The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

In my previous post, I talked about the idea of the Copernican revolution in philosophy by Immanuel Kant. In today’s post, I am expanding upon the ideas originated by Kant, especially autonomy and how it poses challenges in how we view human systems. I am also heavily relying on the ideas of Ralph Stacey. Kant had a lot to say about human autonomy. Autonomy stands for the ability to set laws for oneself or the ability to perform actions that are not directed by someone else. Kant viewed humanity as an end in itself and not a means to an end. Humans should not be used simply as a means to get something done. Humans, Kant noted, have the power to act according to their own conception of laws.

Kant was one of the pioneers of systems thinking. He understood the idea of circular causality and self-organization. Kant proposed that all living beings can be viewed as self-organizing systems rather than mechanisms such as a clock. The idea of a self-organizing system meant that the idea of feedback is important. However, Kant made an important distinction when it came to human beings. He proposed that humans cannot be understood as merely being a part of the “system” of nature. For this he used some ideas from Aristotle. Kant noted that all other living beings follow a formative causality, where the structure determines the unfolding of the living being itself. For example, a tree follows the unfolding of their lifecycle from a seed. The same formative causality is applicable to the human body; however, this is not applicable to the human being as a whole who has autonomy. This is beautifully explained by Ralph Stacey:

Humans are part of nature but if nature is governed by fixed mechanistic and systemic laws, then they cannot have any freedom to make their own choices… the body is subject to the fixed laws of nature but the mind is governed by the laws of reason, rationalist causality, and it is reason that makes us free. Kant was here formulating the theory of autonomous, rational individual who chooses goals and actions required to achieve them on the basis of reason. Kant then stressed that autonomous individuals could not be understood as parts of a whole because then they would be subject to the whole and so lose their autonomy. The notion of a system could, therefore, not be applied to reasoning individuals and it would not be valid to regard society as a system whose parts were individuals.

The idea of structure determining the outcome is a prevalent theme in many schools of Organizational Management. However, the idea of humans as being rule-following parts of the “system” should be challenged. In the light of the understanding that we are autonomous individuals with many self-imposed purposes and needs, the mechanistic view of an organization system based on structure falls apart. The “human body” may be viewed as a system, however a human being cannot be viewed as a system or being a part of a system.

The notion of Systems Thinking as being a study of real systems that can be observed objectively is still prevalent. This view suggests ideas such as learning organization or complex adaptive systems. Stacey again provides wisdom in this aspect:

For me, the claim that organizations learn amounts to both reification and anthropomorphism. I argue that organizations are not things because no one can point to where an organization is –all one can point to is the artefacts used by members of organizations in their work together. In our experience, the organization qua organization arises as the patterning of our interactions with each other… Since an organization is neither inanimate thing nor living body, in anything other than rather fanciful metaphorical terms, it follows that an organization can neither think nor learn.

The conundrum of autonomy also brings the important point that objective reality is not possible. The idea that a manager can objectively view the organization by being outside the organization must be reevaluated. This notion implies that the manager can use scientific thinking and identify rules to implement to optimize the organization. But this again utilize the idea that humans can be viewed as mere parts of a system. Stacey cautions us against this:

Management science equates the manager with the scientist and the organization with the mechanistic phenomenon that the scientist is concerned with. The manager’s main concern is with getting the right “if-then” causal rules. There is a quite explicit assumption that there is some set of rules that are optimal, that is, that produce the most efficient global outcome of the actions of the parts, or members, of the organization. There is an important difference between the scientist concerned with nature and the analogous manager concerned with an organization. The scientist discovers the laws of nature while the manager, in the theory of management science, chooses rules driving the behavior of organization’s members. In this way, there is rationalist causality, but it applies only to the manager who exercises the freedom of autonomous choice in the act of choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow in order to achieve the goals. Those members are assumed to be rule-following entities. The organizational reality, of course, is that members of an organization are not rule-following entities and they all do choose their own goals and actions to some extent.

Final Words:

Edgar Morin wonderfully noted that the autonomy of a system is less than the sum of autonomies of all the individual parts of a system. The idea that humans should not be viewed as being parts of a system should challenge your current view points on systems thinking. Kant proposed that we are using an as-if metaphor to construct reality since we do not have access to the external reality. From this standpoint, we can notate that systems are not real entities in the real world. Humans are autonomous and this means that we cannot stipulate purposes for other people. The freedom of the employee puts a constraint on the organization, and the freedom of the organization puts a constraint on the employee. This requires an ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment of intentions and values at all levels of recursions in an organization. This is not a conundrum to be solved. It is a creative tension that should be reinterpreted as often as possible.

I will finish with a Zen story:

A man is riding on top of a horse that is galloping by frantically, as if he has to be somewhere important, as soon as possible. A bystander sees this and asks the man, “Where are you going?

“I don’t know,” the rider replies, “ask the horse!

Wear a mask, stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at “Copernican Revolution”, a phrase used by the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant is one of the greatest names in philosophy. I am an Engineer by profession, and I started learning philosophy after I left school. As an Engineer, I am trained to think about causality in nature – if I do this, then that happens. This is often viewed as the mechanistic view of nature and it is reliant on empiricism. Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from experience. In contrast, at the other end of knowledge spectrum lies rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that knowledge comes from reason (internal). An empiricist can quickly fall into the trap of induction, where you believe that there is uniformity in nature. For example, if I clapped my hand twenty times, and the light flickered each time, I can then (falsely) conclude that the next time I clap my hand the light will flicker. My mind created a causal connection to my hand clapping and the light flickering.

David Hume, another great philosopher, challenged this and identified this approach as the problem of induction. He suggested that we, humans, are creatures of habit that we assign causality to things based on repeat experience. His view was that causality is assigned by us simply by habit. His famous example of challenging whether the sun will rise tomorrow exemplifies this:

That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

Hume came up with two main categories for human reason, often called Hume’s fork:

  1. Matters of fact – this represents knowledge that we gain from experience (synthetic), and this happens after the fact of experience (denoted by posteriori). An example is – the ball is heavy. Thinking cannot provide the knowledge that the ball is heavy. One has to interact with the ball to learn that the ball is heavy.
  2. Relation of ideas – this represents knowledge that does not rely on experience. This knowledge can be obtained simply through reason (analytic). This was identified as a priori or from before. For example – all bachelors are unmarried. No experience is needed for this knowledge. The meaning of unmarried is predicated in the term “bachelor”.

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Hume’s fork stipulates that all necessary truths are analytical, the meaning is predicated in the statement. Similarly, knowledge regarding matters of fact indicate that the knowledge is contingent on the experience gotten from the interaction. This leads to further ideas such as – there is a separation between the external world and the knowledge about the world. The knowledge about the world would come only from the world through empiricism. One can view this as the human mind revolving around the world.

Immanuel Kant challenged the idea of Hume’s fork and came up with the idea of a priori synthetic knowledge. Kant proposed that we, humans, are bestowed with a framework for reasoning that is a priori and yet synthetic. Kant synthesized ideas from rationalism and empiricism, and added a third tine to Hume’s fork. Kant famously stated – That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. Kant clarified that it does not follow that knowledge arises out of experience. What we come to know is based on our mental faculty. The mind plays an important role in our knowledge of the world. The synthetic a priori propositions say something about the world, and yet at the same time they say something about our mind.

How the world is to us depends on how we experience it, and thus the knowledge of the external world is dependent on the structure of our mind. This idea is often described as a pair of spectacles that we are born with. We see the world through this pair of spectacles that we cannot take off. What we see forms our knowledge of the world, but it is dependent on the pair of spectacles that is a part of us. Kant’s great idea is that our knowledge of the world does not conform to the world. Our knowledge of the world conforms not to the nature of the world, but to the nature of our internal faculties. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see the world as is, it is as we see it.

Nicholas Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, came up with a heliocentric view of the world. The prevalent idea at the time was that the celestial bodies, including the sun, revolved around the earth. Copernicus challenged this, and showed that the earth actually revolves around the sun. Kant, in a similar fashion, suggested that the human minds do not revolve around the world with the meanings coming into our minds. Instead, the world revolves around our minds, and we assign meanings to the objects in the world. This is explained wonderfully by Julie. E. Maybee:

Naïve science assumes that our knowledge revolves around what the world is like, but, Hume’s criticism argued, this view entails that we cannot then have knowledge of scientific causes through reason. We can reestablish a connection between reason and knowledge, however, Kant suggested, if we say—not that knowledge revolves around what the world is like—but that knowledge revolves around what we are like. For the purposes of our knowledge, Kant said, we do not revolve around the world—the world revolves around us. Because we are rational creatures, we share a cognitive structure with one another that regularizes our experiences of the world. This intersubjectively shared structure of rationality—and not the world itself—grounds our knowledge.

Systems:

We have assumed that the knowledge of the world, our cognition, conforms to the world. Kant proposes that all we have access to is the phenomena, and not the actual world. What we are learning is dependent on us. We use an as-if model to generate meaning based on our interaction with the external world. In this viewpoint, the systems are not real things in the world. The systems are concepts that we construct, and they are as-if models that we use to make sense of the phenomena. What we view as systems are the constructions we make and depends on our need for understanding.  

Alan Stewart uses a similar idea to explain his views on constructivism:

The fundamental premise of constructivism is that we humans are self-regulating organisms who live from the inside out. As a philosophical counterpoint to naive realism, constructivism suggests that we are proactive co-creators of the reality to which we respond. Underlying this concept is that perception is an active process in which we ‘bring forth distinctions’. It is our idiosyncratic distinctions which form the structure of the world(s) which each of us inhabits.”

I will finish with a great lesson from Alan Watts:

“Everything in the world is gloriously meaningless.”

To further elaborate, I will add that all meaning comes from us. From a Hume-ian sense, we are creatures of habit in that we cannot stop assigning meaning. From a Kant-ian sense we are law-makers, not law-discoverers.

From a Systems Thinking perspective, we have unique perspectives and we assign meanings based on this. We construct “systems” “as-if” the different parts work together in a way to have a purpose and a meaning, both of which are assigned by us. The meaning comes inside out, not the other way around. To further this idea, as a human collective, we cocreate an emergent phenomenal world. In this aspect, “reality” is multidimensional, and each one of us has a version that is unique to us.  

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hegel, Dialectics and POSIWID:

Hegel, Dialectics and POSIWID:

In today’s post, I am looking at Hegel’s dialectical approach and using it to gain a better understanding of the purpose of an organization. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher who furthered the ideas of German Idealism in Philosophy after Immanuel Kant. Hegel’s writing is quite dense and he is often considered to be one of the hardest philosophers to understand. With this introduction, I should note here that my post is “inspired” by his dialectical approach.

When we look at a phenomenon say “A”, we are speaking about our understanding of “A”. This understanding automatically brings in the opposite or “notA” to the realm of the understanding. We can denote “notA” as “!A”. Our understanding of “A” lies somewhere between “A” and “!A”. To improve our understanding of “A”, we should also look at “!A”. This is a very simple view of Hegel’s dialectic. The idea of dialectics implies that all abstract concepts are partial and contain innate contradictions. As we further our understanding of the concept, we go through a dialectic process by looking at the innate contradiction (A and !A). The new understanding can be notated as A’, which again is partial and sets off another dialectical process. Hegel’s idea of dialectical process is a holistic approach. Generally, when we speak about contradictions, we either view it as an absurdity that negates any further thought or as a pro-con discussion which leads to choosing one over the other.

Hegel’s view of dialectics has a background based in history. Hegel’s view is that the world is in a movement from one phase to the next. It goes through transformation continuously. Hegel uses this idea of movement from one end to the other for reasoning. This maybe made easier to understand by using the example of a flower bud. Hegel wrote:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. The ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes these stages moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes thereby the life of the whole.

 We can look at this example with the starting point of the seed. The seed grows into a plant. The plant produces the bud, and the bud blooms into a flower, which produces the seed. Each stage brings the past stages with it. To have a good understanding we should also look at the previous stages. Any one stage cannot be viewed in isolation. Any previous stages we bring forth for our understanding is not cancelled, but kept for improving our understanding. The meaning is holistic. Hegel would state that only the truth is whole.

“The truth is the whole. The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is it what it is in very truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development.”

As Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze write:

For Hegel, only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue. Hegel’s grand idea is ‘Totality’ – which preserves within it each of the ideas or stages it has overcome or subsumed. Overcoming or subsuming is a developmental process made up of ‘moments’. The Totality is the product of that process which preserves all of its ‘moments’ as elements in a structure, rather than as stages or phases.

The absolute state is where the dialectic movement goes towards. The absolute state has essences of all the past moments we considered. Hegel would call this as “Aufheben.” Aufheben, itself, requires a dialectical approach to understand its meaning since it contains contradictory reflections. The term is translated to English as “sublation”, and it means “to lift up” and also “to cancel”. Hegel is indicating that as we make a dialectical movement, we are preserving some aspects of the moments we are considering while at the same times negating some aspects of the moments. The dialectical movement is generally viewed to be consisting of three moments (as Julie Maybee notes):

  1. The first moment—the moment of the understanding—is the moment of fixity, in which concepts or forms have a seemingly stable definition or determination.
  2. The second moment—the “dialectical” or “negatively rational” moment—is the moment of instability.
  3. The third moment—the “speculative” or “positively rational” moment—grasps the unity of the opposition between the first two determinations, or is the positive result of the dissolution or transition of those determinations.

The common example used to explain this is that of “being <-> not-being <-> becoming”. When we think of “being” we are thinking of a total presence of a being. But to understand this idea, we should also consider the absence of that being or “not-being” or “nothingness”. A being becomes nothing at the end. Or a being comes into existence from “not-being”. This is the act of “becoming”. The idea of “becoming” has the ideas of “being” and “not-being”. As noted earlier, to better understand “A”, we also need to understand “!A”. The higher understanding seems to be an emergent property. The better understanding of “A” lies between “A” and “!A” and requires the movement from “A” to “!A” to get to the higher understanding of “A”.

Another example we can use is that of “beauty”. As Maybee notes:

The highest definition of the concept of beauty, for instance, would not take beauty to be fixed and static, but would include within it the dialectical nature or finiteness of beauty, the idea that beauty becomes, on its own account, not-beauty. This dialectical understanding of the concept of beauty can then overgrasp the dialectical and finite nature of beauty in the world, and hence the truth that, in the world, beautiful things themselves become not-beautiful, or might be beautiful in one respect and not another.

The Purpose of an Organization:

We are taught that organizations have a designed purpose, and we are taught about the constancy of purpose to be a successful organization. Let’s use the idea of a dialectical approach to look at purpose of a system. Our first moment is that Organizations have a purpose and that it is dictated by the “designer” of the Organization. The second moment comes when we realize that the organization is not a single entity but a collective. Organizations are made of humans who themselves are purposeful. The top down designed purpose may not have a meaning as it flows down the organizational chain. Thus, we come to realize that organizations do not have a purpose. Then we come to the third moment with the idea of POSIWID – the purpose of a system is what it does. As the great management cybernetician, Stafford Beer said:

A good observer will impute the purpose of a system from its actions… There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do.

From the third moment, we realize that purpose is emergent and is always dynamic. Most importantly, depending upon who is the observer, the purpose will change. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model is an excellent framework to look at this further. Beer’s model is recursive with viable systems within viable systems. The purpose is different depending upon the level of recursion and depending upon who is observing, and also when the observation is done. The schematic below was Beer’s vision of recursions from the Project Cybersyn in Chile.

An interesting example to further this understanding is the notion that the purpose is always determined by the user. The purpose is the need of the user that needs to be met at any given time. For example, the user may have multiple purposes for a screwdriver depending on the need – as a hammer, as a can opener, as a tool for tightening screws etc. The purpose is dynamic for sure. The environment always has more variety than the organization’s management. I highly encourage the readers to check out Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model.

Final Words:

Every idea is in the process of transformation, and carries with it traces of the ideas they were built on. The same can be said about us humans, individually and collectively. Hegel seems to suggest that all ideas progress towards “Geist” or “Spirit” (the Absolute Knowledge), a state of total and truthful knowledge. No further knowledge is useful or possible. This sounds like a state of maximum entropy. One could view this as – everything is in a progression towards a state of maximum Entropy similar to the ultimate universal heat death!

We need to be open and rational to pursue better understanding. The dialectic movement is possible only when we consider innate contradictions. We can also choose not to pursue the dialectic movement and assume that our current position is stable by ignoring the innate contradictions. Full or Absolute understanding is not possible since we think in abstractions, and all abstractions are partial by definition. We fail to improve our understanding when we assume that we have the “whole” knowledge.

As a note, I should state that I purposefully chose note to use the formulaic thesis-antithesis-synthesis idea since Hegel never used that to explain his ideas.

Hegel reportedly admitted to the difficulty of his ideas. He is sometimes attributed to have said, “When I Wrote It, Only God and I Knew the Meaning; Now God Alone Knows.”

On his deathbed he noted, “There was only one man who ever understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.”

To keep up with the theme, I can also offer the great British philosopher Bertrand Russel’s criticism of Hegel as the second moment:

Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get some men to accept it, but he did. He set out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Shingo’s Whys:

The Truths of Complexity:

The Covid 19 pandemic has given me an opportunity to observe, meditate and learn about complexity in action. In today’s post, I am looking at “truths” in complexity. Humans, more than any other species, have the ability to change their environment at a faster pace. They are also able to maintain belief systems over time and act on them autonomously. These are good reasons to call all “human systems” complex systems.

The Theories of Truth:

Generally, there are three theories of truth in philosophy. They are as follows:

  1. Correspondence theory of truth – very simply put, this means that what you have internally in your mind corresponds one-to-one with the external world. The statement you might make such as – “the cat is on the mat” is true, if there are truly a cat and a mat, and if that cat is on that mat. The main objection to this theory is that we don’t have access to have an objective reality. What we have is a sensemaking organ, our brain, that is trying to make sense based on the data provided by the various sensory organs. The brain over time generates stable correlations which allows it to abstract meanings from the filtered information from the sensory data. The correspondence theory is viewed as a “static” picture of truth, and fails to explain the dynamic and complex nature of reality.
  2. Coherence theory of truth – In this approach, a statement is true if it is coherent with the different specified set of beliefs and propositions. Here the idea is more about a fit and harmony with existing beliefs. The coherence theory is about consistency. An objection to this theory is that the subjective nature of a statement can “bend” to match the existing strong belief systems. Perhaps, a good example of this is the recent poll that found that the majority of democrats fear that the worst is yet to come for the Covid 19 pandemic, while the majority of republicans believe that the worst is over. Another criticism against this is that we can be inconsistent in our beliefs as indicated by cognitive dissonance.
  3. Pragmatic Theory of truth – The pragmatic theory of truth was put forth as an alternative to the static correspondence theory of truth. In this theory, the value of truth is dependent on the utility it brings. Pragmatic theories of truth have the effect of shifting attention away from what makes a statement true and toward what people mean or do in describing a statement as true. As one of the proponents of Pragmatic theory, William James, put it – True beliefs are useful and dependable in ways that false beliefs are not:‘You can say of it then either that “it is useful because it is true” or that “it is true because it is useful”. Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing.’ One of my favorite explanations of pragmatic theory comes from Richard Rorty, who viewed it as coping with reality, rather than copying reality. One of the criticisms against the pragmatic theory of truth is how it explains truth in terms of utility. As John Capps notes, utility, long-term durability, and assertibility (etc.) should be viewed not as definitions but rather as criteria of truth, as yardsticks for distinguishing true beliefs from false ones.

Sensemaking Complexity:

From the discussion of truth, we can see that seeking truth is not an easy task, especially when we deal with complexity of human systems. Our natural tendency is to find order as pleasing and reassuring. We try to find order in all we can, and we try our best to maintain order as long as we can. In this attempt, we often neglect the actual complexity we are dealing with. A common way to distinguish complexity of a phenomenon is – ordered, complicated or complex. We can say a square peg in a square hole is an ordered phenomenon. The correspondence theory of truth is quite apt here because we have a one to one relationship. We have a very good working knowledge of cause and effect. As complexity increases, we get to complicated phenomenon where there is still somewhat a good cause and effect relationship. A car can be viewed as a complicated phenomenon. The correspondence theory is still apt here. Once we add a human to the mix, we get to complexity. Imagine the driver of a car. Now imagine thousands of drivers all at once. The correspondence theory of truth falls apart fast here.

The main source of complexity in the example discussed above comes from humans. We are autonomous, and we are able to justify our own actions. We may go faster than the speed limit because we are already late for the appointment. We may overtake on the wrong side because the other driver is driving slowly. We assign meanings and we also assign purposes for others. We do not always realize that other humans also have the same power.

We have seen varying responses and behavior in this pandemic. We have seen the different justifications and hypotheses. We agree with some of them and strongly disagree with others depending on how they cohere with our own belief systems. The actual transmission of the virus is fairly constrained. It transmits mainly from person to person. The transmission occurs mainly through respiratory droplets. Every human interaction carries some risk of becoming infected if the other person is a carrier of the virus. However, the actual course of the pandemic has been complex.

Philosophical Insights to Sensemaking Complexity:

I will use the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and William. V.O. Quine to further look at truth and how we come to know about truth. Nietzsche had a multidimensional view of truth. He viewed truth as:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

He emphasized on the abstract nature of truth. One comes to view the abstractions/metaphors as stand in for reality, and eventually falsely equate them to reality.

Every word immediately becomes a concept, in as much as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal.

Nietzsche advised us against using a cause-effect, correspondence type viewpoint in sensemaking complexity:

It is we alone who have devised cause, sequence, for-each-other, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we project and mix this symbol world into things as if it existed ‘in itself’, we act once more as we have always acted—mythologically. 

As Maureen Finnigan notes in her wonderful essay, Nietzsche’s Perspective: Beyond Truth as an Ideal:

As truth is not objective, in like manner, it is not subjective. Since thinking is not wholly rational, disconnected from the body, or independent of the world, the subjective perception, or conception, of truth through the intellect alone is impossible. “The ‘pure spirit’ is pure stupidity: if we subtract the nervous system and the senses—the ‘mortal shroud’—then we miscalculate—that is all!” Inasmuch as the individual is not independent from the world, one can neither subjectively nor objectively explain the world as if detached, but must interpret the world from within. Subjective and objective, like True and apparent, soul and body, thinking thing and material thing, intellect and sense, noumena and phenomena, are dualities that Nietzsche aspires to overcome. Thus, although Nietzsche is not a rationalist, this does not mean he falls into the irrationalist camp. He does not abolish reason but instead situates it within life, as an instrument, not as an absolute.

With complexity, we should not look for correspondence but coherence. Correspondence forces categorization while coherence forces connections. This follows nicely into Quine’s Web of Belief idea. Quine’s idea is a holistic approach. We make meanings in a holistic fashion. When we observe a phenomenon, our sensory experience and the belief it generates do not standalone in our entire belief system. Instead, Quine postulates that we make sense holistically with a web of belief. Every belief is connected to other beliefs like a web.

For example, we can say Experience1(E1) led to Belief1(B1), and Experience2(E2) led to Belief2(B2) etc. This has the correspondence nature we discussed earlier. This view prefers the ordered static approach to sensemaking. However, in Quine’s view, it is more dynamic, interconnected and complex. This has the coherence nature we discussed earlier. The schematic below, inspired by a lecture note from Bryan. Van. W. Norden, shows this in detail.

The idea of Web of Belief is clearly explained by Thomas Kelly:

Quine famously suggests that we can picture everything that we take to be true as constituting a single, seamless “web of belief.” The nodes of the web represent individual beliefs, and the connections between nodes represent the logical relations between beliefs. Although there are important epistemic differences among the beliefs in the web, these differences are matters of degree as opposed to kind. From the perspective of the epistemologist, the most important dimension along which beliefs can vary is their centrality within the web: the centrality of a belief corresponds to how fundamental it is to our overall view of the world, or how deeply implicated it is with the rest of what we think. The metaphor of the web of belief thus represents the relevant kind of fundamentality in spatial terms: the more a particular belief is implicated in our overall view of the world, the nearer it is to the center, while less fundamental beliefs are located nearer the periphery of the web. Experience first impinges upon the web at the periphery, but no belief within the web is wholly cut off from experience, inasmuch as even those beliefs at the very center stand in logical relations to beliefs nearer the periphery.

The idea of degrees rather than a concrete distinction between beliefs is very important to note here. Additionally, Quine proposes that when we counter an experience contradicting our belief, we seek to restore consistency/coherence in the web by giving up beliefs that are located near the periphery rather than the ones near the center.

Final Words:

The dynamic nature of complexity is not just applicable to a pandemic but also to scientific paradigms. This is beautifully explained in the quote from Jacob Bronowski below:

“There is no permanence to scientific concepts because they are only our interpretations of natural phenomena … We merely make a temporary invention which covers that part of the world accessible to us at the moment”

Our beliefs shape our experience as much as our experiences shape our beliefs in a recursive manner. The web gets more complex as time goes on, where some of the nodes become more distinct and some others get hazier. We are prone to getting perpetually frustrated if we try to apply a static framework to the dynamic everchanging domain of complexity. It gets more frustrating because patterns emerge on a continuous basis providing an illusion of order. The static and rigid frameworks break because of their rigidity and inflexibility to tackle the variety thrown upon them.

With this mind, we should come to realize that we do not have a means to know the external world as-is. All we can know is how it appears to us based on our web of belief. The pragmatic tradition of truth advises us to keep going on our search for truth, and that this search is self-corrective. The correspondence theory fails us because the meaning we create is not independent of us, but very much a product of our web of belief. At the same time, if we don’t seek to understand others, coherence theory will fail us because we would lack the requisite variety needed to make sense of a complex phenomenon. I will finish with an excellent quote from Maureen Finnigan:

Human beings impose their own truth on life instead of seeking truth within life.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Korzybski at the Gemba:

Korzybski at the Gemba:

Alfred_Korzybski

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

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

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

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

Korzybski stated:

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

800px-StructuralDifferential.svg

Image source – WIkipedia

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

Korzybski wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Words:

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

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

You may also want to check out my related posts:

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

The Map at the Gemba:

Hermeneutics at the Gemba:

Hgadamer

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

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

Hermeneutic Circle

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

Spiral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

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

INewton

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

Newton

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

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

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

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

Ernst von Glasersfeld, the proponent of Radical Constructivism stated:

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

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

Bernard Scott expands this idea further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

The System in the Box:

W

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

The Map at the Gemba:

Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applied to daily life and language:

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

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

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

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

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

As Lance Strate puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

The Map Is the Territory:

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

Heinz von Foerster said:

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

On a similar note, Humberto Maturana said:

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

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

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

 Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

Magician at the Gemba:

157281886840401048HJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Gemba:

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

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

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

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

A Spanish magician told everyone he would disappear.

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

Always keep on learning…

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

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