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”: