Abstract / Introduction / Encountering Cybernetics / Epistemology of the observer / Self-Organisation / Circular Causality / Cognitive Methodologies / References

Bernard Scott, April, 1996.

Second Order Cybernetics as Cognitive Methodology.

Circular Causality

I would like now to trace out some consequences of placing "circular causality" at the very heart of the cybernetic enterprise. As we have seen, this topic was central in the discussions that brought cybernetics into being and as the editors of the Macy conference proceedings note in their introduction (von Foerster et al, 1953), the significance of circular causality had been recognised by a surprising number of thinkers in different disciplines, although not always under that name.

The editors themselves write (I presume von Foerster was the main author), page xiv: "A state reproducing itself, like an organism, or a social system in equilibrium, or a physicochemical aggregate in a steady state, defied analysis until the simple notion of one-dimensional cause-and-effect chains was replaced by the two-dimensional notion of a circular process."

Here are some remarkably parallel comments from Alfred Korzybsky, the founder of "General Semantics", from "Science and Sanity", first published in 1933, fourth edition 1958, page 12: "Language..represents the highest and latest physiological and neurological function of an organism. It is ..of uniquely human circular structure, to use a logical term - or of spiral structure, to use a four-dimensional or a physico-chemical-aspect term...In these processes an 'effect' becomes a causative factor for future effects, influencing them in a manner particularly subtle, variable, flexible, and of an endless number of possibilities. 'Knowing', if taken as an end-product, must be considered also as a causative psychophysiological factor of the next stage of the semantic response...This structural and functional circularity introduces real difficulties...Before we can be fully human..,we must first know how to handle our nervous responses - a circular affair."

As we saw earlier, "handling our nervous responses" implies choice-and choice entails responsibility.

I find a beauty in cybernetics. What von Foerster and others (Bateson, Pask, Maturana) have done is reveal and explain the observer to himself. They have shown how a rigorous account of self-organising systems as seen and understood from the perspective of an external observer (that is, a first-order account) has within it  a set of understandings and consequences that are revealed when the observer enters into the domain of his own descriptions and describes himself as being the same kind of "circular causal" system  as those he is describing.

Von Foerster (1972) reminds us that "life is studied in vivo not in vitro". The cybernetic biologist is invited to study life by living it not merely to observe preserved bits and pieces in laboratories. In similar spirit, the cybernetic psychologist is invited to reflect on the processes of reflection, to understand understanding.

In a recent paper, Eleanor Rosch (1994) draws on Buddhist metaphysics to "deconstruct" the notion of causality by identifying general forms of explanation in terms of "cause and effect" (or, equivalently, "process and product") and demonstrating that they are all essentially circular, tautologous. The terms she uses for such explanatory schema are ground and outcome, which are linked in some way.  She distinguishes four general forms: identity between ground and outcome, perceived transfer of a property from ground to outcome, a match between representation and that represented and manifestation of an essence.
She notes in particular the poverty of explanation in cognitive and behavioural sciences, which employ cause-effect models, pointing out that all attempts to give coherent accounts of phenomena in causal terms lead to circularities, tautologies, in the explanation chains. However, Rosch does not establish a distinction between observers of systems and systems that are observed. This leads to an ellipsis or occulting of the distinction between first and second orders. Had she made the distinction, she would have been better positioned to recognise that the distinction may be voided, as a cognitive methodology. We may model ourselves "as if we were mechanisms" but may know that this is what we are doing. My words are marks on paper. The marks are differences that may make a difference to you but not necessarily so.

Rosch ends her paper by admitting that she has not addressed the problematics of time. There is a need to "query the relationship between the sense of time and the sense of causal coherence". She asks, "Could one perceive time and the events "in" it at all without that sense of causal event coherence?" If she herself is not being tautologous, she is surely alluding to the possibility of a novel kind of experience, a novel kind of "object". As below, with Heidegger, I see the exploration of this possibility as part of the adventure of second-order cybernetics.

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