The Cybernetics of Complexity:

In today’s post, I am looking the second order view of complexity. While I was thinking of a good title for this post, I went from “A constructivist walks into a Complexity bar” to “The Chernobyl model of Complexity”. Finally, I settled with “The Cybernetics of Complexity.” What I am looking at is not new by any means. I am inspired by the ideas of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Heinz von Foerster, Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch and Ralph Stacey.

I start from the basic premise that complexity is a description rather than a property of a phenomenon. This would indicate that the complexity is dependent on the one doing the describing, i.e., the observer. Complexity is a description, which means it needs someone describing it. This is the observer. The same thing can be perceived as complex and complicated by two different people. Tsoukas and Hatch explain this further:

in order for cognitive beings to be able to act effectively in the world we must organize our thinking… one way of viewing organizations as complex systems is to explore complex ways of thinking about organizations-as complex systems; which we call second order complexity. We further note that entering the domain of second-order complexity – the domain of the thinker thinking about complexity – raises issues of interpretation (and, we argue, narration) that have heretofore been ignored by complexity theorists.

What is complexity? It is our contention that the puzzle of defining the complexity of a system leads directly to concern with description and interpretation and therefore to the issue of second-order complexity.

Tsoukas and Hatch references Jim Casti to explain this further:

complexity is, in effect, in the eye of the beholder: ‘system complexity is a contingent property arising out of the interaction I between a system S and an observer/decision-maker O’. To put it more formally, the complexity of a system, as seen by an observer, is directly proportional to the number of inequivalent descriptions of the system that the observer can generate. The more inequivalent descriptions an observer can produce, the more complex the system will be taken to be.

Casti’s definition of complexity is an interesting one for it admits that the complexity of a system is not an intrinsic property of that system; it is observer-dependent, that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. Consequently, if an observer’s language is complex enough (namely, the more inequivalent descriptions it can contain) the system at hand will be described in a complex way and thus will be interpreted as a complex system. What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as nonlinearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence. It is not that those features could not have been described before, but that they now have been brought into focus and given meaning. To put it another way, physics has discovered complexity by complicating its own language of description.

Here, the language of description comes from the observer. One of the best examples that I have to provide some clarity is a scene from HBO’s wonderful show Chernobyl, adapted from the Chernobyl tragedy. In the scene, Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief Engineer was alerted of things going wrong by the other engineers taking part in a test. Dyatlov stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. He asked the engineer, “What does the dosimeter say?” The response was. “3.6 Roentgen, but that’s as high as the meter..” Dyatlov, in the show cut him off midsentence and famously state, “3.6. Not great, not terrible.

Dyatlov firmly believed that the reactor could not explode. Even though he was informed that the meter can go only as high as 3.6 roentgen, he found the situation to be manageable. Later it is revealed using a different gage with higher range, the actual rate was 15,000 roentgen per hour. This scene is truly remarkable because there were different people looking at a phenomenon and coming to different conclusions with terrible consequences.

In philosophy, we talk about ontology and epistemology. Ontology is about what exists and epistemology is about how you come to know things. We are all born with a set of “gages” (to loosely put). But each one of our gages have different ranges. The set of gages is unique to our species. For example, we can only see a small part of the light spectrum. We can only hear only a small part of the sound spectrum. We are informationally closed. This means that we generate meaning within a closed interpretative framework/mechanism. Information cannot come in directly. Rather, we are perturbed by the environment and we generate meaning from it. It might make it easier if we can come up with a way to quantify complexity.

A loose way to do this is to view complexity in terms of the number of possible interactions the phenomenon can have. This in turn is related to the number of states of the phenomenon. In cybernetics, complexity is viewed in terms of variety. Variety is the number of states of a phenomenon. I have discussed this concept at length before. To explain it loosely with an example, the variety of a simple light switch is two, the two states being ON and OFF. A variable light switch on the other hand has a whole lot more variety. The other insight regarding variety is that it is dependent on the observer since the observer is the one describing the number of “possible” states. Now this is where the possible rub comes in for some people. I see complexity as dependent upon the observer. Do I reject that there is nothing out there that is not in my head? That is a question about ontology. I am not very keen on just looking at ontology. I am looking at this from an epistemological viewpoint. Going back to the Chernobyl show, if my gage is inadequate, then that determines my reality which determines my action. If I have a better gage, then I can better understand what is going on. If I have others around me with more gages, then I can do a comparison and come to a general consensus on what is going on so that our general viability is maintained.

We have learned through evolution as a species to cut down on the high variety thrown at us so that we can remain viable. As noted earlier, we have evolved to see only a narrow band of the light spectrum, same with the sound and other natural phenomena. This has led to us having a set of “gages” unique to our species so that we can continue being viable. When these gages become inadequate, then our viability is in question. The purpose of gages is to make sense of what is happening so that we can act or not act. We don’t register everything that is coming in because we don’t need to. Our genetic makeup has become tuned to just what we need.

When I say complexity is in the eyes of the beholder, I mean that our range of gages are different dependent upon the observer. What we sense directly impacts how we act. Some of us can manage situations better because they are able to make sense better. Whether a situation is complex or complicated changes based on who is doing the observing. The term observer here means the person interacting with the situation. You can call him an actor or an agent, if needed.

Tsoukas and Hatch expand on this:

If practitioners are to increase their effectiveness in managing paradoxical social systems, they should, as Weick recommends, ‘complicate’ themselves. But complicate themselves in what way? By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practitioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely, in logico-scientific terms, to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage, or, in narrative terms, to enact it.

In Cybernetics, this aligns with Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety. This law states that only variety can absorb variety. To simply put, we have to cut down excess external variety coming in and find ways to amplify our internal variety so that the internal variety matches the external variety. A good way to cut down the external variety is to focus on only what matters/values to us. A good way to amplify our internal variety is to keep on learning and to be open to other perspectives. Of course, there are a lot of other ways to do this. A specific procedure cannot be made because everything is dependent upon the context. The phenomenon itself is changing with time, and so are we as the observers.

We have to welcome how the other practitioners describe the phenomenon. We have to engage with them so that we can come to a stable narrative of the phenomenon. This is not possible if we see ourselves as external to the phenomenon and if we believe that we all experience a single objective phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note – Expanding the focus from the system itself (first-order complexity) to also include those who describe the system as complex (second-order complexity) exposes the interpretive-cum-narrative dimensions of complexity. A complex system is said to have many specific characteristics including non-linearity, feedback loops, etc. But these are all descriptions of an observer describing the phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note:

Although you may call non-linearity, scale dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions and emergence properties of the system, they are actually your descriptive terms – they are part of a vocabulary, a way of talking about a system. Why use such a vocabulary? Is it because it corresponds to how the system really is? Not quite. Because the system cannot speak for itself, you do not know what the system really is. Rather, you use such a vocabulary because of its suspected utility – it may enable you to do certain things with it. A new vocabulary, notes Rorty, ‘is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide’.

What we have to then do is to understand that seeing complexity as a description of a phenomenon helps us in understanding how we understand the phenomenon. This is a second-order act, a cognitive act. We need to be aware of our blind spots (realization that we have inadequate gages). We need to improve our vocabulary so that we can better describe what we experience. Some models of complexity recommend bringing in experts for complicated phenomenon. Complicated phenomenon are cases where the complexity is slightly higher, but a cause-and-effect relationship still exists. The reason for bringing in the experts is because they are able to describe the phenomenon differently than a layperson. This again shows that complexity is dependent on the observer. It also indicates that we can improve our sensemaking capabilities by improving our vocabulary by keeping on learning. I will try to loosely explain my ideas based on a one-dimensional depiction of complexity. I am not saying that this is a correct model. I am providing this only for clarity’s sake. The chart below shows the complexity in terms of variety. The green line starts at 0 and ends at 100 to show complexity on a spectrum. Depending upon the capability of the observer to distinguish possible varieties, two observers perceive and understand complexity as shown below. The observer 2 in this case is able to manage complexity better than observer 1. Please note that to manage complexity means to cut down on the excess external variety and amplify internal variety. The other point to keep in mind is that the observer is informationally closed, so the observer is able to generate meaning of only those characteristics that perturbs the observer. In other words, the observer can distinguish only those characteristics that the observer’s interpretative mechanism can afford.  

When we look at a phenomenon and try to make sense of it, we try to do it in terms of a whole narrative, one that makes sense to us. This adds a uniqueness to how each one of the practitioners approach the phenomenon. The same complex phenomenon can have different contexts for different people. For example, the same Covid pandemic can be a problem of health crisis for one person, while for another it could be about freedom and government regulation. A stable social reality is achieved through continuous interaction. The environment changes, so we have to continuously interact with each other and the environment and continue to reframe reality. This social stability is an ongoing activity.

Final Words:

I had indicated that this post is about a second order view of complexity. In order to improve our understanding of complexity, we have to understand how we understand – how we come to know about things that we can describe. I do not propose that there is an objective reality out there that we all experience equally. All we can say is that we each experience a reality and through ongoing interaction we come to a stable version of reality. One of the criticisms to this approach is that this leads to solipsism. The main version of Solipsism is that others may not really exist and that only one’s mind is sure to exist. This is a no-win argument that I find no appeal in. I am happy that other smarter people exist because my life is better because of them. Another criticism to this approach is that it supports relativism. Relativism is the idea that all perspectives are equally valid. This also is a terrible idea in my view. I support the idea of pluralism. I have written about this before here.  Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, a pluralist is open to understanding other people’s belief systems.

What I am hoping to achieve from this constructivist view is epistemic humility. This is the stance that what we know is incomplete, and that it may also be inadequate. We have to keep on learning, and be open to other viewpoints.

I will finish with a wonderful quote from Heinz von Foerster:

properties that apparently are associated with things are indeed properties that belong to the observer. So, that means the properties which are thought to reside in things turn out to be properties of the observer. I’ll give you immediately an example. A good example, for instance, is obscenity. You know that there is a tremendous effort even going up to the Supreme Court which is almost a comedy worthy to be written by Aristophanes. Who wants to establish what is obscene? Now it’s perfectly clear that “obscene” is, of course, a property which resides in the observer, because if you take a picture and show it to Mr. X, and Mr. X says, “This picture is obscene,” you know something about Mr. X, but nothing about the picture.

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Cybernetics-of-Complexity-e15v5v9

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

Art by Audrey Jose

In today’s post, I am continuing from the last post, mainly using the ideas of Dirk Baecker. We noted that every observation is an operation of distinction, where an observer crosses a line, entering a marked state. This is shown in the schematic below. Here “a” refers to the marked state that the observer is interested in. The solid corner of a square is the distinction that was used by the observer, and “n” refers to the unmarked state. The entire schematic with the two sides and the three values (“a”, “n” and the distinction) are notated as a “form”. The first order observer is observing only the marked state “a”, and is not aware of or paying attention to the distinction(s) utilized. They are also not aware of the unmarked state “n”. When a second order observer enters the picture, they are able to see the entire form including the distinction employed by the first order observer.  

However, it is important to note that the observation made by the second order observer is also a first order observation. This means that they also have a distinction and an unmarked state, another “n” that they are not aware of. Baecker explains this:

We have to bring in second-order observers in order to introduce consciousness or self-observation. Yet to be able to operate at all, these second-order observers must also be first-order observers… Second-order observers intervene as first-order observers, thereby presenting their own distinction to further second-order observation.

We also discussed the idea of “reentry” in our last post. Reentry is a means to provide closure so that the first order and second order observations taken together leads to a stable meaning.

So, to recap, the first order observer is interested in “a”.

The second order observer observes the first order observer, and understands that the first order observer made a distinction. They see where the first order observer is coming from, and the context of their observation. Let’s call the context as “b”. This will be the unmarked state for the first observer.

The second order observer engages with the first order observer in an ongoing back and forth discussion. The second order observer is able to combine both their “dealing with the world” approaches and come together to a nuanced understanding. This understanding is an effect of distinguishing “a” from “b”, and also combining “a” and “b” – an action of implication and negation taken together. This is an operation of sensemaking in the medium of meaning. This is depicted as the reentry in the schematic below.

Baecker explains reentry further:

Any operation that is able to look at both sides of the distinction – that is, at its form – is defined by Spencer Brown as an operation of reentry. It consists of reentering the distinction into the distinction, thereby splitting the same distinction into one being crossed and the same one being marked by another distinction that is deferred. The general idea of the reentry is to note and use the fact that distinctions occur in two versions: the distinction actually used, and the distinction looked at or reflected on.

Let’s look further at the form by using a famous syllogism from philosophy to further enhance our understanding:

All Men are Mortals;

Socrates is a man;

Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.

 This can be depicted as a form as shown below:

By distinguishing Socrates from Men, and Men from Mortals, and by putting it all together, we get to “Socrates is Mortal”. In this case, we did not have to do a lot of work to come to the final conclusion. However, as the complexity increases, we will need to perform reentry on an ongoing basis to bring forth a stable meaning. Reentry introduces temporality to the sensemaking operation. No matter how many distinctions we employ, we can only get to a second order observation. All observations are in all actuality first order observations. And what is being distinguished is also dependent entirely on the observer.

I will also look at another example. A manager is required to maintain the operations of a plant while at the same time they need to make modifications to the operations to ensure that the plant can stay viable in an everchanging environment. In other words, the operations are maintained as consistent as possible until it needs to be changed. This can be depicted as shown below:

Another way to look at this is to view a plant as needing centralized structure as well as decentralized structure or top-down and bottom-up structure. This can be depicted as shown below. Here the two states are not shown as nested, but adjacent to each other.

Dirk Baecker saw a firm as follows:

Baecker notes that the product is the first distinction that we have to make. Our first distinction is the distinction of the product. Whatever else the firm may be doing, it has to recursively draw the distinction of which product it is to produce. This may be a material or immaterial, a tangible or intangible, an easy or difficult to define product, but it has to be a product that tells employees, managers and clients alike just what the firm is about. He continues- The technology is part of the form of the first distinction. Indeed, it is the outside or the first context of the first distinction, as observed by a second-order observer who may be the first-order observer observing him/herself. This means that a firm distinguishes only those products for which it has, or hopes to acquire, the necessary technology. Technology here means all kinds of ways of making sure that we can do what we want to do. This includes material access to resources, knowledge of procedures, technologies, availability of people to do the job and ways to convince society that you are doing what you are doing in the proper way.

Baecker explains “work” as follows:

We add the assumption of communication between first-order observers who at the same time act as second-order observers. The firm observes itself. By working, it relates products to technology and technology back to products.

Additional information can be found on Dirk Baecker’s The Form of the Firm.

In all that we have seen so far, we have not yet talked about the unmarked state. The unmarked state “n” is always present in the form and is not accessible to the observer. The observation can have as many distinctions as needed, dependent on the observer. The “n” represents everything that can be further added to the distinctions to improve our “meaning” as needed. The more distinctions there are, the more complex the observations. The observers deal with the complexity of the phenomena to be understood by applying as many or as few distinctions as needed.

We are able to better help with someone else’s problems because we can engage in second order observations. As second order observers, we can see the distinctions they made which are not accessible to them in the first order observation. The second order observer is able to understand the distinctions that the first order observer was able to make. The distinctions lay in the blind spots for the first order observer. The second order observation can be completed by the first order observer themselves as an operation of self-reflection. As cognitive beings, we must reproduce existing patterns by continually engaging with the external world, our local environment. We have to keep evaluating and adjusting these patterns on an ongoing self-correcting basis.

The basic structure of what we have discussed so far can be depicted as the following form:

We need to be mindful that there is always “n” that is not part of our observation. We may gain a better understanding of our distinctions if we engage in second order observation, but we will still not be able to access the unmarked state. We will not be able to access the unmarked state unless we create a new distinction in the unmarked state cutting “n” to a marked state and an unmarked state, yielding a new “n”. Second-order observation, noting one’s own distinctions, can lay the groundwork for epistemic humility.

This brings into question – how many distinctions are really needed? We will answer this with going to the first distinction we made. The first cross that we started with leading to the first distinction is the most important thing that we care about. Every other distinction is based on this first one. To answer – how many distinctions are really needed? – we need as many distinctions as needed until we are fully satisfied with our understanding. This includes understanding our blind spots and the distinctions we have made.

I will finish with a Peter Drucker story from Baecker. Peter Drucker was working with a hospital to improve their Emergency Room. Baecker noted that it took the hospital staff two days to come up with the first distinction, their “a”. Their “a” was to bring immediate relief to the afflicted. The afflicted needing relief may not always be the patient. In Drucker’s words:

Many years ago, I sat down with the administrators of a major hospital to think through the mission statement of the emergency room. It took us a long time to come up with the very simple, and (most people thought) too obvious statement that the emergency room was there to give assurance to the afflicted.

To do that well, you have to know what really goes on. And, much to the surprise of the physicians and nurses, it turned out that in a good emergency room, the function is to tell eight out of ten people there is nothing wrong that a good night’s sleep won’t take care of. You’ve been shaken up. Or the baby has the flu. All right, it’s got convulsions, but there is nothing seriously wrong with the child. The doctors and nurses give assurance.

We worked it out, but it sounded awfully obvious. Yet translating that mission statement into action meant that everybody who comes in is now seen by a qualified person in less than a minute. That is the mission; that is the goal. The rest is implementation.

Some people are immediately rushed to intensive care, others get a lot of tests, and yet others are told: “Go back home, go to sleep, take an aspirin, and don’t worry. If these things persist, see a physician tomorrow.” But the first objective is to see everybody, almost immediately — because that is the only way to give assurance.

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/Observations-on-Observing–The-Case-Continues-e15kpc1

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

In today’s post, I am looking at observation. This will be a general overview and I will follow up with more posts in the future. I am inspired by the ideas of George Spencer-Brown (GSB), Niklas Luhman, Dirk Baecker and Heinz von Foerster. In Cybernetics, observation does not mean just to utilize your eyes and look at something. It has a deeper “sensemaking” type meaning. Observation in Cybernetics does not follow the rigid subject-object relationship. Toth Benedek explains this:

Heinz von Foerster tried to develop a point of view that replaces the linear and rigid structure of the object-subject (observer-observed) distinction. According to von Foerster, the observer is really constructed by the observed and vice versa: ‘observation’ is nothing else but the circular relation between them. Observation as a relation defines the observer and the observed, so the observer refers not only to the observed, but also to himself by the act of observation.

Observation is an operation of distinction. The role of an observer is to generate information. If no information is being generated, then no observation has been made. An observation is an act of cognition. GSB in his seminal work, Laws of Form noted:

A universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in the plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.

GSB advises us to draw a distinction. He proposed a notation called as “mark” to do this. A basic explanation of a mark is shown below. It separates a space into two sections; one part that is observed and the other that is not observed. We can look at a space, and identify a difference, a distinction that allows us to identify a part of the space as something and the remaining of that space as NOT that something. For example, we can distinguish a part of a house as kitchen and everything else is “not kitchen”. At that point in time, we are looking only at the kitchen, and ignoring or not paying attention to anything else. What is being observed is in relation to what is not being observed. A kitchen is identified as “kitchen” only in the context of the remaining of the house.

Dirk Baecker explains this:

Spencer-Brown’s first propositions about his calculus is the distinction being drawn itself, considered to be “perfect continence”, that is to contain everything. A distinction can only contain everything when one assumes that it indeed contains (a) its two sides, that is the marked state and the unmarked state, (b) the operation of the distinction, that is the separation of the two sides by marking one of them, and (c) the space in which all this occurs and which is brought forth by this occurrence.

From the context of GSB, we can view a distinction as a first order observation. We can only see what is inside the box, and not what is outside the box. What is outside the box is our “blind spot.”

Hans-Georg Moeller explains this very well:

A first-order observation can simply observe something and, on the basis of this, establish that thing’s factuality: I see that this book is black—thus the book is black. Second-order observation observes how the eye of an observer constructs the color of this book as black. Thus, the simple “is” of the expression “the book is black” becomes more complex—it is not black in itself but as seen by the eyes of its observer. The ontological simplicity is lost and the notion of “being” becomes more complex. What is lost is the certainty about the “essential” color of this book.

The first order observer is confident about the observation he makes. He may view his observation as necessary and not contingent. However, a second order observer is able to also see what the first order observer is not. The second order observer is able to understand to an extent how the first order observer is making his distinctions. The second order observer thus comes to the conclusion that the distinction made by the first order observer is in fact contingent and somewhat arbitrary.

The most important point about the first order observation is that the first order observer cannot see that he does not see what he does not see. In other words, the first order observer is unaware that he has a blind spot. A second order observer observing a first order observer is able to see what the first order observer is not able to see, and he is also able to see that the first order observer has a blind spot. This is depicted in the schematic below:

As the schematic depicts, the second order observer is also making a distinction. In other words, what he is doing is also a first order observation! This means that the second order observer also has a blind spot, and he not aware that he has a blind spot! As Benedek further notes:

the first order of observation (our eye’s direct observation) is unable to get a coherent and complete image about the world out there. What we can see is something we learnt to see: the image we “see” is a result of computing processes.

The second order observation can also be carried out as a self-observation, where the observer doing the first order observation is also the observer doing the second order observation. This may appear paradoxical. GSB talked about an idea called “reentry” in Laws of Form. Reentry is the idea of reentering the form again. In other words, we are re-introducing the distinction we used onto the form again. The reentry is depicted in the schematic below:

Dirk Baecker explains:

Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form consists in developing arithmetic with distinctions from a first instruction—”draw a distinction”—to the re-introduction (“re-entry”) of the distinction into the form of distinction, in order to be able to show in this way that the apparently simple, but actually already complex beginning involved in making a distinction can only take place in a space in which the distinction is for its part introduced again. The observer who makes this distinction through it becomes aware of the distinction, to which he is himself indebted.

Self-observation requires a reentry. In order to become aware that we have cognitive blind spots, we have to perform reentry. The re-entry includes what was not part of the original distinction. This allows us to understand (to a point) how we make and utilize distinctions. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we come to see when we realize that we cannot see.

The reentry is a continuous operation that is self-correcting in nature. There is no end point to this per-se and it oscillates between the inside and the outside. This leads to an emergent stability as an eigenform. As noted before, the second order observation is still a form of first order observation even with reentry. There are still cognitive blind spots and we are still subject our biases and limitations of our interpretative framework. We are affected by what we observe and we can only observe what our interpretative framework can afford. As noted at the start of the post, the role of the observer is to generate information. If the observer is not able to make a distinction, then no information can be generated. This has the same effect as us being in a closed system where the entropy keeps on increasing. Borrowing a phrase from Stafford Beer, this means that observers are negentropic pumps. We engage in making dynamic distinctions which allows us to gather the requisite information/knowledge to remain viable in an everchanging environment.

The discussion about first order and second order observations may bring up the question – is it possible to have a third order observation? Heinz von Foerster pointed out that there is no need for a third order observation. He noted that a reflection of a reflection is still a reflection. Hans-Georg Moeller explains this further:

While second-order observation arrives at more complex notions of reality or being, it still only observes—it is a second-order observation, because it observes as a first-order observation another first-order observation. It is, so to speak, the result of two simultaneous first-order observations. A third-order observation cannot transcend this pattern—for it is still the first-order observation of a first-order observation of a first-order observation… No higher-order observation—not even a third-order observation—can observe more “essentially” than a lower-order observation. A third-order observation is still an observation of an observation and thus nothing more than a second-order observation. There is no Platonic climb towards higher and higher realities—no observation brings us closer to the single light of truth.

I will finish with some wise words from Dirk Baecker:

Draw a distinction.

Watch its form.

Work its unrest.

Know your ignorance.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Magic and the Magic of Cybernetics:

The Cybernetics of Magic and the Magic of Cybernetics:

In today’s post, I am looking at magic and cybernetics. From a young age, I have been a fan of magic. I have talked about magic here before. I see magic as the art of paradoxes.  The word paradox stems from the Greek words – “para” and “dokein”, and taken together it means contrary to expectation.

Take for example a simple magic trick where the magician shows you an open empty hand. The magician closes the hand, and does a gentle wiggle and then opens his hand to reveal a coin. He again closes his hands, and does another gentle wiggle and then opens the hand to show that his hand is empty. The magic happens from a self-referential operation. The spectator (or the observer) sees an empty hand and describes it to themselves as an empty hand. Later, when the magician shows their hand again, the hand now contains a coin. The spectator has to reference back to the previous state of empty hand, and face the moment of paradox. The hand that was empty now has a coin. The moment of magic comes only when the spectator can reference back to the empty hand. If we denote the empty hand as A, the value of the hand now is !A or in other words, not an empty hand. If the spectator cannot reference back to their original observation, they will not see the magic. From the magician’s standpoint, he should take care to make sure that this experience is as strong as possible. For example, he should take care to maintain the image of the hand with and without the coin, the same. This means that the position of the fingers, the gap between them, the gesture etc. are all maintained the same for the two states – one where the hand has no coin, and the second where the hand has a coin. This reinforces the “magic” for the spectator.

The idea of self-reference is of great importance in cybernetics. In logic, the idea of self-reference is shunned because it normally leads to paradoxes. A great example for a paradox is the liar paradox. One of the oldest forms of liar paradox is the statement that Epimenides, the Cretan made. He said that, “all Cretans are liars.” Since he himself was a Cretan, that would mean that he is also a liar, but that would mean that what he is saying is true, which means that he must be a liar… and so on. This goes into a paradox from the self-reference. There have been many solutions suggested for this conundrum. One of the ways to resolve any apparent paradox is to introduce temporality into this sentence. We can do this by making the statement slightly ambiguous and add the word “sometimes”. So, the sentence becomes, “all Cretans are liars sometimes.” The temporality suggests that the value for the statement and the person uttering the statement changes with time and this dissolves the paradox.

Paradoxes don’t exist in the “real world.” The reasonable conclusion is that they have something to do with our stubborn and rigid thinking. When we are unwilling to add temporality or ambiguity, we get stuck with our thinking. Another way to look at this is from a programmer’s standpoint. The statement a = a + 1, is valid from a computer program standpoint. Here the variable, “a” does not stand for a constant value. It is a placeholder for a value at a given point in time. Thus, although the equation a = a +1 is self-referential, it does not crash the computer because we introduce temporality to it, and we do not see “a” having one unique value at all times.

In Cybernetics, self-reference is accepted as a normal operation. Cyberneticians talk about second order concepts such as “understanding understanding” and “observing observing”. One of my favorite description of Cybernetics comes from Larry Richards. He describes cybernetics as a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it – cybernetics – is one). This is form of self-reference.

In Cybernetics, self-reference does not lead to paradox. Instead, it leads to a stable outcome. As cognizing agents, we build a stable reality based on self-reference. We can do activities such as thinking about thinking or learning about learning from this approach. Louis Kauffman talks about this:

Heinz von Foerster in his essays has suggested the enticing notion that “objects are tokens for eigen behaviors.” … The short form of this meaning is that there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition that “arises between them.” It is this stability that constitutes the object (and the perceiver). In this view, one does not really have any separate objects, objects are always “objects perceived,” and the perceiver and the perceived arise together in the condition of observation.

We identify the world in terms of how we shape it. We shape the world in response to how it changes us. We change the world and the world changes us. Objects arise as tokens of behavior that leads to seemingly unchanging forms. Forms are seen to be unchanging through their invariance under our attempts to change, to shape them.

My post was inspired by the ideas of Spencer-Brown, Francisco Varela and Heinz von Foerster. I will finish with another gem from Heinz von Foerster:

I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.

This post is also available as a podcast here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Cybernetics-of-Magic-and-the-Magic-of-Cybernetics-e14a257

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was TPS’s Operation Paradox:

Note: The point of a = a+ 1, was made also by Elena Esposito (Kalkul der Form).

TPS’s Operation Paradox:

Recently, I came across an interesting insight at the Toyota Global website. The section of interest is shown below:

Eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears, meaning any operator can use the line to produce the same result. Only then is the jidoka mechanism incorporated into actual production lines. Through the repetition of this process, machinery becomes simpler and less expensive, while maintenance becomes less time consuming and less costly, enabling the creation of simple, slim, flexible lines that are adaptable to fluctuations in production volume.

I was taken aback by the first sentence of the paragraph – eventually, the value added by the line’s human operators disappears! Generally, we talk about increasing the value-added activities in Lean or TPS (Toyota Production System). Here, Toyota seems to be stating a paradox – We should get so good at what we do that we do not add value anymore. We keep finding better and better ways at doing what we do that it does not necessarily need us or even a human to do that job.

The website details the ideas of TPS, mainly Jidoka. Jidoka is the idea of building-in quality so if a defect is produced, the line stops automatically. I have talked about it on my website before – here and here. Toyota is advising us to make the operations as simple as possible. We are advised to remove the complexity of the operation. The operator does not have to face unwanted complexity. This complexity should be absorbed by the Engineers or Management designing the assembly line or the operation. This is an idea similar to Tesler’s law that I have discussed before. Before we can implement the ideas of Jidoka, we need to make the operation as stable as possible by avoiding unwanted variation from the operations. By doing this, multiple machines can be handled by one operator.

The paradoxical message might seem to be promoting automation. It is not so simple. Toyota focuses on work done by hand. The website states:

The work done by hand in this process is the bedrock of engineering skill. Machines and robots do not think for themselves or evolve on their own. Rather, they evolve as we transfer our skills and craftsmanship to them. In other words, craftsmanship is achieved by learning the basic principles of manufacturing through manual work, then applying them on the factory floor to steadily make improvements. This cycle of improvement in both human skills and technologies is the essence of Toyota’s jidoka. Advancing jidoka in this way helps to reinforce both our manufacturing competitiveness and human resource development.

The emphasis on doing the work by hand ensures that we understand all the aspects of the operation. Even if a robot is doing the work, it has to be most efficient. This allows for maximum flexibility. The robot imitates a human activity whether it is to grab or move or transform something. When most companies are going for automation, Toyota focuses on simpler activities that might be done with simple machines rather than state of the art robots. The push is to simplify the operation even for a robot! The manufacturing world has to adapt to ever changing demands, and this means that the assembly lines or the operations will have to be changed as needed. The environment has a lot more variety than what we can tackle. Thus, the goal is not to get stuck with a monument of expensive and large automation but simple and small machines/robots that can be easily moved or modified as need to meet the demand. The website continues:

Human wisdom and ingenuity are indispensable to delivering ever-better cars to customers. Going forward, we will maintain our steadfast dedication to constantly developing human resources who can think independently and implement kaizen.

We are to do our jobs so that we can keep “dehumanizing” the activities so that we have more time to focus on making more improvements. By “dehumanizing”, I mean that we keep improving our work so that we are not engaged in repetitive activities that can be done by a machine. The more time we spend on making improvements, the more efficient and effective we become. The machine can be viewed as a closed system. It keeps doing what it is programmed to do. When we interact with the machine, we provide it with new information that allows it to do something new.  

Taking this idea of the paradox further – in an ideal world, when we do our jobs effectively, we are engaging in eradicating our jobs all together. For example, a doctor should be engaging in activities to create conditions where a doctor is no longer needed!

I will finish with Taiichi Ohno’s wise words:

It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know and do instinctively.

This post is also available as a podcast here.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Complexity is in the Middle:

Complexity is in the Middle:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of a rhizome by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. They spoke about it in their fascinating book, A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome is defined in Oxford dictionary as a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals. Common examples of rhizomes include crab grass and ginger. Guattari and Delueze or G&D as often notated, used the idea of a rhizome as a metaphor. They put the idea of a rhizome against what they called as “arborescent” or tree-thinking. A tree has a very definite structure; one that is hierarchic with the branches, main stalk and the root system. G&D viewed tree-thinking as being focused on a central idea and building a world view upon that. They noted:

The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree.

Tree-thinking believes in having a true image of the world. As G&D noted, the tree-thinkers’ law is the law of reflection. They believe that they can simply copy the rules and apply them to any situation. Any situation has a clear structure that is hierarchical and centralized. This can be understood by all if they just follow the logic presented. With this thinking, things can be separated out to distinct categories that do not overlap. Most times this leads to a dichotomy – either this or that, with no middle ground. As G&D noted – binary logic is the spiritual reality of the root-tree. Additionally, the arborescent thinking is also linear thinking, where things follow a linear pattern and rarely lead to paradoxes or confusion.

In a contrast to this, G&D presented rhizome. A rhizome does not have a central structure. It does not have a beginning or an end. Wherever you are, you can start from there. A rhizomic plant can grow from any point in the horizontal structure. If you cut a rhizome in half, each half can grow separately.

A pack of organisms can act as a rhizome. Structures such as a burrow or a city can be a rhizome. There is a collective identification that can be started at any point in the structure. You can start from any point in a city and walk around the city to absorb its culture. It is not specific to one point that we can pinpoint as the start or the end. Just like in a map, we can start anywhere and move around in a map. There is not start or an end. A torn map still remains a map. A rhizome includes the best and the worst.

G&D also calls a collection of elements that are connected together in an intricate relationship as a rhizome. One of the examples they give is that of a certain type of wasp and an orchid. The orchid flower resembles the female wasp, and this leads to a relationship where the wasp becomes part of the reproductive cycle of the orchid. There is a lot more going on in this relationship. This is explained in a very poetic language by G&D:

The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata-a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.

A rhizome has a circular relationship amongst the elements of its assemblage. A book’s relationship with the world is one such example. A book is never a copy of the world. Its meaning changes with the world. The book changes how we view the world, and this in turn changes how we view the book. G&D noted:

contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can).

G&D noted that a rhizome is characterized by connections and heterogeneity – any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. Heterogeneity simply means the different or non-identical components in the rhizome. Coming back to the example of the pack of organisms, I am reminded of the idea of complexity. Often, complexity is denoted by the numerous connections within a collective that lead to unforeseen and nonlinear results. Things somewhat make sense when we look backwards. A very good example of a complex phenomenon is child rearing. No matter how many kids you raise, every experience is unique. There is nothing that you can do that will ensure a fixed outcome. There are however several heuristics that might help you along the way. Giving a loving and caring home is a great heuristic for example.

Understanding the idea of a rhizome helps me also understand complexity better. To me, complexity is about possibilities. It is about the numerous connections that are made. Every point is able to connect to any other point. There is no fixed outcome expected. There are mostly nonlinear relationships in a rhizome. The start and the end are boring parts; the excitement is always in the middle. Complexity is in the middle. G&D noted each chapter as a plateau in their book. From this standpoint, a rhizome is also a plateau – just the middle. G&D were French, and they used the term “milieu” to denote the middle. They used the term also because it stood for context. Complexity is all about context. There is no one way for a rhizome. A rhizome is what a rhizome does. You cannot copy what worked in one situation and expect the same outcome from a different situation. A rhizome changes with time. Complexity changes with time. This implies that along with asking what is complexity, we should also ask WHEN is complexity?

Stafford Beer, the eminent Management Cybernetician, viewed variety as the unit for complexity. In Cybernetics, variety is the number of possible states of a collective. For example, a light switch has two states, ON and OFF. The more connections an assemblage has, the more variety it possesses. The more variety something has, the more complex it becomes. A human being has more variety than a switch. A switch is somewhat predictable, while a human being is not. A collection of human beings is even more complex. A human is a rhizome. A collection of human beings is a rhizome. A collection of human beings in their environment is also a rhizome. As I noted before, I see complexity in terms of possibilities. A light switch does not have a lot of possibilities. A light switch, some wires, circuit boards, electronic components and a very curious child have a lot of possibilities. Wherever there are connections, there is a rhizomatic possibility. Wherever elements come together as an assemblage and interact, there is a rhizomatic possibility. The possibility comes from a decentralized space. Every word and every thought are part of a rhizome. This post is also a rhizome with you, the reader.

A rhizome has to remain only a metaphor for complexity or else it fails what G&D intended. It cannot be an exact image of complexity. It cannot be the only way to explain complexity.

G&D were inspired by the great cybernetician and anthropologist Gregory Bateson. They got the idea of a plateau from Bateson. I will finish with a great quote from Bateson:

What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose, and all four of them to me? And me to you?

This post is also available as a podcast here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/Complexity-is-in-the-Middle-e134o61

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

I was introduced to the drawing above through Douglas Harding who wrote the Zen book, “The Headless Way.” The drawing was drawn by Ernst Mach, the 19th Century Austrian physicist. He called the drawing, “the view from the left eye.” What is beautiful about the drawing is that it is sort of a self-portrait. This is the view we all see when we look around (without using a mirror or other reflective surfaces). If we could draw what we see of ourselves, this would be the most accurate picture. This brings me to the point about the different modes of observing.

Right now, you are most likely reading this on a screen of some sort or perhaps you are listening to this as a podcast. You were not paying attention to the phone or computer screen – until I pointed it out to you. You were not paying attention to how your shoes or socks or clothes feel on your body – until I pointed them out to you. This is mostly how we are in the world. We are just being in the world most of the time. Everything that we interact with is invisible to us. They just flow along the affordances we can afford. The keyboard clacks away when we hit on the keys, the door knobs turn when we turn them, etc. We do not see them until we have to see them. The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger called this ready-to-handedness. Everything is connected to everything else. We interact with the objects in order to achieve something. We open the door to go inside a building to do something else. We get in the car to get to a place. We use a hammer to hammer a nail in order to build something. Heidegger called these things equipment, and he called the interconnectedness, the totality of the equipment. The items are in the background to us. We do not pay attention to them. This is how we generally see the world by simply being in the world.

Now let’s say that the general flow of things breaks down for some reason. We picked up the hammer, and it is heavier than we thought and we pay attention to the hammer. We look at the hammer as a subject looking at an object. We start seeing that it has a red handle and a steel head. The hammer is not ready-to-hand anymore. The hammer has become an object and in the foreground. Heidegger called this as present-at-hand. When we really look at something, we realize that we, the subjects, are looking at something, the object. We no longer have the affordances to interact with it in a nonchalant manner. We have to pay attention in order to engage with the object, if needed.

With this background, I turn to observing again. In my view(no pun intended), there are three modes of observing:

  1. No self – similar to ready-to-hand, you just “are” in the world, enacting in the world. You just see things without any thought to self. There is no distinction of self in what you observe. Perhaps, we can refer to this as the zero person or zero order view.
  2. Seeing self – you make a distinction with this. You draw a line between you the subject, and the world out there. The world is out there and you are separate from the world. This is similar to present-at-hand. The world is out there. This is also the first order in First Order Cybernetics.
  3. Seeing self through self/others – Here you are able to see yourself through self or others. You are able to observe yourself observing. This is the second order in Second Order Cybernetics. In this case, the world is in here, within you, as a constructed stable reality.

In the first mode, you are being in the world. Heidegger would call this as “dasein.” In the second mode, you see the world as being outside. And in the third mode, you see the world as being inside. There are no hierarchies here. Each mode is simply just a mode of observing. In the second and third modes, you become aware of others who are like you in the world. In the third mode, you will also start to see how the others view the world since you are looking through others’ eyes. You realize that just as you construct a world, they too construct a world. Just like you have a perspective, they too have a perspective. The different modes of observing lead to a stable reality for us based on our interpretative framework. We cognize a reality by constructing it based on the stable correlations we infer from our being in the world. Sharing this with others lead to a stable societal realm through our communication with others. A community is formed when we share and something common emerges. It is no accident that the word “community” stems from the root word “common.”

When we observe a system, we also automatically stipulate a purpose for it. Systems are not real-world entities, but a means for the observer to make sense of something. We may call a collection of automobiles on the road as the transportation system just so that we can explain the congestion in the traffic. The same transportation system might be entirely different for the construction worker working on the pavement.

We have to go through the different modes of observation to help further our understanding. Seeing through the eyes of others is a practice for empathy. And this is something that we have to continuously practice to get better at. Empathy requires continuous practice.

I will finish with Ernst Mach’s explanation for his drawing:

Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment. My body differs from other human bodies beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head

It was about 1870 that the idea of this drawing was suggested to me by an amusing chance. A certain Mr L., now long dead, whose many eccentricities were redeemed by his truly amiable character, compelled me to read one of C. F. Krause’s writings, in which the following occurs:

“Problem : To carry out the self-inspection of the Ego.

Solution : It is carried out immediately.”

In order to illustrate in a humorous manner this philosophical “much ado about nothing,” and at the same time to shew how the self-inspection of the Ego could be really “carried out,” I embarked on the above drawing. Mr L.’s society was most instructive and stimulating to me, owing to the naivety with which he gave utterance to philosophical notions that are apt to be carefully passed over in silence or involved in obscurity.

This post is also available as a podcast episode – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/View-from-the-Left-Eye–Modes-of-Observing-e1297um

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Stories We Live By:

The Stories We Live By:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of Metanarratives from the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard’s most famous work is The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He presented the term “postmodern” in this book. He defined postmodern as:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.

A metanarrative or a grand narrative is a larger scale narrative that a group of people hold on to, to make sense of how the world is progressing around them. There is a teleological aspect to it such that the “progression” of the society can be explained. Leotard viewed this as a grand narrative of modernity, one where the society is progressing towards a future where all our problems are solved and where we all live happily ever after. The postmodern view distrusts any such grand narratives. The grand narrative is how we find meaning in the world around us.

The New World Encyclopedia defines metanarratives as follows:

Metanarrative or grand narrative or mater narrative is a term developed by Jean-François Lyotard to mean a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values. In this context, the narrative is a story that functions to legitimize power, authority, and social customs. A grand narrative or metanarrative is one that claims to explain various events in history, gives meaning by connecting disperse events and phenomena by appealing to some kind of universal knowledge or schema. The term grand narratives can be applied to a wide range of thoughts which includes Marxism, religious doctrines, belief in progress, universal reason, and others.

Perhaps, it is because the world has grown closer together and more exposed to the different cultures that the postmodernists believe that we have lost faith in the grand narratives. Instead of grand narratives, what we have are localized small narratives that are often intertwined. Lyotard uses the Wittgenstein’s language games to explain this. Wittgenstein noted that the meaning of a word is in how we use the word. The words themselves are invariant; their meanings are not. The words are not fixed labels of things, but something we come together to agree upon while engaged in language games. As Simon Malpas notes:

 Like normal games, there are a variety of language games that may not always have rules in common. For example, in chess there are rules that allow us to move the pieces in certain ways, set out our objectives for victory and make certain moves illegal. In the same way, in science certain types of statement can be made about the world and certain aims and rules are involved in scientific enquiry and experimentation. The success or failure of a given statement is thus determined by how well it works within the rules of the language game in which it occurs.

Located in a multiplicity of language games that no longer follow a single metanarrative, an individual’s identity becomes dispersed… As language games are linked to identity, Lyotard argues that the wider range of different language games that are considered legitimate within society, the more open and pluralist that society can become. The main threat facing postmodern society is the reduction of knowledge to a single system whose only criterion is efficiency… Once the grand narratives have fallen away, we are left only with the diverse range of language games, and the aim of postmodern criticism should be to do justice to them by allowing them to be heard in their own terms.

It is easy to be mesmerized by a grand narrative. This could be a political slogan about making a country great again. It could also be the belief that the whole is always greater than sum of its parts. We might be told that we should be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the whole. These grand narratives often lack the variety to sustain itself. The idea of the whole being greater than some of its parts is often taught in Systems Thinking. This posits the view that there is indeed an objective whole. As David M. Boje notes, a system is a fiction of the whole. The most important piece that is often ignored is the question – to whom? All systems are mental constructs that an observer or a group of observer constructs. The keyword here is the observer. The grand narrative that “the whole is greater” is based on an observer. This does not mean that another observer will see the system identically. To a patient, the healthcare system has specific needs such as affordable healthcare and this may be entirely different than the CEO managing a hospital. If we are able to answer the following questions, then we might be able to better understand the “whole” – who does the summation? From whose perspective is the whole and parts determined? For whose purpose?

Lyotard noted that no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.

The social subject itself seems to dissolve in the dissemination of language games. The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules.

One single grand narrative cannot explain away the multitude of human experiences. Our role as a systems thinker is to welcome the multiple local narratives and engage in the different language games. We should challenge the rules that govern images and narratives. We should understand that the different language games may not always work together. We should welcome pluralism – the idea that multiple perspectives may be equally meaningful and valid.

It may be difficult at first to digest the postmodernist ideas. The realization that there is no singular objective reality may not be easy to accept. This realization however makes us more acceptable to welcome other perspectives of the world, the social realm. Socrates was declared wise by the oracle of Delphi because one thing Socrates knew was that he did not know anything. This type of self-reflection is possible when we give upon the metanarrative of an objective knowledge.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

A podcast version of this post is available here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Stories-We-Live-By-e11uctl

In case you missed it, my last post was Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking:

Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am carrying on some of the ideas from Heidegger. See the last post for more details. I have written about Hermeneutics before here.  Heidegger was a student of the great German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. Husserl pioneered the school of phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of how things appear to us experientially. The objects we experience are the phenomena. As Susan Laverty notes:

Phenomenology is essentially the study of lived experience or the life world (van Manen, 1997). Its emphasis is on the world as lived by a person, not the world or reality as something separate from the person (Valle et al., 1989). This inquiry asks “What is this experience like?” as it attempts to unfold meanings as they are lived in everyday existence. Polkinghorne (1983) identified this focus as trying to understand or comprehend meanings of human experience as it is lived. The ‘life world’ is understood as what we experience pre-reflectively, without resorting to categorization or conceptualization, and quite often includes what is taken for granted or those things that are common sense (Husserl, 1970). The study of these phenomena intends to return and re-examine these taken for granted experiences and perhaps uncover new and/or forgotten meanings.

Husserl taught that to understand things around us, we have to go back to the things themselves. He gave a detailed methodology to make phenomenology happen. He wanted a structured approach just like in science or mathematics. Husserl believed that how we experience things can be affected by our biases about things. So, he proposed that we “bracket” our presuppositions, biases etc. and approach the thing at hand. This suspension of our presuppositions is a phenomenological reduction. It is said that Husserl would spend days with his class analyzing a trivial object such as a mailbox. His version of phenomenology was free of social, cultural and historical “grasps” on the object. The object was a standalone entity waiting to be experienced, and through this experience an understanding of the entity was possible. He suggested with his method, we are able to come to a descriptive presentation of the phenomena.

Heidegger, as Husserl’s student was very taken by the idea of phenomenology. However, Heidegger realized that we cannot be separated from our presuppositions. We can understand existence only through our existing; the way we are. Heidegger realized that the experience of a phenomenon is a personal activity, and therefore we may come up with multiple descriptions of the phenomenon. Most importantly, the process of coming up with a description is an interpretive process. We make sense of the phenomenon as an interpretive process. Heidegger’s version of phenomenology is thus termed as “hermeneutic phenomenology”, whereas Husserl’s version is termed as “transcendental phenomenology”. Heidegger realized that the knowledge we achieve at any point in time is incomplete, and is contingent on our existence at that point in time. Our relationship to the phenomenon is affected by who we are, where we are, when we are and how we are experiencing the phenomenon.

A key point in hermeneutics is the hermeneutic circle. This circle is actually a recursion. Hermeneutics is generally associated with interpreting a text. Generally, when we start to read a part of the text, we get an idea of what the whole of the text stands for. As we get more into the text, we get a better understanding of the part, which helps with a better understanding of the whole text, and so on. This can be viewed as a recursive function. The uniqueness of our worldview comes from the recursive nature of our experiential living. We keep updating our worldview based on the current worldview which is impacted by our past worldview. And round and round we go.

Heidegger’s view that we cannot assume freedom from our presuppositions is an important thing to keep in mind in Systems Thinking. This reaffirms the idea that we are not able to experience a singularly objective reality. Reality is multidimensional, and have many variations contingent on many social factors. The circularity of hermeneutics is explained well by M. N. Babu:

The most important consequence of the circularity of understanding for hermeneutics that there is no pure starting point for understanding because every act of understanding takes place within a finite historically conditioned horizon, within an already understood frame of reference. It is no longer a question of how we are to enter the hermeneutical circle, because human consciousness is always already in it. We understand only by constant reference to what we have already understood, namely, our past and anticipated experience. The experiencing and reflecting subject is never a tabula rasa upon which the understanding of raw experience inscribes its objective character, rather, all experience and reflection are the result of a confrontation between one’s pre-understanding or even prejudice and new or perhaps strange objects. The inevitable presence of pre-understanding or prejudice is not necessarily the distortion of the meaning of an object by an arbitrary subject, rather, it is the very condition for any understanding of all. Heidegger, however, contends that presuppositions are the very condition for any reception of the object whatsoever. His notions of the ontological character of understanding and the primordial connection of subject and object in their pre- understanding and the primordial connection of subject and object in their pre-reflective relational whole provides the foundation for this contention. For him, all interpretation is a derivative form of a prior understanding, in which the prior relationship between subject and object is brought to explication.

How does one proceed when we realize that we cannot be free of our presuppositions? Heidegger advises that we need to get into the circle in the right way. Hans-Georg Gadamer provides clarity on this. As Jean Grondin notes:

Gadamer takes up Heidegger’s suggestion that the important thing is to get into the circle in the right way, but for him this mainly means that the “prejudiced” nature of our understanding should be recognized as that which makes understanding possible in the first place. This is what he calls the “ontological” and positive aspect of the hermeneutical circle. He emphasizes the ontological nature of the circle to fight against the false ideal of a presupposition‐less type of knowledge which would have been imposed upon the humanities by the objectivity requirement of exact science. His aim in highlighting the hermeneutical circle is to liberate the humanities from this alienating model. But does this mean that all presuppositions, prejudices, and anticipations are valid? Obviously not, since this would call into question the very idea of truth, which a book entitled Truth and Method surely wants to defend. Gadamer does maintain the distinction between adequate and inadequate anticipations. According to his best account of this key critical difference, it is through temporal distance and the work of history that we are able to make this distinction.

The most important thing in the process of making sense of a phenomenon is to understand the context. If the context is not understood, we fall into the trap of relativism. Relativism is the idea that all views are equally valid. A better nuanced version of this is pluralism. Pluralism is the idea that there are multiple views of a phenomenon that are different but equally valid. The difference between pluralism and relativism is in understanding the context. As we have been discussing, this understanding requires hermeneutical phenomenology. When we are aware that our understanding is always incomplete and imperfect, we are more open to going through the self-correcting hermeneutic cycle. We are open to challenge what we think we know, and we welcome scrutiny of our ideas. We put our assumptions open for all to see. Rather than being stuck with the realization that our views are imperfect and incomplete, we learn to cope with the world.

The great Systems Thinker, C. West Churchman said that the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.

We can only know things in terms of things we already know. From this standpoint, when we are looking at a new phenomenon, we have to look at it in terms of things we already know. If we are looking at a social “system”, then we have to always start from things that are common. The basis of all that is common in a social realm is the humanity in us all, and that is a good place to start. This is my takeaway from Churchman’s advice.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

The Being-Question in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Being-question from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is a philosopher I put off studying mainly because he was a Nazi sympathizer. His ideas are said to be of utmost importance for the twentieth century and he influenced many of the post-modern philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty etc. Heidegger’s main philosophical work is “Being and Time”.

At that time, the prevalent view about how we view the world was based on the distinction between the subject and the object. The subject, let’s say an observer, is able to stand outside and observe the world. The world is independent of the observer. The observer is able to study the world and using their rational mind to come to meaningful conclusions. This view was made famous by the French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes emphasized the difference between the subject and the object. The observer themselves are not part of the observation. What is observed (the object) is part of an objective reality that is readily accessible to everyone. From this standpoint, we come to see systems as physical entities of the world that is waiting there to be objectively observed and understood by everyone.

Heidegger wanted to turn this view upside down. He viewed the idea of trying to prove an objective reality as a scandalous activity. He did not deny the subject and the object. However, he viewed the subject as being a part of the world; an embedded being in the world. Heidegger thought that the question of “what exists?” is a useless activity. He realized that the question – “what does it mean to be existing?” was more meaningful.

Michael Gelven, who authored one of the most accessible books on Heidegger notes:

Descartes not only asks whether such a thing as material substance exists, he actually tells us what it means for such a thing to exist: if it takes up space it is a material thing that exists. Heidegger, however, argues there is an even more fundamental question that can be asked: What does it mean to exist at all?  The question is not whether something does exist or how to characterize the existence of particular kinds of things, like material things or mental things, but simply to ask about the very meaning of Being.

To ask what it means to exist or simply to be is to engage in the most fundamental kind of questioning possible. Heidegger calls this die Frage nach den Sinn von Sein, “to question what it means to be,” or simply, “the Being-question.”

Here the word “Being” is capitalized to reflect how it was written by Heidegger and it does not stand for a Supreme Being. The Being is basically us in the world interacting with the world.

Gelven gives a great example to further the idea of the “Being-question”:

Suppose I ask “What is a jail? ” You answer, “The jail is that red-brick building down the street with bars on the windows and locks on the cells. ” In this case, the question is about an entity, and the answer provides one with characteristics that describe or identify the entity. Suppose I ask, “What does it mean to be in jail? ” In response, you say, “To be in jail is to be guilty of a crime and to be punished for it by suffering the loss of liberty. To be in jail thus is to be punished, to feel reprimanded, to suffer, possibly to be afraid, to be lonely, to feel outcast, etc. ” The second question is answered by reference to what it means to exist in various ways, such as being guilty or being unfree. The question What is a jail? is answered by the description of other entities, bars in the windows, locks, unsavory patrons; but the question of the meaning of anything is answered by reference to other meanings. In this we simply recognize there must be a parallel between the kind of question asked and the kind of answers given.

But suppose I press this distinction and ask Which question is prior? A moment’s reflection will assure us that what it means to be in jail is the reason or the ground for the jail being built the way it is. In other words, what it means to be in jail is prior to what kind of thing a jail is, for the meaning determines the entity. If I understand what it means to be in jail, I will know what is required to make a jail. So, in the formal sense of what explains what, meaning precedes entity. The inquiry into what it means to be in jail is not only different from the question about what kind of thing is a jail, it is also prior to it, for the meaning ultimately explains the entity.

The problem with believing that there is an objective reality ready for everyone to access is that we take others for granted and also view them as part of the “objective” reality. We don’t realize that most of what we see and believe are contingent on our past experiences, biases, worldviews etc. These are not necessities. It would be a categorical error to assume that the conditions of contingencies are actually conditions of necessities. An easy way to explain the difference between contingency and necessity is to think of a red triangle. The color “red” is contingent on the direction I gave you. I could have said blue instead of red or any other color for that matter. However, it is necessary that you have three sides to the triangle. You cannot have two sides or four sides for the triangle since then it ceases to be a triangle.

When we assume that systems are physical entities of the world, we fall into the categorical error. We bring in our biases and worldviews and impose them on others. Similar to the jail example above, if we simply ask “what is a hospital and how can we improve the hospital?”, we get answers that go nowhere. If instead, we try to ask the question – “what is it like to be a patient in the hospital?”, and try to see this from another person’s viewpoint, we might be able to make some headway. The world as we see it, is our construction of our being in the world. We are in a social realm, and we cope with the world by being part of it, rather than being apart from it.

Gelven also gives another example:

I ask: What is the mind? This question is the traditional metaphysical one; it asks for classification and identification. I also ask: Do I have a mind that is anything more than the physical brain? Here the question is one of whether something exists. Let us now re-ask this all-important question in terms of Heidegger’s revolution. What kind of question could we ask? What does it mean to think? Notice what happens when we rephrase the question in this way. By asking What does it mean to think? I avoid completely the metaphysical questions of whether something exists or what kind of thing it is. Yet, at the same time, the question probes just as deeply into what I want to know.

How we are in the world depends on our affordances to be in this world. As the great Cybernetician/Enactivist Francesco Varela pointed out – Our cognition is directed toward the world in a certain way: it is directed toward the world as we experience it. For example, we perceive the world to be three/ dimensional, macroscopic, colored, etc.: we do not perceive it as composed of subatomic particles. To this, I will also add Cybernetician Bruce Clarke’s quote- We still have a hard time taking for real that all knowledge of the environment depends upon the specific realities of the systems that observe it. The systemic reality of the environment is to be both the precondition and the product of an observing system.

The next time when someone asks you to improve the system, remember to use the Being-question. I will finish with a quote from Heidegger:

In order to be who we are, we human beings remain committed to and within the being of language, and can never step out of it and look at it from somewhere else. Thus, we always see the nature of language only to the extent to which language itself has us in view, has appropriated us to itself. That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition as representation—is not a defect, however, but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm, that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language, dwell as mortals.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Round and Round We Go: