Friday 23 October 2015

Second-order cybernetics and Induction

The relationship between observer and observed within second-order cybernetics is one of organisational adaptation within structurally-determined and organisationally-closed systems. However, the description of what is involved in ‘adaptation’ varies from one second-order cybernetic theory to another. As a foundation for second-order theories, different loci of adaptation may be determined (for example, whether adapation is biological, discursive, cognitive, atomic and so on) and the constituent processes of adaptation may be further disentangled. 

Of particular importance is the constituent role of induction and analogy in adaptation. Induction itself is widely recognised as the root of adapation within descriptions of second-order cybernetics. For example, in the descriptions of biological adapation of Maturana’s cells and organisms to environmental 'niches’, Maturana argues:
 “the living system, due to its circular organisation, is an inductive system and functions always in a predictive manner: what occurred once will occur again. Its organisation (both genetic and otherwise) is conservative and repeats only that which works.” (1970)
Additionally, recurrence and regularity of events is characterised elsewhere in autopoietic theory (For example, Varela describes ‘in-formation’ as “coherence or regularity”) and this suggests the need for a more specific conception of 'regularity' and its relation to adaptive processes which result. Fundamentally, there is a distinguishing of events which cohere with existing structural conditions of the organism, and those which demand organisational transformation. This appears to be the case whether the second-order cybernetic theory concerns biological cells, logical structures emerging from self-reference (what von Foerster identifies as 'eigenvalues'), or coherences and stabilities within a discourse (for example, Luhmann's social systems or Beer's 'infosets').

A revealing example of adaptation is provided by Piagetian 'assimilation' and the 'schema'  theory of learning. Von Glasersfeld illustrates Piaget's concept: “if Mr Smith urgently needs a screwdriver to repair the light switch in the kitchen, but does not want to go and look for one in his basement, he may ‘assimilate’ a butter knife to the role of tool in the context of that particular repair schema.” What von Glasersfeld here calls 'induction' involves two logical moves:

  1. the identification of analogy between the butter knife and the screwdriver
  2. the confirmation of existing ways of organising according to this analogy
There are some implicit assumptions behind von Glasersfeld's example, and behind the broader identification of 'adaptation' within second-order cybernetics more generally.

Fundamentally, the sameness of repetition depends on the identification of analogy. The first philosopher to identify this problem was Hume, who gave a famous example as to how we might acquire an expectations of the taste of eggs. Hume argues that the process partly requires the identification of the 'likeness' between many eggs. With many examples of eggs tasting the same way, an expectation is created concerning the taste of eggs. The process of analogy occurs because of a ‘fit’ between the recognition of analogy in perception and the repetition of that analogy over many instances. 

In second-order cybernetics, the observer is considered alongside the observation that is made. All varieties of second-order cybernetics entail a description of the observer as an adaptive mechanism. Given this, where Hume considered the 'likeness' of eggs, second-order cybernetics would infer a likeness in the relationship between an observer and the perception of eggs. In effect this means that second-order cybernetics has to consider two levels of analogy: 
  1. The analogy of the observer's organisation;
  2. The analogy of the perturbation.

The locus of analogy of the observer's organisation varies from one second-order cybernetic theory to another. In Luhmann, for example, the 'observer' is a discursive organisational structure which maintains itself in the light of new discursive performances. The identification of differences in discursive structure form a fundamental plank in Luhmann's differentiation of social systems. In order for a discourse to adapt (for example, through innovation), the discourse must be able to identify those aspects of linguistic performance which are analogous to existing discursive structure, and then to reformulate its discursive structure such that subsequent discursive events may be anticipated. In Maturana, the observer is the biological entity, whose organisation has its own implicit analogies, together with the analogies of the perturbations which confront it. 

The point is that whilst the same principle of mutual coordination between observer and environment is the underpinning of second-order cybernetic theory, we should ask how can the analogies of perturbation be determined and compared if the analogies of structure are so varied across different cybernetic theories? In other words, how is it possible to have a coherent and stable second-order cybernetic discourse where quite different interpretations can be created for the same perceived events?

Here, Hume's empirical theory and his separation between analogy and induction is useful. Whilst much second-order cybernetics has tended to eschew empiricism as first-order reasoning, Hume's concept of the shared empirical inquiry presents a solution to the mismatch between analogies of observational structure and analogies of perturbation. The question concerns the way reproducible empirical experiences create, at the very least, a foundational context for debate and discussion. Indeed, the shared role of experience within discourse remains already empirical in the way that Hume envisaged it: the experience of discourse itself presents a shared 'life-world' for participants to reflect not only on the substance of their discussion, but on the dynamics of the discourse itself. Discourse itself carries its own observable analogies. 

This presents a way of viewing Krippendorff’s ‘reflexive turns’ as a way of identifying specific analogies of reasoning. Krippendorff has argued for  four 'reflexive turns' within second-order cybernetics, which can be summarised (broadly) as:
  1. the reflexivity of the observer
  2. the reflexivity of participation in observation and action
  3. the reflexivity of discourse
  4. the reflexivity of ethics and responsibility

Each of these locates a different identification of analogies in different aspects of observation. The first is a distinction between the analogies of an observer and the analogies in the observed event. Participation concerns the shared lifeworld of engagement and the analogies of perception in comparison to the analogies action. The reflexivity of discourse concerns the analogies of ways of describing things (a variety of action) as opposed analogies of expectations of communication. Finally, ethical concerns relate to the analogies of embodied subjectivity in the light of analogies of other forms of reflexivity. 

It is into this sea of reflexivity that it is possible to consider the only cybernetic approach which combines analogy and induction with a measurable empirical component: Shannon's information theory. This is not to say that Shannon's theory in its own right has a special status, but rather that it occupies an important (and currently rather lonely) position as a theory which unites coherent articulations about the lifeworld with a model of the observer as an adaptive system. By bridging the gap between analogies of perception and analogies of perturbation, Shannon's theory (and its variants) might at least be able to create the conditions for a coherent second-order cybernetic discourse.

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