Sunday 11 February 2024

Cybernetic Boa Constrictors

Brahms described the symphonies of Bruckner as "symphonic boa constrictors". After going to a performance of Bruckner's 3rd symphony last night in Manchester, I knew what he meant. I needed some music after sitting in a rather constricting online session on consciousness from the American Society for Cybernetics. But I didn't need to have all the life squeezed out of me. That had already been the experience in the meeting.

Damn it - what's wrong? Not with Bruckner - that, unfortunately is a matter of taste (I just thought I might give the snake a second chance. I'll know better next time). But what's happened with cybernetics?

To put it very simply (and perhaps, rudely), cybernetics started as science - Wiener, Ashby, von Foerster, Bateson. But it has ended up as religion. There is no longer cybernetic analysis - no consideration of what "variety" means - or homeostasis, transduction, viability, difference, information (ok, that's tricky), entropy, regulation, recursion, distinction, construction, ontology, epistemology, etc. Evan Thompson - who was the star turn - asked the most intelligent question "What is a system?" - but then there is a pretence that anyone knows the answer to that most basic of questions for the systems sciences. 

There is a reasonable definition that says "systems are constructed by observers" - but that doesn't say very much. It doesn't say what a system is, but merely says that a process of observation is involved in their coming to be. Ok. But can we say more about this process?

Systems, like words, are selected. There are any number of possible selections that might be made, and out of that set of possibilities, something is chosen as "system". And of course, we are remarkably inconsistent in choosing what is selected: at one moment we choose system x, and at another system y, often forgetting that the operating principles of system x are completely incompatible from those of system y. The cybernetic boa constrictor sets to work when the inconsistency between what is professed, and how people actually behave is at its most acute.  

It's a mechanism well-known to cyberneticians - the double-bind. It's well-deployed by boa constrictors... "oooh warm and cosy... shit I can't breathe.... oooh so cosy... arghh!" So how do we get out of it? Bateson tells us - we need to step outside the double-bind and describe what is happening.

Yes - systems are selections made by an observer. But, what constructs the mechanism that performs the selection? That question was often suggested by Loet Leydesdorff, and his approach to constructivism has been most useful to me, and he pointed back to the origins of phenomenology to defend his approach. 

What is constructed is not "knowledge", or "system", or even "reality". What is constructed is a mechanism that selects "things that we know", "patterns of operation within an environment", or "beliefs and conjectures". How is the mechanism constructed? Well, Leydesdorff had a powerful insight that an effective selection mechanism would have to be anticipatory. It would have to be a "good regulator" - to have a model of its environment. How could a system which has a model of an ambiguous environment be constructed? 

One sub-question here is whether such a "good regulator" could be constructed all at once out of thin air, or whether it would have to emerge, or evolve, over time. I cannot see how the latter case is not likely. So the construction of a selection mechanism is evolutionary - from the smallest units to the emanations of modern consciousness.

At each stage of evolution in the construction of a selection mechanism, there must be selection taking place. So a selection mechanism selects its ongoing evolution. Rather like music improvisation. But where does this process start?

Does it start in physics? The problem here is that we cannot conceive of a physical world beyond our own biology.  We know (at least we select!) that our cells are made from molecules, some of which like cholesterol, appear to be astrobiological fossils. The behaviour of those molecules must have something to do with physics, and physics does have a selection mechanism of sorts - the geometry of the four forces, Pauli exclusion, the spins of electrons, etc. But only through biology do we have that knowledge. There is no physics without biology. There is no observation without biology.

Biology brings observation and with observation there is increasing sophistication in the selection mechanisms that are constructed. Why would the universe create biology? Does it need it? If so, how?

There is a clue to this question in how biology works. Biological selection mechanisms work by endogenising their environment. The cell becomes a fractal of environmental history, where the capacity to anticipate revolves around the fact that what is to come rhymes with what has gone before. This includes the "what has gone before" in terms of the fundamental laws of physics. But deep down, the fundamental laws of physics and the anticipatory selection mechanisms of biology have one thing in common: they both operate to maintain homeostasis: that is, the balance between some locality in the universe (an atom, cell, star, planet or a plant), and the non-local context. 

Selection shifts the balance of the whole. Constructing selection mechanisms is about maintaining stability in the balance of future selections, and to do that, increasingly sophisticated phenotypic mechanisms are required to convey information about an increasingly complex environment. The universe needs life because it needs to maintain homeostasis between the local and nonlocal. 

Was there a point in the evolution of the universe where life wasn't inevitable? I suspect not. Any more than I suspect there wasn't a point in Bruckner's 3rd symphony where a catatonic state of boredom wasn't inevitable. 

Thursday 8 February 2024

Agency from the Zygote Up

I've never understood what "agency" is. We do stuff. Is to say that "doing stuff" or maybe "selecting what stuff to do (and then doing it)" is "agency" to say anything at all? It's agency to say what agency is, after all. Not sure that gets us anywhere. Agency doesn't explain anything. 

Can we rob people of agency? People talk about giving person x agency, by which they mean person x has the option of doing things that (perhaps) they might not have otherwise had. But even in cases where people have very limited options for acting, they still do stuff. It's generally a good idea to increase the options for people to act, and sometimes people act in way which reduce the options of other people to act. Agency doesn't explain this though. 

But I want to know what it's all about, and "agency" doesn't help. So how about looking at this differently...

The problem may be with Darwin: we act to survive, because acting is selection.... to reduce the options for acting is to reduce the chances for survival. But do we act to survive? Or is survival a biproduct of something else? Disastrous actions which lead to a swift demise perhaps amuse us in jokes, or myths and allegories giving warnings like "don't do this". Those myths and stories are important for the survival of the species. But that is about information. 

So this is the perspective I am interested in: Phenotype as Agent for Epigenetic Inheritance - PubMed (

Paraphrasing this argument, acting gives rise to "information" - differences that make a difference. At a fundamental level, that information must be biological - the differences that make a difference are in the physiology of every cell. What are its dynamics?

The hormonal responses to "differences that make a difference" make a difference to cellular machinery. Specifically, there are epigenetic transformations to stress and other factors in the environment which will either be exposed through acting, or which will cause subsequent actions. Those epigenetic changes are carried back to the core of reproductive physiology - to the gametes. Why might this happen? Well. it's quicker than natural selection... 

The zygote that is the result of future interaction between male and female gametes therefore carries some blueprint of whatever environmental conditions imprinted themselves epigenetically on the agent's gametes at some point in their earlier existence. In other words, the information is carried forwards as a pre-programming of the next generation. 

Now is it too far-fetched to suggest that the point of "doing stuff" is that it is all about this "pre-programming". After all, it is the survival of the species which must be the abiding concern of evolution. And in considering this, species is not a collection of phenotypes - people, birds, insects, bacteria, etc. It is a process involving a collection of information-gathering entities which collectively perform information-harvesting in an ambiguous environment in which future generations will need to adapt and perform the same function. Fundamentally, the whole thing is a homeostatic process. 

I like this because it suggests that the practice of science and art is deeply related: both are about discovering information, and that this process is driven by the physiological imperative which feeds information discovery back to successive generations. Beethoven and Einstein were phenotypic agents performing this function, and - in their case - because of particular conditions, their information harvesting operation was particularly profound. 

I also like it though because it means that there is no life that is not profound. There is no life which does not contribute to the future possibility of human flourishing. No life is wasted. Yet there are questions here about those who are truly evil, or who inflict suffering which I need to think about. The uncomfortable answer to that is that information about evil is necessary. I suspect Shakespeare might agree.