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:

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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 Phenomenology of Informationally Closed Beings:

In Cybernetics, the idea of “informational closure” is an important one. This basically means that information does not enter us from the outside. We do not receive information as an input and process it to create representations. This is a remnant of René Descartes’s ideas. I will be utilizing the famous philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’s take on Martin Heidegger’s ideas. Heidegger realized that we do not create representations of the world in our minds. He noted that the world is not a set of meaningless facts which we take in and assign values to. Heidegger said that the values are more meaningless facts. Heidegger’s most famous example is that of a hammer. If we explain a hammer as a tool for hammering nails, this value statement ignores a whole lot of significance that comes with a hammer. A hammer is best understood through the act of hammering. Dreyfus wrote:

To say a hammer has the function of being for hammering leaves out the defining relation of hammers to nails and other equipment, to the point of building things, and to the skills required when actually using the hammer—all of which reveal the way of being of the hammer which Heidegger called readiness-to-hand. Merely assigning formal function predicates to brute facts such as hammers couldn’t capture the hammer’s way of being nor the meaningful organization of the everyday world in which hammering has its place. “[B]y taking refuge in ‘value’-characteristics,” Heidegger said, “we are . . . far from even catching a glimpse of being as readiness-to-hand.”

Heidegger spoke of at least three manners in which things or equipment interact with us. The first and foremost manner is that of “ready-to-hand”. This is normally how we interact with the world. When we use a hammer, the hammer itself becomes transparent to us. It becomes a part of our body. We are engaged with the hammer so much so that we do not see the materialistic object any longer. Instead, we realize the act of hammering. We do not care about the shiny metal head nor the wooden handle of the hammer. Our hands naturally and automatically form the shape of the handle so that we grab it without realizing it. We just realize hammering. We only realize the possibilities of action in terms of the hammer. There is no separation of subject and object here. This is our normal way of being in the world.

When something goes wrong or when something counters our expectations, we realize the “unreadiness-to-hand”. For example, when the hammer head slips on the handle or the handle breaks, our flow with the hammer breaks. This manner of interaction requires us to readjust our interface so that we can once again realize the readiness-to-hand of the object.

The third manner is “present-at-hand”. Here, we are deliberately breaking from readiness-to-hand and concentrating on the material properties of the object such as the shape of the hammer head, or the size of the hammer, or the color of the handle etc. This is not our normal mode of interaction in the world.

Heidegger’s ideas of readiness-to-hand goes hand in hand (no pun intended) with Gibson’s ideas of affordances. We do not see objects themselves but the action possibilities of the objects. When we come to our office and sit on the chair, we only realize the action possibility of going through the entrance by opening the door. We did not objectively see the door there. When we sat on the chair, we did not objectively see the black leather chair. We only realized the solicitation for the action of sitting. Same with the door, we only realized the solicitation for the action of opening the door. Our hands automatically formed the shape of the door handle without us consciously being aware of it. As Dreyfus wonderfully wrote, for the user, equipment is encountered as a solicitation to act, not an entity with a function feature. Heidegger used the beautiful expression “pressing into possibilities”. When we encounter the door or the chair, we are directly responding to a “what for”. The door is a “what for” for me to go through the entrance and the chair is a “what for” for me to sit down on.

Dreyfus pointed out that to an observer, I could be viewed as objectively using a certain door as a door. However, for me I am not experiencing the door as a door. Normally there is no “I” and no experiencing of the door at all but simply pressing into the possibility of going out. The important thing to realize is that, when we are pressing into possibilities, there is no experience of an entity doing the soliciting; just the immediate response to a solicitation… when we are coping at our best, we are drawn in by solicitations and respond directly to them, so that the distinction between us and our equipment—between inner and outer—vanishes.

At this point, I will go back to the idea of informational closure. As pointed out, we do not get information from the outside, process it and then respond to it. Instead, we are perturbed by the external world, and actions are solicited from us by these perturbations. For example, when a fly appears in front of a frog, the frog’s brain does not process the information that there is a fly, and then tell the tongue to lash out to catch the fly. Instead, the presence of the fly solicits the action of the tongue lashing out. The brain does not say, there is a fly, I should lash out the tongue. The image of a small moving dark object solicits that action from the frog. In fact, any small moving dark object would solicit the same action, and a motionless fly would not solicit that action. This action was deemed useful and necessary for continued viability of the frog’s species. The repeat interactions and success ensured that this action is kept and passed on from one generation to the next. This is a sort of coupling between the frog and its environment. Even though the frog is informationally closed, transduction happens at the information boundary in the form of the perturbation that solicitates the action. Here one should be cautious of the description of the fly as an input causing the action of the tongue lashing out as an output. It was the internal structure of the frog that generated the action. This is a description in terms of action possibilities. The frog is not viewing the fly as a “fly” but rather as an action possibility of lashing out the tongue.

When we view an object as soliciting an action, we can look at the response actions in terms of attractor states. When faced with a perturbation, an agent is essentially making a selection from a set of attractor states. Depending upon the significance of the perturbation, one of the attractor states is selected over the other on a more frequent basis. This view focuses on the dependence of the internal structure and the dispositionality based on past interactions. Further, it removes the need for a cause-and-effect model that is prone to reductionism.

Heidegger’s great insight was that when we are interacting with equipment, we are not dealing with representations of them in our mind, instead we are dealing directly with them. We do not create models, instead one might say that the world itself is our model. There is a totality that we are part of when we are being in the world. We interact with the world around us based on the structural coupling with the world. We are beings in the world, and the world is not separate from us. We are coupled to the world and our structure is determined by this coupling.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Magical “All Possibilities”:

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 “Mind Projection Fallacy” in Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am writing about the wonderful Bayesian E. T. Jaynes’ idea of “Mind Projection Fallacy” (MPF) with respect to Systems Thinking. He explained MPF as asserting one’s own private thoughts and sensations as realities existing externally in nature. Jaynes noted – One asserts that the creations of his own imagination are real properties of Nature, and thus in effect projects his own thoughts out onto Nature.

Jaynes used the English language to delve into this further. In Logic, we say that If A is B, then B is A. However, when we apply this in our language, we will have issues. He used the old adage of “knowledge is power” as an example. If we then say “power is knowledge”, then we have said something that is fantastically absurd. The trouble here is with the verb “is”. As Jaynes pointed out:

These examples remind us that the verb ‘is’ has, like any other verb, a subject and a predicate; but it is seldom noted that this verb has two entirely different meanings. A person whose native language is English may require some effort to see the different meanings in the statements: ‘The room is noisy’ and ‘There is noise in the room’. But in Turkish these meanings are rendered by different words, which makes the distinction so clear that a visitor who uses the wrong word will not be understood. The latter statement is ontological, asserting the physical existence of something, while the former is epistemological, expressing only the speaker’s personal perception…

Common language – or, at least, the English language – has an almost universal tendency to disguise epistemological statements by putting them into a grammatical form which suggests to the unwary an ontological statement. A major source of error in current probability theory arises from an unthinking failure to perceive this. To interpret the first kind of statement in the ontological sense is to assert that one’s own private thoughts and sensations are realities existing externally in Nature. We call this the ‘mind projection fallacy’.

Once one has grasped the idea, one sees the Mind Projection Fallacy everywhere; what we have been taught as deep wisdom, is stripped of its pretensions and seen to be instead a foolish non sequitur.

Jaynes noted that there are two complementary forms to MPF:

The error occurs in two complementary forms, which we might indicate thus:

(A) (My own imagination) –> (Real property of Nature)

(B) (My own ignorance) –> (Nature is indeterminate)

I am more interested in the first of the two forms here in relation to Systems Thinking. The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking implies that there is a thinker. This also implies that we are doing thinking about “systems”. As MPF suggests, we are prone to assuming that our epistemological stances are in fact ontological nature. When we talk about a “system”, it is in terms of “as-if” statements. We say that the health care system as-if there actually is a physical corresponding entity in the real world. We talk about fixing “systems” as-if there is a mechanical entity that needs some switching out of parts or upgrading. When we come across a phenomenon, and we try to understand the phenomenon, we do it so by creating a narrative around it. For example, if we see an object fall to the ground, we create a narrative around how something caused the object to fall to the ground. Or if we face some adverse events, we create a narrative around having a bad day. In these narratives, there is always a “wholeness” aspect in the sense that things make sense or things happen for a reason. This wholeness aspect is what makes the narrative flow. The big rub in all this is that the narrative is done from a perspective. Usually this is from the perspective of the one doing the narration, the observer. We create “systems” in order to make sense of things around in our world. We are in situated in the world, in this place and time. How we create these grand narratives are impacted by this situatedness.

As I noted above, systems thinking requires thinkers, and no one thinker is alike. Their versions of “systems” are unique to them. If we treat our “systems” as being real, it leads us to also assume that others are also seeing the same “system” and can understand what we mean by “system”. This is the Mind Projection Fallacy in action.

Another aspect of MPF is that we tend believe that there is uncertainty everywhere. As Jaynes pointed out this “is” a very troublesome verb. Uncertainty is not existing out there in the world, but in here in our understanding. This is the whole premise of Bayesian epistemology. Probability is not a property of a phenomenon in the real world, but a property of our knowledge or belief about the phenomenon. Jaynes wrote:

that term (random) is basically meaningless as an attribute of the real world; it has no clear definition applicable in the real world. The belief that ‘randomness’ is some kind of real property existing in Nature is a form of the mind projection fallacy which says, in effect, ‘I don’t know the detailed causes – therefore – Nature does not know them.’

What does all this mean to a Systems Thinker? How does this help improve our thinking? Jaynes continues:

It seems to us that the belief that probabilities are realities existing in Nature is pure mind projection fallacy. True ‘scientific objectivity’ demands that we escape from this delusion and recognize that in conducting inference our equations are not describing reality; they are describing and processing our information about reality.

This is a second order view – we are thinking about our thinking. We are able to better think only when we realize that there are problems with our thinking. When we assume that “systems” are not real or objective but mere devices to further our understanding, we come to be more curious. We become curious about how others view the world. If we thought that others can objectively view the “system”, then there is no need for us to seek their perspectives. When we are curious about how others view the “system”, then we can really start talking about “systems”. Tweaking what the great cybernetician Heinz von Foerster once said – You cannot hold a system responsible for anything – you cannot shake its hand, ask it to justify its actions – and you cannot enter into a dialogue with it; whereas I can speak with another self, a you!

I will finish with the wise words of the grand master of Systems Thinking, West Churchman:

The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Authentic Cybernetician:

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:

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:

The Purpose of Purposeful Entities in Purposive Systems:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “purposeful” versus “purposive” in Systems Thinking. The two words are based on “purpose”. “Purposeful” means that the entity is autonomous and has freedom of choice. The entity is free to make their own rules, as the term “auto-nomous” means. “Purposive” on the other hand implies that the entity’s purpose is chosen by somebody else, and they do not have the freedom to make choices. I am very interested in the differences between purposeful and purposive, and very fascinated by the implication of purposeful entities in a “system”. If the purposeful entities are able to be autonomous, then the traditional viewpoints of systems thinking must be reevaluated. By “traditional systems thinking”, I am referring to the hard systems approach. This is the notion that there are real systems out there in the world that can be objectively modeled or designed where a specific purpose for the system can be achieved. Moreover, if the system is not functioning as expected, it can easily be changed or fixed. This would be the notion that the entities in the “system” are purposive, where they all work together for a common purpose, one that is prescribed by the designer or the leader of the “system”. A typical example is an organization where the leader has prescribed what everybody shall be doing. In this case, purposive entities are viewed as merely tools or a means to an end or cogs in the machine.

My take on purposefulness is based on the ideas of the great Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we are rational beings, and we should treat each other with respect. He stated this as a categorical imperative and had different versions of the categorical imperative, of which I am looking at the second one:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

He called this a categorical imperative because this imperative was applicable in all circumstances. Kant is not saying that we should not use others as a means. For example, if I am going to the store, I am using the storekeeper as a means (to get the things I want). Kant is okay with this. His point is that I should not treat the storekeeper simply as a means. This would be the case, if I go into the store, and take whatever I want and then leave without paying or trick the storekeeper to give me whatever I want for free. Kant emphasized that each one of us are autonomous beings. The storekeeper and I can choose to do certain things, and come into an agreement (as a social contract) on how we will treat each other as means. I will get the things I want, in return for money that I will give to the storekeeper. We have both entered into this voluntarily, and we both still have the freedom to make choices. I can leave the store without buying anything, and the storekeeper can choose to stop being a storekeeper.

From the Kantian viewpoint, treating others as “purposive” is immoral. Kant goes one step further and says that we are duty-bound to not treat others simply as a means. For example, if I have the intent to trick the storekeeper, but I am not doing it because I am afraid that I would get caught, Kant would say that I am being immoral even if I abide by the social contracts. For Kant, it is the intent of my behavior that matters the most. Kant believed that the reason to do good is for the sake of the goodwill. He believed this to be an objective truth. He viewed goodwill as that which will shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself. As a constructivist, I differ from Kant at this point. I do not assume that there is an objective truth outside of us. I will discuss this further later on.

Kant viewed freedom to choose as the opposite of necessity. If I drop an apple, it has to fall to the ground. The apple has no choice but to do that. This is a necessity. On other hand, if I drop a bird, it may or may not fall to the ground. It is able to make choices. There is no necessity here. Similarly, in organizations, people are purposeful rather than purposive. Even though, people may come and work at an organization, it does not mean that they are cogs in the machine, where they will do exactly as told. Trying to coerce them or force them is immoral. There is a tendency for a leader to expect the employees to behave exactly as told. This will be viewing them as mere robots, used only for their hands. This is a hard systems approach. From the soft systems approach, the employees are seen as purposeful, where they are autonomous and have the freedom to choose. They are not seen merely as a means to an end. This goes both ways – it would be immoral for the employee to come to work just for a paycheck. Unfortunately, sometimes when the leader treats the employees as a means to an end, the employees in return will treat the employer as a means to an end too.

From the soft systems standpoint, we should try to view the “system” through the others’ eyes. This would mean that we will try to understand what all purposes are being prescribed to the “system”. In addition, we should also look at ways to expand the capabilities of people to make choices for themselves. From this standpoint, we will not be able to value the whole as being more important than the part. The reason is because the “system” is a construction of an observer. Therefore, the prescribed whole is also a construction of the observer. Moreover, assuming what is the whole, what is the purpose, and what is “good” for the whole are also dependent on the observer. It would be immoral to view that the whole is indeed greater than the parts. The value of the part is as important as the value of the whole. This view goes against the hard systems thinking. We need to start looking at “systems” differently. All “systems” are human “systems” because they are constructed by us humans, as an as-if representation of reality. This is to make sense of what is going on around us. This systems thinking is observer based and ethics based.

From a constructivist viewpoint, I do not believe that objective truths are valid. Instead, as entities in a social realm, we come to certain stable states where some viewpoints are assigned a value in the social realm. This is ongoing and requires interactions in the social realm. There is a reflexive nature to this. If we look at all cultures, we would see similarities in how they were structured, and what value systems were common to all. These are the stable states that result from ongoing interactions. If we say that the value of an individual is as important as the value of the entire community they are a part of, then this introduces reflexivity in the equation. The individual is part of the community, and the value of the community is being viewed as the same as the individual who is also part of the community. This is a second order approach. I have written about this a lot. A seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals.

From this viewpoint, we should realize that there are no objective “systems” out there waiting to be fixed or changed or manipulated. As Kant would say, we should do the right things for the right reasons. And in this case, it would be to try to first understand one another, and to respect the humanity in us. We should try to increase the capacity for others to act autonomously and increase their freedom to make choices. The stability of value systems should not come from high above, but from the ongoing interactions with each other. In other words, the purposes of purposeful entities should not be given via commandments, but viewed as being emergent from the ongoing interactions with each other in the social realm, and this also requires continuous self-reflection and openness for error-correction.

Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was HvF’s Ethical Imperative: