Tuesday 29 October 2019

About Aboutness and Relations: Thoughts on #TheDigitalCondition

As part of the Cambridge Culture, Politics and Global Justice group on the Digital Condition, I made a video response which sought to bring a cybernetic perspective to Margaret Archer's views on the "Practical domain" as pivotal in the relations between nature and the social. I remember challenging Archer on this many years ago when she gave a talk in London about her work on reflexivity and I suggested that Maturana and Varela's concept of "structural coupling" provided a clearer explanation of what she was trying to articulate in terms of the relations between people, practices and things. She brushed the point aside at the time, although more recently I heard her talk more approvingly of autopoietic theory, so I'd be interested to know what she thinks now. This is my video:

One of the things about making a video like this is that it is a very different kind of thing from  Archer's paper that we were all reading. Because it is more conversational, it expresses a certain degree of uncertainty about what it attempts to say. Not just in the messy diagrams, but in the pauses as I try to find the words for what I want to say. Also worth mentioning that having drawn the diagram, making the video was very quick. Why don't we do this more often? My suspicion is that as academics we are rather reluctant to reveal our uncertainty about things. Academic papers full of sophisticated verbiage are safer spaces to hide uncertainty. Personally, I think we should be doing the opposite to hiding uncertainty - and we have the technology to do it.

Anyway, this has elicited some defence of Archer - particularly in arguing that my critique is a misrepresentation of her argument. Well... I'm not sure.

In her paper she begins by focusing on "aboutness" and the relationship between consciousness and reality:
"Deprived of this reference to, or regulation by, reality, then self-referentiality immediately sets in – consciousness becomes to be conscious of our own ideas (generic idealism), experience equates knowledge with the experienced (pragmatism and empiricism), and language becomes the internal relationship between linguistic signs (textualism). Instead, consciousness is always to be conscious of something"
So "consciousness" is a thing which refers to another thing, "reality". So here are two distinctions. They are, of course, unstable and uncertain. What is reality? Well, what isn't reality?? What is consciousness? Well, what isn't consciousness?? (are rocks conscious, for example?) And if whatever is consciousness must refer to whatever is reality in order to be conscious, then what not-consciousness? Does that refer to anything? Lying behind all this is an implicit "facticity" behind the concepts of "consciousness", "reality" and "reference". Imposing the facticity effectively removes the uncertainty.

Archer says "consciousness has to be conscious of something", retreating from self-referentiality. But what if consciousness is self-referential? What does that do? It does two things:

  1. it creates a boundary, since self-reference is a circle.
  2. it creates uncertainty since whatever is contained in the boundary lies in distinction to what is outside it, where the nature of that distinction is unclear. Additionally, the totality of what is contained within the boundary cannot be accounted for within logic of the boundary (Gödel)

As I explain in my video, this then unfolds a topology.

So then what is reference? It must be about the way in which distinctions maintain themselves within the self-referential processes of consciousness. As I explain, this process entails transduction processes which operate both vertically (within the distinction) and horizontally (between a distinction and its environment).

There's a very practical example of this from biology. One of the central questions about DNA is "How does a molecule come to be about another molecule?" (thanks to Terry Deacon for that!). This is a profound question which throws into doubt what is known as the "central dogma" of biology, which places DNA at the centre of life. It really can't be right.

What is more likely is that there are processes of bio-chemical self-reference initially involving lipid membranes maintaining their internal organisation and boundaries in the context of an ambiguous environment. DNA can then be seen as an epiphenomenon of the evolution of this communicative process. In other words, the aboutness of DNA is our distinction concerning the emergent epiphenomena of self-reference.

It's the same with reference more generally. Once we see consciousness as self-reference, then the categories that we invent about "nature" or "the social" can be seen as epiphenomena of the self-referential process. This makes explaining this stuff a lot simpler, in my view. (And of course, explanation is another epiphenomenon of self-reference). It also helps to explain the ways in which we bring technology to bear on processes which help us to maintain our distinctions.

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