Thursday 6 September 2012

Objectified Processes and Objects as Processes

Within cybernetics (or at least, what is called 2nd-order cybernetics - see there has been a long discussion about the nature of objects, and the way that what we think are 'objects' (cats, cars, bricks, people) are in fact 'processes' existing between biological entities (us). Berkeley's question of whether there is a world 'out there' acquires a new (and much more technical) guise in this line of thought. Avoiding the temptation to go and kick stones in the manner of Dr Johnson (!) and say "I refute it thus!", I would say there may be something of value in this line of thought. However, I don't think anything of value can come from going around denying reality - that tends only to upset people, and often appeals only to those constructivists and post-modernists who have an almost religious devotion to being awkward.

But what is in the object-as-process work which might really give us something new? One of the key concepts in this thinking is Von Foerster's idea of Eigenvalues of perception which Louis Kaufmann has developed into a mathematical expression of an eigenform. It's the mathematical representation here which is valuable. The reason why I believe it's valuable is not to do with it providing any radical new representation of reality - like some sort of ontological argument for God (no doubt constructivists yearn for a defensible mathematical expression of their religion just as the scholastics did for theirs!). It is because it challenges us to reflect on some of the concepts for objects that have already suffused our academic disciplines and sciences.

The most fascinating one, I think, is the concept of a wave. For most physicists waves are physical processes whose objectivisation is beyond question. But if my little finger is not actually concretely my little finger, but the result of a process (just imagine for the sake of argument), what might a wave be? For a wave we already recognise as a process. And somehow our processes of objectifying it also rely on a process. How do we know which process is which? How do we know that the wave actually exists as a process? How can we be sure that we are not actually 'seeing' some manifestation of our own process of seeing? Rather like the strobe effect on a bicycle wheel, what we may see as moving backwards slowly, is the result of the interaction of two processes: one of perception, the other of motion.

But questioning waves like this gets us into trouble where even the cyberneticians can't afford to feel smug. Because if we've got waves wrong, we've also got a lot of physics wrong too. "But it can't be wrong! It works!" will, rightly, come the reply. Here we must be challenged to deeply ask what 'working' means. It probably has to do with anticipation and control of our physical environment. The question then is, is anticipation and control only produced as a result of objectifying waves, or can what we regard as anticipation and control ('working') also be produced through some other process. I don't know the answer to that. But I think it is worth reflecting on the conceptual understanding of the world which derives from our concept of the wave (and oscillation in general). It is so fundamental it is hard to appreciate.

First, let's start with clocks. And from clocks we have measurable time. And from measurable time, we have studied circular movements of planets, and from that we have derived infinitesimal calculus. And from this we have created complex machines - even complex machines with feedback!  (maybe you can see where I'm going here...). Those complex machines with feedback have underpinned our concepts of cybernetics whichin turn have undermined the certainty of the conceptualisations upon which they were based.

It appears to be a loop.

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