Article by Angus Jenkinson FCybS, June 2021
The Knowing ‘aspect’ — introducing a subject important to many cyberneticians — relates to a wide range of interests from the Schopenhauer’s ‘world knot’, i.e. the mind-body problem to second order science to the meaning of life, neuroscience to the feeling of love, as well as how we know about these and how they operate — cybernetically. It is related to epistemology (what is true, decidable, or knowable), ontology (what is), the noetic sciences and mind, and the processes, anatomies, and physiology of knowing, it therefore includes philosophy, principles and theory, key persons, research methods, examples and cases, and the significance of these disciplines for cybernetics. A sample list is below. Finally, it also deals with the manner of knowing, and how we think about the world, indeed how we think.
This is practically and morally significant.
How we determine what is scientific determines what is science and therefore what the culture of our time accepts as the world order and how things should be — indeed what we are.
There is no place for a science that stands apart from the consequences of its deeds.
Whereas philosophy has been profoundly interested in questions of knowledge at the level of interrogating its limits, meaning, and the knotty riddles, science over the last four centuries has tended towards methods of forming what it considers to be reliable and objective knowledge. Cybernetics deviates from this in at least two ways. Cyberneticians frequently ask whether objective knowledge is even possible. It is a debate. They also include recognition of the subjectivity of the individual active entity in responding to its environment (his, her) as critical to the processes of science, of knowing the world, including the subjectivity of the scientist. It is as keen on the rigour of science as any scientific field while at the same time including within its domain the necessity of dealing with the subjective.
The term “knowing” therefore denotes a process rather than a fact of knowledge. A mathematical proof deals with the internal logic of what in its pure state is a noetic, virtual, or immaterial logical body. Mappings take place between this purity and the applied mathematical fields of science, for example in the physics of levers, the Fibonacci series in plant organisation, or fractal geometry in weather forecasting. In a certain sense therefore, mathematics is produced out of thinking. Many cyberneticians ask a related question: Is the world (as it is known) produced by its observers through their cognitional processes? Some would delete the phrase in parentheses. Yet for all of this seeming uncertainty, just as mathematics has produced innumerable immensely significant contributions to science and therefore to civilisation, so can cybernetics produce — and has done so already — transformations that affect the world we know.
“Spontaneously composed music is a counterpoint that has its own rules based on a natural order and intuitive logic.”
—Jazz artist D C DowDell
A cybernetic approach
The artist, Barnett Newman, said:
“Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”
It is easy to assume, given American slang, that Newman had no time for aesthetics. Almost the opposite is the case. He was an extremely keen bird watcher and was in awe of how birds can fly without needing to rationalise the mechanics of doing so. That is to say they understand so deeply and instinctively, they have no need to represent the how to themselves to be able to fly. At any rate, that was the point he wanted to make about himself as an artist and about artists in general. The artist internalises aesthetics to use it, to do art, without needing to think about aesthetics as such; instead attention is focused on the work, what is being produced. He saw artists responding (in a feedback process) to their own productions as birds respond to the world they encounter in flight. Watch a swallow swooping in its hunting of insects, constantly adjusting beautifully to the goal of dining. This seems a general learning process. Learning to drive requires study, learning methods in principle, but through practice eventually most people simply drive, the focus shifts from how to the actual situation on the road. Feedback shifts from comparing ‘what I am doing’ with ‘what I am supposed to be doing’; instead it becomes what the car and I are doing in relation the situation on the road.
This suggests that the study of Knowing has two aspects, at least:
- what is consciously known
- and what is simply known.
When turned upon itself it also implies that there is unconsciously embedded knowhow in the processes of doing research or philosophising. Such knowhow also has centuries of history, a sociology and culture as part of a paradigm of science, and this has rested on assumptions, some of which seem flawed. Indeed, cybernetics points to several flaws and is in principle in the vanguard of a process of renewal and change.
Epistemology of determining observers
The observing ‘agent’ is here a general term for the diverse classes from smart tech signal receiving devices to human to special cases of human like artist or philosopher. (‘Agent’ here also includes such other varieties as plants, ants, and even corporate bodies (e.g. firms) and others not yet discovered).
Because of this general sense, Ashby and others used the word machine as universal term, but agent better represents the specific aspect of responsiveness within an interaction space. (Whatever word is used can introduce bias unconsciously) Both a software app and an ant respond to input stimuli according to their programming (the software) or instinctual drives (ant). While different terns are needed to express the ontology of types of directive activity, the term determination may be used here strictly as a general term expressing the nature of agency: autonomously generated activity towards goals. This also turns the ordinary thinking of causal logic rather on its head. Agents determine rather than being determined. Of course, this needs a more precise description and relation to such concepts as purpose and self-organization as well as recognition of the contingent effect of natural causes in and on the agent.
Cybernetics reframed the epistemology of science and therefore of the observation of itself. In this way cybernetics was cybernetic, since it deals with observers. Observing is already a determining act.
An interaction space conforms philosophically to a distinction space as described by the mathematical philosopher George Spencer-Brown. In the first footnote in his book of poetry, Only Two Can Play This Game, which was published under the pen name James Keys, a signal of its purpose, the distinction space is described as a trinity that can be understood mathematically, philosophically, spiritually, physically, and therefore psychologically.
In Laws of Form, by the way, I took just the tiniest thread of one of these ‘calculations’, and teased it out laboriously step by step just far enough to give some inkling of how the material of our own universe is created… The explanation of the Trinity [a logical form structure] in fact turns out to be simple enough. When you make a distinction of any kind whatever, the easiest way to represent its essential properties mathematically is by some sort of closed curve like a circle. Here, the circumference distinguishes two sides, an inside and an outside. The two sides, plus the circumference itself, which is neither the inside nor the outside, together make up three aspects of one distinction. Thus every distinction is a trinity. Hence the First Distinction is the First Trinity.
A prison is a physically recursive structure for physically imprisoning people. Its distinctions are marked by walls, bars, locks and doors. Mental imprisonment — an old poetics and philosophical metaphor — is a noetic recursive structure marked by beliefs, frames, habitual modes of thinking and the haunting emotional images many are subject to. The doors of perception — Blake’s phrase made famous in the 20th century once again by Aldous Huxley and then the Doors — have great resonance for science. Every scientific breakthrough consists of some kind of dissolving of one particular structure of thought into another. This is a special case of the general, how humans as the most potentially free of all living agents nevertheless form their own distinctions in which they may be bounded or create new futures.
Cybernetics therefore deals with the process in which the agent is formed by its own organizational closure and yet remains responsiveness to its ‘outside’. Self-referential interior identity, functioning cybernetic closure, and the responsiveness to the environment (the interaction space) necessary for sustained existence and fulfilment of purposes are described between Varela and Maturana in their autopoietic analysis as well as by others such as Pask (conversation space).
I’ve explored a variety of directions and themes over the years. But I think in my painting you can see the signature of one artist, the work of one wrist.
Knowing and thinking
Following from Spencer Brown’s work on the rules of form, i.e. logic, central to the the aspect of knowing is of course the activity of thinking, indeed the mystery of thinking. it is a mystery because thinking itself cannot ordinarily be observed at all. All that can be observed is its products, mental pictures (representations, languaged thoughts et cetera). Thinking itself is an activity not its products.
All of the concepts, tools, methods, insights and so on of cybernetics — and indeed every science — have their home in thinking and its products. The activity of thinking obviously has to be separated from the mechanics of sensing, not that this is simply mechanical. But the various senses must both be correlated with each other and interpreted before the incoming streams of sound, light, pressure and so on become meaningful. The first step in thinking therefore is the organization of sensory data into information, a paradigm case of the process of regulation and Ashby’s theory (that all regulation requires an adequate regulator, one with sufficient scope to take account of all of the incoming information, succinctly put as “only variety can absorb variety”).
It is through thinking that logics are discovered and through logics that we have some understanding of the nature of thinking.
Through thinking it is possible to see that the apparently solid pane of glass is actually fluid, but that it takes decades or centuries for its substance to flow from the top of the window to the bottom. It is through thinking that we can see that there is a flaw in a crystal or a diamond. Fascinatingly, try the following exercise:
Think (that is actually do it and not just repeat the words) that
2×2 is 5.
Do you not discover something like a wall that thinking meets, an impenetrable boundary that refuses to allow the thought to enter?
What does that mean?
Is it a law of form?
It is unsurprising that there is a considerable interest amongst cyberneticians in the processes of developing thinking itself, and indeed of exploring and getting to know thinking — many have done or do meditation of some form as a type of mental training. All science depends on mental training and this includes the ability to explore one’s own assumptions and presuppositions in order to get beyond them.
Object versus contextual thinking: Knowing as a reorientation of the practice of thinking
Cybernetics is one of the disciplines that has been at the forefront of challenging the ‘object’ mode of thinking (while often falling into that mode too). Many observers have noted how this is the characteristic quality of modern science and beyond that modern culture has its mode of thinking becomes pervasive. Also known by such terms as silos, reductive methods, abstraction, and mechanism, the object mode sees the world in terms of a series of reified objects. It is operative when a person takes objects as the model entities of the world and sees phenomena as if they were things or thing-like parts. It then tends to assume that the world is composed of an assembly of the object-parts. The search for “truth” seeks to get ‘behind’ the fluxing phenomena as they appear; then, mental models are routinely turned into objects, as for example in the atomic structure of defined reality. It may then produce systems of such assemblies, indeed this is a common feature of some systems theories and scientific frameworks.
The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wavelengths, but that is what it is. The sound of a flute does not sound like a compression wave train in the atmosphere, but that is what it is. The warmth of the summer air does not feel like the mean kinetic energy of millions of tiny molecules, But that is what it is.
—Paul Churchland, 1988
One of the challenges of second-order cybernetics — which takes account of the observer’s processes of knowing and therefore their cognitional construction or hermeneutic interpretation — is to avoid the trap of reifying a mechanistic explanatory model into a substitute reality.
The object mode of thinking is like a child assembling their toy world out of Lego pieces, except that it is conceptual elements that have been reified into these pieces. When the process is the design and creation of a machine, this has a real validity, and was therefore relevant to the creation of the robots that demonstrated early cybernetic concepts. But as a dominant model it does not work for the understanding of life and all true cybernetic phenomena.
“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
—Don Cherry, jazz player
As is discussed also in various other brief introductory essays in this “Essays” section of the website, the living, social, and generally cybernetic world is one of contextual interaction and process. The individual plant that appears will be a phenomenon that arises from the interaction of its own special organization (that which derives from its species) and its particular unique environment as a process.
In turn, cybernetic thinking needs to match this inter-contextual processual logic. Instead of ‘thinging’ the world, cybernetics appreciates it. It is dynamic. Its logic is the logic of living ecology, an ecologic as I call it.
Dave Brubeck said: “Jazz stands for freedom.” So then, does cybernetics?
This is also why we are at some pains, while describing the ways in which cybernetics interacts with other disciplines, paradigms, or scientific fields, to avoid reifying these aspects or even the different scientific fields. The term aspects already embeds the interrelated processes of knowing, perceiving, or interpreting: it puts the observer into a relational context. And such a relational context is central to the cybernetic method of the 21st-century. Those interested in exploring its roots would do well to read and critique, or be inspired by, Gregory Bateson, for example in Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
Regulation, control, and order
One of the core fields of cybernetics is regulation — whether of oneself, or by the body of its own organization, or of something, such as a machine, system, or social order. As indicated above, the beginning point for this is thinking itself — although cognition must be understood very differently in a human and a bacterium, indeed between an animal and a machine. The design of a regulating system requires thinking through the logic of the order to be maintained and the signals required for this. Designing such a system requires Ashby’s principle to be followed. In a sense this involves matching the logic of the controller, that which is being controlled, and the environment or context in which control is required. The profound practicality of thinking immediately leaps to the fore. Cybernetics gives an ordering structure, principle, and set of insights for this.
The creation of experience and the world — and the “orders” of cybernetics
It follows from this that all experience is in some sense created by the processes by which it is formed. In the human, thinking forms out of the buzzing chaos of the senses (as they have been called) the meaningful world of each person. This has led to the concept of the world as constructed and along with this the ‘notion of second order cybernetics’. This is not the right place to go into a critique of the various positions on social construction, idealism versus realism, materialism, and the interpretations of first and second order cybernetics. But it is important to realise that these are important scientific and not merely philosophical themes of cybernetics.
Instead of ‘thinging’ the world, cybernetics appreciates it.
Experience and context
Nothing makes sense shorn of context. You must have seen pictures and texts that illustrate how easy it is to misunderstand something if the context is not there. There was a famous image in a leading UK paper that showed a black man chasing another man, who was running away. It suggested the possibility of an aggressive act by the black man. But with a larger context is becomes clear that he was chasing a thief who had mugged a woman. It asked whether bias had interfered with your observation.
All knowing involves context.
All behaviour of all living organism is always context-dependent. Behaviour is responsive to contextual flux and change. (It is a demonstration of the fallacy of the Neo-Darwinian model of DNA and protein production.)
Hence ‘knowing’ is deeply implicated in all behaviour and behaviour between agents.
Context is active in the subjective.
Levi Strauss and transcultural knowledge
In 1962, Claude Levi Strauss wrote,
“The entire process of human knowledge thus assumes the character of a closed system.”
This insight appeared in his 1962 master work, The Savage Mind, where he claimed that western scientific investigation had only just caught up with the intuitive capability of age-old cultures. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan explains that the context was Levi Strauss’s understanding of cybernetics(2): its thinking and methods, especially in the context of communications theory, enabled “material instruments and techniques to morph into ostensibly immaterial ideals that furnished researchers with procedures for investigations unhindered by historical, political, or disciplinary difference.” Transdisciplinary, and transcultural human knowledge arises in the selection, collection, interpretation, and application of information. Any film theorist will understand this.
You might also be interested to know that Geoghegan coins a translation of Michelle Foucault’s French term, dispositifs, which has been translated variously on a spectrum from mechanism to disposition. Geoghegan does so in the interest of demonstrating how a multiplicity of different instrumentation and working methods may cohere in an epistemological insight and/or cybernetic action. There is a movement in the cybernetic community towards finding alternatives to mechanism, especially when considering the innumerable instances of cybernetic activity in biological life and psychological process. Foucault too seeks fresh language. Given the tight relationship between language, meaning, and understanding, this search for a more relevant scientific terminology is considered by many in the cybernetic community to be important.
Cybernetic questions to cybernetics, scientific method, and the future
Cyberneticians have always been asking themselves questions about their own discipline and practice and about their understanding of cybernetics and methods. Like all science, it process by learning, including learning better scientific method. So cybernetic researchers have and are developing critical inquiries into aspects of early cybernetics, which are designated as “first-order”, while others critique later “second-order” stances. These enquiries have led to a more considered view of the processes of knowing, of what knowledge is, of the extent to which our experience and knowledge of the world (as we know and think it) is seen or constructed, interpreted or filtered, and whether models (or mental pictures) make, shape, distort or illumine what we think we know.
Such questions lead not only to the ancient challenge, which Aristotle summed up in saying that all humans seek to know, but to practical questions. ‘How do we ‘world worlds’, as Donna Hathaway asks, sounds like mysticism or science fiction, but when humans turned from wanting to master nature (think Versailles) to appreciating it (think Romantic poetry) we also turned a corner in the kind of world we see and the one we want to live in. As unbridled industrialisation and modern western civilisation damaged ecosystems and brought on mass extinctions, now the ecological thinking inherent in the cybernetic can help to heal. Others however will take the mastery of smart cybernetic technologies to create systems to master people or to serve the Earth and its life. In this there is no place for a science that stands apart from the consequences of its deeds.
Examples of the noetic — or Knowing — include:
- Artificial intelligence as a concept and paradigm
- Autonomy and freedom, agency
- Brain, nervous system, and brain sciences
- Cognition and sensory perception
- Cognition, thinking, thoughts and their mental representation
- Cognitive biases, frames, and paradigms
- Communication — in nature, humans, machines
- Concepts and ideas and what they are or do
- Consciousness studies
- Constructivism, idealism
- Context theory
- Cross discipline/trans discipline/integration as practice
- Cybernetic influence on scientific paradigms
- Design & creativity praxis
- Directiveness and autonomy
- Double bind and other pathologies
- Embodied intelligence
- Emotion (affect, feelings) and its effects and intelligence
- Ethics and its truth validities and applications, and as inherent in theory and design
- Experience, erleben, milieu, context, Ümwelt
- History of science and of cybernetics as revolutionary or stable social processes
- Information and imparity
- Language and languaging, meaning
- Logic and logics, circular logic, logic of form, Boolean and non-Boolean logic, alternative geometries, mathematical, artistic, and poetic logics
- Mathematics as knowledge
- Mental phenomena, Vorstellung (mental pictures, representations), memories, etc
- Method of levels
- Mind-body problem, Weltknotten or world-knot.
- Models, map & territory, saving the appearances
- Neuroscience, neurophysiology
- Noetic modes, activity of mind-bodies in thinking, emotion, will (cognition, affect, conation)
- Perceptual Control theory
- Phenomena and phenomenology
- Philosophy of science
- Physiology of knowledge
- Positivism and reductionism as determinists of reality
- Psychological Theories
- Psychotherapy & Psychiatry
- Schooling scientific and designer minds
- Scientific method & its effects
- Second, recursive, and observer-dependent orders of science and cybernetics.
- Sensation and sensory processes
- Signs, semiology, context markers and cues, cybersemiology
- Ternary Theory
- Thinking and its training, modes, practices
- Unconscious — knowledge, processing
— Angus Jenkinson, FCybS, 1.6.2021
In noting myself as the author, I intend to take responsibility for errors and mistakes, the moral responsibility of the author, rather than searching for credit. The primary piece was written in June 2021 with updates later that year and in October 2023.
1 Abstract Expressionism, Taschen, p 18.
2. Geoghegan, B. D. (2011). From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus. CRITICAL INQUIRY, 38(1), 96-126.