Thursday, 24 November 2011

Powerful Symmetries and Eigenforms

I'm contemplating the conclusion of a wonderful paper by Louis Kauffman on Von Foerster's concept of Eigenform (see Von Foerster's concept of an eigenform is that it is a patterning of the behaviour of observation: in other words, to talk of eigenforms is to avoid seeing 'observation' as a 'seeing' of 'objects', and instead to see observation as a process which has trajectories which unite observer and observed. Emphasising this, Kauffman's conclusion states:

"The simple idea of iterating an operation upon itself is seen to be a key to understanding the nature of objects and the relationship of an observer and the apparent world of the observer. In this view, the observer does not stand outside the world and “see” it. Rather, what is seen is a token, an eigenform, of the recursive participation of the observer in a world where there is no separation of the observer and the observed. The experience of separation can just as well be an experience of joining in that participation. Objects become our own creations and EigenForm the world is the theatre of our actions upon it, which is us."
At the Von Foerster conference this year, I asked Louis whether there can be observation without anticipation, and if not, what the role of the abstraction of time was in the process of observation. I discussed with him later about the experience of music. As my understanding of Eigenforms has developed, it may be I am closer to answering my own question, and I am wondering to what extent Von Foerster's notion of eigenform and Kauffman's arguments about time and observation fit with my current interpretation.

There is something very powerful in the Eigenform idea. Clearly, observation is a process. Indeed, it may be possible as Kauffman and von Foerster argue that to see an object is to apprehend an eigenform: in other words, we detect a patterning in the process of our being which tells us "there is an x there". But then again, I think there are questions.

The Eigenform idea, as Bernard Scott pointed out at the conference, is closely related to Pask's concept of M-individuals and P-individuals. The M-individual is the 'machine' of the individual: their biological make-up. The P-individual is the psychological component, which, crucially for Pask, may exist not only within a person's head, but between peoples' heads. But.. but.. but.. isn't this saying "it's all psychology!"? isn't it saying "there's no such thing as society!"??? it looks like a kind of methodological individualism to me, and that carries ethical problems as Mrs Thatcher so clearly showed us.

So what about the experience of music and eigenform? What I want to suggest is that there are 'powerful symmetries' in aesthetic experience, and a powerful symmetry may well be encountered in experiencing a particular kind of eigenform where the recursions of experience lead into the form in a perfect way. In musical experience, at these moments time may appear to stand still in the way it did for St Augustine during his visions. But such powerful symmetries are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time we live with different forms of asymmetry. I wonder whether it is this asymmetry of experience which creates our sense of time: that any sort of patterning of recursive experience leads not into its own form, but into continually emergent eigenforms.

But there is more to this. because it may be here that the object components of experience show themselves to be real and external to the observer.

Because it is not just an object that is experienced, but the experience of other observers. And the experience of observing becomes behaviour which is experienced by others. And each of these experiences and observations of experiences has their own asymmetry: each of us drives each others time; each of us shifts each others eigenforms; and in this process, each of us makes choices.

But what is to steer us? By what criteria do we choose how to experience? There is a slightly abstract answer to this which is tickling me. It is that our tendency is to seek the state of timelessness which lies inherent in the pure eigenform which closes in on itself. This "ultimate stability" is at least present in death, but also in moments of rapture and transcendence. There is, I think, some justification for arguing that these things too are death.

Here there may be something to say about the Viable System Model and the Eigenform. If a person is a VSM, then the steering mechanism (System 5) is seeking to find experience of the pure eigenform: but it attempts it in a messy, asymmetrical world, where the process of regulation is never-ending until the moment of death. System 4 is the apprehension of the eigenform and the coordination of agency; System 3 is the provision of resources for keeping within the eigenform; System 2 is the immediate braking as alignment is maintained... maybe...

But what about my questions to Louis? Is observation possible without anticipation? and what does this mean for time? Most observation is asymmetrical: we may well detect eigenforms, but they continually emerge, and we continually seek to make them 'pure' powerful symmetries. The observation is made because our appreciation of the eigenform is ever-incomplete. That means our anticipation is wrong and so we are surprised. The by-product of the process is the creation of time: it is the dialectical pulse of adjustment (to nod towards Bhaskar!). Within the pure eigenform of a powerful symmetry, there is no observation; only being.

Of course, this is only an allegory. It may have a powerful symmetry of its own; it may take us closer to death. But the most fascinating thing is that whilst I create time through a process of breaking symmetries, the time of the process is still abstract... yet that itself, as I think about my mechanism, falls into another level of recursion and another asymmetrical eigenform...

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