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. 

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