The Cybernetics of Magic and the Magic of Cybernetics:

In today’s post, I am looking at magic and cybernetics. From a young age, I have been a fan of magic. I have talked about magic here before. I see magic as the art of paradoxes.  The word paradox stems from the Greek words – “para” and “dokein”, and taken together it means contrary to expectation.

Take for example a simple magic trick where the magician shows you an open empty hand. The magician closes the hand, and does a gentle wiggle and then opens his hand to reveal a coin. He again closes his hands, and does another gentle wiggle and then opens the hand to show that his hand is empty. The magic happens from a self-referential operation. The spectator (or the observer) sees an empty hand and describes it to themselves as an empty hand. Later, when the magician shows their hand again, the hand now contains a coin. The spectator has to reference back to the previous state of empty hand, and face the moment of paradox. The hand that was empty now has a coin. The moment of magic comes only when the spectator can reference back to the empty hand. If we denote the empty hand as A, the value of the hand now is !A or in other words, not an empty hand. If the spectator cannot reference back to their original observation, they will not see the magic. From the magician’s standpoint, he should take care to make sure that this experience is as strong as possible. For example, he should take care to maintain the image of the hand with and without the coin, the same. This means that the position of the fingers, the gap between them, the gesture etc. are all maintained the same for the two states – one where the hand has no coin, and the second where the hand has a coin. This reinforces the “magic” for the spectator.

The idea of self-reference is of great importance in cybernetics. In logic, the idea of self-reference is shunned because it normally leads to paradoxes. A great example for a paradox is the liar paradox. One of the oldest forms of liar paradox is the statement that Epimenides, the Cretan made. He said that, “all Cretans are liars.” Since he himself was a Cretan, that would mean that he is also a liar, but that would mean that what he is saying is true, which means that he must be a liar… and so on. This goes into a paradox from the self-reference. There have been many solutions suggested for this conundrum. One of the ways to resolve any apparent paradox is to introduce temporality into this sentence. We can do this by making the statement slightly ambiguous and add the word “sometimes”. So, the sentence becomes, “all Cretans are liars sometimes.” The temporality suggests that the value for the statement and the person uttering the statement changes with time and this dissolves the paradox.

Paradoxes don’t exist in the “real world.” The reasonable conclusion is that they have something to do with our stubborn and rigid thinking. When we are unwilling to add temporality or ambiguity, we get stuck with our thinking. Another way to look at this is from a programmer’s standpoint. The statement a = a + 1, is valid from a computer program standpoint. Here the variable, “a” does not stand for a constant value. It is a placeholder for a value at a given point in time. Thus, although the equation a = a +1 is self-referential, it does not crash the computer because we introduce temporality to it, and we do not see “a” having one unique value at all times.

In Cybernetics, self-reference is accepted as a normal operation. Cyberneticians talk about second order concepts such as “understanding understanding” and “observing observing”. One of my favorite description of Cybernetics comes from Larry Richards. He describes cybernetics as a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it – cybernetics – is one). This is form of self-reference.

In Cybernetics, self-reference does not lead to paradox. Instead, it leads to a stable outcome. As cognizing agents, we build a stable reality based on self-reference. We can do activities such as thinking about thinking or learning about learning from this approach. Louis Kauffman talks about this:

Heinz von Foerster in his essays has suggested the enticing notion that “objects are tokens for eigen behaviors.” … The short form of this meaning is that there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition that “arises between them.” It is this stability that constitutes the object (and the perceiver). In this view, one does not really have any separate objects, objects are always “objects perceived,” and the perceiver and the perceived arise together in the condition of observation.

We identify the world in terms of how we shape it. We shape the world in response to how it changes us. We change the world and the world changes us. Objects arise as tokens of behavior that leads to seemingly unchanging forms. Forms are seen to be unchanging through their invariance under our attempts to change, to shape them.

My post was inspired by the ideas of Spencer-Brown, Francisco Varela and Heinz von Foerster. I will finish with another gem from Heinz von Foerster:

I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.

This post is also available as a podcast here –

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was TPS’s Operation Paradox:

Note: The point of a = a+ 1, was made also by Elena Esposito (Kalkul der Form).