Affording What’s In Your Head:

In today’s post I am looking at the idea of “affordances”. This term is attributed to the famous American psychologist, James J Gibson. A loose explanation of affordances is something that offers ‘action possibilities’ or ‘information possibilities’. For example, a seat with its solid and flat surface affords sitting. It also affords standing on it. Gibson explains:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

Gibson was making it very clear that affordances are not exclusively the properties of something. They are the possibilities that are perceived by a user. What is perceived constitutes the affordances. His view was that values and meanings of things in environment can be directly perceived. He did not put the liability for the affordance solely on the object, nor did he put it solely on the observer. He put it instead right in the middle.

An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often supposed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental. But, actually, an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer. 

Gibson expands on the example of the seat:

If a surface of support with the four properties (horizontal, flat, extended, and rigid) is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on… We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning. 

I enjoyed Gibson’s explanation of a seat in terms of affordances. This is something that I have looked at in the past to discuss the Socratic Method. Socrates was famous for cornering a student by asking for a definition of something such as a seat. For every answer or example that the student gives, Socrates would give a counter that would perplex the student. Gibson, it seems like, would have given the excellent answer – a seat is anything that affords sitting.

Gibson’s ideas were put forth against the prevalent ideas at that time such as mind/body dualism or subject/object dualism. Gibson realized that there is a circularity between the subject and the object. The affordances are not merely properties of the object, nor are they just imaginations of the subject. The affordances lie in relation to each other. They represent the possibilities for the future. They are future oriented, situated in the present, and based on the past. Gibson building upon the ideas of affordances defines niche as a set of affordances. He differentiates niche from habitat.

A species of animal is said to utilize or occupy a certain niche in the environment. This is not quite the same as the habitat of the species; a niche refers more to how an animal lives than to where it lives. I suggest that a niche is a set of affordances… The natural environment offers many ways of life, and different animals have different ways of life. The niche implies a kind of animal, and the animal implies a kind of niche. Note the complementarity of the two.

This brings up an interesting point that when we look at an environment, it must be from someone’s viewpoint. Similarly, when we look at an agent, it must be in relation to their environment. The agent is situated in the environment; they are defined by their environment. The environment in turn is affected/molded by the agent. When we describe an environment, we are describing the affordances it offers with respect to a species, most often us since we are the ones describing it.

There is a history between the agent and the environment. The agent’s actions and inactions are defined by their niche. The agent perceives the affordance because those affordances worked in the past. This regularity of the environment is quite similar to the idea of structural coupling in cybernetics. The structure of the organism and the perturbations from the environment results in a set of interactions. As Maturana noted – “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems.”

Gibson used the example of a baby to expand on these ideas further. He postulated that a baby does not notice the properties of an object. What it notices is the actionable features, the affordances. There is a nice Heideggerian undertone here. Heidegger talked about the idea of readiness-to-hand. When we engage with an object such as a hammer, we just use the hammer without paying attention to the color of the handle or the material of the handle etc. The hammer is ready-to-hand, and we use it for a specific purpose without the payment of our attention to it. What we notice is the action possibility of the hammer, and not the hammer itself.

There is much evidence to show that the infant does not begin by first discriminating the qualities of objects and then learning the combinations of qualities that specify them. Phenomenal objects are not built up of qualities; it is the other way around. The affordance of an object is what the infant begins by noticing. The meaning is observed before the substance and surface, the color and form, are seen as such. An affordance is an invariant combination of variables, and one might guess that it is easier to perceive such an invariant unit than it is to perceive all the variables separately. It is never necessary to distinguish all the features of an object and, in fact, it would be impossible to do so. Perception is economical. “Those features of a thing are noticed which distinguish it from other things that it is not—but not all the features that distinguish it from everything that it is not”.

From a cybernetics viewpoint, the environment always has more variety than us. This means that an object in the environment can have multiple uses. A seat in our previous example, can be used for sitting as well as for standing. It could be used also as firewood if it is made of wood. Another point is that the environment as we define it with respect to its affordances is incomplete. It still has an indefinite number of niches that are not yet occupied. The external variety is always higher!

There are all kinds of nutrients in the world and all sorts of ways of getting food; all sorts of shelters or hiding places, such as holes, crevices, and caves; all sorts of materials for making shelters, nests, mounds, huts; all kinds of locomotion that the environment makes possible, such as swimming, crawling, walking, climbing, flying. These offerings have been taken advantage of; the niches have been occupied. But, for all we know, there may be many offerings of the environment that have not been taken advantage of, that is, niches not yet occupied. 

I will finish with a great note from William M. Mace:

Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head is inside of. – Mace

 Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Reality for a cybernetician:

Reality for a cybernetician:

I am writing this post after a short break. My topic for the post is “reality”. I have always been fascinated with the idea of ontology in philosophy. It is loosely described as the study of existence or reality and it comes under metaphysics in philosophy. I have written about it many times before and it seems that there are always more and more nuances regarding it. I have come to see myself as a cybernetician, so today’s post is about reality for a cybernetician.

Another philosophical term that is thrown around a lot is epistemology, or the study of knowledge. I see ontology intertwined with epistemology. As a cybernetician, I see the existence of circularity between the two. Ontology, the study of reality, has a circular relationship with epistemology, the study of knowledge. Why is this the case? As a cybernetician, I am of the view that reality is constructed. When you construct something, you construct using what you already know. The more you construct, the more you know about “stuff” that you can use for better construction. The better results the construction yield, the more you make note of the “stuff” used for construction. This idea of better results is termed as “viability” in cybernetics. The emphasis in cybernetics is for viability, and not for truths. Truth is something that does not make a lot of sense. To say that one has access to truths, it would mean that one has access to an unadulterated objective world out there. As the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster (HvF) put it, “Truth is the invention of a liar”. Does this mean that I can simply make statements such as “I can fly” or “I am invisible”? The answer to this goes back to viability. Does the statement, “I can fly” yield a successful result when I jump of a cliff? Of course, not. A student of philosophy can see that cybernetics has links to pragmatism and postmodernism.

Reality for a cybernetician is based on an observer. It is a description that is made by an observer. To say that this is objective means that the description is independent of the observer. In other words, the description has no relationship to the describer. We live in a human world, not a feline or canine world. Our human world is a stable construction built in a social realm, where you and I can sustain viable existences. Our world is based on what as a human can see, or hear, or taste or feel or any of the other sensory experiences. If we cannot experience, then we cannot construct. Our knowledge is experiential knowledge and our reality is experiential reality. As Detlef Lafrentz beautifully put it:

If the observer’s characteristics are supposed to be excluded, then so too should his capacity to describe be set aside. But description is precisely what an observer does… Every observation first says something about the observer him- or herself. Anyone who claims to speak the truth says something about himself but not about the truth. That is the meaning of HvF’s sentence: “Truth is the invention of a liar… each person calculates his/her own world. This entails that human perception is not a depiction of reality but instead created out of one’s own inner resources. The biology of human perception shows that a large part of what we perceive has nothing to do with what is happening “out there”. HvF is not saying there is no world “out there”, only that we don’t know what it looks like. The observer would do well to be aware of that.

When I have had interactions online regarding these ideas, one of the pushbacks I have received is that this leads to solipsism. If the reality is constructed, then does that mean that reality is entirely in the mind? Of course not. Does this mean that reality is entirely independent of the mind? Of course, not either. The reality that we spoke of is a human reality. One cannot speak of an objective reality. This does not mean that reality is entirely subjective either. This would be similar the solipsistic idealist viewpoint. The notion of ontology without epistemology, and epistemology without ontology is nonsensical. As a human being living in a social realm, our reality is purely based on what our interpretative frameworks can afford. This framework gets corrected and “upgraded” or modified to continue the suitability of it to support the viability notion that we spoke of earlier. One paradoxical idea in this regard is that the reality for each of us is unique to us and cannot be shared with one another. However, it is entirely based on our relationship with one another. The language that we use is public and the values that we align ourselves to are also based on this social realm. The idea of “I” needs an “us”. We are situated in this world, in this time and in this culture. And this has a tremendous influence on who we are. This situatedness of the world is a given, but the world itself is not. The static nature (stability) comes from the dynamic nature of our relationships with our environment and the other co-constructors. As I had noted before, a seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals. The stability comes from continued successes that are assigned a desirableness leading to a structural coupling between the interacting elements.

If we do not engage in the construction, then our reality gets constructed for us as part of others constructing their own versions of reality. We get stuck and our purpose in life gets written for us. If we do not choose to throw ourselves into our bright futures, we get pushed into a corner. As Carl Jung put it neatly, “the world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.” We are responsible for our construction of the reality. The flipside of this is that it is also our responsibility that we ensure that others have the freedom to construct theirs.

I will finish with some beautiful words from Simone de Beauvoir:

Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning. 

 Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Ashby’s Trowel:

Ashby’s Trowel:

In today’s post, I am looking at a concept that I am referring to as Ashby’s trowel. The premise of this idea is very simple – context matters! I will start off the discussion using the very well-known heuristic of Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor, named after the 14th century English Franciscan friar, William of Occam. This is commonly described as – entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. In other words, explanations should only have the necessary number of assumptions. Very often this is incorrectly presented as a call to seek simplicity. As a cybernetician, I can tell you that simplicity is overrated.

The idea of a philosophical razor is that it can be used to remove the unwanted things by slicing the unwanted assumptions away from the model. Occam’s razor is the most famous of the many philosophical razors. In medicine, Occam’s razor is often contrasted with Hickam’s dictum. Hickam’s dictum is named after the twentieth century American physician, John Hickam. It is described as – patients can have as many diseases as they damn (or darn) well please. So, if an elderly patient complains of several ailments, Hickam would advise that we trust the patient and try to treat several likable diseases instead of assuming that the different ailments are resulting from one single disease. This heuristic is meaningful when the patient is elderly, is on multiple medications, and if the ailments started at different times. In other words, simplicity is overrated when dealing with a complex situation as our human bodies, especially when tackled with age and side effects of many different medications.

A trowel is a tool used by a mason to add and to remove mortar as needed so that a clean level surface is achieved. With Ashby’s trowel, I am putting forth the reminder that the solution that you are seeking should have enough complexity to match the complexity of the problem that you are seeking to solve. Ashby presented this as his law of Requisite Variety – only variety can absorb variety. Here variety refers to the number of possible states of a “system” conjured up (constructed) by an observer. If we take the example of a light switch, it generally has two states – ON and OFF. Thus, its variety is 2. The external variety is always more than the internal variety. In the case of a light switch, the user’s variety of needing something ON and OFF when they want, can be easily met by the light switch. But now consider if the user wants to dim the lighting with the switch. The variety of ON and OFF cannot meet this new demand that is added by the user. The Engineer now has to come up with a dimmer switch that has indefinite variety between its LOW and HIGH setting.

When we have a problem, we are often reminded to go for simple solutions. This may be a good heuristic to hold on to, however this should not be the law. One of the problems with seeking simple solutions is that we stop searching for more solutions once we get to a “simple” solution. This is referred to as the “satisfaction of search.”

From the cybernetics standpoint, simplicity and complexity also depend upon who is doing the observing. What is simple to you may be complicated for me, and vice versa. The more meaningful heuristic to have is Ashby’s trowel – context matters, so we have to match the complexity.

I welcome the reader to look into this more –

I will finish with a wise quote that is very much aligned to Ashby’s trowel, from one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume – If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

HvF’s Ethical Imperative:

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you” – Carl Jung

In today’s post, I am looking at Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. He explained this as follows – ‘I shall act always so as to increase the total number of choices’. This might seem as a strange choice of words. I will try to explain my understanding of this based on constructivism and existentialism. HvF believed that we construct our stable experiential reality based on our historical interactions with our environment in an autonomous manner. Our ongoing interactions lend stability to our experiences that we can identify as “tokens” for objects. This gives us the ability to recall an object in the external world.

From a social realm standpoint, this goes further in that we identify the “self” and the “others” based on this. We differentiate ourselves from the others, and yet see ourselves as being a part with the others in the social realm. We learn how to act in this realm based on our dynamic interactions, and in turn we also teach others how to interact with us. From this standpoint, we realize that there is no objective reality out there. There is no objectivity in this realm. As HvF noted, Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.

We are meaning making entities. Our nervous systems are actively engaged in making meanings based on the perturbations in our environment. In addition to this, we have evolved to predict what is going to happen based on the current state of our nervous sytem. For example, right now, as you are reading this, you are already trying to predict where this is going. The problem with being a meaning-seeking entity is that we start to believe that there is a meaning to all this, that there is a meaning out there to begin with. We have to realize that there is no meaning to things, other than the ones that we create. In the same vein, there is no purpose to things or ourselves that we do not assign. It is our responsibility to assign our own purpose as autonomous entities. We are responsible to ensure that we support the autonomy of others in our social realm to do the same.

All this can be further explained by the ideas of existentialism. The main tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that we create a meaning for ourselves. There is no meaning that is assigned to us from an a priori standpoint. There is no human essence out there, and we are not copies of an ideal human. We exist first and only then do we create meaning for ourselves. One of the interesting aspects of existentialism is that we are condemned to be free. This means that we are responsible for our own actions as well as inactions; that we are always free to choose our actions. We cannot point to an external supernatural entity for our morals. We cannot pass our responsibility to act or not act to another individual. We are always free to choose how we act.

To be free is part of who we are. This also means that any action from us to take this away from other human beings is inhuman. Freedom should beget more freedom. Existentialism talks about facticity and transcendence. Facticity represents the constraints that we are embedded in. These are the “givens”. For example, I am a male, and I currently live in the year 2022. These are facts that I cannot change. Transcendence is when we do not allow facticity to define our future selves. This would mean that we are not bound to our current selves, and we should not use this as an excuse to not do what we want to do. For example, I could write a bestseller book, but I am not going to do that right now because I am busy with work. Very loosely put, transcendence is about the future, while facticity is about the past and the present.

With all of this background, let’s revisit HvF’s ethical imperative. HvF is not saying that we should increase options for the sake of increasing options. His choice of word is “choices”. This implies that the entity is able to make decisions. He is also saying that I should act to increase the number of available choices. The current set of choices are tied to our facticity. They could be assigned to us by someone else who is not interested in our autonomy or freedom. Following the current set of choices would only reinforce our facticity. However, increasing the number of choices implies transcendence, our future choices. Increasing the number of choices is about giving the responsibility for ourselves and others the ability to make choices, and to also allow conditions for transcendence. Freedom should beget more freedom. HvF’s ethical imperative looks into the future to make more connections and possibilities. We cannot assign purposes and force our choices on other people. This is an important reminder for our current state of affairs based on the possibility that Roe. V. Wade could be overturned in the United States. In the light of existentialism, HvF’s ethical imperative means that we should be the ones making meaning/purpose for our lives, and at the same time, we should strive to allow others to do the same. Our freedom is defined by the freedom of others because we are always embedded in a social realm. Our self is identified and defined in terms of others.

HvF’s ethical imperative means that we cannot pass our responsibility and say that we had no other choice or that our hands are tied due to our facticity. It is our responsibility to cultivate transcendence for ourselves as well as others. HvF put this beautifully as “A is better off, when B is better off.” “What other choice do I have?” can be the cop-out question or the most important question one could ask. One is decidable and the other is undecidable. HvF explained a decidable question as one for which the answer is already known. For example, “what is 4 + 4?” An undecidable question is one for which we have to decide an answer. For example, “what is the meaning of my life?” HvF’s ethical imperative advises us to treat undecidable questions as undecidable questions, rather than pretending that they are decidable questions. HvF said that – Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

Another aspect to HvF’s ethical imperative was that we can get into problems where we get entrapped in our own constructions of false dichotomies and other semantic traps. We might be assuming that there are only two answers or that one is true and the other one is false. These are our own makings of semantic traps that we fall into it. He advises us in this case to “Always think. Isn’t there something new?”

I will finish with HvF’s own words explaining his ethical imperative. HvF was responding to the comment that the children growing up in a sectarian community will obviously absorb its reality.

This is possible, no doubt. On the other hand, I remain convinced that these people, these individuals, can always opt out of such a network and escape from the sectarian system. They have this freedom, I would claim, but they are all too often completely unable to actually see it. They are blind to their own blindness and do not see that they do not see; they are incapable of realizing that there are still possibilities for action. They have created their blind spot and are frozen in their everyday mechanisms and think there is no way out. The uncanny thing, actually, is that sects and dictators always manage to make actually existing freedom invisible for some time. All of a sudden, citizens become zombies or Nazis committing themselves to condemning freedom and responsibility by saying: “I was ordered to kill these people, I had no choice! I merely executed orders!” Even in such a situation, it is obviously possible to refuse. It would be a great decision, possibly leading to one’s own death but still an act of incredible quality: “No, I will not do it. I will not kill anyone!” In brief, it is my view that freedom always exists. At each and every moment, I can decide who I am. Moreover, in order to render, and keep, this visible I have been pleading for a form of education and communality that does not restrict or impede the visibility of freedom and the multitude of opportunities but actively supports them. My ethical imperative is, therefore: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”

It is certainly not my contention that the invention of realities is completely arbitrary and willful and would allow me to see the sky blue at first, then green, and after opening my eyes again, not at all. Of course, every human being is tied into a social network, no individual is an isolated wonder phenomenon but dependent on others and must – to say it metaphorically – dance with others and construct reality through communality. The embedding into a social network necessarily leads to a reduction of arbitrariness through communality; however, it does not at all change the essentially given freedom. We make appointments, identify with others and invent common worlds – which one may give up again. The kinds of dance one chooses along this way may be infinitely variable.

True to his imperative, HvF later reworded the statement:

I once said, “Act always as to increase the number of choices.” That is my ethical imperative, although once again one might have the impression that I am trying to order people around, and this is just not right. I didn’t choose my words very carefully when I said that. It would have been better if I had written, “Heinz, act always as to increase the number of choices”.

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Maturana’s Aesthetic Seduction:

Maturana’s Aesthetic Seduction:

In today’s post, I am looking at the great cybernetician Humberto Maturana’s idea of “aesthetic seduction”. Maturana was an important biologist who was one of the creators of autopoiesis. I have written about it previously. He challenged the prevalent notion at that time that our nervous system takes in information from the environment. He proposed that our nervous system is closed. This means that there is no input of information coming in from the environment. Instead, the nervous system is reading itself. When the nervous system is perturbed by the environment, it goes through a structural change based on its current state, and this transformation is what is read by the nervous system. The perception or experience of the red color is a result of our closed nervous framework, rather than the result of the rose’s petals. The information is generated within itself. We are not information processing machines, and there is no input-output business going on. As Raf Vanderstraeten notes:

the central premise of Autopoiesis and Cognition is that systems are informationally closed. Thus, no information crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment. We do not see a world “out there” that exists apart from us. Rather, we see only what our systemic organization allows us to see. The world merely irritates; it triggers changes determined by the system’s own organization. The world cannot instruct an observing system; the world rather is constructed by the observing system. Only a closed system is able to know (the world).

As one can imagine, such an idea may seem rather strange or being “out there”. Maturana spoke of aesthetic seduction with regards to convincing others of his ideas. His stand was that he should not try to convince anyone. He wanted his ideas to speak for themselves and he wanted the beauty of his ideas to invite the readers. This is the beauty of aesthetic seduction (no pun intended). He noted:

The idea of aesthetic seduction is based on the insight that people enjoy beauty. We call something beautiful when the circumstances we find ourselves in make us feel good. Judging something as ugly and unpleasant, on the other hand, indicates displeasure because we are aware of the difference to our views of what is agreeable and pleasant. The aesthetic is harmony and pleasure, the enjoyment of what is given to us. An attractive view transforms us. A beautiful picture makes us look at it again and again, enjoy its color scheme, photograph it, perhaps even buy it. The relationship with a picture may transform the life of people because the picture has become a source of aesthetic experience.

He pointed out that there is no manipulation involved here. He really wanted the readers to enjoy the presented ideas.

I certainly never intend to seduce or persuade people in a manipulative way. Beauty would vanish if I tried to seduce in this way. Any attempt to persuade applies pressure and destroys the possibility of listening. Pressure creates resentment. Wanting to manipulate people stimulates resistance. Manipulation means exploiting our relation with other people in such a way as to give them the impression that whatever happens is beneficial and advantageous for them. But the resulting actions of the manipulated person are, in fact, useful for the manipulator. Manipulation, therefore, really means cheating people.

Maturana advises us to be respectful and engage in open conversations. Our nervous systems may be closed, but that does not mean that our minds should be too.

The only thing left to me in the way of aesthetic seduction is just to be what I am, wholly and entirely, and to admit no discrepancy whatsoever between what I am saying and what I am doing. Of course, this does not at all exclude some jumping about and playacting during a lecture. But not in order to persuade or to seduce but in order to generate the experiences that produce and make manifest what I am talking about. The persons becoming acquainted with me in this way can then decide for themselves whether they want to accept what they see before them. Only when there is no discrepancy between what is said and what is done, when there is no pretense and no pressure, aesthetic seduction may unfold. In such a situation, the people listening and debating will feel accepted to such an extent as to be able to present themselves in an uninhibited and pleasurable manner. They are not attacked, they are not forced to do things, and they can show themselves as they are, because someone else is presenting himself naked and unprotected. Such behavior is always seductive in a respectful way because all questions and fears suddenly become legitimate and completely new possibilities of encountering one another emerge.

Maturana’s words are so beautiful that I am not going to add further to it. I will leave with his words on not wanting to convince others of his ideas:

I never attempt to convince anyone. Some people become annoyed when they are confronted with my considerations. That is perfectly okay. I would never try to correct their views and then force my own ideas upon them.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was A Constructivist’s View of POSIWID:

Systems in Quotes vs. Systems Without Quotes:

Humberto Maturana is one of my favorite authors who has helped me further my learning of cybernetics. Sadly, he passed away recently. In today’s post, I am inspired by Maturana’s ideas. One of Maturana’s famous ideas is “autopoiesis.” I have written about this here. A closely related idea from Maturana is the difference between objectivity without parentheses and objectivity in parentheses. He explains this as follows:

There are two distinct attitudes, two paths of thinking and explaining. The first path I call objectivity without parentheses It takes for granted the observer-independent existence of objects that – it is claimed – can be known; it believes in the possibility of an external validation of statements. Such a validation would lend authority and unconditional legitimacy to what is claimed and would, therefore, aim at subjection. It entails the negation of all those who are not prepared to agree with the “objective” facts. One does not want to listen to them or try to understand them. The fundamental emotion reigning here is powered by the authority of universally valid knowledge. One lives in the domain of mutually exclusive transcendental ontologies: each ontology supposedly grasps objective reality; what exists seems independent from one’s personality and one’s actions.

The other attitude I call objectivity in parentheses; its emotional basis is the enjoyment of the company of other human beings. The question of the observer is accepted fully, and every attempt is made to answer it. The distinction between objects and the experience of existence is, according to this path, not denied but the reference to objects is not the basis of explanations, it is the coherence of experiences with other experiences that constitutes the foundation of all explanation. In this view, the observer becomes the origin of all realities; all realities are created through the observer’s operations of distinction. We have entered the domain of constitutive ontologies: all Being is constituted through the Doing of observers. If we follow this path of explanation, we become aware that we can in no way claim to be in possession of the truth but that there are numerous possible realities. Each of them is fully legitimate and valid although, of course, not equally desirable. If we follow this path of explanation, we cannot demand the subjection of our fellow human beings but will listen to them, seek cooperation and communication, and will try to find out under what circumstances we would consider to be valid what they are saying. Consequently, some claim will be true if it satisfies the criteria of validation of the relevant domain of reality.

Maturana is a proponent of objectivity in parentheses. Maturana teaches us that it is impossible to establish an observer-independent point of reference. Everything said is said by an observer. He agrees that there seem to be objects independent of us. The use of parentheses is to acknowledge this – to signal a certain state of awareness. In other words, we do not discover reality, but we invent a reality. We construct an experiential version of reality that is accessible to our interpretative framework. This is a version that is built through a circular causal loop between us and our environment in which we are embedded in. We are embodied minds embedded in our world, and not bodies with minds separated from the world. The latter view represents objectivity without parentheses.

Our version of reality becomes stable from our history of interactions with our environment. The environment contains everything outside our closed interpretative framework. This includes other beings also. The history of interactions provides us an opportunity to generate correlations that we can assign meanings to. For example, as a child, we learn that crying generally leads to situations where we can find comfort in the form of food, attention etc. However, as we grow older, most of us have to relearn that crying does not lead to comfort. We have to try other means to get what we need – learning to speak a common language. There is an error correction that goes on in the social realm where we can find commonalities in the realities that we construct. However, this can also lead to clans and tribes, where as a group we isolate from other clans and tribes with opposing ideas. An important point to be made at this juncture is that the success of the constructed reality is based simply on viability of the construction. If the constructed reality continues to stay viable over time, then it has merit. There is no external point of reference utilized here. There is no external authority who decrees what is right and wrong, or what is moral or immoral. The only way we would be willing to change the construction is if we realize that it is no longer viable based on either an internal reference point or when something happens in our environment that challenges our survival altogether. The first case is where we have to change our internal structure. This could be based on a perturbation from outside such as conversing with a person with an opposing view or reading a book that presents a powerful argument that challenges our paradigm. The second case is where our organization itself gets changed, and we cease to exist.

Systems in Quotes:

The more I have learned about cybernetics, especially second order cybernetics and the works of thinkers such as Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana, the more I start to question the use of “systems”. The word “system” is used in many ways to represent many things. Sometimes it could be the biological system (our body); sometimes it could be the education system; sometimes it could be the network system; on and on. To use a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, “This word has been so stretched and has taken on so broad a meaning that it no longer means anything at all.” Sartre was talking about existentialism. But I think it is quite suitable here. My statement might come across as quite irrational to some of the readers. Please bear with me as I try to explain my view. There is after all nothing rational about the complexity of what we try to represent with the word “system”. The “system” could mean different things to different people. It all depends on who is doing the description. Let’s take the example of an organization. It is quite common for management consultants to say we need to learn to change the “system” or fix the “system”. Or we should not blame the “system”. The emphasis here is that the “system” is something that we can change or it is something real that we can fix. As I have pointed out often here on the blog, my view is that “systems” are mental constructs used to make sense of the world around us. It is a construction of the observer, and they decide what all parts go within the boundary, and where the boundary of the “system” is drawn. There is nothing objective about a “system”. “Systems” are part of the experiential reality of the observer. Since we are informationally closed, we cannot share this experiential reality.

When I talk about “systems”, in the spirit of Maturana, I am differentiating between Systems in quotes, and systems without quotes. If we replace the word “objectivity” with “system”, and “parentheses” with “quotes” in Maturana’s explanation, perhaps my position would become clearer. My concern with not using quotes is that we are removing the observer from the observation; the describer from the description. To put it in other words – a cat doesn’t know that it is a cat. The distinguishing characteristics come from the distinguisher than the distinguished. In the case of an organization, if we are going to blame the “system”, where will we start? The assumption is that we all know what we mean by the “system” here. The first step in systems thinking is to try to view the world from the other person’s viewpoint. This is part of understanding the boundaries and how the other person views the world. In other words, we are looking for actively perturbing our closed interpretative framework. We are looking to actively engage to change our minds. How often do we do this? Is this what the consultants look to do when they talk about fixing the “system”? Maturana follows up on his objectivity in parentheses idea that I find is quite apt here:

They might – possibly – follow the path of objectivity in parentheses and, therefore, be capable of reflection: They would respect differences, would not claim to be the sole possessors of truth, and would enjoy the company of others. In the process of living together, they would produce different cultures. Consequently, the number of possible realities may seem potentially infinite but their diversity is constrained by communal living, by cultures and histories created together, by shared interests and predilections. Every human being is certainly different but not entirely different.

When we hear of the word “system” being thrown around, our first reaction should be – can you please elaborate on what do you mean by “system”?

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Being-In-the-Ohno-Circle:

Being-In-the-Ohno-Circle:

In today’s post, I am looking at the Ohno Circle in light of Heidegger’s ideas. I will try to stay away from the neologisms used by Heidegger and will only scratch the surface of his deep insights. One of the best explanations of Ohno Circle comes from one of Ohno’s students, Teruyuki Minoura, the past President and CEO of Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, Inc. He had a first-hand experience of it. Minoura noted:

Mr. Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and he would make us stand in that circle all day long and watch the process. He wanted us to watch and ask “why?” over and over.

You may have heard about the five “why’s” in TPS. Mr. Ohno felt that if we stood in that circle, watching and asking “why?”, better ideas would come to us. He realized that new thoughts and new technologies do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process.

In my case, I thought it was strange when he asked me to go into the circle. But what could I say? I was a freshman and he was the big boss and a member of the board of directors! So, I went into the circle and began to watch the process. During the first hour, I began to understand the process. After two hours, I began to see the problems. After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask “why?” Finally, I found the root cause and started to think about countermeasures.

With the countermeasures in place, I reported back to Mr. Ohno what I had observed and the problems I saw and the countermeasures I put in place as well as the reasons for the countermeasures. Mr. Ohno would just say, “Is that so?” and nothing more. He never gave us answers. Most of the time he wouldn’t even tell us if what we did was good or bad. Now I realize what Mr. Ohno was trying to do. He was trying to make us think deeply — and think for ourselves.

I truly appreciate Minoura’s explanation. There are certain aspects of this that resonated with me. First, standing in the circle is not a quick activity. Minoura noted it as an “all day long” activity. The intent is not to simply identify wastes but to gain a maximally possible understanding of the process. Minoura described it almost in phases:

  • During the first hour, I began to understand the process.
  • After two hours, I began to see the problems.
  • After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask “why?”

From Heideggerian viewpoint, every “thing” is in relation to another “thing”. There is a realm of totality, and the meaning of an object comes from this interrelationship. We use a hammer in order to nail a wood which is used in order to build a cabinet, which is used in order to… so and so on. Heidegger pushed back on the subject-object distinction that was put forth by Rene Descartes. Much of science is based on this distinction of pretending to be able to separate the subject, the scientist, from an object, the “thing” at hand. In all actuality, we engage with things without the realization that we are engaging with them. When we drive a car, we cannot possibly pay attention to every little action we take. We go with the flow. There is a Zen like aspect to this in that we do not say that we are pushing the pedal down on the gas or that we are rotating the steering wheel to go left. We simply do the needed action by being part of the flow that has emerged around us. We do this by being a part of the environment around us. This includes other drivers in their cars, the objects lying on the road, the animals that may try to cross the road etc. This activity is not about being careless when we are driving. Instead, we are engaging in an embodied activity where the car is part of our extended body, and we are immersed in our environment.

From this standpoint, when we are on the floor, we should not try to “look” for waste without understanding how we are immersed in the gemba. We are not going there to fix issues. Our role is to understand how things are in relation to each other on the floor. We are not rushing in to find problems. We are standing there to understand how the operator is interacting with the artifacts available to them. How are the materials coming in and out of the assembly station? How is the operator engaging with the artifacts and the materials? Are they stopping and looking at their equipment every step of the way? Is the equipment flowing with the operator as an extension? Coming back to the driving example, if we have to search for the gas or brake pedal every time, we will not be driving in a safe manner. Just like knowing where the appropriate pedal is without looking and knowing how much to press on it, the operator should be able to engage with the equipment or the artifact. The equipment or the artifact should not just be present there, but they should be available for them ready to use.

One of the deep insights that Heidegger had was that we do not really understand something until that “something” breaks down and the need of the relationship is exposed. When we are engaging with it fully, we do not always know where the breaking points are. We understand the limitations only when that “something” starts to behave in a fashion that makes its presence conspicuous to us. If the equipment is working well, we do not really notice it. We start to notice things when things are not working the way they should be. To take this thought further with the Ohno circle, if we do not understand how the process should be working, we cannot even get to the numerous possibilities that are present to make the process work even better. When we care about the operator, the process, the product etc., we start to realize the many possibilities of running the operation. In some of these possibilities, the operations may be more ergonomic to the operator, or the product quality may be improved further. We cannot even begin to get to these possibilities unless we are able to understand how things work together. These possibilities will then make us realize where they are not working together. In other words, unless we deeply understand the current state, we should not even fathom to think of an ideal state. This requires us to go back to the gemba as often as possible and as many times as possible, to understand the variations of material, operators etc. Perhaps we can interview the operator, or try and build the part ourselves on the floor. The more we are engaged in, the better we get at improving our understanding.

I will finish with a great Ohno story from Minoura that explains this further:

I want to relay one of Mr. Ohno’s stories here. This is a lesson from a Kaizen attempt on kanban collection. Let me explain the background of this story. Many of you know that Toyota uses what we call Kanban cards to keep track of parts and components. Most of them are small pieces of paper which contain all the information related to a particular part. When a worker begins to use a part from a box, he or she takes the kanban out and puts it in a kanban collection post. The conveyance group comes around to pick them up and take it to the kanban room for processing. They normally drive a tow motor. In order to pick up kanbans they have to stop the tow motor, get off, pick up the kanbans, then get back on the tow motor and head for the next collection area.

Now, as you know, TPS (Toyota Production System) despises waste. Stopping the tow motor, getting off and getting back on the vehicle is a waste of the team member’s time and motion. So, one group went ahead and figured out a Kaizen for kanban collection. The Kaizen was to eliminate the wasted motion and time by making it possible for the kanban collector to gather kanban cards without getting down from the vehicle. They proudly presented this Kaizen to Mr. Ohno.

To their surprise, Mr. Ohno got real angry when he heard the presentation. The group couldn’t understand why he was not pleased, because their Kaizen had eliminated the number one sin in the Toyota Production System: waste. So Mr. Ohno explained: He told them that if they were to implement this Kaizen, the tow motor drivers would be on the vehicle all the time. They would be twisting the accelerator grip for a couple of hours straight. That is not good for the driver’s wrist. Also, Mr. Ohno pointed out that getting off the vehicle and walking a few steps and getting back on provided exercise of different muscles that were not used by driving the tow motor. That would be beneficial for the kanban collector’s well-being.

Mr. Ohno was looking at a bigger picture. He placed the ergonomic well-being of the worker before the short-term goal of efficiency. This happened almost 30 years ago. It was many years before the concept of ergonomics became a household word.

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Representations of Reality in Constructivism:

Representations of Reality in Constructivism:

In today’s post, I am looking at the fascinating world of second order cybernetics. If first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, then second order cybernetics (SOC) is the study of observing systems. If first order cybernetics is a hard view of modeling systems, then second order cybernetics is a soft view of modeling the modeling. From my viewpoint, one of the basic notions of second order cybernetics is that we are informationally closed. This means that information does not enter us from the outside. Instead, we generate meaning based on the perturbations we encounter from the outside world. One of the pioneers of SOC was Heinz von Foerster. I will be relying on his wisdom a lot for this post.

SOC teaches us that observer must be included as part of the observation. Objective observations are not possible because the observer is part of the observation. We do not have access to the external world. What we observe depends upon our interpretative framework. What we are really experiencing is not the external world in all its wonderful variety or richness. Instead, what we experience is the constraints we encounter in the world; the constraints that our interpretative framework can afford to experience. If we think about it, we can only sense a sliver of the light spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the audible spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the “tactile spectrum”, and so on. We depict a three-dimensional world because that is what we are accustomed to. As von Foerster noted, the environment contains no information, it is exactly as it is. The information regarding the environment comes from us within. No information comes from outside into us. This is after all, the meaning of the phrase “informationally closed.”

Von Foerster said the following about objectivity:

“Objectivity in the traditional sense,” as Heinz von Foerster has remarked, “is the delusion that it is not a delusion.  It is the cognitive version of the physiological blindspot:  we do not see what we do not see.  Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him.  Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.”

First Order Cybernetics →The map is not the territory.

Second Order Cybernetics → The map is the territory:

Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum “The map is not the territory” is very apt here. We can say that this represents the first order cybernetics. What this dictum means is that we should not mistake the word for the real object; we should not mistake the map for the territory. To do so will be a first-order mistake. From a second-order standpoint, however, we will have to challenge this. If we do not have access to the real world, the territory, saying the map is not the territory is not useful. Von Foerster explained this brilliantly in a lecture:

Heinz began his lecture with the following words: “I have the feeling that the title of this conference was stimulated by a famous statement of Alfred Korzybski, which is: ‘The map is not the territory’. The underlying idea of this statement has always been used to find out if someone was schizophrenic or not. Schizophrenics apparently mix up the map with the territory by taking the symbol for the object. For example, they might eat the menu, because it says ‘soup’, ‘meat’ and ‘dessert’ on it. 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. But if one were to say this statement epistemologically correctly one would have to say:

The map of the map is not the map of the territory.’ We only have maps; we don’t know anything about a territory. We only know the map of the territory and we know the map of the map and we know that the two are not the same. But the map is always the territory because we don’t have anything else.”

It is important note here that von Foerster will not even use the word “representation”. What we have are stable constructions that stand-in for the constraints that we routinely experience in our encounters. Von Foerster would say that what we experience as ‘objects’ in the world out there are actually ‘tokens’. These are the stable behaviors we expect as a result of repeat interactions. For example, when we lift an object, we anticipate how our experience of the object will be like. The experiential reality of that object becomes ‘real’ to us based on our past interactions with the object. We re-cognize the stable behavior of the ‘object” based on our interaction. In order to understand or know the object, we have to interact with it. Our interactions result in a stable behavior that we can come to recognize on an ongoing basis. Von Foerster stated this as – there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition “that arises between them”. 

We are simply made aware of the constraints that are meaningful to us. I am using the word “constraints”, inspired by another great mind, Ernst von Glasersfeld. When we walk around a path, we are actually guided by the constraints, we look out for the things we should stay away from, such as the tree on the side or the big stone on the path. Our experience is essentially defined by the constraints. Even if we are moving towards a goal, we are still guided by the constraints. The constraints define our path.

It is a common notion that we create a representation of the external world in our mind. SOC would clarify this and say that we do not create representations, instead we construct or invent an experiential reality based on our closed interpretative framework. Paraphrasing Humberto Maturana, the activity of the nervous system is determined by the nervous system itself, and not by the external world. Our nervous system is a result of evolution, and not a design by an intelligent designer. The traits that were successful got passed onto us from our ancestors, while the ones that were not successful did not. One could say that these were so successful that we have come to accept that “objective” nature of our experiential reality. When these are not viable, we are not able to cope with our environment.

My main takeaway from SOC is in how I interact with others. SOC teaches us that the properties of the observed are inputted by the observer. Therefore, in order to understand what is being observed, we should observe the observer, understand the distinctions they make, and how they describe their observations, rather than what is being observed. This is an important insight that is missed from the discussions of representations or mental models. This is the starting point for Systems Thinking. As West Churchman said, the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. Our worlds collide and we come to realize a stable social realm through repeat interactions. We correct/adjust and modify as applicable to make each other’s worlds more viable from these interactions. As the cheesy cliché goes, we ‘complete’ each other’s worlds.

This is further explained by Bruce Clarke and Heinz von Foerster:

How is it that we can agree on the world outside of us?

We are inventing it(the world) for ourselves all the time… In traditional approach, one would say that the world is full of objects and they present themselves to us and we simply are aware of their existence because our nervous systems represent them to us or give the objects to us; then there is no problem. But if you are going to be rigorous about a constructivist epistemology, then you should not talk about objects because we do not know them… the objects present “tokens for eigenbehaviors,” which we can establish.

We are both in this world, both in each other’s world. You are in mine, and I am in your world; therefore, we establish our eigenbehavior for each other. And we may not agree, but we are caught in the same loop.

I will finish with an excellent quote from von Glasersfeld:

Whenever something is characterized by the particular interrelation of several elements, it is difficult to describe.  Language is necessarily linear.  Interrelated complexes are not.  Each one of the scientists who have initiated, shaped, and nourished this new way of thinking would describe cybernetics differently, and each has defined it for himself.  Yet they are all profoundly aware of the fact that their efforts, their methods, and their goals have led them beyond the bounds of the traditional disciplines in which they started, and that, nevertheless, there is far more overlap in their thinking than individual divergence.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics of Kindness:

The Constraint of Custom:

I have written a lot about the problem of induction before. This was explained very well by the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume looked at the basis of beliefs that we hold such as:

  1. The sun will rise tomorrow; or
  2. If I drop this ball, it will fall to the ground

Hume noted that there is no uniformity in nature. In other words, it is not rational to believe that what has happened in the past will happen again in the future. Just because, we have seen the sun rise every single day of our lives, it does not guarantee that it will rise again tomorrow. We are using our experience of the sun rising to believe that it will rise again tomorrow. Even though, this might be irrational, Hume does not deny that we may see the belief of the sun rising as a sensible proposition. He notes:

None but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life.

It’s just that we cannot use logic to back this proposition up. We cannot conclude that the future is going to resemble the past, no matter how many examples of the past we have. We cannot simply use experience of the past because the only experience we have is of the past, and not of the future. Hume noted that to propose that the next future event will resemble the past because our most recent “future event” (the last experience event) resembled the past is circular:

All our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavor, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.

Hume concluded that we fall prey to the problem of induction because we are creatures of habits:

For wherever the repetition of any act or operation produces a propensity to renew the same act or operation, without being impelled by any reasoning or process of the understanding, we always say, that this propensity is the effect of Custom. By employing this word, we pretend not to have given the ultimate reason of such a propensity. We only point out a principle of human nature, which is universally acknowledged, and which is well known by its effects.

In other words, it is our human nature to identify and seek patterns, use them to make predictions of the future. This is just how we are wired. We do this unconsciously. Our brains are prediction engines. We cannot help but do this. I will go further with this idea by utilizing a brilliant example from the wonderful American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce in 1868 wrote about an experiment to reveal the blind spot in the retina:

Does the reader know of the blind spot on the retina? Take a number of this journal, turn over the cover so as to expose the white paper, lay it sideways upon the table before which you must sit, and put two cents upon it, one near the left-hand edge, and the other to the right. Put your left hand over your left eye, and with the right eye look steadily at the left-hand cent. Then, with your right hand, move the right-hand cent (which is now plainly seen) towards the left hand. When it comes to a place near the middle of the page it will disappear—you cannot see it without turning your eye. Bring it nearer to the other cent, or carry it further away, and it will reappear; but at that particular spot it cannot be seen. Thus, it appears that there is a blind spot nearly in the middle of the retina; and this is confirmed by anatomy. It follows that the space we immediately see (when one eye is closed) is not, as we had imagined, a continuous oval, but is a ring, the filling up of which must be the work of the intellect. What more striking example could be desired of the impossibility of distinguishing intellectual results from intuitional data, by mere contemplation?

I highly encourage the reader to check this out, if they have not heard of this experiment. In fact, I welcome the reader to draw a line and then place the coin on the line. Doing so, the reader will see that the coin vanishes, however the line still remains visible in the periphery. This means that even though, our eye “sees” a ring, the brain actually fills it out and makes us see a “whole” picture. To add to this wonderful capability of our interpretative framework, the image that falls on our retina is actually upside-down. Yet, our brain makes it the “right-side” up. This would mean that newborn babies may actually see the world upside down and with voids, but at some point, the interpretative framework changes to correct it so that we see the world “correctly”.

How does our brain know to do this? The answer to this is that it was evolutionarily beneficial for our ancestors to do this, just like our custom to look for patterns. This is what Lila Gatlin would refer to as a D1 constraint. This is a context-free constraint that was evolutionarily passed down from generation to generation. This is a constraint that acts in any situation. In other words, to quote Alicia Juarrero, it is context free.

To go past this constraint, we have to use second order thinking. In other words, we have to think about thinking; we have to learn about learning; we have to look at understanding understanding. I welcome the reader to look at the posts I have written on this matter. I will finish with two quotes to further meditate on this:

Only when you realize you are blind, can you see. (Paraphrasing Heinz von Foerster)

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. – Ram Dass

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

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”

The Cybernetics of Bayesian Epistemology:

I have had some good conversations recently about epistemology. Today’s post is influenced by those conversations. In today’s post, I am looking at Bayesian epistemology, something that I am very influenced by. As the readers of my blog may know, I am a student of Cybernetics. One of the main starting points in Cybernetics is that we are informationally closed. This means that information cannot enter into us from outside. This may be evident for any teachers in my viewership. You are not able to open up a student’s brain and pour information in as a commodity and then afterwards seal it back up. What happens instead is that the teacher perturbs the student and the student in turn generates meaning out of the perturbation. This would also mean that all knowledge is personal. This is something that was taught by Michael Polanyi.

How we know something is based on what we already know. The obvious question at this juncture is what about the first knowledge? Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics, has written that there are two main forms of regulations. One is the gene pattern, something that was developed over generations through the evolutionary process. An example of this is the impulse of a baby to grab or to breastfeed without any training. The second is the ability to learn. The ability to learn amplifies the chance of survival of the organism. In our species, this allows us to literally reach for the celestial bodies.

If one accepts that we are informationally closed, then one has to also accept that we do not have direct access to the external reality. What we have access to is what we make sense of from experiencing the external perturbations. Cybernetics aligns with constructivism, the philosophy that we construct a reality from our experience. Heinz von Foerster, one of my favorite Cyberneticians, postulated that our nervous system as a whole is organized in such a way (organizes itself in such a way) that it computes a stable reality. All we have is what we can perceive through our perception framework. The famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, referred to this as the noumena (the reality that we don’t have direct access to) and the phenomena (the perceived representation of the external reality). We compute a reality based on our interpretive framework. This is just a version of the reality, and each one of us computes such a reality that is unique to each one of us. The stability comes from repeat interactions with the external reality, as well as with interactions with others. We do not exist in isolation from others. The more interactions we have the more we have the chance to “calibrate” it against each other.

With this framework, one does not start from ontology, instead one starts from epistemology. Epistemology deals with the theory of knowledge and ontology deals with being (what is out there). What I can talk about is what I know about rather than what is really out there.

Bayesian epistemology is based on induction. Induction is a process of reasoning where one makes a generalization from a series of observations. For example, if all the swans you have seen so far in your life are white swans, then induction would direct you to generalize that all swans are white. Induction assumes uniformity of nature, to quote the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume. This means that you assume that the future will resemble the past. Hume pointed out that induction is faulty because no matter how many observations one makes, one cannot assume that the future will resemble the past. We seek patterns in the world, and we make generalizations from them. Hume pointed out that we do this out of habit. While many people have tried to solve the problem of induction, nobody has really solved it.

All of this discussion lays the background for Bayesian epistemology. I will not go into the math of Bayesian statistics in this post. I will provide a general explanation instead. Bayesian epistemology puts forth that probability is not a characteristic of a phenomenon, but a statement about our epistemology. The probabilities we assign are not for THE reality but for the constructed reality. It is a statement about OUR uncertainty, and not about the uncertainty associated with the phenomenon itself. The Bayesian approach requires that we start with what we know. We start with stating our prior belief, and based on the evidence presented, we will modify our belief. This is termed as the “posterior” in Bayesian terms. Today’s posterior becomes tomorrow’s prior because “what we know now” is the posterior.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that one does not assign a 0 or 100% for your belief. Even if you see a coin with 10,000 heads in a row, you should not assume that the coin is double headed. This would be jumping into the pit of the problem of induction. We can keep updating our prior based on evidence without reaching 100%.

I will write more on this topic. I wanted to start off with an introductory post and follow up with additional discussions. I will finish with some appealing points of Bayesian epistemology.

Bayesian epistemology is self-correcting – Bayesian statistics has the tendency to cut down your overconfidence or underconfidence. The new evidence presented over several iterations corrects your over or under reach into confidence.

Bayesian epistemology is observer dependent and context sensitive – As noted above, probability in Bayesian epistemology is a statement of the observer’s belief. The framework is entirely dependent on the observer and the context around sensemaking. You do not remove the observer out of the observation. In this regard, Bayesian framework is hermeneutical. We bring our biases to the equation, and we put money where our mouth is by assigning a probability value to it.

Circularity – There is an aspect of circularity in Bayesian framework in that today’s prior becomes tomorrow’s posterior as noted before.

Second Order Nature – The Bayesian framework requires that you be open to changing your beliefs. It requires you to challenge your assumptions and remain open to correcting your belief system. There is an aspect of error correction in this. You realize that you have cognitive blind spots. Knowing this allows us to better our sensemaking ability. We try to be “less wrong” than “more right”.

Conditionality – The Bayesian framework utilizes conditional probability. You see that phenomena or events do not exist in isolation. They are connected to each other and therefore require us to look at the holistic viewpoint.

Coherence not Correspondence – The use of priors forces us to use what we know. To use Willard Van Orman Quine’s phrase, we have a “web of belief”. Our priors must make sense with all the other beliefs we already have in place. This supports the coherence theory of truth instead of the realist’s favorite correspondence theory of truth. I welcome the reader to pursue this with this post.

Consistency not completeness – The idea of a consistency over completeness is quite fascinating. This is mainly due to the limitation of our nervous system to have a true representation of the reality. There is a common belief that we live with uncertainty, but our nervous system strives to provide us a stable version of reality, one that is devoid of uncertainties. This is a fascinating idea. We are able to think about this only from a second order standpoint. We are able to ponder about our cognitive blind spots because we are able to do second order cybernetics. We are able to think about thinking. We are able to put ourselves into the observed.

I will finish with an excellent quote from Albert Einstein:

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality”.

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Error Correction of Error Correction: