Second Order Variety:

Art by Dall-E

In my post today, I am looking at variety in Cybernetics from a second order cybernetics standpoint. I have written a lot about first and second order cybernetics here. First order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, and second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems. In the first, the observer is outside of what is being observed and in the second, the observer is part of what is being observed. The observer being part of that which is being observed brings self-referentiality/circularity into the scope of the observation. In the first, the emphasis is on an objective world out there, and in the second, the emphasis is on the subjective experiential world.

Variety is defined as the number of possible states of a situation, as distinguished by an observer. I am using the word “situation” instead of “system” because from a second order cybernetics standpoint, the word “situation” brings in the aspect of an experiential world. Variety from this view corresponds to the ability of the observer to make distinctions. For example, consider the set of alphabets {A, a, b, c, C}. Here an observer can say that the variety of the set is 3, counting the three alphabets. Another observer might say that the variety is 5, distinguishing between the lower and upper cases of the alphabet. As an additional example, consider the case of Morse code. Morse code is made of basically four states – a dot, a dash and two spaces. The dash is three times the duration or length of the dot. All the English alphabets and the Arabic numerals can be represented by the dots and dashes in different sequences. The space between the characters within a word is represented by the absence of the signal for a duration of three dots, whereas the space between words is represented by the absence of the signal for a duration of seven dots. For an observer not familiar with Morse code, the variety of a message could be just 1, whereas for an observer familiar with Morse code, the variety of a message could be pretty large depending upon the size of the message. One more interesting trivia about Morse code is that the different sequences of the characters are represented in the order of ease of use. For example, the letter “E”, the most commonly used letter in the English language is represented by the simplest representation of just one dot. Similarly, the numbers have longer sequences than alphabets.

Variety in Cybernetics is viewed as being tied to complexity. The complexity of a situation is dependent on the ability of the observer to make distinctions. In other words, the complexity of a situation is defined by the observer as the variety of the situation. I will also introduce another notion that is of utmost importance in second order cybernetics – purpose. The purpose of an object is determined by the subject. This is also tied to the notion of variety. As an example, let’s say that an observer needs to open a paint can. The only thing available for the observer is a flat edge screwdriver. At that point in time, the observer may see the variety of the screwdriver being more than one state. Apart from the normal use of the screwdriver to screw in a screw, the observer may see an additional use of using the flat edge to pry open the paint can. The actions of an observer when presented with a situation is dependent upon the observer’s ability to make distinctions. One other close notion that was explained by Ross Ashby with regards to variety is that of constraints. I had earlier denoted variety with the ability of the observer to make distinctions. This ability is tied to the notion of constraints. In the example of using the screwdriver to pry open the paint can, the ability to make that distinction is constrained by the observer’s knowledge of inserting a narrow edge into the gap of the lid of the paint can. The analogy of narrow edge of a paint can opener to the narrow edge of a flat screwdriver was useful for the observer. If that ability of making analogies was absent, then the observer would not have had the requisite variety needed.

I would now like to look at the idea of second order variety. Generally, second order uses self-referential phrases such as “understanding understanding” or “improving improving”. Second order variety in this aspect will be variety of variety. In the example of Morse code, the observer is having the variety to differentiate individual characters which will enable the observer to differentiate between different words. The observer having the variety to differentiate individual words and understanding semantics of the English language will enable the observer to differentiate different sentences. The observer having the variety to differentiate between sentences will enable the observer to understand the general theme of what is being said. In other words, variety begets variety. The more things one knows will increase the chance of getting to know even more newer things. From this viewpoint, diversity in any situation is a blessing. For example, knowing carpentry can help in an entirely different situation such as writing an essay.

When I started thinking about variety from the second order standpoint, it reminded me of a quote from Nassim Taleb and Bali, an Indian mythological character. Taleb in his book Skin in the Game recalls a saying by the brother Geoff and Vince Graham that summarizes the ludicrousness of scale-free political universalism:

I am, at the Fed level, libertarian;

at the state level, Republican;

at the local level, Democrat;

and at the family and friends level, a socialist.

This of course would change according to who the observer is, what values they hold dear and the context of the situation. Holding a steadfast rule universally with a predefined variety is also ludicrous.

The Indian mythological character, Bali, was the monkey king of Kishkindha in the Hindu epic Ramayana. He was given the choice of any boon by Brahma. Bali asked for the boon such that in a fight, Bali will gain half the strength of his opponent. His opponent would lose half his strength to Bali. Bali was said to have the strength of 70,000 elephants, and his boon made him impossible to defeat in a direct combat. His boon made him able to fight anyone and defeat them. His immense strength along with the boon gave him a lot of variety. He was able to amplify his variety with his boon in a fighting situation. He was killed by Lord Ram who shot an arrow from behind a tree while Bali was fighting with his brother Sugriva. From a cybernetics standpoint one could say that Bali’s abilities were attenuated by Lord Ram by not engaging in a direct fight.

I welcome the reader to check out these posts on making observations:

The Case of the Distinguished Observer:

Observations on Observing, The Case Continues:

View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was A Saint and a Leader:


A Saint and a Leader:

Art by Dall-E

In my post today, I am inspired by a thought experiment posed by cybernetician Vladimir Lefebvre. He posed the question whether a saint knows that they are a saint? In his words:

Consider the social or cultural picture of a saint. The question is: does a saint know that he is a saint? Of course, if a saint thinks that he is a saint, from a cultural point of view he is not a saint. So, whether a person can be correctly thought to be a saint depends on who the observer is. In order to describe itself, an organism must contain an image of itself (logical self-reference). But a saint, in order to be a saint, will not think that he is a saint (psychological self-reference).

If a person tries to become a saint, then they cannot ever be one. If a person thinks that this is how I should act as a saint, then they are not acting in good faith. Lefebvre points out that a saint cannot see themselves as perfect. He notes:

Such an individual cannot ‘see’ himself as perfect. Thus, ‘perfection ‘ is always an external characteristic of an individual and cannot be a component of his own self-description. Saints are perfect more often than other types of individuals… We see that perfection is an external characteristic of an individual: a person is perfect from other’s point of view and not from his own. If a perfect individual occupies the place of an external observer and reflects himself as perfect, he would in this way destroy his perfection. One’s own perfection is inaccessible to the ‘inner sight’ of an individual himself.

I found this to be a great insight, and this made me look at the importance of self-reference for a leader. From a second order cybernetics standpoint, I see a leader as someone who is able to generate attractor states in a complex network space. For example, a leader inspires people to act in a certain manner under certain conditions. They are able to generate patterns of behavior on a larger scale. From a cultural standpoint, the view of a leader has many characteristics to a saint. They are meant to be selfless and think of the general good of the people. However, from a second order standpoint, we see that there are differences compared to a saint.

A leader has to see themselves as a leader, unlike the saint. They have to refer to their own ideals and values when they have to make decisions. They have to also view themselves from other peoples’ viewpoint. A saint and a leader are both defined less by their words and more by their actions. Being a leader means that they are leading people towards a goal. However, this means that they are assigning a purpose for the group. This is a fascinating topic for me. In a group, if one does not assign a purpose for themselves, then they would be assigned a purpose by someone else. In other words, one could easily be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. A “good” leader should not be viewing others simply as a means to an end. A leader, from a second order cybernetics standpoint, observes their own actions and at the same time appreciates other people’s perspectives. The first step from a self-referential standpoint is to be transparent with our intention and values. We have to provide a narrative around them for others to orient themselves with.

From this perspective, we should look at the here and now (short term thinking), at the same time care about the there and then (long term thinking). We see that humans are not resources anymore, but cocreators with us as we generate organizational patterns. There are now books a dime a dozen on leadership prescribing how to be a leader. Being a leader is contextual. A little bit like a saint, it is others who determine how good of a leader one is.

I will finish off with a wonderful Zen story that is appropriate here:

A disciple who loved and admired his Zen teacher decided to observe his behavior minutely, believing that if he did everything that his teacher did, then he would also acquire his teacher’s wisdom. The teacher always wore white, and so his disciple did the same. The teacher was a vegetarian, and so his disciple stopped eating meat and replaced it with a diet of vegetables and herbs. The teacher was an austere man, and so the disciple decided to devote himself to self-sacrifice and started sleeping on a straw mattress.

After some time, the teacher noticed these changes in his disciple’s behavior and asked him why.

‘I am climbing the steps of initiation,’ came the reply.

‘The white of my clothes shows the simplicity of my search, the vegetarian food purifies my body, and the lack of comfort makes me think only of spiritual things.’

Smiling, the teacher took him to a field where a horse was grazing.

‘You have spent all this time looking outside yourself, which is what matters least,’ he said. ‘Do you see that creature there? He has white skin, eats only grass and sleeps in a stable on a straw bed. Do you think he has the face of a saint or will one day become a real teacher?’.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Informational Closure in the Human and the Machine:

On the Ambiguities in Complexity:

In today’s post, I am looking at the ambiguities in complexity. I am inspired by the brilliant French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. She was a proponent of existentialism, the school of philosophy that puts emphasis on human existence first and foremost. Their motto, as noted by Jean Paul Sartre, is “existence precedes essence.” This basically means that we create the meaning of our lives. There is no authority outside of us dictating what our essence must be. We are responsible for our construction of what we become.

The ideas of existentialism have many similarities with the philosophical school of constructivism in Cybernetics. I have written about this before. Similar to existentialism, constructivism says that we construct a version of reality and that we are responsible for our construction. In the social realm, constructivists believe that we aim for consistency through our continuous interactions with the other constructors. If I am constructing a version of reality, this means that others are doing the same. The language and culture act as external frames of references to provide a stable version of reality. The emphasis is not for correctness but consistency.

De Beauvoir realized that the ambiguity of our existence is part of us. We are subjects who engage in ongoing construction of a reality, at the same time we are objects in the construction of others in the social realm. In other words, we are creators while at the same time creations in someone else’s construction. What we identify as selves is in relation to others. We aim to have autonomy in our actions, and this often comes at the cost of others autonomy. The choices we make influences the choices others make and vice versa. There are no moral authorities dictating what everyone’s role is or what everyone should be doing. These ideas resonate strongly with Cybernetics. The ideas of constructivism are at the core of second order cybernetics.

De Beauvoir advised us to identify and withstand the pressures of the constraints that the contingencies of our times such as societal norms and expectations throw at us. We are to use our freedom to maximize our potentialities and shape our own lives. We can do this only when we acknowledge the ambiguities. We find freedom when we recognize the freedom of others.

With these ideas we will look at complexity. Loosely put, complexity is the interconnectedness that we identify or experience. When we pull on a thread here, something else moves in another location. Everything seems to be connected to everything else. Complexity in cybernetics is observer dependent. This means that the magnitude and “quality” of complexity can vary depending on the observer. This is also dynamic. This means that depending on when you are asking, the “what” of complexity can change. This also means that there are no clear demarcations or domains in complexity. There are certain portions that are less “complex” and some that are more “complex”. Cybernetics is not interested in the “what” but in all of the possible behaviors seen by the observer. The observer is able to make certain states occur more often than the others by playing with the constraints. Ernst von Glasersfeld wonderfully defined cybernetics as the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints.

What does this mean if there are multiple observers? There are so many dimensions and so many possibilities. Cybernetics talks about the constructive dance between the observers. Every interaction is an invitation to understand each other. We need to talk about what we see and what think we see through others eyes. We face complexity as part of facing situations. We seek to obtain a stable state that covers certain desired attributes of the situation. In order to know this, we have to have a good understanding of the possibilities and the available constraints that can be used to achieve some of the possibilities. The constraints can be used to generate attractor states that the dynamic “system” latches onto and those attractor states will cover the desired states. There is a lot of literature about leaders with respect to complexity. Leaders are people who take up the responsibility to create conditions so that attractor states containing certain desired states are generated.

The discussion of complexity demonstrates the presence of ambiguity through and through. Who chooses what the desired outcomes should be? Who decides who should do what? Who decides to utilize the constraints for which some people may have to pay more? As noted, there are no moral authorities in these situations. Taking heed to de Beauvoir’s words, we should not run away from the ambiguities. Instead, we should embrace them. We should understand that there are always others in the social realm. We become a self through the others.

To say that there are rules for complexity would be a terrible idea. However, there are several heuristics that we can use to embrace the ambiguities. We should engage in the cybernetic dance and encourage being openminded to others’ viewpoints. We should practice empathy and try to understand the different perspectives. We should engage in dialogue more with the intent of actively listening. We should understand the power structure that is predominant and work with the marginalized groups so that their voices are also heard. We should celebrate the differences. We should look for similarities in differences and differences in similarities. We should cherish each other’s autonomy.

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

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces. Though they are masters of the atomic bomb, yet it is created only to destroy them. Each one has the incomparable taste in his mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s. Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Desiring and Second Order Cybernetics:

Another Post on Constraints:

In today’s post, I am looking again at the idea of constraints in relation to Ross Ashby’s ideas and the ideas of second order cybernetics. As far as I know, Ashby did not go into the differentiation of first and second order cybernetics. A lot of what he wrote can be filed away under “First order cybernetics”. But to do so will be missing the forest for the trees. A lot of Ashby’s ideas were ahead of his time and resonate with the ideas of complexity and systems thinking.

Ashby tied the idea of constraints to variety and the observer. Variety, as I have written here before, can be loosely put as the number of possible states differentiated by an observer. So, for example, an analog light switch can be said to have a variety of two – ON and OFF. Constraint is the relational part between an observer and a “system”. A “system” here is a select number of variables chosen by an observer to represent a phenomenon of interest. To elaborate these ideas, I am taking the example of an observer who chooses a Christmas tree as an area of interest. Further, let’s consider that the tree is connected to an analog switch with a variety of two as stated before. The observer can decide they would like to leave the tree ON for the entire Christmas season to reflect the Christmas spirit.  The variety of the switch is now reduced to one, barring any unforeseen incidents. The switch is always kept in the ON position. Out of the two possibilities, a constraint was applied so that there is only one possibility.

Ashby was very clear that Cybernetics is about looking at what something is doing, instead of looking at what that “something” is. From this standpoint, we are looking at possibilities, which is a “black box” view. We are looking at how something is behaving and are not really interested in the intricacies of how things are connected together.

Ashby noted in his private notebook that “A Cyberneticist is a man[sic] who observes what might have happened, but did not.”

This idea of “something that might have happened, but did not” is related to the notion of constraints. Cybernetics is often depicted as a science of teleology. This is the first order Cybernetics. For example, we often depict the idea of a steersman moving towards a goal, where a clear path is set. From the idea of constraints, we should be looking at negative explanations. We may choose the destination, but the path is set by the constraints. Gregory Bateson, another intellectual giant in Cybernetics, noted the following about negative explanation:

Negative explanation is an aspect of cybernetic theory that emphasizes restraints. According to negative explanation, events take a particular course because they are constrained from taking other courses. Alternatively, positive explanation seeks to determine the causes of particular events. Rather than focusing on “Why?”, negative explanation involves describing the constraints under which systems operate.

We consider what alternative possibilities could conceivably have occurred and then ask why many of the alternatives were not followed, so that the particular event was one of those few which could, in fact, occur.

In a similar fashion, Ashby wrote:

Cybernetics looks at the totality, in all its possible richness, and then asks why the actualities should be restricted to some portion of the total possibilities.

The real world gives the subset of what is; the product space represents the uncertainty of the observer. The product space may therefore change if the observer changes; and two observers may legitimately use different product spaces within which to record the same subset of actual events in some actual thing. The “constraint” is thus a relation between observer and thing; the properties of any particular constraint will depend on both the real thing and on the observer. It follows that a substantial part of the theory of organization will be concerned with properties that are not intrinsic to the thing but are relational between the observer and thing.

We often emphasize on having a goal or direction, but we neglect the importance of constraints. Some constraints can be physical such as a ball rolling down a chute.  The ball will always follow the same path. Now compare this to a rock falling down a hill. It may not follow the same path if you repeat rolling it down a hill. Some paths are more likely than others. And no matter how many times you roll it down a hill, some paths are never taken due to the physical constraints of the hill. These can be understood from a first order Cybernetics standpoint. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, it is very important to understand the relational nature of constraints to the observer. What is limiting to one person can be nurturing for another. From the second order Cybernetics standpoint, the constraints are our biases and other epistemic constraints that limit or enable our actions.

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was made to roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down; only to repeat this exercise again and again for eternity. He was made to do this as a punishment. Curious enough, in another part of the world, in Kerala (India), there is another mythology that talks about another character who rolled a large rock up a hill only to have it roll down. Naranath Branthan (The madman of Naranam) would roll a large rock up a hill and have it roll down. He would repeat this again and again. His reason for doing this was entirely different than Sisyphus. Naranath Branthan was not doing it for punishment. But, he was doing it for fun. The stories about him said that he would laugh with joy and clap his hands as he watched the rock roll down the hill. If Sisyphus would had found joy in what he did, the Gods would have been forced to free him from the punishment since it would cease to be a punishment.

I will finish with a wonderful story about Naranath Brandan.

One day he met Kali, an Indian goddess, as he was retiring for the night. Kali was impressed by the madman and told him that she will give him a boon (blessing).

“I do not want any boons”, the madman said. He just wanted to get on with his night and go to sleep.

Kali informed him that she has to give a boon or a curse, and she insisted that he take a boon.

“I want to increase my life time by a second”, the madman replied. Kali told him that she could not do that.

“Then I want to decrease my life time by a second”, the madman said. Kali told him she could not do that either.

The madman thought for a while and asked Kali to move the elephantiasis from his left leg to the right leg. Kali complied, and the madman lived happily with elephantiasis on his right leg from that day onwards.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Stoics:

Cybernetics and the Stoics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

Cybernetics and the Dichotomy of Control:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epictetus explained further about the dichotomy in Enchiridion:

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

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

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

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

If you are interested in Stoicism, you might like:

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

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

The Magical “All Possibilities”:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Holmes

Imagine that you have a coin in your hand, and you are throwing it up in the air. How would you assign probabilities for the outcome? Generally, we are taught that a coin flip has a 50% chance of tails and 50% chance of heads, assuming that we are using a fair coin. The reasoning is that there are only two possible outcomes (heads, tails). Therefore, the probability of either one happening is 50%.

I have written about Bayesian epistemology before. If we evaluate the coin flip example, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The basis of all this is – from whose perspective? In Bayesian epistemology, probability is not a feature of the phenomenon such as the coin flip. The coin is not aware of the probabilities with which it should fall. The probabilities that we assign is a feature of our uncertainty, and it has nothing to do with the coin. In the example, only two outcomes were considered. Depending on the observer, this could be expanded. For example, we can consider the coin falling on its edge. Or perhaps, the coin may not land at all if we can imagine a bird catching it in midair and swallowing it, or it could be that the coin is being thrown in space. Based on our experience, we may conclude that the last two scenarios are unlikely. But the key points here are:

  1. Every description requires a describer. Every observation requires and observer. In science and in general language, we ignore the describer/observer. We engage in conversation or studies as if, we have access to objectivity. The science we have is a human science in the sense that it is a version that we have generated based on what our human interpretative framework affords.
  2. We need to be aware of how we made our observation, and be open to modifying it. Whatever we say or do if based on the current state of our knowledge/belief system. This needs to be updated based on the feedback from the environment.
  3. Any attempt at an experiment or study is to reduce our uncertainty about something. Going back to Bayesian epistemology, any expression in probability is an expression of our uncertainty. The phenomenon that we are studying are not following any rules. They do not have a mind of their own. We are projecting our “certainties” as rules onto them. A great example is the often-quoted scenario of birds flocking together to explain complexity. The birds do not know these rules. They exhibit a behavior that got reinforced through natural selection. The rules are our merely a projection of what we think is going on. In other words, the complexity of the flight of birds coming from the simple rules is just our construction.

The idea of “all the possibilities” is made quite clear in the Arthur Conan Doyle quote at the start of this post. This quote is often touted in TV shows and movies alike. However, the quote represents a fallacious idea, the root of which stems from an incorrect assumption. The assumption here is that one can eliminate ALL which is impossible. Similar to the coin toss example, this depends on the observer and their ability to know ALL that can happen, which requires omniscience. Additionally, one has to disprove every one of those possible outcomes. Only after this can one truly look at whatever remains. Aptly, this fallacy is termed as “Holmesian Fallacy”. We simply do not have access to ALL possibilities.

In Cybernetics, a key idea that is relevant here is variety. Variety is the number of possible states. This was put forward by one of the pioneers in Cybernetics, Ross Ashby. For example, we could say that a coin has a variety of 2 – heads or tails. Or we could say that a coin has a variety of 3 – heads, tails or its edge. As we can see the variety is dependent upon the observer. Being aware of this dependency is part of second order cybernetics. If we could restate the definition of variety in second order cybernetics, it would be – variety is the number of possible states as perceived by an observer. Variety is tightly linked to the concept of entropy.

Ashby noted that the initial variety that we have perceived will tend to decay over time if nothing changes. A great example that Ashby gives is the example of a wife visiting a prisoner. Let’s say that the wife wishes to convey a message to the prisoner using a cup of coffee that she can send to him. The warden is smart and he foretells the wife that he will add cream and sweetener to the coffee, and will also remove the spoon from the coffee. In addition, the coffee will always be filled to the brim. The warden has removed a lot of variety from the cup of coffee. The wife realizes now that the available variety that she has is to do with how hot the coffee is. She perceives the variety as 3 – HOT, TEPID or COLD. However, the warden is able to block this with time. If the warden is able to delay giving the coffee to the prisoner, then this variety is also lost. As Ashby put it, as time progresses the variety in the set cannot increase and will usually diminish.

On a similar note, Ashby also spoke of the law of experience. He noted that when we impose a change in a ‘system’, we tend to reduce its knowledge of its initial state or variety. The example he gave is that of a group of boys who have been to the same school – it is found that a number of boys of marked individuality, having all been through the same school, develop ways that are more characteristic of the school they attended than of their original individualities.

If we are including the idea of observer here, we see the “system” as the “system” that also includes the observer. This brings in a self-referential nature to this. If nothing changes, then our useful information regarding a phenomenon will either stay the same or decay over time. The useful variety that we have perceived will remain a constant or will decay over time. In addition, as the observer, we ourselves tend to fall along a line or conform to whichever tribe or community we belong to. We lose our original variety with time. The first step in overcoming these is to be aware. Be aware of our blindness; be aware of our limitations and biases; be aware of our shortcomings. We have to be aware that we do not have knowledge of “ALL possibilities”. We have to be open to challenging our worldviews. We have to evaluate and error-correct our beliefs on a regular basis. We do not perform error-correction on a continuous basis, but on a discontinuous basis.

I will finish with an anecdote on the apparent randomness of quantum mechanics that prompted Einstein to say that God does not play dice. As noted Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote:

When Einstein objected to quantum mechanics by remarking that “God does not play dice,” Bohr responded by admonishing him, “Stop telling God what to do.” Which means: Nature is richer than our metaphysical prejudices. It has more imagination than we do.

Einstein was worried about the uncertainties he faced with quantum mechanics and he noted that the metaphorical God does not play dice like that. In a similar way the late Stephen Hawking noted:

So God does play dice with the universe. All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible occasion… Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen. 

Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

The Authentic Cybernetician:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “authenticity” in relation to existentialism. I am inspired by the ideas of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. The title of this post may be misleading. From an existentialist standpoint, to talk about an authentic person is contradicting the very ideas it stands for. An existentialist believes that existence precedes essence. This means that our essence is not pregiven. Our meaning is something that we create. It is an ongoing construction. I do admit that I find the idea of an authentic cybernetician quite fascinating. I am exploring the idea of “authenticity” in existentialism with relation to cybernetics. As Varga and Guignon note:

The most familiar conception of “authenticity” comes to us mainly from Heidegger’s Being and Time of 1927. The word we translate as ‘authenticity’ is actually a neologism invented by Heidegger, the word Eigentlichkeit, which comes from an ordinary term, eigentlich, meaning ‘really’ or ‘truly’, but is built on the stem eigen, meaning ‘own’ or ‘proper’. So the word might be more literally translated as ‘ownedness’, or ‘being owned’, or even ‘being one’s own’, implying the idea of owning up to and owning what one is and does. Nevertheless, the word ‘authenticity’ has become closely associated with Heidegger as a result of early translations of Being and Time into English, and was adopted by Sartre and Beauvoir as well as by existentialist therapists and cultural theorists who followed them.

From an existentialist standpoint, authenticity has come to be associated with freedom and responsibility. Authenticity is about freedom – of self and others. We are responsible for our actions. Our existence is contingent on many things such as the time and place where we live, the society we live in etc. This is referred to as “facticity” in existentialism. We are not limited by this and we cannot live a life as defined by others. We are autonomous beings and we are able to unfold our lives based on our choices. Having said that we are always existing in relation to others. The “I” is in relation to others. I am a husband and a father; I am also an employee; I am also a friend and so on. The “I” is a stable construction that is continuously unfolded. I am continuously constructing a stable presentation of who I am to other people and to myself. Authenticity comes in when we become aware of all this, and when we strive for the freedom of others.

The idea of unfolding is an interesting idea. It has an undertone of potentiality. The term ‘potentiality’ refers to possibilities. At any given point in time, there are a large number of possibilities, some that we are aware of and many that we are not aware of. We have the freedom to choose the specific possibility and we have to be responsible for that choice. The notion of possibilities aligns with the notion of variety in cybernetics. Variety is the number of possible states of a ‘system’. When a ‘system’ has requisite variety, it is able to stay viable. As Ross Ashby, one of the key pioneers of cybernetics, put it – only variety can absorb variety. When the ‘system’ is able to use one of the many possible states it has, to tackle a specific demand imposed on it by the external world, it is able to stay viable. This is what is referred to as the “absorption” of variety. The ‘system’ should be able to identify the available possible states it has at its disposal. This requires the ‘system’ to have some knowledge of what each possible state can do or not do. This knowledge comes from previous experiences or past interactions. The states that worked will be retained by the ‘system’, and in some cases the ‘system’ will modify certain states while interacting with the external world through a learning situation. All these notions are part of first order cybernetics. I believe that the ‘authentic cybernetician’ should be more interested in second order cybernetics. As Heinz von Foerster put it, first order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics as the cybernetics of observing systems.

From the second order cybernetics standpoint, we are aware of the observing process itself. This means that we are aware of the observation of our act of observing – being aware that we have blind spots and that our observation is a construction based on our biases, experiential reality etc. This would also mean that we realize that there are others also involved in similar observations and constructions. Authenticity in existentialism is being aware of our facticity and the freedom that we have to make choices, and being responsible for our actions. The idea that we are constructing a version of reality, and that we are responsible for that construction is a key point in second order cybernetics. When I talk about ‘authentic cybernetician’, there might be an expectation that I should put forth a prescribed step-by-step formula for being an authentic cybernetician. This would be a first order viewpoint. Being authentic however, requires a second order approach. There is no prescribed methodology here. We are invited to be aware of how we are thrown into this world, and how we are situated here; how we are somewhat defined by our past actions and yet somehow, we are not necessarily bound by those actions. It is about improving our interpretative framework so that we can afford requisite variety.

I will finish with some wise words we should heed from Simone de Beauvoir:

We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Affording What’s In Your Head:

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:

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: