CEPA eprint 3989

From second-order cybernetics to cybersemiotics: A semiotic re-entry into the second-order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster

Brier S. (1996) From second-order cybernetics to cybersemiotics: A semiotic re-entry into the second-order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster. Systems Research 13(3): 229–244. Available at http://cepa.info/3989
Table of Contents
Discussing the problem of the ontology of constructivism and its concept of knowledge
The development of Luhmann’s theory of social-communicative systems
Varela’s development of a triadic calculus for self-reference
Semiosis and second-order cybernetics
This article praises the development of second-order cybernetics by von Foerster, Maturana and Varela as an important step in deepening our understanding of the biopsychological foundation of the dynamics of cognition and communication. Luhmann’s development of the theory into the realm of social communication is seen as a necessary and important move. The differentiation between biological, psychological and social- communicative autopoiesis and the introduction of a technical concept of meaning is central. Furthermore, Varela’s development of Spencer Brown’s ‘Laws of Form’ from a dual to a triadic categorical basic structure is considered vital. Finally the paper shows that second-order cybernetics lacks explicit and ontological concepts of emotion, meaning and a concept of signs. C.S. Peirce’s theory is introduced for this purpose. It is then shown that both theories are triadic and second order, and therefore can be fruitfully fused to a cybersemiotics.
Key words: Second-order cybernetics, cybersemiotics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, autopoiesis, semiotics, information, cognition, observer.
I want to perform a philosophy of science study of the metaphysics of Heinz von Foerster and second-order cybernetics, focusing on their contribution to the understanding of information and communication. In doing this I will of course myself indulge in metaphysics. As Heinz von Foerster writes:
We turn into metaphysicians, whether or not we call ourselves such, whenever we decide upon questions that are in principle undecidable. (von Foerster, 1991, p. 63)
As I trained initially as a biologist, specializing in the behavioural and information sciences, and later as a philosopher of science, I must refrain from a qualified evaluation of his mathematics, but I am passionately interested in his metaphysics. The reason for this is that what von Foerster has been and is working at is really very fundamental and revolutionary. To paraphrase what Niels Bohr said about quantum mechanics in this context of second-order cybernetics: if you do not get dizzy when you think about second- order cybernetics, you have not understood it at all. Let me give you a taste of it with a central quotation from von Foerster’s position:
… my nervous system does not, indeed, cannot, tell me what is ‘out there’, not because of mechanical but because of logico-semantical reasons. My nervous system cannot tell me anything because it is ‘me’: I am the activity of my nervous system; all my nervous system talks about is its own state of sensory-motor activity. (von Foerster, 1989, p. 224)
I will attempt to construct a consistent interpretation of some of von Foerster’s central papers, and from this reading formulate three questions as a gift to von Foerster on his birthday, as it is my impression that it is his own favourite sport to give away questions in his talks and writings. Let me be fair and start with the questions I have come up with myself, partly through many years work with autopoiesis and second-order cybernetics and partly through my analysis of von Foerster’s papers.
The problems I see in this fascinating work have to do with the way second-order cybernetics is constructed, from the early attempts of Bateson and then Maturana and Varela’s autopoietic ‘bring-forth-ism’ through von Foerster’s work to Luhmann’s socio-cybernetics. They are: (1) What is its concept of substance? (2) What is the vehicle of the self-organization of meaning in animal and human languaging? (3) What is the theoretical understanding of the phenomenological aspect of meaning (the inside feeling of it)?
Discussing the problem of the ontology of constructivism and its concept of knowledge
To von Foerster the basic problem of cognition turns, of course, back on science itself. What kind of knowledge is it that science offers us? What is wrong with the view of knowledge that classical science give us? Where can we go from there? It is not difficult to point out the inconsistency in attempting to account for human consciousness
in terms of physical determinism. One cannot be a determinist because it is a true philosophy, but rather only because one is then predestined by the physical chain of causes and effects. But in this way such views lose the logical and truth dimension which is a pre-requisite for their analysis. Not only do such views claim to be in accordance with the physical sciences, but they also claim to be logically valid and true. But that is something fundamentally different, something which requires consciousness and knowing – the very things we set out to explain! Von Foerster is keenly aware of the paradoxes of the objective, mechanical and deterministic mechanicism of classical physics, and still of much of modern quantum mechanical physics and relativistic theory. Instead, he starts by offering dialogic theories of cognition, language and how reality and meaning are created in society (von Foerster, 1989). Information and meaning at their broadest only arise from those self-organized – or in the words of Maturana and Varela (1986) – ‘autopoietic systems’ we call ‘living’, systems which have a practical and historical relationship with a domain of living. It is clear that the starting point for the concept of information must be Bateson’s (1973) ‘a difference that makes a difference’. But one of the basic problems second-order cybernetics and its theory of autopoiesis have is ‘of what nature a system must be so as to make a difference make a difference’.
Von Foerster (1984) points out that if one insists that an organism can be modelled as a machine, then the machine must not be a trivial one (i.e. there is no deterministic mathematical description of its behaviour). Non-trivial machines namely change their state (way of computing a class of events) every time they finish a computation. This make them trans- computational for an outside observer (a behaviourist). So one might say that second-order cybernetics may still be mechanistic – Maturana and Varela (1980, 1986) talk a lot of the structure dependency of an autopoietic system – but it is not deterministic in the trivial Laplacian way.
This is a fundamental blow both to traditional mechanical materialists and believers in classical linear logic as a model of thought. With their concept of autopoiesis, Maturana and Varela (1980) exhibit one of the reasons why triviality and linearity are not enough to understand living systems. The system organizes itself and produces its own parts. The self-organizing ability and the historical dimension of living systems are important reasons why organisms cannot be trivial machines. Organisms are closed self- referential systems. But this actually only makes the understanding of cognition and communication more difficult. If information is not transferred from the environment to a computationally describable system, what kind of dynamic is going on? Drawing on the works of Gadamar, Heidegger and Maturana, Winograd and Flores (1986) underline that the meaning/ information content of a sign is determined by social practice in an historical context, as opposed to the rationalist idea of objective information sitting ‘out there’ arranged in bits, just waiting to be picked up.
Von Foerster and Maturana answer the question about information and dynamics as follows. The organism reacts to disturbances/ perturbation in its system by means of a self- referential dynamic (so as to conserve the sort of system it seeks to be). The word ‘outside’ is not used, because according to these theories the concept ‘outside’ or (objective) reality has no significant objective meaning. It is defined by the system itself. This is a very basic philosophical problem, at the interface of where epistemology and neuropsychology meet. How is it that certain nervous impulses make us see and others make us hear, when we cannot measure any difference between them when we open somebody’s scalp and register the nervous impulses? It seems that only the destination in the cortex determines the quality of perception we will experience. We have at present no clue to what turns quantity into quality in the nervous system. This leads von Foerster to identify the central problem of cognition in the following way:
The same is true for any other sensory receptor, may it be the taste buds, the touch receptors, and all the other receptors that are associated with the sensations of smell, heat and cold, sound, and so on: they are all ‘blind’ as to the quality of their stimulation, responsive only as to their quantity.Although surprising, this should not come as a surprise, for indeed ‘out there’ there is no light and no colour, there are only electromagnetic waves; ‘out there’ there is no sound and no music, there are only periodic variations of the air pressure; ‘out there’ there is no heat and no cold, there are only moving molecules with more or less mean kinetic energy, and so on. Finally, for sure, ‘out there’ there is no pain.Since the physical nature of the stimulus – its quality – is not encoded into nervous activity, the fundamental question arises as to how does our brain conjure up the tremendous variety of this colourful world as we experience it any moment while awake, and sometimes in dreams while asleep. This is the ‘problem of cognition, the search for an understanding of the cognitive processes.The way in which a question is asked determines the way in which an answer may be found. Thus it is upon me to paraphrase the ‘problem of cognition’ in such a way that the conceptual tools that are today at our disposal may become fully effective. To this end let me paraphrase (→) ‘cognition’ in the following way:Cognition → computing a reality.(von Foerster, 1973, reprint 1988, pp. 81-82)
The idea that ‘cognition computing a reality’ is one of the central postulates in second- order cybernetics, contributed by von Foerster. Maturana and Varela talk about ‘bringing forth a reality’. I do not see any substantial difference. But the statement on cognition as computing a reality must be combined with Varela’s: life = cognition. So to be a living system is to compute a self-perpetuating reality, or – as Maturana and Varela state – to be autopoietic. To close the circle this must be combined with Maturana’s statement that every statement is made by an observer. There is no Universe outside and before the observer and no systems without an observer. As observers we live in a Multiverse according to Maturana (1988), and Luhmann (1990) also uses this concept. These views deal with really difficult metaphysical and epistemological questions.
Second-order cybernetics dares to move into a more than 2500-year-old philosophical minefield about the nature of reality and cognition, two terms which are of course intricately linked. Where Maturana in his writing abandons the concept of the Universe as belonging to objectivistic epistemology and ontology, and uses the concept Multiverse, von Foerster speaks of a Universe in which every cognitive system computes a reality (von Foerster, 1973, reprint 1988).
On the other hand, a problem is that in Bateson, von Foerster, Maturana and Varela, and Luhmann’s second-order cybernetics everyone writes about observers as bio-psycho-(even)- sociological beings, but they use exclusively nonphenomenological–scientific–logical–mathematical concepts to describe them and most of all their surroundings (Umwelts). On the other hand, second-order cybernetics – most clearly developed by Maturana – seems to take an epistemological stance greatly resembling Ernst Mach’s critical positivism, where the sense experience (die empfindungen) is all there is. Since the viewpoint is not an objective idealistic cosmology, the resulting sensory experience is not the substance of the world. So we are left with a kind of subjective idealistic constructivism without any substance, which seems to be very close to solipsism. Another understanding is that the position claims the possibility of having an epistemological stance without any ontological presumptions. I will show that they exist anyhow.
In the following I will describe how von Foerster deals with these problems. He realizes they exist, and makes (below) an interesting attempt to provide a solution to the problem of other psyches – die fremden psychologiche problem – in his principle of relativity, which he states in several articles in slightly different ways. I consider the quotation below the most successful. He imagines a man with his head full of mental constructions of other people with whom he talks:
He insists that he is the sole reality, while everything else appears only in his imagination. However, he cannot deny that his imaginary universe is populated with apparitions that are not unlike himself. Hence he has to concede that they themselves may insist that they are the sole reality and everything else is only a concoction of their imagination. In that case their imaginary universe will be populated with apparitions, one of which may be he, the gentleman with the bowler hat.According to the principle of relativity, which rejects a hypothesis when it does not hold for two instances together, although it holds for each instance separately (Earthlings and Venusians may be consistent in claiming to be in the centre of the universe, but their claims fall to pieces if they should ever get together). The solipsistic claim falls to pieces when besides me I invent another autonomous organism. However, it should be noted that since the principle of relativity is not a logical necessity – nor is it a proposition that can be proven to be either true or false – the crucial point to be recognized here is that I am free to choose either to adopt this principle or to reject it. If I reject it, I am the centre of the universe, my reality is my dreams and my nightmares, my language is monologue, and my logic mono- logic. If I adopt it, neither I nor the other can be the centre of the universe. As in the heliocentric system, there must be a third that is the central reference. It is the relation between thou and I, and this relation is identity: reality = community.(von Foerster, 1973, reprint 1988, pp. 92-94)
This is bit problematic for Maturana and Varela (1980, 1986) as their theory is actually founded primarily on pre-language and on pre-conscious biological beings. But they have developed it in the direction of von Foerster (Maturana, 1988) and it is usually not stated as a problem. But philosophically it is a qualitative difference. Still, I find that the general stance has not moved far from Mach’s critical positivism, and that the point of view never really embraces phenomenology, although Maturana attempts to develop a theory of emotioning. Von Foerster realized that this of course brings us to the question of consciousness and its role in establishing reality:
With this the circle of contradiction is closed, for if one assumes to be the sole reality, it turns out he is the imagination of someone else who, in turn, insists that he is the sole reality. The resolution of this paradox establishes ‘environment’ through stipulating a second observer. Reality is what can be witnessed, hence, rests on ‘together-knowledge, ‘ that is, conscientiae: Reality is conscience. (von Foerster, 1986, pp. 84-85)
So we now seem to be placed in some kind of social idealism or social constructivism recognizing the – at least partly – independent existence of fellow human beings as a prerequisite for our experience and cognition. We live in language and culture and without it we are not humans. Generally this view is set forward by social scientists and social philosophers of science. The social processes gain reality but there are great problems with establishing the physiochemical and the biological nature. But one of the deep understandings of modern times, and of second- order cybernetics, is that we are biological beings and that human existence is not possible without this foundation. This is also one of the central pillars of second-order cybernetics. Von Foerster writes of how the organization of the nervous system permits integration of sensory input to create our internal conscientiae:
The structure of this fabric must permit some cross talk between the senses, not only in terms of associations, but also in terms of integration. If this structure permits the ear to witness what the eye sees and the eye to witness what the ear hears then there is again ‘together-knowledge, ‘ conscientiae, but here we call it consciousness. (von Foerster, 1986, p. 86)
So consciousness seems to be the result of the integration of two non-trivial machines, namely the nervous system and, through language, culture. So far this is not revolutionary news. Von Foerster (1979) recognized as a prerequisite for science the necessity of admitting to the reality of the observer at least one more observer to communicate with in order to establish a world of language and of society, to be able to produce knowledge. In the central quotation below he develops his point of view from that of Maturana.
Here is Maturana’s proposition, which I shall now baptize ‘Humberto Maturana’s Theorem Number One’: ‘Anything said is said by an observer.’ (von Foerster, 1979, pp. 5-6)I would like to add to Maturana’s Theorem a corollary which, in all modesty, I shall call ‘Heinz von Foerster’s Corollary Number One’: ‘Anything said is said to an observer.’ (von Foerster, 1979, pp. 5-6)With these two propositions a non-trivial connection between three concepts has been established. First, that of an observer who is characterized by being able to make descriptions. This is because of Theorem 1. Of course, what an observer says is a description. The second concept is that of language. Theorem 1 and Corollary 1 connect two observers through language. But, in turn, by this connection we have established the third concept I wish to consider…, namely that of society: the two observers constitute the elementary nucleus for a society. Let me repeat the three concepts that are in a triadic fashion connected to each other. They are: first, the observers; second, the language they use; and third, the society they form by the use of their language. This interrelationship can be compared, perhaps, with the interrelationship between the chicken, and the egg, and the rooster. You cannot say who was first and you cannot say who was last. You need all three in order to have all three. (von Foerster, 1979, pp. 5-6)
Accepting this, and the necessity of language for science, the epistemological stance of second- order cybernetics, through its metaphysical choices, moves to a social constructivism, most developed in Luhmann’s theories of social communication (Luhmann, 1989, 1990). It is a good and fairly commonly accepted theory that the human self-conscious being is created as the integrative product of its biopsychology (the observer), society and language. I think it is basically a sound thought in second-order cybernetics that the origin of the observer and the origins of the world reality are intimately connected through language and society’s production of meaning/information. But the idea that consciousness = reality is not clear without some ontological specifications.
I have attempted to show (in Brier, 1992), that one cannot solve the problem of mind and intentionality in an evolutionary philosophy, whether through mechanical materialism or physical indeterminism. One needs a (self)- organizing principle as well. The world and our minds are neither completely deterministic nor governed by pure chance. As we have seen from von Foerster’s relativity analysis, a pure phenomenalistic idealism (or subjective constructivism or mentalism) which underestimates the importance of the relative stability of the ‘outside’ world for the possibility of knowledge is not a fruitful position either (see Brier, 1993, for further details).
Second-order cybernetics accepts both the biological and social levels of existence: but how do we establish the physical nature of things?
Von Foerster here develops a position about how we establish the constancy of what we have come to call ‘things’. This has been a major problem in our epistemological consideration since the Greeks started their philosophy by contemplating ‘the order of things’. The word reality even comes from this root. Von Foerster uses, in several places (for instance Von Foerster, 1980), the mathematical idea of ‘eigenvalues’ from recursive functions (also used in quantum physics) to give a model of how objects (‘of reaction’) are manifested in a living, sensing, autopoietic system. Eigenvalues are all those values of a function which, when operated on, produce themselves. The action is a kind of circular causality (discussed in Brier, 1993).
These eigenvalues and objects are what Maturana and Luhmann call structural couplings between the environment and the autopoietic system. Some of these the ethologist calls ‘Sign Stimuli (Brier, 1993). Through language and culture we learn to construct the difference between ‘ourselves’ and the ‘surrounding world’ as a difference that makes a difference (sometimes all the difference).
The process of human knowing is the process in which we, through languaging, create the difference between the world and ourselves, between self and non-self, and thereby to some extent create the world by creating ourselves. But we do this by relating to a common reality which exists in some way before we make the difference between ‘the world’ and ‘ourselves’ make a difference. Spencer-Brown writes about ‘the unmarked state’, C.S. Peirce writes of ‘Firstness’, which is the origin of the primary signs made concrete through the resistance of Secondness and understood through the mediating regularity and reflexivity of Thirdness. Heidegger writes about the ‘thrownness’ of man: subject and object are not originally separated. But what creates what, how and how much, is an ongoing question in constructive second-order cybernetics.
Von Foerster’s position here is very interesting, because he goes further than most constructivists within second-order cybernetics in his claims about the nature of ‘the outside world’. On the one hand it seems clear today through quantum physics that science cannot claim that ‘the world’ exists completely independently of our doing. On the other hand, it is clear that we do not create the trees and the mountains through our experiencing or conversation. Although the position we have constructed out of von Foerster’s writings has given us a new critical and socially reflected understanding of understanding and the cultural production of knowledge, they satisfy neither our everyday experience of matter and nature nor the experiences of the natural sciences / scientist, of the reality and stability of natural things (or what some philosophers call ‘natural kinds’). The eigenfunctions do not just come out of the blue. In some, yet only dimly viewed way, the existence of nature and its ‘things’ and our existence as ‘observers’ are intertwined in a way that makes it very difficult to talk about them. Von Foerster realizes that to accept the reality of the biological systems of the observer will lead into acceptance of the structure of the environment.
… I propose to continue the use of the term ‘self-organizing system’, whilst being aware of the fact that this term becomes meaningless, unless the system is in close contact with an environment, which possesses available energy and order, and with which our system is in a state of perpetual interaction, such that it somehow manages to ‘live’ on the expenses of this environment. (von Foerster, 1984, p. 4)
So both the self-organizing system and the energy and order of the environment must be attributed some kind of pre-given reality. Later in the same paper he admits that it is necessary to accept some kind of (non-subjective) order in the environment:
… to show that there is some structure in our environment …, by pointing out that we are obviously not in the dreadful state of Boltzmann’s ‘Heat Death’. Hence presently still the entropy increases, which means that there must be some order – at least now – otherwise we could not loose it.Let me briefly summarize the points I have made until now: (1) By a self-organizing system I mean that part of a system that eats energy and order from its environment.(2) There is a reality of the environment in a sense suggested by the acceptance of the principle of relativity.(3) The environment has structure.(von Foerster, 1984, p. 8)
As soon as we chose to step out of solipsism through the acceptance of the relativity principle and acknowledge the reality of human beings, we are led to accept as real both their languaging, their cognitive abilities, and the necessary biological autopoietic structures. But these systems, as we have defined them, cannot exist without an environment with energy, order and material structure. We must accept some kind of structure of the world/ reality from the fact that autopoietic systems can organize themselves. ‘How much’ and ‘how real’ is the problem to discuss.
In some of his quotations about nature, von Foerster is very close to formulations of Galileo and Descartes, when they claimed that the only reality of the outside world is measurable things such as molecules, energy and order. I am convinced that he also accepts the necessity of the concepts of space and time, and, since he accepts entropy and thermodynamics, also evolution or with Maturana’s concept, ‘historical drift’. But one of the big questions of modern science is the connection between our inner life and this material world.
I do not think that a concept of physical structure in evolution, alone, will be able to do the trick, to bring us out of classical first-order science into second-order non-trivial science. In a modern biological view, the mechanics of life is in a fundamental way connected to the unfolding of the universe. But still, this universal materialistic evolutionary theory, primarily based on thermodynamics, is not able to explain the observer and the observing (or rather the whole cognitive system). The Copernican turn in second- order cybernetics is the idea that in some basic way observing is first. Allow me to quote at length from Spencer-Brown’s very clear way of putting this problem:
Let us then consider, for a moment, the world as described by the physicist. It consists of a number of particles which, if shot through their own space, appear as waves, … All these appear bound by certain natural laws which indicate the form of their relationship.Now the physicist himself, who describes all this, is, in his own account, himself constructed of it. He is, in short, made of a conglomeration of the very particles he describes, no more no less, bound together by and obeying such general laws as he himself has managed to find and record.Thus we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way to be able) to see itself.This is indeed amazing.Not so much in view of what it sees, although this may appear fantastic enough, but in respect of the fact that it can see at all.But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one state which is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is only partially itself. We may take it that the world undoubtedly is itself (i.e. is indistinct from itself ), but, in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore false to, itself. In this condition it always partially eludes itself.It seems hard to find an acceptable answer to the question of how or why the world conceives a desire, and discovers an ability, to see itself, and appears to suffer the process. That it does so is sometimes called the original mystery. (Spencer-Brown, 1971)
Spencer-Brown developed from this point his ‘Laws of Form’ which is the departure point for a logic for second-order cybernetics. This – and Bateson’s formulation of information as a difference that makes a difference – is the reason why second-order cybernetics from von Foerster to Luhmann starts with some kind of implicit ‘common ground’ between the world and the observer from which the first difference between a system and an environment is generated, and then goes on building on differences. The formulations are very dose to Heidegger’s ‘thrownness’ and his idea of a ‘breakdown’ of the wholeness of the living system and its structural couplings before an intellectually guided observing can take place. Therefore observing has partial blindness as its prerequisite. But as both von Foerster and Heidegger remark then our problem is that we cannot see our own blindness (see also Herbst, 1993).
The problem is that a difference that makes a difference cannot become information before it has become so important to an observer /knower that he attaches a sign to it to make it communicable. In biology it is called ‘drive’ or ‘motivation’, in psychology we talk of ‘will’ and ‘interest’, and we know that it is connected to the social-cultural view of reality and the human person. This is the minimum demand to construct a social reality through cognition and language. Neither Maturana nor von Foerster has so far developed a systematic concept of society and its communicative and cognitive processes, although von Foerster lays some foundations and Maturana is also working in this direction. But this is done for second-order cybernetics by Niklas Luhmann who, building on the work of von Foerster, Maturana and Varela, has developed a theory of social communication through a generalization of the concept of autopoiesis.
The development of Luhmann’s theory of social-communicative systems
Allow me to sum up the development ofinformation, perception and communication within second-order cybernetics leading up to Luhmann’s work. Originally Bateson took the first step away from an objectivist information concept by defining information in cybernetic systems as a difference that makes a difference. In Maturana’s version information is a difference created inside the autopoietic system because of some perturbation. His theory is somewhat solipsistic. But – as far as I can see – in von Foerster’s and Luhmann’s more refined version information is a difference (created inside) which finds a difference outside, or better, which selects difference outside and establishes a correspondence to it through an eigenvalue function. Von Foerster (1984, p. 263) writes, for instance:
… the information associated with a description depends on an observer’s ability to draw inferences from this description … the environment contains no information; the environment is as it is.
So information is something that we make. Von Foerster (1984) has – as mentioned above – constructed the concept ‘eigenvalues’ as those stable dynamic modes a biological system drifts into when it is perturbed again and again in the same way. It is an attempt to show how what is normally called a representation comes about in a biological system. Maturana and Varela (1980) call the steady connection through which eigenvalues can be established ‘structural couplings’. These concepts seem to be more fruitful for the description of the habits and dynamics behind the phenomena the ethologist calls sign stimuli,[Note 1] as created by an innate response mechanism in the instinctive actions of animals (Brier, 1993). Although the whole idea of structural determinism is still very mechanistic, there is an important shift in description from physiological structures to organizational dynamics. So the meaning of information depends on the system’s own autopoietic organization and its historical drift and co-evolution with the environment and the other observing systems in it. But structural couplings also develop between organisms:
In this coupling, the autopoietic conduct of an organism A becomes a source of deformation for an organism B, and the compensatory behaviour of organism B acts, in turn, as a source of deformation of organism A, whose compensatory behaviour acts again as a source of deformation of B, and so on recursively until the coupling is interrupted. (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 120)
When observing, autopoietic systems are forced by circumstances to be a part of each other’s surroundings for a longer time, a dance of mutual structural couplings is developed. But this is not, as it is usually understood from a cognitivist and logic-of-language point of view, an exchange of information or codes.
Notions such as coding and transmission of information do not enter in the realization of a concrete autopoietic system because they do not refer to actual processes in it. […] The notion of coding is a cognitive notion which represents the interactions of the observer, not a phenomenon operative in the observed domain. (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 90)
The further development of these organizational processes leads to what Maturana calls ‘languaging’. Languaging, as I understand it, is the biological foundation for any kind of cogeneration of meaning between biological systems. It is a fundamental kind of non-linguistic dialogue. The only problem here is that there is no explicit phenomenological theoretical concept of meaning in second-order cybernetics, or any other kind of cybernetics or systems science. These theories are rather functional in their structure, but often then just take the phenomenological for granted. Anyway, neither Maturana’s nor von Foerster’s theories deal specifically and comprehensively with the function of language in cultural communication. But Niklas Luhmann[Note 2] has, from a sociological point of view, developed a generalized version of the second-order bio-cybernetic’s understanding of perception, generation and communication of information. He does it this way:
If we abstract from life and define autopoiesis as a general form of system building using self-referential closure, we would have to admit that there are non-living autopoietic systems, different modes of autopoietic reproduction, and that there are general principles of autopoietic organization that materialize as life, but also in other modes of circularity and self- reproduction. In other words, if we find non-living autopoietic systems in our world, then and only then will we need a truly general theory of autopoiesis that carefully avoids references that hold true only for living systems. (Luhmann, 1990, p. 2)
Luhmann’s idea is not to claim that computers are autopoietic, but that autopoietic systems can exist that are not primarily biological. He thinks of psychic and social-communicative systems. But as far as we know they can only function with a biological autopoietic system as a basis. As a biologist I do not think that Luhmann takes this fact seriously enough. But it is general for the non-biologist to underevaluate the evolutionary, ecological, chemical and semiotic (Brier, 1995) complexity of living systems. But I find it important and interesting that he defines the three levels as closed systems. Although they are all present in the human being, functioning simultaneously, there are no direct ‘inner connections’ between them. They can only communicate through interpenetration. That is to say through mutual structural couplings. This is an elegant cybernetic formulation of the organizational reasons for the problems of integrating language-borne self-consciousness and the subconscious body – mind, plus the basic problems of creating understanding via social communication through language.
Luhmann needs this very fundamental distinction between the three systems to be able to create (what has so far not been developed in the positions of von Foerster and Maturana) a psychological and social theory of meaning and communication. Luhmann writes:
It leads to a sharp distinction between meaning and life as different kinds of autopoietic organization, and meaning – using systems again have to be distinguished according to whether they use consciousness or communication as a mode of meaning-based reproduction. On the one hand, a psychological and sociological theory has to be developed that meets these requirements. On the other hand, the concept of autopoiesis has to be abstracted from biological connotations. (Luhmann, 1990, p. 2)
I think that Luhmann is right. If we want to build a general second-order theory of knowledge and communication systems we can’t build it only on biology. We have to start with our own knowing and its foundation in language, society, psychology and biology, and further, what is ‘before and outside’ these. These are the complex conditions of the possible existence of our own knowing. One can see both von Foerster, Maturana and Varela working this way. Luhmann wants to be able to distinguish, but not to explain, different levels of autopoiesis, and characterize basic differences in their way of functioning. He wants to underline that there is psychic and social-communicative autopoiesis that are qualitatively different. So in a general theory of autopoiesis he, so far, wants to distinguish three different systems:
It distinguishes a general theory of self- referential autopoietic systems and a more concrete level at which we may distinguish living systems (cells, brains, organisms, etc.), psychic systems, and social systems (societies, organizations, interactions) as different kinds of autopoietic systems. See Figure 1.This scheme is not to be understood as describing an internal system’s differentiation. It is a scheme not for the operations of systems, but for their observation. It differentiates different types of systems or different modes of realization of autopoiesis. (Luhmann, 1990, p. 29)
Figure 1
So it is important to understand that communicative systems are autonomous and have their own intrinsic form of organization which, although it builds on biological and psychological individuals, has aspects which transcend the biological sphere. Actually, each system is closed and qualitatively different from the others and they do not communicate in the usual meaning of the word:
Social systems use communication as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communications that are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications and that cannot exist outside of such a network. Communications are not ‘living’ units, they are not ‘conscious’ units, they are not ‘actions’. (Luhmann, 1990, p. 3)
This is an important move for him, to explain the human phenomenon of communication and the concept of meaning, concepts that do not occur on the biological level of second-order cybernetics. But his concept of meaning is not existential and emotional: it is technical or functionalistic. It denotes the autopoietic system’s strategy of handling complexity. Luhmann does this by introducing a representation of the complexity of the world into the system. The function of meaning in Luhmann’s theory is to provide access to all possible topics of communication. In this way he is able to introduce the concept of meaning in a fundamental system-theoretical way without having to work with a sort of transcendental subject. Instead of some transcendental idea, meaning becomes a strategy in perception, thinking and communicating (Luhmann, 1990, p. 84). In Luhmann’s theory of social communication, the structural coupling is in the social communication called generalized media (money, power, love, truth). Only within social structural couplings created through the history of society is it possible to have meaningful communication. Not even in this setting can one speak of the exchange of information. Communication is a shared actualization of meaning that is able to inform at least one of the participants. Communication does not transmit meaning but rather requires it as given and as forming a shared background against which informative surprises may be articulated (Luhmann, 1990, p. 32).
Von Foerster seems to accept this theoretical development of Luhmann as a real step forward. Luhmann integrates a lot of von Foerster’s ideas in his theory, and von Foerster has suggested further development of the theory which should deepen our understanding of communication. In a paper for Luhmann’s birthday (von Foerster, 1993b), von Foerster extends his theory in the following formulation, which connects his and Luhmann’s theory:
Communication is the eigenrelation in a recursively operating, double closure system.
In the following quotation he further deepens his position on communication. He further shows how fundamental this understanding is for the possibility of democratic conversation and its ethics.
If we take this as a metaphor for the interaction of two subjects, then the interaction becomes communicative if, and only if, each of the two sees himself through the eyes of the other. Note that in this perspective of communicative competence, concepts such as ‘agreement’ and ‘consensus’ do not appear and, moreover, need not appear (and this is as it should be, since in order for ‘consent’ and ‘agreement’ to be reached, communication must already prevail). These concepts, however, may very well appear in the vocabulary of an observer, who, outside the recursive loop watching the communicative interactions between the two subjects, sees no other way of explaining their concerted actions. But we should also note that, on the other hand, from this perspective, in which consciousness is attained only through conscience (that is, by identifying oneself with the other), communication, ethics, and love converge into the same domain. (von Foerster, 1993b, p. 27)
Although the tri-partitioning of autopoiesis into biological, psychic and social systems and the idea of the recursively operating, double closure systems seems warranted for being able to define a fundamental scientific and operational concept of meaning and social communication, it does not tell us much about the existential and emotional basis of meaning and communication in these systems. Furthermore, we do not learn much about what it is that the systems exchange when they communicate without transferring information. Although we can probably not ever expect with science to describe or grasp the human core of the emotional and existential aspects of meaning and speech, or the biological drive and emotioning of exchanging signs, it must be possible to enrich second-order cybernetic theory further with our knowledge of how signification functions among living systems. Luhmann (1993) has started to work in this direction, but some basic philosophical work is first needed if the connection to the knowledge in C.S. Peirce’s triadic semiotics is to be established. Varela has done this work.
Varela’s development of a triadic calculus for self-reference
Varela (1975) has, with his calculus for self- reference, which is an extension of Spencer-Brown’s work, developed these attempts at a more general and deeper philosophical level. He is clearly aware of the importance of establishing a new and intimate connection between epistemology, logic and ontology. From Spencer- Brown’s ‘Laws of Form’ he creates a triadic logic of self-reference, which von Foerster explicitly supports in his foreword. Varela wants to include the observer in the theory. He writes:
The principal idea behind this work can be stated thus: we choose to view the form of indication and the world arising from it as containing the two obvious dual domains of indicated and void states, and a third, not so obvious but distinct domain, of a self- referential autonomous state which other laws govern and which cannot be reduced by the laws of the dual domains. If we do not incorporate this third domain explicitly in our field of view, we force ourselves to find ways to avoid it (as has been traditional) and to confront it, when it appears, in paradoxical forms. (Varela, 1975, p. 19)
Varela by this move includes self-reference at the centre of human knowing. This triadic point of view which incorporates time as a basic feature seems fruitful. The importance of the connection of self-reference to time in Spencer-Brown’s conception is underlined by Varela (1975, p. 20), where he integrates this important evolutionary view into this paradigm:
True as it is that a cell is both the producer and the produced which embodies the producer, this duality can be pictured only when we represent for ourselves a sequence of processes of a circular nature in time. Apparently our cognition cannot hold both ends of a closing circle simultaneously; it must travel through the circle ceaselessly. Therefore we find a peculiar equivalence of self-reference and time, insofar as self- reference cannot be conceived outside time, and time comes in whenever self-reference is allowed.[Note 3] (Varela, 1975, p. 19)
Through the introduction of time and self- reference into Spencer-Brown’s logic Varela draws a connection between cognition and evolution (the arrow of time) without having to define cognition from the thermodynamic concept of entropy and its analogy to Shannon’s concept of information, as Wiener and Bateson did (Ruesch and Bateson, 1987). He thereby establishes a view of cognition that seems compatible with C.S. Peirce’s triadic semiotics, to which we shall return.
Why is this important? Because second-order cybernetics, having abandoned an objective view of information, still has not developed a theory of meaning and signification that connects the biological realm with the cultural and phenomenological, although von Foerster as we have seen above – has taken steps in this direction. But Peirce has done more work here, and his theory has the same non-disciplinary broad conceptual character as second-order cybernetics. And it also has the same fundamental triadic and reflexive character.
Semiosis and second-order cybernetics
Both von Foerster and Maturana now and then use the concept ‘symbol’ in a casual way. I shall, therefore, introduce the important semiotic concept of ‘triadic evolutionary sign’ as a means of communication. Nowhere have I found a reflection on signs and how they acquire meaning in social communication except in a short paper from Luhmann on ‘Zeichen als form’ (Luhmann, 1993). But even he has only taken the first steps to discuss the development of a theoretical concept of the sign as the vehicle of communication to be integrated into second-order cybernetics, and I have trouble in understanding his point of view and interpretation of semiotic theory.
Signs are what Varela, Bateson and Spencer- Brown use to make and communicate their distinctions. Only signs can be thought and communicated: we maintain that a difference that cannot be communicated hardly exists in our consciousness. In his creation of a basic theory of semiotics – a theory of signs and their significance – Charles Sanders Peirce (about a hundred years ago) did some very fundamental thinking about the necessary relationship between the subject, the sign or representamen, and the object, and the minimum qualities he had to ascribe to them to make a model of the process of knowing and sign making. Peirce writes:
A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. The triadic relation is genuine, that is its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any corn- plexus of dyadic relations. That is the reason the Interpretant, or Third, cannot stand in a mere dyadic relation to the Object, but must stand in such a relation to it as the Representamen itself does. (Buchler, 1955, pp. 99-100)
I see Peirce’s interpretant as the information the autopoietic observer of second-order cybernetics creates when it distinguishes perturbations as differences. I think that Peirce would agree that all living interpreters must be autopoietic systems – although he did work with interpretants on higher levels. But Peirce’s concept of the interpretant goes further than this. Just like the concept of cognition as ‘reality computing’ in second-order cybernetics, it takes us deep into society, culture and history. In the continuation of the same text, Peirce points out that the interpretant is itself a kind of sign which – as we will see – also needs interpretation:
Nor can the triadic relation in which the Third stands be merely similar to that in which the First stands, for this would make the relation of the Third to the First a degenerate Secondness merely. The Third must indeed stand in such a relation, and thus must be capable of determining a Third of its own; but besides that, it must have a second triadic relation in which the Representamen, or rather the relation thereof to its Object, shall be its own (the Third’s) Object, and must be capable of determining a Third to this relation. All this must equally be true of the Third’s Thirds and so on endlessly; and this, and more, is involved in the familiar idea of a Sign; and as the term Representamen is here used, nothing more is implied. A Sign is a Representamen with a mental Interpretant. (Buchler, 1955, pp. 99100)
What he says in this difficult piece of text is that signification is never just a relation between a sign and its object (what it signifies). The sign can only signify what it is capable of being interpreted as. Therefore the interpretant is a necessary part of the sign, just as Varela has developed in his calculus of self-reference. In accordance with Bateson, we would say that we interpret differences as signs when they really make a difference for us.
Peirce’s definition is second order because all the elements of the sign process are signs themselves. Furthermore, a sign is not a thing, but a process. In humans, the meaning of the sign emerges from a social dynamic network of relational logic creating an ever-evolving interpretant. The interpretation of a sign is never finished because the meaning of the sign is the social habits it gives rise to and these are in constant development, forever spreading and returning. Peirce talks about unlimited semiosis.
Peirce’s definition of signs is very cybernetic and self-organized. Thus it is the semiotic web that creates meaning. It is even so reflexive that it is second order, since all the parts of semiosis are signs. Maturana and Varela’s description of an autopoietic system and how it organizes itself in
the historical drift of interaction with its domain of living is a fine supplement to Peirce’s description of the interpreter and its developmental relationship with culture. From this it follows that signification, meaning, rationality and logic are not born fully fledged but are gradually crystallized out from vague beginnings through the historical drift of praxis and the dance of languaging, and that we must accept signs and concepts as just as fundamentally a part of reality as material objects. They are also a kind of eigenvalue established in communication.
I think this is where Peirce, von Foerster and Maturana meet. But Peirce opens up for a very broad definition of the representamen, when he underlines that the interpretant need not be more than potential. In fact, anything can be interpreted as a sign. In accordance with Bateson we would say that we interpret differences as signs when they really make a difference for both communicators, that is to say when they establish a shared meaning.
Peirce’s reflexive or cybernetic definition of the interpretant points towards culture, history and the never-ending search for truth and knowledge. It underlines habits and historical drift – as Maturana and Varela (1980) do – to be crucial in the construction of meaning. It is a drift, not a law-determined event in the mechanistic understanding of it (Brier, 1992). It is a tendency to take habits, to form regularities. This is an independent organizing principle; whereas Maturana does not say much further about this, Peirce (1892a & b, 1893) speaks of ‘habit’ as a fundamental characteristic of reality. He also calls it the Law of Mind (Peirce, 1892b). Life and habit- making are potentially present in reality as Firstness. From a field with random variation one event can be different and big enough to manifest as something specific and concrete. This is what Peirce calls Secondness. If this tendency spreads in the surrounding in a self-organizing pattern, for instance as some kind of attractor, then we have a typical example of habit formation. This is Peirce’s way of explaining what is often called emergence. Here is a quote that shows the metaphysical foundation of his concept of habit:
It would suppose that in the beginning – infinitely remote – there was a chaos of unpersonalized feeling, which being without connection or regularity would properly be without existence. This feeling, sporting here and there in pure arbitrariness, would have started the germ of a generalizing tendency. Its other sportings would be evanescent, but this would have a growing virtue. Thus, the tendency to habit would be started; and from this with the other principles of evolution all the regularities of the universe would be evolved. At any time, however, an element of pure chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational, and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future. (Peirce, 1891, p. 170)
My point is that von Foerster’s idea of ‘computation’ only makes real sense against Peirce’s metaphysical background, which I in turn see as being consistent with the point of departure of Spencer-Brown’s analysis of the Laws of Form when it is enlarged with Varela’s triadic calculus for self-reference. This epistemological foundation of second-order cybernetics connects it with important points in Heidegger’s phenomenology. The important point from Heidegger is that as an observer we are already a part of the world when we start to describe it. When we start to describe it, we, to a certain degree, separate ourselves from the wholeness of the world of our living praxis. A great part of our communication and thinking is not of our own doing: it is biological evolution and cultural history that signify through us. In von Foerster’s bio-psychological theory of cognitive systems (von Foerster, 1986, p. 83) we cannot speak of an absolute reality/ environment. One can say that it is only in established structural couplings that signs can acquire meaning. Maturana has pointed out that there is an ongoing interaction between the autopoietic system and its environment. They co-evolve in a (non-deterministic) historical drift. Organisms that live together become surroundings for each other, coordinating their internal organization; and, finally, languaging is created as coordinations of coordinations of behaviour.
By starting phenomenologically Peirce develops a kind of objective evolutionary idealism that connects beautifully to the thought in the quotation of Spencer-Brown above. We must abandon the absolute difference between the nature of the Universe and ourselves. This thought is further developed in Brier (1996), Mathews (1994) and in David Bohm’s writings (Bohm, 1983). It underlines von Foerster’s (1992b) basic thought that all decidable knowledge is build on a foundation of undecidables. But both Bohm and Peirce also go further than both von Foerster and Maturana in their description of the environment/ Universe /Multiverse, because both of these authors tend to stick to a pure physicalist description of the environment of the observing systems. Peirce speaks of the all- encompassing potentiality of Firstness, which he calls pure feeling and spontaneity. Thereby he points to feeling and spontaneity as the basis from which to develop a theory of observing systems. I think this is an important contribution to second-order knowledge. Our understanding of the self-organization of observing, knowing, languaging and reality computing can only be described fruitfully in the functionalistic language of cybernetics if feeling – as a phenomenological quality – is introduced at the basic level of the construction of this point of view. Only then can Luhmann allow himself to define meaning the way he does and still be consistent with the inner lives of the human observers which make communication possible. Furthermore, Peirce’s categories of secondness and thirdness supply important tools for describing the creation of new qualities in evolution.
Peirce’s concept of habit gives a more substantial foundation for how systems can self-organize realities through cognition. What living systems make through their structural couplings can be called semiospheres. They live in a sphere of signification of their own making. Peirce’s reflexive, or cybernetic, definition of the interpretant points towards culture, history and the never ending search for truth and knowledge. It underlines habits and historical drift, as Maturana and Varela do, to be the social constructor of meaning.[Note 4]
There is a complicated psychobiological development and dynamic-system organization behind cognition and communication. The aspects of the processes of mind which can be modelled in classical logical terms do not seem to have any special position or control of how the intentions, goals and ideas of the system are
created. Furthermore, the elementary processes of which this system consists do not seem to be made of classical mechanistic information processing, but out of a self-organized semiotic dynamics (Brier, 1995).
What second-order cybernetics gives to bio‑semiotics are the ideas of closedness, structural couplings and languaging. For developing the semantic aspect of the last concept at the biological level, I prefer to use the concept inspired by Wittgenstein of a ‘sign game’ (Brier, 1995) as a way to state the biological foundation without claiming that animals have language. The concept of a sign game connects at the same time to Peirce’s second-order theory of signs, and, through ethology, to Maturana’s idea of languaging. We thus combine second-order cybernetics and Peirce’s triadic second-order semiotics to what I call cybersemiotics. It is my opinion that this cybersemiotic frame of thinking takes us a step forward in understanding how signs get their meaning and produce information inside communicating systems. Information is an Eigenrelation of actualized meaning in shared sign or language games in a recursively operating, double closure coupling between autopoietic systems in a self-organizing universe (Brier, 1995).
I have received valuable critique and considerable improvement of language from Michael Manthey, University of Aalborg, Ranulph Glanville, New Media Research Center, University of Portsmouth, Hugh Gash, St Patrick’s College of Education, Drumconda, Dublin, and Ole Fogh Kirkeby, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen School of Economics.
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Sign stimuli are certain features or differences that one perceived by an animal. But they only become information when the animal is in a specific mood. In these instances they release an innate response mechanism, for instance mating, hunting or nesting behaviour. These structural couplings have been developed through evolution. Some are completely innate, some need imprinting to function and some – as bird-song – need various kinds and degrees of individual learning.
See, for instance, Cybernetics and Human Knowing Vol. 3 no. 2 for some introductory articles.
Several papers have dealt with the significance and originality, or the lack thereof, in Spencer-Brown’s and Varela’s works. In a very fine paper Schwartz (1981) reviews the most important of these works, and concludes that it is a good thing that other authors have shown that there exist many connections to other algebras and truth systems besides Varela’s and Brown’s, especially the very close relationship between Varela’s calculus and Kleene’s three-valued truth table system. On p. 254 he writes: “The fact that the primary algebra and the calculus for self- reference can be translated isomorphically into systems which employ the standard notations does not in any way denigrate the value of those systems as originally formulated. Spencer- Brown’s work sheds new insight into the nature of classical reasoning and axiomatizes this reasoning in a way that provides a formal alternative to the usual truth-table method of analyzing logical propositions. And Varela’s calculus has been used as a tool for desiging electrical circuits, wherein the original notations play a vital role.Yet beyond such uses, the more significant consequences of Spencer-Brown’s seminal work and Varela’s extension are the formalization of logical autonomy and its possible use as a model of ‘mechanical unknownability’ or ‘empirical untestability’. Paradox is ubiquitous, and is penetrating even the mathematical sciences. The Kleene – Varela logics show promise as tools for organizing such logically anomalous ideas within a meaningfully coherent logical frame.”
Actually, von Foerster has developed some very interesting thoughts about the dual evolution of the biological system and the world it computes (von Foerster, 1986), closely related to Maturana’s idea of the co-evolution of the autopoietic system and its environment.
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