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:

If the Teacher Hasn’t Learned, the Teacher Hasn’t Taught:

teacher hasnt learned

One of the key phrases of Training Within Industry (TWI) and Lean is – “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” To this I say, “If the teacher hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” Or even – “if the teacher hasn’t learned, the student hasn’t taught.” I say this from two aspects, the first from the aspect of the teacher, and the second from the aspect of the student. To explain my statements, I will use ideas from Cybernetics.

Circularity:

The core of this post started with the thought that Teaching should be a non-zero sum activity. As the old saying goes, teaching is the best way to learn a subject. From the point of Cybernetics, teaching is circular. The idea of circularity is best explained by Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, and one of my heroes.

What is meant by circularity is that the outcome of the operation of a system initiates the next operation of that system: the system and its operations are a “closed system”. This is to allow that an experimenter considers her- or himself as part of the experiment; or that a family therapist perceives of him or herself as a partner of the family; or that a teacher sees her- or himself as participant in the learning/ teaching process in the classroom, etc., etc.

The teacher learns as part of teaching. The outcome of the teaching goes back as a feedback. This could be a new train of thought that was sparked from the conversation with the student or a new perspective that was brought up by the student, and so on. The next time the teacher teaches he adapts based on their reflection.

Communication:

Teaching is a communicative act between the teacher and the student(s), that is circular in nature. In order for this communication act to be efficient and effective, the participants should first learn about each other. The teacher should learn from the student just like the student should learn from the teacher. This learning is about each other. This allows for communication to progress as a dance, rather than it being a one-person act. The teacher has to reflect just like the student has to reflect.

As Philip Baron notes:

Human communication is subject to several perceptual errors in both listening and seeing, which challenges the success of the communication in the education system. The ability of the teacher and the learners to effectively communicate with each other is a factor for the success of each reaching their goals. The teacher imparts her knowledge in the classroom, but according to von Foerster, “it is the listener, not the speaker, who determines the meaning of an utterance,” for the listener contextualizes this information based on their own past lived experience. Thus, the student’s epistemology and their expression of their understanding is integral in the classroom context and should be actively included into the education system… The ability of the teacher and the students to communicate effectively with each other is a factor in the attempt of each reaching their goals.

Information is not a commodity that can be passed around. The teacher cannot pass the information onto the student and expect that the student completely processed the information. I will go back to a von Foerster gem that might explain this further (also noted by Baron in the paragraph above):

“The hearer, not the speaker, determines the meaning of an utterance.”

Any physical artifact such as a book or a pamphlet contains information, however this does not mean that the reader was able to completely transfer it to their knowledge domain. If we take a step back, the person who wrote the book was trying to codify his knowledge. But this codification operation is not at all efficient. This falls under the realm of “Tacit Knowledge” by Micahel Polanyi. We know more than what we can say.

Organization Closure:

I have written about Organizational Closure before. The idea of autopoiesis and organizational closure is explained very well by their creators Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:

Autopoietic systems are organizationally (or operationally) closed. That is to say, the behavior of the system is not specified or controlled by its environment but entirely by its own structure, which specifies how the system will behave under all circumstances. It is as a consequence of this closure that living systems cannot have “inputs” or “outputs”-nor can they receive or produce information-in any sense in which these would have independent, objective reality outside the system. Put in another way, since the system determines its own behavior, there can be no “instructive interactions” by means of which something outside the system determines its behavior. A system’s responses are always determined by its structure, although they may be triggered by an environmental event.

The Cybernetician, Bernard Scott adds:

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

This idea extends what we spoke about earlier – information is not a commodity. However, I want to focus on another aspect this brings in: ‘the student is an autopoietic system’. From this standpoint, the student teaches himself; the teacher is there to perturb the student. Learning is an autonomous activity.

Even as you read what I am writing, I am not passing any information on to you. Any thought or idea that is generated is that of the reader, one that is constructed purely by the reader.

This is where things get interesting, if the student teaches himself, then what we have been saying so far is applicable to himself too. Thus, we are also talking about a second order act. Maturana said – “Anything said is said by an observer.” To this, von Foerster added – “Anything said is said to an observer.” The second order nature comes, when we come to an important point raised by von Foerster, “An observer is his own ultimate object.” This is reflected in Maturana’s statement from 1988, “Everything said is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or herself”.

As von Foerster adds – in second order, we now reflect about these circular processes which generate structure, order, behavior, etc., in those things we observe… We reflect upon our reflections. We are stepping into the domain of concepts that apply to themselves.

Final Words:

I hope that this post helped the reader to reflect upon the notion of teaching and learning. I stated the importance of the concept of second order, the idea of asking questions such as – “what is the purpose of the stated ‘purpose’?”, rather than just asking – “what is the purpose?” Nike’s slogan, “Just do it!”, a first order slogan can perhaps be updated as, “Before I just do it, I need to stipulate what is my purpose of doing it.” This makes it a second order slogan.

I will finish with a great von Foerster gem:

I can still remember the big motto in the Stanford School of Journalism that said, “Tell it like it is.” When to my horror, I saw that motto, I walked in there and said, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen, it is as you tell it, and that’s why you’re responsible for the ‘it.’ Because you tell ‘it,’ it ‘is’ as you tell it. You can’t say how it ‘is’ – no one knows how it ‘is.’ And when it ‘was’, no one can reconstruct how it was.”

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