For Heinz von Foerster, the goal of second-order cybernetics is to explain the observer to himself, that is, it is the cybernetics of the cybernetician. The Greek root of cybernetics, kubernetes, means governor or steersman. The questions asked are; who or what steers the steersman, how is the steersman steered and, ethically, how does it behoove the steersman to steer himself? Von Foerster begins his epistemology, in traditional manner, by asking, "How do we know?" The answers he provides-and the further questions he raises-have consequences for the other great question of epistemology, "What may be known?" As we shall see, he reveals the creative, open-ended nature of the observer's knowledge of himself and his world; he also points to the existence of limits, the existence of "in principle undecideable questions".
In von Foerster (1980), he tersely states the Principle of Undifferentiated Encoding:
The response of a nerve cell encodes only the magnitude of its perturbation and not the physical nature of the perturbing agent.
Put more specifically, there is no difference between the type of signal transmitted from eye to brain or from ear to brain. This raises the question of how it is we come to experience a world that is differentiated, that has "qualia", sights, sounds, smells. The answer is that our experience is the product of a process of computation : encodings or "representations" are interpreted as being meaningful or conveying information in the context of the actions that give rise to them. What differentiates sight from hearing is the proprioceptive information that locates the source of the signal and places it in a particular action context. Von Foerster refers to this principle as Poincare's Thesis, in honour of the great French mathematician, who developed this argument in a paper about the processes of space and object perception (Poincaré, 1895). The thesis states:
The motorium (M) provides the interpretation for the sensorium (S) and the sensorium provides the interpretation for the motorium.
As von Foerster notes, this is an "operative recursive loop". We have both:
S=F(M) and M=G(S)
S is a function of M; M is a function of S.
which is clearly self-referential or circular and may be extended indefinitely, as in:
Fortunately, the circularity is not vicious, as in the statement "I am a liar". Rather, it is virtuous or, as von Foerster calls it, it is a creative circle, which allows us to "transcend into another domain". The indefinite series is a description of processes taking place in sequence, in "time", with steps t, t+1, t+2 and so on. (I put "time" in quotes as a forward marker for discussion to come). In such indefinite recursive expressions, solutions are those values of the expression which, when entered into the expression as a base, produce themselves. These are known as eigen values (self-values). Here we have the emergence of stabilities, invariances. The "objects" that we experience are "tokens" for the behaviours that give rise to those experiences. There is an "ultimate" base to these recursions: once upon a "time", the observer came into being. As von Foerster neatly puts it, "an observer is his own ultimate object".
The computations that give rise to the experience of a stable world of "objects" are adaptations to constraints on possible behaviours. Whatever else, the organism, qua system, must continue to compute itself, as a product. "Objects" are anything else it may computes (and recompute) as a unitary aspect of experience: things, events, all kinds of abstraction. The possible set of "objects" it may come to know are limited only by the organism's current anatomy and the culture into which she is born. There is a close parallel here with Heidegger's (1967) account of the ontic status of Dasein (being in the world, as an "object" that observes) as primordial to the ontology of all other "objects".
As a corollary, we have:
The environment contains no information; it is as it is.
As von Foerster notes, this is a constructivist epistemology and is very much akin to that of Piaget's. Piaget (1972) develops his genetic epistemology from the notion of the living system with "cybernetic circuits in equilibrium". His cognitive structures arise because "the representation is in the act". Unlike Piaget, but like Mead, Vygotsky, Luria, Pask and Maturana, von Foerster also stresses the social, language-based nature of human consciousness.
As we have seen, an organism's adaptations coordinate sensory and motor activity. In the "dance" of social activity, these coordinations become coordinated. Through mutual coordinations, organisms may come to compute themselves and others as "selves", giving rise to the "I/Thou" relationship. That is, by becoming observers of "others", we transcend into the domain of self- observation. Von Foerster puts it thus:
I am the observed relation between myself and observing myself.
Language arises as behaviours ("languaging") that coordinate "coordinations of coordinations" (see Maturana and Varela (1992) for a parallel, elaborated account with similar terminology).
In recognising that self-awareness and self-reflection arise in "languaging", which is necessarily a social affair, von Foerster has been lead to develop a theory of ethics (see, for example, von Foerster ,1993). He notes that conscience and conscious have the same roots, a point also developed by C.S.Lewis (1967). The essence of the argument is that we are conscious (we "know with" ourselves, L. con-scio,) precisely because we "know with" others. Awareness of the mutuality and interdependence is the root of conscience: we know, without being told, that the "other" is what makes us a "self", that we owe her our respect, our care, our love for helping us be a "self" at all. Unfortunately, all too often, this tacit knowledge is not fully alive in us. We err; we sin.
With respect to "what may be known", von Foerster likes to make a distinction between two classes of question, those that are decideable and those that are, in principle, undecideable. That there are such "in principle undecideable questions" reflects limits to what may be known (logically, empirically). The existence of such undecideables gives us the freedom to choose amongst alternatives. There is a vast literature on "limits to knowing", Von Foerster is being summary in order to develop his thesis, that:
By deciding on the answers to in principle undecideable questions, we can choose who we wish to become.
Our choices are our acts of faith, beliefs. They are what provide us with our, often tacit, assumptions about how the world works and what is possible. They serve as the metaphysical "understandings" that support our world views, including the view that there are such things as distinct "worldviews" or "forms of life", that the world is "polycontextural", a "multiverse". Margolis (1989), in particular, stresses that "forms of life" (in the sense of Wittgenstein's (1953) "languages are forms of life") are not systems or structures in any a priori, knowable sense (see also Glanville, 1975, Scott, 1982).
Part of my thesis in this paper is that we are still in the position of exploring alternatives. There are "objects" still to be computed and experienced.
Some examples of "in principle undecideable questions" are:
Was there a beginning to the universe or has it always been?
Can I stand apart from the universe and view it objectively or am I a part whose acts necessarily affect the whole?
Am I an integral personality or a collective?
Is there a God or only "man and superman"?
If there is a God, am I distinct from Him/Her or is He/She me?
Is there a "life eternal"?
Is "peace on earth" possible?
And so on....
Of course, many observers will have made their decisions about these questions and may be convinced there are logical and empirical justifications. This is where debate and discussion enter. There are also observers who cling to certain beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary (some observers believe the earth is flat).
That first-order investigations have intrinsic limits has been beautifully expressed by Spencer-Brown (1969): "The universe must expand to escape the telescopes through which we, who are it, are trying to capture it". As I note below, there is intrinsic ambiguity or contradiction in any second-order, reflexive theory. The limits are well know in mathematics and logic (Wittgenstein (1922): "The relation between a picture and the thing pictured cannot be pictured"; Spencer-Brown (1969): "The form of indication cannot be indicated"). Any theory of the observer that claims to be a complete and true account can be "deconstructed", can be shown to be ambiguous or contradictory (Norris, 1982). Writers in other traditions play games with this "metatruth": "I am ... one who writes in order to have no face" (Foucault, 1972).