dependent on the observer.

This brings us to the third idea regarding a map – A map is self-reflexive. The idea of circularity is of great importance in Cybernetics. A true map will contain the map maker making the map, which in turn will contain the map maker making the map and so on. The idea of circularity is frowned upon in logic. However, the idea of circularity provides the second order characteristics such as observing how we observe or learning how we learn etc. We make sense of words using other words that in turn can be made sense using the same words we started with. Heinz von Foerster said it the best:

There is a word for word, namely “word.” If you don’t know what word means, you can look it up in a dictionary. I did that. I found it to be an “utterance.” I asked myself, “What is an utterance?” I looked it up in the dictionary. The dictionary said that it means “to express through words.” So here we are back where we started. Circularity; A implies A.

As Lance Strate puts it:

Whereas reality refers to nothing apart from itself (unless we confer additional meaning onto it), representations have the potential to be self–referential, that is to refer back to themselves or to other representations. So, for example, if we are standing within a territory and looking at an ideal map of that territory, it would contain within it a representation of itself, a map of the map. Ideally, the map within the map would also contain a representation of itself, a map of a map of a map, and so on ad infinitum. In the same way, some of our statements may be about the world as we experience it, but we can also make statements about statements, and statements about those statements, and so on. We can react to our reactions, evaluate our evaluations, question our questions, and so forth.

The idea of self-reflexivity brings up the idea of the observer. Korzybski has said the following about the observer:

“All man can know is a joint phenomenon of the observer and the observed.”

The idea of an observer-free observation is not meaningful. Korzybski expanded on this further:

We used and still use a terminology of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, both extremely confusing, as the so-called ‘objective’ must be considered a construct made by our nervous system, and what we call ‘subjective’ may also be considered ‘objective’ for the same reasons.

The Map Is the Territory:

I would now like to expand on the ideas of Korzybski with ideas from the great Cyberneticians Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana. All we have access to is the world that we have constructed inside based on our numerous experiences, belief systems, biases etc. So, we have to realize while the map is not the territory, the map is all we got, and thus practically the map is the territory. The idea of non-Allness is of utmost value for us. We do not have all the knowledge. The map we made has already become outdated. What we know or what we think we know may not help us since the world around us has changed quite a lot already. We should realize our limitations, and seek understanding from others. We should invite multiple perspectives and always be ready to update/modify our maps. We should train ourselves to look for differences in similar things and similarities in different things.

Heinz von Foerster said:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad that you are all seated, for now comes the Heinz von Foerster theorem: ‚The map is the territory’ because we don’t have anything else but maps. We only have depictions or presentations – I wouldn’t even say re-presentations – that we can braid together within language with the other.”

On a similar note, Humberto Maturana said:

“I maintain that all there is is that which the observer brings forth in his or her distinctions. We do not distinguish what is, but what we distinguish is. The distinctions of the observer specify existence and isness… “The Map IS the territory” is a metaphor.

I will finish with a wonderful Heinz von Foerster story that he told about the anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Margaret Mead quickly learned the colloquial language of many tribes by pointing to things and waiting for the appropriate noises. She told me that once she came to a particular tribe, pointed to different things, but always got the same noises, “chumulu.” A primitive language she thought, only one word! Later she learned that “chumulu” means “pointing with finger.”

 Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Respect for People:

The Cybernetics of Respect for People:

mask

In today’s post, I am looking at “Respect for People”, one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way in the light of ideas from Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics. The readers of my blog know that I am a big fan of Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster had a way with words. One of von Foerster’s favorite topics was ethics, which he taught and spoke about a lot.

“Whenever we speak about something that has to do with ethics, the other is involved. If I live alone in the jungle or in the desert, the problem of ethics does not exist. It only comes to exist through our being together. Only our togetherness, our being together, gives rise to the question, How do I behave toward the other so that we can really always be one?”

Von Foerster continues:

Ladies and gentlemen, this perception (second order cybernetics – observing oneself as the observer) represents a fundamental change not only in the way we conduct science, but also how we perceive of teaching, of learning, of the therapeutic process, of organizational management, and so on and so forth; and — I would say — of how we perceive relationships in our daily life.

One may see this fundamental epistemological change if one considers oneself first to be an independent observer who watches the world go by; or if one considers oneself to be a participant actor in the drama of mutual interaction, of the give and take in the circularity of human relations.

In the first case, because of my independence, I can tell others how to think and to act: “Thou shalt. . . .,” “Thou shalt not. . . .”: This is the origin of moral codes. In the second case, because of my interdependence, I can only tell to myself how to think and to act: “I shall. . . .,” “I shall not. . . .”

This is the origin of ethics.

Anytime there is another participant in what we are doing, ethics automatically comes into the relationship. We are cocreators or participants of a co-constructed social reality. Von Foerster came up with several imperatives, one of which is – “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” He called this the ethical imperative. A good excuse to shun responsibility is to state, “I had no choice but to do X” or “I was doing as I was told.” From this standpoint, von Foerster says that we should always act to ensure that everybody has a choice.

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. The proposal especially addresses those who come with the excuse: “I had no choice,” and who then wash their hands in innocence, like Pontius Pilate.

Von Foerster expanded on this idea:

On the political stage we hear more and more the phrase of Pontius Pilate: “I have no choice but X.” In other words, “Don’t make me responsible for X, blame others.” This phrase apparently replaces: “Among the many choices I had, I decided on X.”

Von Foerster was able to connect this idea to constructivism and the importance of the observer. When we are telling an operator what to do when a problem arises, we are taking away the opportunity for the operator to learn to solve problems; we are not giving the operator the ability to expand their problem solving skills. When we are stipulating a purpose for another, we are standing outside, looking in objectively. Heinz von Foerster asks us to consider two questions:

  • Am I apart from the universe?

That is, whenever I look, I am looking as through a peephole upon an unfolding universe.

or

  • Am I a part of the universe?

That is, whenever I act, I am changing myself and the universe as well.

Von Foerster was a relative of the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, said:

It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.

Following the ideas from Wittgenstein, von Foerster advises us that ethics cannot be articulated. It must reside in in our actions. We have to communicate through our actions. Don’t trust the person who tells you what you want to hear. We should not be person who just tells people what they want to hear or how they should act. Inspired by von Foerster, I say – ‘If you want to show, then learn to act.’

“Respect for people/Humanity” is one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way. Toyota views this as important because they view people as a resource, and they believe that developing people comes first than developing products. People form the complex adaptive system that allows Toyota to continue to grow and adapt to the everchanging environment. Showing respect is about allowing the operator to make a choice and to take responsibility. If you tell them exactly what needs to be done, we are stipulating their purpose for them. What this means is that we are seeing them as a cog in the wheel, not as a cocreator of the social reality we are in. We cannot stipulate their purpose for them since we do not have access to their belief system, schema/mental model etc. Respect for people is a long-term strategy.

Alfred Korzybski, the Polish American semanticist said, “There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.” We should act so as to give the ability for others to make a choice, to think, to improve their skillset in solving problems on their own.

Covid 19:

As we are going through the messiness and chaos of Covid 19, the question of ethics comes up. We keep hearing “Thou shalt not…” Are we seeing ethics in action? We have been advised recently by the CDC to wear face masks. The mask is not meant to completely protect the person wearing it. The mask is to prevent the potentially infected person from transmitting the virus to others. The wearing of a face mask is ethics in action. We are doing it for others.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Magician at the Gemba:

Magician at the Gemba:

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In today’s post, I will be discussing magic, one of my passions. My inspiration for today’s post comes from the great Cybernetician Heinz von Foerster, the wonderful mentalist Derren Brown and the silent partner of Penn & Teller, Raymond Teller. When I was a young kid, I believed that true magic was real. I saw the great American Illusionist David Copperfield on TV, where he did amazing illusions and as a finale act flew around the whole stage and the arena. I also heard about him vanishing the Statue of Liberty in front of spectators. These amazing feats led me to believe that magic was indeed real. I started learning about magic from that young age onward. I became disillusioned quickly when I came across the many secrets of magic. I am thankful for this early disillusionment since it made me a skeptic from a young age.

Magicians can sometimes view themselves as a God-like figure, someone who is superior and can do things that others cannot. They go into theatrics with the belief that they are improving the craft of magic. Derren Brown warns against this approach:

Magic is massively flawed as theatre… Magic is performance, and performance should have an honesty, a relevance and a resonance if it is to be offered to spectators without insulting them… The magician’s role must change from a whimsical god-figure who can click his fingers and have something change in the primary world, to a hero-figure who, with his skills and intriguing character, provides a link with a secondary world of esoteric power. He must arrange circumstances in the primary world – such, as the correct participation of his small audience – in such a way that if that precarious balance is held, a glimmer of magic (only just held under control for a while) will shine through and illuminate the primary world with wonder. That requires investment of time and energy from him and from his audience, and involves the overcoming of conflict. When the routine is over, something has shifted in the world, for both spectator and performer. There is a true sense of catharsis.

Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, was also an accomplished magician as a youth. Von Foerster provides his views on magic:

We did it (magic) in such a way that the spectator constructs a world for himself, in which what he wished for takes place. That has led me to the sentence: “The hearer, not the speaker, determines the meaning of an utterance.”

The other thing we saw is: When one succeeds in creating the world in which one can give rise to miracles, it is the fantasy, the imagination, the mind’s eye of the spectator that you support and nourish.

We are letting the spectator construct the experience of magic. We should not construct it for them. There is a difference between a magician saying, “See there is nothing in my hand,” and the spectator saying, “I see nothing in your hand.” The magic occurs in the minds of the spectator. Great magicians allow the spectator to construct the magic. There is no magic without a spectator.

At the Gemba:

How does all this matter to us at the gemba? During my undergrad studies, I first heard about this magical new production system called ‘Lean Manufacturing’. Apparently, Toyota was doing magical things with this approach and all automakers were trying to copy them. Just like with magic tricks, if one is curious enough, the secret of a trick can be found out. But that will not let you be like David Copperfield or Derren Brown. To paraphrase the Toyota veteran, Hajime Ohba, copying what Toyota does is like creating a Buddha image and forgetting to put a soul in it. Later on, when I started working, I was advised by a senior manager that the only book I need to read is ‘The Goal’ by Eliyahu Goldratt. Supposedly, the book had all the answers I would ever need. Luckily, I was already disillusioned once with magic. As I have written a lot in the past, copying Toyota’s solutions (tricks) will not help if you don’t have Toyota’s problems.  The solution to a problem should be isomorphic. That is, the key should match the lock it opens. Toyota developed its production system over decades of trial and error. We cannot simply copy the tools without understanding what problems they were trying to solve. To paraphrase another Toyotaism, Toyota’s Production System is different from the Toyota Production System (TPS).

This brings me to the idea of constructivism. I have talked about this before as well. A bad magician tries to sell the idea of a Superbeing who can do things that don’t seem to belong to the natural realm. He is trying to force his constructed reality onto others. A good magician on the other hand invites the spectator to create the magic in their mind. This is evident in the statements from Heinz von Foerster. The role of the observer is of utmost importance because he is the one doing the description of the phenomenon. What he describes is based on what he already knows. The properties of the “observed” are therefore the properties infused by the observer. The emphasis is then about epistemology (study of knowledge), not ontology (study of reality). Multiple perspectives and continued learning are important. One cannot optimize a complex system. It is dynamic, nonlinear and multidimensional. There are at least as many realities as the number of participants in the complex system. What optimization means depends upon the observer. There may never be a “perfect” answer to a complex problem. There are definitely wrong answers. There are definitely ‘less wrong’ answers. We should seek understanding and learn from multiple perspectives. Humility is a virtue. To paraphrase von Foerster: “Only when you realize you are blind can you see!” This is such a powerful statement. If we don’t know that our understanding is faulty, we cannot improve our understanding. This touches on the idea of Hansei or “self-reflection” in TPS.

We should be aware that everybody has a view of what is out there (reality). We all react to an internally constructed version of reality built of our internal schema/mental models/biases/what we know etc. We cannot be God-like and assume that our version is the true reality. We should not force our version on others as well. We should allow our cocreators/participants to co-construct our social reality together. This touches on the idea of Respect for Humanity in TPS.

To keep with the theme of this post, I will post some of my old videos of magic below, and end with a funny magician joke.

A Spanish magician told everyone he would disappear.

He said, “Uno, dos….” Poof! He disappeared without a tres.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Free Energy Principle at the Gemba:

My performance videos from a long time ago (pardon the video quality)…

The Free Energy Principle at the Gemba:

FEP

In today’s post, I am looking at the Free Energy Principle (FEP) by the British neuroscientist, Karl Friston. The FEP basically states that in order to resist the natural tendency to disorder, adaptive agents must minimize surprise. A good example to explain this is to say successful fish typically find themselves surrounded by water, and very atypically find themselves out of water, since being out of water for an extended time will lead to a breakdown of homoeostatic (autopoietic) relations.[1]

Here the free energy refers to an information-theoretic construct:

Because the distribution of ‘surprising’ events is in general unknown and unknowable, organisms must instead minimize a tractable proxy, which according to the FEP turns out to be ‘free energy’. Free energy in this context is an information-theoretic construct that (i) provides an upper bound on the extent to which sensory data is atypical (‘surprising’) and (ii) can be evaluated by an organism, because it depends eventually only on sensory input and an internal model of the environmental causes of sensory input.[1]

In FEP, our brains are viewed as predictive engines, or also Bayesian Inference engines. This idea is built on predictive coding/processing that goes back to the German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz from the 1800s. The main idea is that we have a hierarchical structure in our brain that tries to predict what is going to happen based on the previous sensory data received. As philosopher Andy Clarke explains, our brain is not a cognitive couch potato waiting for sensory input to make sense of what is going on. It is actively predicting what is going to happen next. This is why minimizing the surprise is important. For example, when we lift a closed container, we predict that it is going to have a certain weight based on our previous experiences and the visual signal of the container. We are surprised if the container is light in weight and can be lifted easily. We have similar experiences when we miss a step on the staircase. From a mathematical standpoint, we can say that when our internal model matches the sensory input, we are not surprised. This refers to the KL divergence in information theory. The lower the divergence, the better the fit between the model and the sensory input, and lower the surprise. The hierarchical model is top down. The prediction flows top down, while the sensory data flows bottom up. If the model matches the sensory data, then nothing goes up the chain. However, when there is a significant difference between the top down prediction and the bottom up incoming sensory date, the difference is raised up the chain. One of my favorite examples to explain this further is to imagine that you are in the shower with your radio playing. You can faintly hear the radio in the shower. When your favorite song plays on the radio, you feel like you can hear it better than when an unfamiliar song is played. This is because your brain is able to better predict what is going to happen and the prediction helps smooth out the incoming auditory signals. British neuroscientist Anil Seth has a great quote regarding the predictive processing idea, “perception is controlled hallucination.”

Andy Clarke explains this further:

Perception itself is a kind of controlled hallucination… [T]he sensory information here acts as feedback on your expectations. It allows you to often correct them and to refine them.

(T)o perceive the world is to successfully predict our own sensory states. The brain uses stored knowledge about the structure of the world and the probabilities of one state or event following another to generate a prediction of what the current state is likely to be, given the previous one and this body of knowledge. Mismatches between the prediction and the received signal generate error signals that nuance the prediction or (in more extreme cases) drive learning and plasticity.

Predictive coding models suggest that what emerges first is the general gist (including the general affective feel) of the scene, with the details becoming progressively filled in as the brain uses that larger context — time and task allowing — to generate finer and finer predictions of detail. There is a very real sense in which we properly perceive the forest before the trees.

What we perceive (or think we perceive) is heavily determined by what we know, and what we know (or think we know) is constantly conditioned on what we perceive (or think we perceive).

(T)he task of the perceiving brain is to account for (to accommodate or ‘explain away’) the incoming or ‘driving’ sensory signal by means of a matching top-down prediction. The better the match, the less prediction error then propagates up the hierarchy. The higher level guesses are thus acting as priors for the lower level processing, in the fashion (as remarked earlier) of so-called ‘empirical Bayes’.

The question on what happens when the prediction does not match is best explained by Friston:

“The free-energy considered here represents a bound on the surprise inherent in any exchange with the environment, under expectations encoded by its state or configuration. A system can minimize free energy by changing its configuration to change the way it samples the environment, or to change its expectations. These changes correspond to action and perception, respectively, and lead to an adaptive exchange with the environment that is characteristic of biological systems. This treatment implies that the system’s state and structure encode an implicit and probabilistic model of the environment.”

Our brains are continuously sampling the data coming in and making predictions. When there is a mismatch between the prediction and the data, we have three options.

  • Update our model to match the incoming data.
  • Attempt to change the environment so that the model matches the environment. Try resampling the data coming in.
  • Ignore and do nothing.

Option 3 is not always something that will yield positive results. Option 1 is a learning process where we are updating our internal models based on the new evidence. Option 2 show ours strong confidence in our internal model, and that we are able to change the environment. Or perhaps there is something wrong with the incoming data and we have to get more data to proceed.

The ideas from FEP can also further our understanding on our ability to balance between maintaining status quo (exploit) and going outside our comfort zones (explore). To paraphrase the English polymath Spencer Brown, the first act of cognition is to differentiate (act of distinction). We start with differentiating – Me/everything else. We experience and “bring forth” the world around us by constructing it inside our mind. This construction has to be a simpler version due to the very high complexity of the world around us. We only care about correlations that matter to us in our local environment. This matters the most for our survival and sustenance. This leads to a tension. We want to look for things that confirm our hypotheses and maintain status quo. This is a short-term vision. However, this doesn’t help in the long run with our sustenance. We also need to explore to look for things that we don’t know about. This is the long-term vision. This helps us prepare to adapt with the everchanging environment. There is a balance between the two.

The idea of FEP can go from “I model the world” to “we model the world” to “we model ourselves modelling the world.” As part of a larger human system, we can cocreate a shared model of our environment and collaborate to minimize the free energy leading to our sustenance as a society.

Final Words:

FEP is a fascinating field and I welcome the readers to check out the works of Karl Friston, Andy Clarke and others. I will finish with the insight from Friston that the idea of minimizing free energy is also a way to recognize one’s existence.

Avoiding surprises means that one has to model and anticipate a changing and itinerant world. This implies that the models used to quantify surprise must themselves embody itinerant wandering through sensory states (because they have been selected by exposure to an inconstant world): Under the free-energy principle, the agent will become an optimal (if approximate) model of its environment. This is because, mathematically, surprise is also the negative log-evidence for the model entailed by the agent. This means minimizing surprise maximizes the evidence for the agent (model). Put simply, the agent becomes a model of the environment in which it is immersed. This is exactly consistent with the Good Regulator theorem of Conant and Ashby (1970). This theorem, which is central to cybernetics, states that “every Good Regulator of a system must be a model of that system.” .. Like adaptive fitness, the free-energy formulation is not a mechanism or magic recipe for life; it is just a characterization of biological systems that exist. In fact, adaptive fitness and (negative) free energy are considered by some to be the same thing.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Whole is ________ than the sum of its parts:

[1] The free energy principle for action and perception: A mathematical review. Christopher L. Buckley, Chang Sub Kim, Simon McGregor, Anil K. Seth (2017)

The Whole is ________ than the sum of its parts:

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One of the common expressions depicting holistic thinking is – “the whole is larger/greater than the sum of its parts.” In today’s post I would like to look at this expression from a few different perspectives.

Kurt Koffka:

Kurt Koffka (1886 – 1941), the brilliant Gestalt psychologist said, “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” Koffka was adamant to not misstate him as the whole being larger than the sum of its parts. He was pointing out that the whole is not merely an addition of parts, and that the whole has a separate existence. We humans tend to organize our percepts into wholes. Our mental shortcuts first make us see the whole, rather than the parts. The term “gestalt” itself refers to form or pattern. We are prone to identifying larger patterns from partial data.

Andras Angyal:

Andras Angyal (1902 – 1960) was an American psychiatrist and a Systems Theorist. He emphasized the importance of positional values of parts within a system. He did not view the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

Summation, however, is not organization, but it is of little help simply to say that a system is more than the sum of its parts…“A system is a distribution of constituents with positional values in a dimensional domain.” Functional relationship is the key concept of the reductive approach. For a systems approach a different concept, such as that of positional value, is required which expresses arrangement and compels reference of the parts back to the whole. The value of parts is what they do for the whole. Their function is its maintenance. Only a whole maintained in this way can relate to an environment. To make possible relations with an environment is the function of the whole.

An easy example is to put together three sticks of different lengths. The order of the sticks does not matter for the total length of the three sticks put together. For contrast, let’s look at a car. For a car, the positional value or the order of the parts are of utmost importance. They have to go together in a specific manner for the car to be a car.

Edgar Morin:

Edgar Morin, the brilliant French philosopher says that “the whole is less than the sum of its parts.” This is a powerful statement. The parts lose its freedom when it is constrained to be in a specific form of organization. The whole is more constrained, or has less freedom than the sum of freedoms of the parts put together. The parts give up some of its properties when it organizes to be a whole. At the same time, the whole is also more than the sum of its parts. Morin says:

In order to understand the apparent contradiction of a whole that is simultaneously more and less than the sum of its parts, I claim the heritage of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, from the 6th century BC: when you reach a contradiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean an error, but rather that you have touched on a fundamental problem. Therefore, I believe that these contradictions should be recognized and upheld, rather than circumvented.

Additionally, Morin stated:

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a principle which is widely acknowledged and intuitively recognized at all macroscopic levels), since a macro-unity arises at the level of the whole, along with emergent phenomena, i.e., new qualities or properties.

The whole is less than the sum of the parts, since some of the qualities or properties of the parts are inhibited or suppressed altogether under the influence of the constraints resulting from the organization of the whole.

The whole is greater than the whole, since the whole as a whole affects the parts retroactively, while the parts in turn retroactively affect the whole (in other words, the whole is more than a global entity-it has a dynamic organization).

Morin had strong words about just using holism:

Holism is a partial, one-dimensional, and simplifying vision of the whole. It reduces all other system-related ideas to the idea of totality, whereas it should be a question of confluence. Holism thus arises from the paradigm of simplification (or reduction of the complex to a master-concept or master-category).

Final Words:

The idea that the whole is different or other than the sum of its parts is a different way of thinking. Holism can be as limiting as reductionism. One might say that thinking in terms of wholes is very much thinking in terms of parts since the whole can be construed to be a part of a larger system. The emphasis is on the observer and the purpose that the observer has with the specific perspective that he or she is taking. All humans are purposeful creatures. What one observes, depends upon the properties of the observer. This also means that the other observers, the cocreators or the participants in the system, have their own purposes. We cannot stipulate the purpose(s) for a fellow being. To paraphrase West Churchman, systems thinking begins when one sees through the eyes of another.

The idea that the whole is more important than the part should be challenged, especially when it comes to human systems. All human systems are in a delicate balance with each other, which can tip one way or the other based on emerging attractors. The individual strives for autonomy, while the larger human systems the individual is part of, strive for homonomy. One should not ignore the other.

I will finish with another lesson from Morin:

The parts are at once less and greater than the parts. The most remarkable emergent phenomena within a highly complex system, such as human society, occur not only at the level of the whole (society), but also at the level of the individuals (even especially at that level-witness the fact that self-consciousness only emerges in individuals). In this sense: The parts are sometimes greater than the whole. As Stafford Beer has noted: “[T]he most profitable control system for the parts does not exclude the bankruptcy of the whole.” “Progress” does not necessarily consist in the construction of larger and larger wholes; on the contrary, it may lie in the freedom and independence of small components. The richness of the universe is not found in its dissipative totality, but in the small reflexive entities-the deviant and peripheral units-which have self-assembled within it…

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Constructivism at the Gemba: