I am writing this post after a short break. My topic for the post is “reality”. I have always been fascinated with the idea of ontology in philosophy. It is loosely described as the study of existence or reality and it comes under metaphysics in philosophy. I have written about it many times before and it seems that there are always more and more nuances regarding it. I have come to see myself as a cybernetician, so today’s post is about reality for a cybernetician.
Another philosophical term that is thrown around a lot is epistemology, or the study of knowledge. I see ontology intertwined with epistemology. As a cybernetician, I see the existence of circularity between the two. Ontology, the study of reality, has a circular relationship with epistemology, the study of knowledge. Why is this the case? As a cybernetician, I am of the view that reality is constructed. When you construct something, you construct using what you already know. The more you construct, the more you know about “stuff” that you can use for better construction. The better results the construction yield, the more you make note of the “stuff” used for construction. This idea of better results is termed as “viability” in cybernetics. The emphasis in cybernetics is for viability, and not for truths. Truth is something that does not make a lot of sense. To say that one has access to truths, it would mean that one has access to an unadulterated objective world out there. As the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster (HvF) put it, “Truth is the invention of a liar”. Does this mean that I can simply make statements such as “I can fly” or “I am invisible”? The answer to this goes back to viability. Does the statement, “I can fly” yield a successful result when I jump of a cliff? Of course, not. A student of philosophy can see that cybernetics has links to pragmatism and postmodernism.
Reality for a cybernetician is based on an observer. It is a description that is made by an observer. To say that this is objective means that the description is independent of the observer. In other words, the description has no relationship to the describer. We live in a human world, not a feline or canine world. Our human world is a stable construction built in a social realm, where you and I can sustain viable existences. Our world is based on what as a human can see, or hear, or taste or feel or any of the other sensory experiences. If we cannot experience, then we cannot construct. Our knowledge is experiential knowledge and our reality is experiential reality. As Detlef Lafrentz beautifully put it:
If the observer’s characteristics are supposed to be excluded, then so too should his capacity to describe be set aside. But description is precisely what an observer does… Every observation first says something about the observer him- or herself. Anyone who claims to speak the truth says something about himself but not about the truth. That is the meaning of HvF’s sentence: “Truth is the invention of a liar… each person calculates his/her own world. This entails that human perception is not a depiction of reality but instead created out of one’s own inner resources. The biology of human perception shows that a large part of what we perceive has nothing to do with what is happening “out there”. HvF is not saying there is no world “out there”, only that we don’t know what it looks like. The observer would do well to be aware of that.
When I have had interactions online regarding these ideas, one of the pushbacks I have received is that this leads to solipsism. If the reality is constructed, then does that mean that reality is entirely in the mind? Of course not. Does this mean that reality is entirely independent of the mind? Of course, not either. The reality that we spoke of is a human reality. One cannot speak of an objective reality. This does not mean that reality is entirely subjective either. This would be similar the solipsistic idealist viewpoint. The notion of ontology without epistemology, and epistemology without ontology is nonsensical. As a human being living in a social realm, our reality is purely based on what our interpretative frameworks can afford. This framework gets corrected and “upgraded” or modified to continue the suitability of it to support the viability notion that we spoke of earlier. One paradoxical idea in this regard is that the reality for each of us is unique to us and cannot be shared with one another. However, it is entirely based on our relationship with one another. The language that we use is public and the values that we align ourselves to are also based on this social realm. The idea of “I” needs an “us”. We are situated in this world, in this time and in this culture. And this has a tremendous influence on who we are. This situatedness of the world is a given, but the world itself is not. The static nature (stability) comes from the dynamic nature of our relationships with our environment and the other co-constructors. As I had noted before, a seemingly “objective” value system can arise in the social realm due to the ongoing subjective interactions of the individuals. The stability comes from continued successes that are assigned a desirableness leading to a structural coupling between the interacting elements.
If we do not engage in the construction, then our reality gets constructed for us as part of others constructing their own versions of reality. We get stuck and our purpose in life gets written for us. If we do not choose to throw ourselves into our bright futures, we get pushed into a corner. As Carl Jung put it neatly, “the world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.” We are responsible for our construction of the reality. The flipside of this is that it is also our responsibility that we ensure that others have the freedom to construct theirs.
I will finish with some beautiful words from Simone de Beauvoir:
Thus, every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning.
“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you” – Carl Jung
In today’s post, I am looking at Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. He explained this as follows – ‘I shall act always so as to increase the total number of choices’. This might seem as a strange choice of words. I will try to explain my understanding of this based on constructivism and existentialism. HvF believed that we construct our stable experiential reality based on our historical interactions with our environment in an autonomous manner. Our ongoing interactions lend stability to our experiences that we can identify as “tokens” for objects. This gives us the ability to recall an object in the external world.
From a social realm standpoint, this goes further in that we identify the “self” and the “others” based on this. We differentiate ourselves from the others, and yet see ourselves as being a part with the others in the social realm. We learn how to act in this realm based on our dynamic interactions, and in turn we also teach others how to interact with us. From this standpoint, we realize that there is no objective reality out there. There is no objectivity in this realm. As HvF noted, Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.
We are meaning making entities. Our nervous systems are actively engaged in making meanings based on the perturbations in our environment. In addition to this, we have evolved to predict what is going to happen based on the current state of our nervous sytem. For example, right now, as you are reading this, you are already trying to predict where this is going. The problem with being a meaning-seeking entity is that we start to believe that there is a meaning to all this, that there is a meaning out there to begin with. We have to realize that there is no meaning to things, other than the ones that we create. In the same vein, there is no purpose to things or ourselves that we do not assign. It is our responsibility to assign our own purpose as autonomous entities. We are responsible to ensure that we support the autonomy of others in our social realm to do the same.
All this can be further explained by the ideas of existentialism. The main tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that we create a meaning for ourselves. There is no meaning that is assigned to us from an a priori standpoint. There is no human essence out there, and we are not copies of an ideal human. We exist first and only then do we create meaning for ourselves. One of the interesting aspects of existentialism is that we are condemned to be free. This means that we are responsible for our own actions as well as inactions; that we are always free to choose our actions. We cannot point to an external supernatural entity for our morals. We cannot pass our responsibility to act or not act to another individual. We are always free to choose how we act.
To be free is part of who we are. This also means that any action from us to take this away from other human beings is inhuman. Freedom should beget more freedom. Existentialism talks about facticity and transcendence. Facticity represents the constraints that we are embedded in. These are the “givens”. For example, I am a male, and I currently live in the year 2022. These are facts that I cannot change. Transcendence is when we do not allow facticity to define our future selves. This would mean that we are not bound to our current selves, and we should not use this as an excuse to not do what we want to do. For example, I could write a bestseller book, but I am not going to do that right now because I am busy with work. Very loosely put, transcendence is about the future, while facticity is about the past and the present.
With all of this background, let’s revisit HvF’s ethical imperative. HvF is not saying that we should increase options for the sake of increasing options. His choice of word is “choices”. This implies that the entity is able to make decisions. He is also saying that I should act to increase the number of available choices. The current set of choices are tied to our facticity. They could be assigned to us by someone else who is not interested in our autonomy or freedom. Following the current set of choices would only reinforce our facticity. However, increasing the number of choices implies transcendence, our future choices. Increasing the number of choices is about giving the responsibility for ourselves and others the ability to make choices, and to also allow conditions for transcendence. Freedom should beget more freedom. HvF’s ethical imperative looks into the future to make more connections and possibilities. We cannot assign purposes and force our choices on other people. This is an important reminder for our current state of affairs based on the possibility that Roe. V. Wade could be overturned in the United States. In the light of existentialism, HvF’s ethical imperative means that we should be the ones making meaning/purpose for our lives, and at the same time, we should strive to allow others to do the same. Our freedom is defined by the freedom of others because we are always embedded in a social realm. Our self is identified and defined in terms of others.
HvF’s ethical imperative means that we cannot pass our responsibility and say that we had no other choice or that our hands are tied due to our facticity. It is our responsibility to cultivate transcendence for ourselves as well as others. HvF put this beautifully as “A is better off, when B is better off.” “What other choice do I have?” can be the cop-out question or the most important question one could ask. One is decidable and the other is undecidable. HvF explained a decidable question as one for which the answer is already known. For example, “what is 4 + 4?” An undecidable question is one for which we have to decide an answer. For example, “what is the meaning of my life?” HvF’s ethical imperative advises us to treat undecidable questions as undecidable questions, rather than pretending that they are decidable questions. HvF said that – Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.
Another aspect to HvF’s ethical imperative was that we can get into problems where we get entrapped in our own constructions of false dichotomies and other semantic traps. We might be assuming that there are only two answers or that one is true and the other one is false. These are our own makings of semantic traps that we fall into it. He advises us in this case to “Always think. Isn’t there something new?”
I will finish with HvF’s own words explaining his ethical imperative. HvF was responding to the comment that the children growing up in a sectarian community will obviously absorb its reality.
This is possible, no doubt. On the other hand, I remain convinced that these people, these individuals, can always opt out of such a network and escape from the sectarian system. They have this freedom, I would claim, but they are all too often completely unable to actually see it. They are blind to their own blindness and do not see that they do not see; they are incapable of realizing that there are still possibilities for action. They have created their blind spot and are frozen in their everyday mechanisms and think there is no way out. The uncanny thing, actually, is that sects and dictators always manage to make actually existing freedom invisible for some time. All of a sudden, citizens become zombies or Nazis committing themselves to condemning freedom and responsibility by saying: “I was ordered to kill these people, I had no choice! I merely executed orders!” Even in such a situation, it is obviously possible to refuse. It would be a great decision, possibly leading to one’s own death but still an act of incredible quality: “No, I will not do it. I will not kill anyone!” In brief, it is my view that freedom always exists. At each and every moment, I can decide who I am. Moreover, in order to render, and keep, this visible I have been pleading for a form of education and communality that does not restrict or impede the visibility of freedom and the multitude of opportunities but actively supports them. My ethical imperative is, therefore: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
It is certainly not my contention that the invention of realities is completely arbitrary and willful and would allow me to see the sky blue at first, then green, and after opening my eyes again, not at all. Of course, every human being is tied into a social network, no individual is an isolated wonder phenomenon but dependent on others and must – to say it metaphorically – dance with others and construct reality through communality. The embedding into a social network necessarily leads to a reduction of arbitrariness through communality; however, it does not at all change the essentially given freedom. We make appointments, identify with others and invent common worlds – which one may give up again. The kinds of dance one chooses along this way may be infinitely variable.
True to his imperative, HvF later reworded the statement:
I once said, “Act always as to increase the number of choices.” That is my ethical imperative, although once again one might have the impression that I am trying to order people around, and this is just not right. I didn’t choose my words very carefully when I said that. It would have been better if I had written, “Heinz, act always as to increase the number of choices”.
In today’s post, I am looking at the fascinating world of second order cybernetics. If first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, then second order cybernetics (SOC) is the study of observing systems. If first order cybernetics is a hard view of modeling systems, then second order cybernetics is a soft view of modeling the modeling. From my viewpoint, one of the basic notions of second order cybernetics is that we are informationally closed. This means that information does not enter us from the outside. Instead, we generate meaning based on the perturbations we encounter from the outside world. One of the pioneers of SOC was Heinz von Foerster. I will be relying on his wisdom a lot for this post.
SOC teaches us that observer must be included as part of the observation. Objective observations are not possible because the observer is part of the observation. We do not have access to the external world. What we observe depends upon our interpretative framework. What we are really experiencing is not the external world in all its wonderful variety or richness. Instead, what we experience is the constraints we encounter in the world; the constraints that our interpretative framework can afford to experience. If we think about it, we can only sense a sliver of the light spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the audible spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the “tactile spectrum”, and so on. We depict a three-dimensional world because that is what we are accustomed to. As von Foerster noted, the environment contains no information, it is exactly as it is. The information regarding the environment comes from us within. No information comes from outside into us. This is after all, the meaning of the phrase “informationally closed.”
Von Foerster said the following about objectivity:
“Objectivity in the traditional sense,” as Heinz von Foerster has remarked, “is the delusion that it is not a delusion. It is the cognitive version of the physiological blindspot: we do not see what we do not see. Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.”
First Order Cybernetics →The map is not the territory.
Second Order Cybernetics → The map is the territory:
Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum “The map is not the territory” is very apt here. We can say that this represents the first order cybernetics. What this dictum means is that we should not mistake the word for the real object; we should not mistake the map for the territory. To do so will be a first-order mistake. From a second-order standpoint, however, we will have to challenge this. If we do not have access to the real world, the territory, saying the map is not the territory is not useful. Von Foerster explained this brilliantly in a lecture:
Heinz began his lecture with the following words: “I have the feeling that the title of this conference was stimulated by a famous statement of Alfred Korzybski, which is: ‘The map is not the territory’. The underlying idea of this statement has always been used to find out if someone was schizophrenic or not. Schizophrenics apparently mix up the map with the territory by taking the symbol for the object. For example, they might eat the menu, because it says ‘soup’, ‘meat’ and ‘dessert’ on it. 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. But if one were to say this statement epistemologically correctly one would have to say:
‘The map of the map is not the map of the territory.’ We only have maps; we don’t know anything about a territory. We only know the map of the territory and we know the map of the map and we know that the two are not the same. But the map is always the territory because we don’t have anything else.”
It is important note here that von Foerster will not even use the word “representation”. What we have are stable constructions that stand-in for the constraints that we routinely experience in our encounters. Von Foerster would say that what we experience as ‘objects’ in the world out there are actually ‘tokens’. These are the stable behaviors we expect as a result of repeat interactions. For example, when we lift an object, we anticipate how our experience of the object will be like. The experiential reality of that object becomes ‘real’ to us based on our past interactions with the object. We re-cognize the stable behavior of the ‘object” based on our interaction. In order to understand or know the object, we have to interact with it. Our interactions result in a stable behavior that we can come to recognize on an ongoing basis. Von Foerster stated this as – there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition “that arises between them”.
We are simply made aware of the constraints that are meaningful to us. I am using the word “constraints”, inspired by another great mind, Ernst von Glasersfeld. When we walk around a path, we are actually guided by the constraints, we look out for the things we should stay away from, such as the tree on the side or the big stone on the path. Our experience is essentially defined by the constraints. Even if we are moving towards a goal, we are still guided by the constraints. The constraints define our path.
It is a common notion that we create a representation of the external world in our mind. SOC would clarify this and say that we do not create representations, instead we construct or invent an experiential reality based on our closed interpretative framework. Paraphrasing Humberto Maturana, the activity of the nervous system is determined by the nervous system itself, and not by the external world. Our nervous system is a result of evolution, and not a design by an intelligent designer. The traits that were successful got passed onto us from our ancestors, while the ones that were not successful did not. One could say that these were so successful that we have come to accept that “objective” nature of our experiential reality. When these are not viable, we are not able to cope with our environment.
My main takeaway from SOC is in how I interact with others. SOC teaches us that the properties of the observed are inputted by the observer. Therefore, in order to understand what is being observed, we should observe the observer, understand the distinctions they make, and how they describe their observations, rather than what is being observed. This is an important insight that is missed from the discussions of representations or mental models. This is the starting point for Systems Thinking. As West Churchman said, the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. Our worlds collide and we come to realize a stable social realm through repeat interactions. We correct/adjust and modify as applicable to make each other’s worlds more viable from these interactions. As the cheesy cliché goes, we ‘complete’ each other’s worlds.
This is further explained by Bruce Clarke and Heinz von Foerster:
How is it that we can agree on the world outside of us?
We are inventing it(the world) for ourselves all the time… In traditional approach, one would say that the world is full of objects and they present themselves to us and we simply are aware of their existence because our nervous systems represent them to us or give the objects to us; then there is no problem. But if you are going to be rigorous about a constructivist epistemology, then you should not talk about objects because we do not know them… the objects present “tokens for eigenbehaviors,” which we can establish.
We are both in this world, both in each other’s world. You are in mine, and I am in your world; therefore, we establish our eigenbehavior for each other. And we may not agree, but we are caught in the same loop.
I will finish with an excellent quote from von Glasersfeld:
Whenever something is characterized by the particular interrelation of several elements, it is difficult to describe. Language is necessarily linear. Interrelated complexes are not. Each one of the scientists who have initiated, shaped, and nourished this new way of thinking would describe cybernetics differently, and each has defined it for himself. Yet they are all profoundly aware of the fact that their efforts, their methods, and their goals have led them beyond the bounds of the traditional disciplines in which they started, and that, nevertheless, there is far more overlap in their thinking than individual divergence.
In today’s post, I am looking at the Socrates of Cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative:
“Always act so as to increase the number of choices.”
I see this as the recursive humanist commandment. This is very much applicable to ethics, and how we should treat each other. Von forester said the following about ethics:
Whenever we speak about something that has to do with ethics, the other is involved. If I live alone in the jungle or in the desert, the problem of ethics does not exist. It only comes to exist through our being together. Only our togetherness, our being together, gives rise to the question, How do I behave toward the other so that we can really always be one?
Von Foerster’s views align with that of constructivism, the idea that we construct our knowledge about our reality. We construct our knowledge to “re-cognize” a reality through the intercorrelation of the activities of the various sense organs. It is through these computed correlations that we recognize a reality. No findings exist independently of observers. Observing systems can only correlate their sense experiences with themselves and each other.
Paul Pangaro reminded me that von Foerster did not mean “options” or “possibilities”. Von Foerster specifically chose the word “choices”. By choices, he meant those selections among options that you might “actually take” depending on who “you are” right now. Here choices narrow down to the few that apply most to what you are now in this moment and in this context, down to a decision that makes you who you are. As von Foerster said, “Don’t make the decision, let the decision make you.” You and your choice you take are indistinguishable.
Since we are the ones doing the construction, we are also ultimately responsible for what we construct. No one should take this away from us. Ernst von Glasersfeld, father of radical constructivism explained this well:
The moment you begin to think that you are the author of your knowledge, you have to consider that you are responsible for it. You are responsible for what you are thinking, because it’s you who’s doing the thinking and you are responsible for what you have put together because it’s you who’s putting it all together. It’s a disagreeable idea and it has serious consequences, because it makes you truly responsible for everything you do. You can no longer say “well, that’s how the world is”, or “sono così”; you know, that’s not good enough.
Cybernetics is about communication and control in the animal and machine, as Norbert Wiener viewed it. When we view control in terms of von Foerster’s ethical imperative, interesting thoughts come about. Control is about reducing the number of choices so that only certain pre-selected activities are available for the one being controlled. For example, a steersman has to control their ship such that it maintains a specific course, and here the ship’s “available options” to move are drastically reduced. When we use this view of control and apply it to human beings, we should do so in light of von Foerster’s ethical imperative.
Von Foerster also said – A is better off when B is better off. This also provides further clarity on the recursiveness. If I am to make sure that I act so as to increase the number of choices for B, then B also in turn does the same. How I act impacts how others (re)act, which in turn impacts how I act back… on and on. This might remind the reader of the golden rule – Treat others as you would like others to treat you. However, this is missing the point about constructivism and the ongoing interaction that leads to the construction of a social reality. I see this as part of a social contract. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted, Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains. The social contract comes about from the ongoing interactions and the contexts we are in with our fellow human beings as part of being in a society or social groups. This also means that this is dynamic and contingent in nature. What was “good” before may not be “good” today. This requires an ongoing framing and reframing though interactions.
John Boyd, father of OODA loop, shed more light on this:
Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences — otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action. The degree to which we cooperate, or compete, with others is driven by the need to satisfy this basic goal. If we believe that it is not possible to satisfy it alone, without help from others, history shows us that we will agree to constraints upon our independent action — in order to collectively pool skills and talents in the form of nations, corporations, labor unions, mafias, etc — so that obstacles standing in the way of the basic goal can either be removed or overcome. On the other hand, if the group cannot or does not attempt to overcome obstacles deemed important to many (or possibly any) of its individual members, the group must risk losing these alienated members. Under these circumstances, the alienated members may dissolve their relationship and remain independent, form a group of their own, or join another collective body in order to improve their capacity for independent action.
In a similar fashion, Dirk Baecker also noted the following:
Control means to establish causality ensured by communication. Control consists in reducing degrees of freedom in the self-selection of events. This is why the notion of “conditionality” is certainly one of the most important notions in the field of systems theory. Conditionality exists as soon as we introduce a distinction which separates subsets of possibilities and an observer who is forced to choose, yet who can only choose depending on the “product space” he is able to see. If we assume observers on both sides of the control relationship, we end up with subsets of possibilities selecting each other and thereby experiencing, and solving, the problem of “double contingency” so much cherished by sociologists. In other words, communication is needed to entice observers into a self-selection and into the reduction of degrees of freedom that goes with it. This means there must be a certain gain in the reduction of degrees of freedom, which for instance may be a greater certainty in the expectation of specific things happening or not happening.
Ultimately, this is all about what we value for ourselves and for the society we are part of. Our personal freedom makes sense only in light of other’s personal freedoms. That is the context – in relation to another human being, one who may be less fortunate than us. Making the world easier for those less fortunate than us makes the world better for everyone of us. I will finish with a great quote from one of my favorite science fiction character, Doctor Who:
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.”
Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…
If I were asked to explain cybernetics, the first thing that would come to my mind would be – error correction. The example that is often used to explain cybernetics is that of the steersman. You have a steersman on a boat moving from point A to point B. Ideally, the boat should move from point A to B in a straight line. However, the wind can change the direction of the boat, and the steersman has to adjust accordingly to stay on course. This negative feedback loop requires a target such that the difference from the target is compensated. In technical terms, there is a comparator (something that can measure) that checks on a periodic or continuous basis what the difference is, and provides this information to make adjustments accordingly. Let’s call this framework as first order cybernetics. In this framework, we need a closed loop so that we have feedback. This allows for information to be fed back so that we can compare it against a goal and make adjustments accordingly. This approach was made famous by one of the main pioneers of Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. He used this for guided missile technology where the missile could change its course as needed similar to the steersman on the boat. First order cybernetics obviously is quite useful. But it is based on the assumption that there is a target that we can all agree upon. This also assumes that the comparator is able to work effectively and efficiently.
With this background, I would now like to look at second order cybernetics. One of the main pioneers of second order cybernetics was Heinz von Foerster. He wanted to go beyond the idea of just error correction. He wanted to look at error correction of error correction. As I noted earlier, the error correction mechanism assumes that the target is clear and available, and also that the comparator and the correcting mechanism are working appropriately. Von Foerster challenged the notion of an objective reality and introduced the notion of the observer being part of what is observed. The general tendency is to keep the observer out of what is being observed with the underlying belief that the observation is readily available for all those who are interested. Von Foerster pushed back on this idea and said that the observer is included in the observation. One of my favorite aphorisms from von Foerster is –only when you realize you are blind, can you see. We all have cognitive blind spots. Realizing this and being aware of it allows us to improve how we look at things. There is a circularity that we have to respect and understand better here. What we see impacts what we understand, and what we understand impacts what we see. It is an ongoing self-correcting cycle. If the first order error correction is a correcting to a specific problem, then second order error correcting is the error correction of the error correction.
There is a great example that von Foerster gives that might explain this idea better. He talked about the Turing’s test. Turing’s test or the Imitation Game as originally called by the great Alan Turing is a test given to an “intelligent machine” to see if its intelligence is comparable or indistinguishable from that of a human. Von Foerster turned this on its head by bringing up the second order implications. He noted:
The way I see it, the potential intelligence of a machine is not being tested. In actual fact, the scholars are testing themselves (when they give the Turing test). Yes, they are testing themselves to determine whether or not they can tell a human being from a machine. And if they don’t manage to do this, they will have failed. The way I see it, the examiners are examining themselves, not the entity that is meekly sitting behind the curtain and providing answers for their questions. As I said, “Tests test tests.”
One of the main implications from this is that the observer is responsible for their own construction of what they are observing. We are all informationally closed entities that construct our version of a stable paradigm that we call a reality (not THE reality). And we are responsible for our construction, and we are ethically bound to allow others to construct their versions. We come to an eigenvalue for this “reality” when we continue to interact with each other. The more we stay away from each other in our own echo chambers, the harder it becomes to reconcile the different realities. The term “informationally closed” means that information does not enter us from the outside. We generate meaning based on how we are being perturbed based on the affordances of the environment we are interacting with. The main criticism to this approach is that it leads to relativism, the notion that every viewpoint matters. I reject this notion and affirmatively state that we should support pluralism. By saying that we do not have access to an objective reality, I am saying that we need epistemic humility. We need to realize that we do not have the Truth; that there is no Truth out there. As the wonderful Systems Thinker, Charles West Churchman said, “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” We should be beware of those that claim that they have access to the Truth.
When we understand the second order implications, we realize that although the map is not the territory, the map is all we have. Thus, we have to keep working on getting better at making maps. We have to work on error correction of our error corrections. I will finish with some wise words from von Foerster:
The consciousness of consciousness is self-consciousness. The understanding of understanding is self-understanding. And the organization of organization is self-organization. I propose that whenever this self crops up we emphasize this moment of circularity. The result is this: The self does not appear as something static or firm but instead becomes fluid and is constantly being produced. It starts moving. I would plead that we also maintain the dynamics of this word when we speak of self-organization. The way I see it, the self changes every moment, each and every second.
Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was The Open Concept of Systems:
In today’s post, I am looking the second order view of complexity. While I was thinking of a good title for this post, I went from “A constructivist walks into a Complexity bar” to “The Chernobyl model of Complexity”. Finally, I settled with “The Cybernetics of Complexity.” What I am looking at is not new by any means. I am inspired by the ideas of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Heinz von Foerster, Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch and Ralph Stacey.
I start from the basic premise that complexity is a description rather than a property of a phenomenon. This would indicate that the complexity is dependent on the one doing the describing, i.e., the observer. Complexity is a description, which means it needs someone describing it. This is the observer. The same thing can be perceived as complex and complicated by two different people. Tsoukas and Hatch explain this further:
in order for cognitive beings to be able to act effectively in the world we must organize our thinking… one way of viewing organizations as complex systems is to explore complex ways of thinking about organizations-as complex systems; which we call second order complexity. We further note that entering the domain of second-order complexity – the domain of the thinker thinking about complexity – raises issues of interpretation (and, we argue, narration) that have heretofore been ignored by complexity theorists.
What is complexity? It is our contention that the puzzle of defining the complexity of a system leads directly to concern with description and interpretation and therefore to the issue of second-order complexity.
Tsoukas and Hatch references Jim Casti to explain this further:
complexity is, in effect, in the eye of the beholder: ‘system complexity is a contingent property arising out of the interaction I between a system S and an observer/decision-maker O’. To put it more formally, the complexity of a system, as seen by an observer, is directly proportional to the number of inequivalent descriptions of the system that the observer can generate. The more inequivalent descriptions an observer can produce, the more complex the system will be taken to be.
Casti’s definition of complexity is an interesting one for it admits that the complexity of a system is not an intrinsic property of that system; it is observer-dependent, that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. Consequently, if an observer’s language is complex enough (namely, the more inequivalent descriptions it can contain) the system at hand will be described in a complex way and thus will be interpreted as a complex system. What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as nonlinearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence. It is not that those features could not have been described before, but that they now have been brought into focus and given meaning. To put it another way, physics has discovered complexity by complicating its own language of description.
Here, the language of description comes from the observer. One of the best examples that I have to provide some clarity is a scene from HBO’s wonderful show Chernobyl, adapted from the Chernobyl tragedy. In the scene, Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief Engineer was alerted of things going wrong by the other engineers taking part in a test. Dyatlov stubbornly refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. He asked the engineer, “What does the dosimeter say?” The response was. “3.6 Roentgen, but that’s as high as the meter..” Dyatlov, in the show cut him off midsentence and famously state, “3.6. Not great, not terrible.”
Dyatlov firmly believed that the reactor could not explode. Even though he was informed that the meter can go only as high as 3.6 roentgen, he found the situation to be manageable. Later it is revealed using a different gage with higher range, the actual rate was 15,000 roentgen per hour. This scene is truly remarkable because there were different people looking at a phenomenon and coming to different conclusions with terrible consequences.
In philosophy, we talk about ontology and epistemology. Ontology is about what exists and epistemology is about how you come to know things. We are all born with a set of “gages” (to loosely put). But each one of our gages have different ranges. The set of gages is unique to our species. For example, we can only see a small part of the light spectrum. We can only hear only a small part of the sound spectrum. We are informationally closed. This means that we generate meaning within a closed interpretative framework/mechanism. Information cannot come in directly. Rather, we are perturbed by the environment and we generate meaning from it. It might make it easier if we can come up with a way to quantify complexity.
A loose way to do this is to view complexity in terms of the number of possible interactions the phenomenon can have. This in turn is related to the number of states of the phenomenon. In cybernetics, complexity is viewed in terms of variety. Variety is the number of states of a phenomenon. I have discussed this concept at length before. To explain it loosely with an example, the variety of a simple light switch is two, the two states being ON and OFF. A variable light switch on the other hand has a whole lot more variety. The other insight regarding variety is that it is dependent on the observer since the observer is the one describing the number of “possible” states. Now this is where the possible rub comes in for some people. I see complexity as dependent upon the observer. Do I reject that there is nothing out there that is not in my head? That is a question about ontology. I am not very keen on just looking at ontology. I am looking at this from an epistemological viewpoint. Going back to the Chernobyl show, if my gage is inadequate, then that determines my reality which determines my action. If I have a better gage, then I can better understand what is going on. If I have others around me with more gages, then I can do a comparison and come to a general consensus on what is going on so that our general viability is maintained.
We have learned through evolution as a species to cut down on the high variety thrown at us so that we can remain viable. As noted earlier, we have evolved to see only a narrow band of the light spectrum, same with the sound and other natural phenomena. This has led to us having a set of “gages” unique to our species so that we can continue being viable. When these gages become inadequate, then our viability is in question. The purpose of gages is to make sense of what is happening so that we can act or not act. We don’t register everything that is coming in because we don’t need to. Our genetic makeup has become tuned to just what we need.
When I say complexity is in the eyes of the beholder, I mean that our range of gages are different dependent upon the observer. What we sense directly impacts how we act. Some of us can manage situations better because they are able to make sense better. Whether a situation is complex or complicated changes based on who is doing the observing. The term observer here means the person interacting with the situation. You can call him an actor or an agent, if needed.
Tsoukas and Hatch expand on this:
If practitioners are to increase their effectiveness in managing paradoxical social systems, they should, as Weick recommends, ‘complicate’ themselves. But complicate themselves in what way? By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practitioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely, in logico-scientific terms, to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage, or, in narrative terms, to enact it.
In Cybernetics, this aligns with Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety. This law states that only variety can absorb variety. To simply put, we have to cut down excess external variety coming in and find ways to amplify our internal variety so that the internal variety matches the external variety. A good way to cut down the external variety is to focus on only what matters/values to us. A good way to amplify our internal variety is to keep on learning and to be open to other perspectives. Of course, there are a lot of other ways to do this. A specific procedure cannot be made because everything is dependent upon the context. The phenomenon itself is changing with time, and so are we as the observers.
We have to welcome how the other practitioners describe the phenomenon. We have to engage with them so that we can come to a stable narrative of the phenomenon. This is not possible if we see ourselves as external to the phenomenon and if we believe that we all experience a single objective phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note – Expanding the focus from the system itself (first-order complexity) to also include those who describe the system as complex (second-order complexity) exposes the interpretive-cum-narrative dimensions of complexity. A complex system is said to have many specific characteristics including non-linearity, feedback loops, etc. But these are all descriptions of an observer describing the phenomenon. As Tsoukas and Hatch note:
Although you may call non-linearity, scale dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions and emergence properties of the system, they are actually your descriptive terms – they are part of a vocabulary, a way of talking about a system. Why use such a vocabulary? Is it because it corresponds to how the system really is? Not quite. Because the system cannot speak for itself, you do not know what the system really is. Rather, you use such a vocabulary because of its suspected utility – it may enable you to do certain things with it. A new vocabulary, notes Rorty, ‘is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide’.
What we have to then do is to understand that seeing complexity as a description of a phenomenon helps us in understanding how we understand the phenomenon. This is a second-order act, a cognitive act. We need to be aware of our blind spots (realization that we have inadequate gages). We need to improve our vocabulary so that we can better describe what we experience. Some models of complexity recommend bringing in experts for complicated phenomenon. Complicated phenomenon are cases where the complexity is slightly higher, but a cause-and-effect relationship still exists. The reason for bringing in the experts is because they are able to describe the phenomenon differently than a layperson. This again shows that complexity is dependent on the observer. It also indicates that we can improve our sensemaking capabilities by improving our vocabulary by keeping on learning. I will try to loosely explain my ideas based on a one-dimensional depiction of complexity. I am not saying that this is a correct model. I am providing this only for clarity’s sake. The chart below shows the complexity in terms of variety. The green line starts at 0 and ends at 100 to show complexity on a spectrum. Depending upon the capability of the observer to distinguish possible varieties, two observers perceive and understand complexity as shown below. The observer 2 in this case is able to manage complexity better than observer 1. Please note that to manage complexity means to cut down on the excess external variety and amplify internal variety. The other point to keep in mind is that the observer is informationally closed, so the observer is able to generate meaning of only those characteristics that perturbs the observer. In other words, the observer can distinguish only those characteristics that the observer’s interpretative mechanism can afford.
When we look at a phenomenon and try to make sense of it, we try to do it in terms of a whole narrative, one that makes sense to us. This adds a uniqueness to how each one of the practitioners approach the phenomenon. The same complex phenomenon can have different contexts for different people. For example, the same Covid pandemic can be a problem of health crisis for one person, while for another it could be about freedom and government regulation. A stable social reality is achieved through continuous interaction. The environment changes, so we have to continuously interact with each other and the environment and continue to reframe reality. This social stability is an ongoing activity.
I had indicated that this post is about a second order view of complexity. In order to improve our understanding of complexity, we have to understand how we understand – how we come to know about things that we can describe. I do not propose that there is an objective reality out there that we all experience equally. All we can say is that we each experience a reality and through ongoing interaction we come to a stable version of reality. One of the criticisms to this approach is that this leads to solipsism. The main version of Solipsism is that others may not really exist and that only one’s mind is sure to exist. This is a no-win argument that I find no appeal in. I am happy that other smarter people exist because my life is better because of them. Another criticism to this approach is that it supports relativism. Relativism is the idea that all perspectives are equally valid. This also is a terrible idea in my view. I support the idea of pluralism. I have written about this before here. Pluralism does not agree that all belief systems are equally valid. In a cybernetic explanatory manner, a pluralist believes that what is more important is to be less wrong. At the same time, a pluralist is open to understanding other people’s belief systems.
What I am hoping to achieve from this constructivist view is epistemic humility. This is the stance that what we know is incomplete, and that it may also be inadequate. We have to keep on learning, and be open to other viewpoints.
I will finish with a wonderful quote from Heinz von Foerster:
properties that apparently are associated with things are indeed properties that belong to the observer. So, that means the properties which are thought to reside in things turn out to be properties of the observer. I’ll give you immediately an example. A good example, for instance, is obscenity. You know that there is a tremendous effort even going up to the Supreme Court which is almost a comedy worthy to be written by Aristophanes. Who wants to establish what is obscene? Now it’s perfectly clear that “obscene” is, of course, a property which resides in the observer, because if you take a picture and show it to Mr. X, and Mr. X says, “This picture is obscene,” you know something about Mr. X, but nothing about the picture.
In today’s post, I am looking at observation. This will be a general overview and I will follow up with more posts in the future. I am inspired by the ideas of George Spencer-Brown (GSB), Niklas Luhman, Dirk Baecker and Heinz von Foerster. In Cybernetics, observation does not mean just to utilize your eyes and look at something. It has a deeper “sensemaking” type meaning. Observation in Cybernetics does not follow the rigid subject-object relationship. Toth Benedek explains this:
Heinz von Foerster tried to develop a point of view that replaces the linear and rigid structure of the object-subject (observer-observed) distinction. According to von Foerster, the observer is really constructed by the observed and vice versa: ‘observation’ is nothing else but the circular relation between them. Observation as a relation defines the observer and the observed, so the observer refers not only to the observed, but also to himself by the act of observation.
Observation is an operation of distinction. The role of an observer is to generate information. If no information is being generated, then no observation has been made. An observation is an act of cognition. GSB in his seminal work, Laws of Form noted:
A universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in the plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.
GSB advises us to draw a distinction. He proposed a notation called as “mark” to do this. A basic explanation of a mark is shown below. It separates a space into two sections; one part that is observed and the other that is not observed. We can look at a space, and identify a difference, a distinction that allows us to identify a part of the space as something and the remaining of that space as NOT that something. For example, we can distinguish a part of a house as kitchen and everything else is “not kitchen”. At that point in time, we are looking only at the kitchen, and ignoring or not paying attention to anything else. What is being observed is in relation to what is not being observed. A kitchen is identified as “kitchen” only in the context of the remaining of the house.
Dirk Baecker explains this:
Spencer-Brown’s first propositions about his calculus is the distinction being drawn itself, considered to be “perfect continence”, that is to contain everything. A distinction can only contain everything when one assumes that it indeed contains (a) its two sides, that is the marked state and the unmarked state, (b) the operation of the distinction, that is the separation of the two sides by marking one of them, and (c) the space in which all this occurs and which is brought forth by this occurrence.
From the context of GSB, we can view a distinction as a first order observation. We can only see what is inside the box, and not what is outside the box. What is outside the box is our “blind spot.”
Hans-Georg Moeller explains this very well:
A first-order observation can simply observe something and, on the basis of this, establish that thing’s factuality: I see that this book is black—thus the book is black. Second-order observation observes how the eye of an observer constructs the color of this book as black. Thus, the simple “is” of the expression “the book is black” becomes more complex—it is not black in itself but as seen by the eyes of its observer. The ontological simplicity is lost and the notion of “being” becomes more complex. What is lost is the certainty about the “essential” color of this book.
The first order observer is confident about the observation he makes. He may view his observation as necessary and not contingent. However, a second order observer is able to also see what the first order observer is not. The second order observer is able to understand to an extent how the first order observer is making his distinctions. The second order observer thus comes to the conclusion that the distinction made by the first order observer is in fact contingent and somewhat arbitrary.
The most important point about the first order observation is that the first order observer cannot see that he does not see what he does not see. In other words, the first order observer is unaware that he has a blind spot. A second order observer observing a first order observer is able to see what the first order observer is not able to see, and he is also able to see that the first order observer has a blind spot. This is depicted in the schematic below:
As the schematic depicts, the second order observer is also making a distinction. In other words, what he is doing is also a first order observation! This means that the second order observer also has a blind spot, and he not aware that he has a blind spot! As Benedek further notes:
the first order of observation (our eye’s direct observation) is unable to get a coherent and complete image about the world out there. What we can see is something we learnt to see: the image we “see” is a result of computing processes.
The second order observation can also be carried out as a self-observation, where the observer doing the first order observation is also the observer doing the second order observation. This may appear paradoxical. GSB talked about an idea called “reentry” in Laws of Form. Reentry is the idea of reentering the form again. In other words, we are re-introducing the distinction we used onto the form again. The reentry is depicted in the schematic below:
Dirk Baecker explains:
Spencer-Brown’s calculus of form consists in developing arithmetic with distinctions from a first instruction—”draw a distinction”—to the re-introduction (“re-entry”) of the distinction into the form of distinction, in order to be able to show in this way that the apparently simple, but actually already complex beginning involved in making a distinction can only take place in a space in which the distinction is for its part introduced again. The observer who makes this distinction through it becomes aware of the distinction, to which he is himself indebted.
Self-observation requires a reentry. In order to become aware that we have cognitive blind spots, we have to perform reentry. The re-entry includes what was not part of the original distinction. This allows us to understand (to a point) how we make and utilize distinctions. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we come to see when we realize that we cannot see.
The reentry is a continuous operation that is self-correcting in nature. There is no end point to this per-se and it oscillates between the inside and the outside. This leads to an emergent stability as an eigenform. As noted before, the second order observation is still a form of first order observation even with reentry. There are still cognitive blind spots and we are still subject our biases and limitations of our interpretative framework. We are affected by what we observe and we can only observe what our interpretative framework can afford. As noted at the start of the post, the role of the observer is to generate information. If the observer is not able to make a distinction, then no information can be generated. This has the same effect as us being in a closed system where the entropy keeps on increasing. Borrowing a phrase from Stafford Beer, this means that observers are negentropic pumps. We engage in making dynamic distinctions which allows us to gather the requisite information/knowledge to remain viable in an everchanging environment.
The discussion about first order and second order observations may bring up the question – is it possible to have a third order observation? Heinz von Foerster pointed out that there is no need for a third order observation. He noted that a reflection of a reflection is still a reflection. Hans-Georg Moeller explains this further:
While second-order observation arrives at more complex notions of reality or being, it still only observes—it is a second-order observation, because it observes as a first-order observation another first-order observation. It is, so to speak, the result of two simultaneous first-order observations. A third-order observation cannot transcend this pattern—for it is still the first-order observation of a first-order observation of a first-order observation… No higher-order observation—not even a third-order observation—can observe more “essentially” than a lower-order observation. A third-order observation is still an observation of an observation and thus nothing more than a second-order observation. There is no Platonic climb towards higher and higher realities—no observation brings us closer to the single light of truth.
I will finish with some wise words from Dirk Baecker:
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.
In today’s post, I am looking at a simple idea – Loops, and will follow it up with Heinz von Foerster’s ideas on second order Cybernetics. A famous example of a loop is “PDCA”. The PDCA loop is generally represented as a loop – Plan-Do-Check-Act-Plan-Do…, and the loop is represented as an iterative process where it goes on and on. To me, this is a misnomer and misrepresentation. These should be viewed as recursions. First, I will briefly explain the difference between iteration and recursion. I am using the definitions of Klaus Krippendorff:
Iteration – A process for computing something by repeating a cycle of operations.
Recursion – The attribute of a program or rule which can be applied on its results indefinitely often.
In other words, iteration is simply repetition. In a program, I can say to print the word “Iteration” 5 times. There is no feedback here, other than to keep count of the times the word was printed on screen. On the other hand, in recursion, the value of the first cycle is fed back into the second cycle, the output of which is fed into the third cycle and so on. Here circular feedback is going on. A great example of a recursive function is the Fibonnaci sequence. The Fibonacci sequence is expressed as follows:
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2, for n > 1
Fn = 1, for n = 0 or 1
Here, we can see that the previous value is fed into the equation to create a new value, and this is an example of recursion.
From the complexity science standpoint, recursions lead to interesting phenomenon. This is not an iterative non-feedback loop any longer, where you come back to the same point again and again. With recursion, you get to circular causality with each loop, and you enter a new state altogether. Each loop is directly impacted by the previous loop. Anything that leads back to its original starting point doesn’t lead to emergence and can actually lead to a paradox. A great example is the liar paradox. In a version of this, a card has a statement written on both sides of a card. They are as follows:
The statement on the other side of this card is FALSE.
The statement on the other side of this card is TRUE.
This obviously leads to a paradox when you follow it along a loop. You do not get to a new state with each iteration. Douglas Hofstadter wonderfully explained this as a mirror mirroring itself. However, with recursion, a wonderful emergence can happen, as we see in complexity science. Circular causality and recursion are ideas that have strong footing in Second Order Cybernetics. A great example of this is to look at the question – how do we make sense of the world around us? Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, has a lot to say about this. As Bernard Scott notes:
For Heinz von Foerster, the goal of second-order cybernetics is to explain the observer to himself, that is, it is the cybernetics of the cybernetician. The Greek root of cybernetics, kubernetes, means governor or steersman. The questions asked are; who or what steers the steersman, how is the steersman steered and, ethically, how does it behoove the steersman to steer himself? 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?” He reveals the creative, open-ended nature of the observer’s knowledge of himself and his world.
Scott uses von Foerster’s idea of undifferentiated coding to explore this further. I have written about this before here.
Undifferentiated coding is explained as below:
The response of a nerve cell encodes only the magnitude of its perturbation and not the physical nature of the perturbing agent.
Put more specifically, 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.
Von Foerster explained the circular relationship between sense data and experiences as below:
The motorium (M) provides the interpretation for the sensorium (S) and the sensorium provides the interpretation for the motorium.
How we make sense depends on how we experience, and how we experience depends upon how we make sense. As Scott notes, we can explain the above relationship as follows:
S = F(M). Sensorium, S, is a function of motorium, M.
M = G(S). Motorium, M, is a function of sensorium, S.
Von Foerster pointed out that this is an open recursive loop, since we can replace M with G(S).
With more replacements for the “S”, this equation becomes an open recursive loop as follows:
Fortunately, the circularity is not vicious, as in the statement “I am a liar”. Rather, it is virtuous or, as von Foerster calls it, it is a creative circle, which allows us to “transcend into another domain”. The indefinite series is a description of processes taking place in sequence, in “time”, with steps t, t+1, t+2 and so on. (I put “time” in quotes as a forward marker for discussion to come). In such indefinite recursive expressions, solutions are those values of the expression which, when entered into the expression as a base, produce themselves. These are known as Eigen values (self-values). Here we have the emergence of stabilities, invariances. The “objects” that we experience are “tokens” for the behaviors that give rise to those experiences. There is an “ultimate” base to these recursions: once upon a “time”, the observer came into being. As von Foerster neatly puts it, “an observer is his own ultimate object”.
The computations that give rise to the experience of a stable world of “objects” are adaptations to constraints on possible behaviors. Whatever else, the organism, qua system, must continue to compute itself, as a product. “Objects” are anything else it may compute (and recompute) as a unitary aspect of experience: things, events, all kinds of abstraction. The possible set of “objects” it may come to know are limited only by the organism’s current anatomy and the culture into which she is born.
Heinz von Foerster said – The environment contains no information; it is as it is. We are informationally closed entities, which means that information cannot come from outside to inside. We make meanings out of the perturbations and we construct a reality that our interpretative framework can afford.
I will finish with a great observation from the Cybernetist philosopher Yuk Hui:
Recursivity is a general term for looping. This is not mere repetition, but rather more like a spiral, where every loop is different as the process moves generally towards an end, whether a closed one or an open one.
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In today’s post, I am looking at the ideas inspired by mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that activate when someone engages in an activity or when they observe the same activity being performed by someone else. It was first identified by a group of Italian neurophysiologists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti in the 1980s. They were studying macaque monkeys. As part of their research, they placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to study hand and mouth motions. The story goes that the electrodes sent signals when the monkeys observed the scientists eating peanuts. The same neurons that fired when the monkeys were eating peanuts fired when they merely observed the same action. Several additional studies indicate that the mirror neurons are activated to respond to goal-oriented actions. For example, when the scientist covered the peanut bowl, and performed the action of picking a peanut and eating, the mirror neurons still fired even though the monkeys could not see the peanut bowl. However, when the scientist simply mimicked the action of taking a peanut without a peanut bowl, the neurons did not fire. There have been several hypotheses regarding the mirror neurons such as they facilitate learning by copying, and that they are the source for empathy.
The most profound idea about mirror neurons is that action execution and action observation are tightly coupled. Our ability to interpret or comprehend other’s actions involve our own motor system. For example, when we observe someone doing an action, depending upon whether we have performed the action adds depth to how we can observe the action being performed. If I am watching a ballet and the ballerina performs a difficult move, I may not fully grasp what I have seen since I do not know ballet and because I have never performed it. However, if I watch a spin bowler in Cricket throwing an off-spin, I will be able to grasp it better and possibly tell how the ball is going to spin. This is because I have played a lot of Cricket as a youth. The same with a magician performing a sleight of hand.
The idea of mirror neurons brings an extra depth to the meaning of going to the gemba. Going to gemba is a key tenet of Toyota Production System. We go to the gemba, where the action is, to grasp the current situation. We go there to observe. Gemba, it is said, is our best teacher. When we go there to observe the work being performed, we may get a different experience depending upon whether we ourselves have performed the work or not. Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, said – if you want to see, learn how to act. He was talking about the circular loop of sensorium and motorium. In order to see, there has to be interaction between the sensorium and motorium.
In a similar way, Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation is said to have remarked that engineers would never amount to anything unless they had to wash their hands at least three times a day; the evidence they were getting their hands dirty from real work.
I will finish with a great advice from Taiichi Ohno:
Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with your head, think with your hands.
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…