In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of “informationally closed”. The idea of informational closure was first proposed by Ross Ashby. Ashby defined Cybernetics as a study of systems that are informationally tight. Ashby wanted cyberneticians to look at all the possibilities that a system can be in. Here the system refers to a selection of variables that the observer has chosen. Ashby noted that we should not look at what individual act a system produces ‘here and now’, but at all the possible behaviors it can produce. For example, he asked why does the ovum grows into a rabbit, and not a dog or a fish? Ashby noted that this is strictly related to information, and not energy:
Growth of some form there will be; cybernetics asks “why should the changes be to the rabbit-form, and not to a dog-form, a fish-form or even to a teratoma-form?” Cybernetics envisages a set of possibilities much wider than the actual, and then asks why the particular case should conform to its usual particular restriction. In this discussion, questions of energy play almost no part – the energy is simply taken for granted. Even whether the system is closed to energy or open is often irrelevant; what is important is the extent to which the system is subject to determining and controlling factors. So, no information or signal or determining factor may pass from part to part without its being recorded as a significant event. Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy by closed to information and control – systems that are information-tight.
Ashby’s main point regarding this is that the machine or the system under observation selects its actions from a set of possible actions, and this will remain the same until there is a significant event that causes it to alter the set of possible actions. The action of the system is entirely based on its structure, and not because an external agent is choosing that action for the system. The external agent is only triggering or perturbing the system, and the system in turn reacts. This idea of informational closure was further taken up by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. The idea of “informationally closed” is a strong premise for constructivism – the idea that all knowledge is constructed rather than perceived through senses. They noted that as cognizant beings, we are informationally closed. We do not have information enter us externally. We are instead perturbed by the environment, and we react in ways that we are accustomed to. Jonathan D. Raskin expands on this further:
People are informationally closed systems only in touch with their own processes. What an organism knows is personal and private. In adhering to such a view, constructivism does not conceptualize knowledge in the traditional manner, as something moving from “outside” to “inside” a person. Instead, what is outside sets off, triggers, or disrupts a person’s internal processes, which then generate experiences that the person treats as reflective of what is outside. Sensory data and what we make of it are indirect reflections of a presumed outside world. This is why different organisms experience things quite differently. How Jack’s backyard smells to his dog is different from how it smells to him because he and his dog have qualitatively different olfactory systems. Of course, how Jack’s backyard smells to him may also differ from how it smells to Sara because not only is each of them biologically distinct but each has a unique history that informs the things to which they attend and attribute meaning. The world does not dictate what it “smells” like; it merely triggers biological and psychological processes within organisms, which then react to these triggers in their own ways. The kinds of experiences an organism has depend on its structure and history. Therefore, what is known is always a private and personal product of one’s own processes.
Raskin gives an example of a toaster or a washing machine to provide more clarity on the informational closure.
Maturana asserts that from the point of view of a biologist living systems are informationally closed–that is, things don’t get in and they don’t get out. From the outside, you can trigger a change, but you cannot directly instruct. Think of it as having a toaster and a washing machine. And, the toaster is going to toast no matter what you do. And, the washing machine is going to wash no matter what you do. And they both can be triggered by electricity. But the electricity doesn’t tell the toaster what to do. The toaster’s structure tells the toaster what to do. So similarly, we trigger organisms, but what they do has to do with their internal structure–including their nervous system–and the way it responds to various perturbations.
The idea of informational closure forces us to bring a new perspective to how we view the world. How are we able to know about reality? From a constructivism standpoint, we do not have a direct access to the external reality. What we can truly say is how we experience the world, not how the world really is. We do not construct a representation of the external world. This is not possible, if we are informationally closed. What we do is actually construct how we experience the world. As Raskin points out, the world is not a construction; only our experience of it is. Distinguishing experiential reality from external reality (even a hypothetical, impossible-to-prove-for-sure external reality) is important in maintaining a coherent constructivist stance.
All knowledge from this standpoint is personal, and cannot be passed on as a commodity. In constructivism, there is an idea called as the myth of instructive interaction. This means that we cannot be directly instructed. A teacher cannot teach a student with a direct and exact impact. All the teacher can do is to perturb the student so that the student can construct their personal knowledge based on their internal structure. Raskin notes – once people’s internal systems are triggered, they organize their experiential responses into something meaningful and coherent. That is to say, they actively construe. Events alone do not dictate what people know; constructive processes play a central role as people impose meaning and order on sensory data.
The more interactions we have with a phenomenon, the better we can experience the phenomenon, and it aids in our construction of the stable experiential reality of that phenomenon. Repetition is an important ingredient for this. Ernst von Glasersfeld notes:
Without repetition there would be no reason to claim that a given experiential item has some kind of permanence. Only if we consider an experience to be the second instance of the self-same item we have experienced before, does the notion of permanence arise.
From this point, I will try to look at some questions that might help to further our understanding of constructivism.
What is the point of constructivism if it means that we cannot have an accurate representation of the real world? The ultimate point about constructivism is not about an ontological stance, it is about viability. It is about being able to continue to survive. All organisms are informationally closed, and they continue to stay viable. The goal is to fit into the real world. Raskin explains – the purpose of this knowledge is not to replicate a presumed outside world but to help the organism survive. In Cybernetics, we say that we need to have a model of what we are trying to manage or control. This “model” does not have to be an exact representation of the “system” we are trying to control. We can treat it as a black box where we have no idea about the inner workings of the system. As long as we are able to come up with a set of possibilities and possible triggers for possible outcomes, we can manage the system. A true representation is not needed.
How would one account for a social realm if we are informationally closed? If each of us are informationally closed, and our knowledge are personal, how we do account for the social realm, where we all acknowledge a version of stable social reality. Raskin provides some clarity on this. He notes:
Von Glasersfeld held that people create a subjective internal environment that they populate with “repeatable objects.” These repeatable objects are experienced as “external and independent” by the person constructing internal representations of them. Certain repeatable objects–those we identify as sentient, primarily other people–are treated as if they have the same active meaning-making abilities that we attribute to ourselves. Consequently, we are able to experience an intersubjective reality whenever other people respond to us in ways that we interpret as indicating they experience things the same way we do. Once again, this alleviates concerns about constructivism being solipsistic because people do relationally coordinate with one another in confirming and maintaining their constructions.
For von Glasersfeld, it means that people construe one another as active meaning makers and consequently treat their personal understandings as communally shared when others’ behavior is interpreted as affirming those understandings. As I stated elsewhere, “when experiencing sociality or an intersubjective reality, we come to experience our constructions as socially shared to the extent that they appear to be (and, for all functional purposes, can be treated as if they are) also held by others”.
Each one of us construct an experiential reality of the external world. This external world includes other people in it. Our ongoing interaction with these people enhances and updates our own experiential world. We come to see the external world as a social construction. Our personal construction gets triggered in a social setting resulting in a social version of that construction. The more frequent and diverse interactions we get, the more viable this construction becomes. The other people are part of this experiential reality and thereby become cocreators of the social reality. In many regards, what we construct are not representations of the external world, but more a domain of constraints and possibilities. Making sense of the external world is a question about viability. If it does not affect viability, one may very well believe in a God or think that the world is flat. The moment, the viability is impacted, the constructions of the reality will have to adjusted/modified.
The image I have chosen for the post is an artwork by the Japanese Zen master, Nakahara Nantenbō (1839 – 1925). The artwork is a depiction of ensō (circle). The caption reads:
Born within the ensō (circle) of the world, the human heart must also become an ensō (circle).
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was The Ghost in the System:
This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Reality-of-Informationally-Closed-Entities-e16ke0d
- An Introduction to Cybernetics, Ross Ashby (1956)
- An introductory perturbation: what is constructivism and is there a future in it?, Raskin, Jonathan D. (2015)