Observers and Systems

Table of Contents

Ashby’s system triad

W. Ross Ashby in his 1956 book An Introduction to Cybernetics, in section 3/11 answers the question “What is a “system”?”:

Our first impulse is to point at the pendulum and to “the system is that thing there”. This method, however, has a fundamental disadvantage: every material object contains no less than an infinity of variables and therefore of possible systems. The real pendulum, for instance, has not only length and position; it has also mass, temperature, electric conductivity, crystalline structure, chemical impurities, some radio-activity, velocity, reflecting power, tensile strength, …

He goes further to state that:

Any suggestion that we should study all the facts is unrealistic, and actually the attempt is never made. What is try is that we should pick out and study the facts that are relevant to some main interest that is already given.

Ashby also makes a clear distinction between three related terms that are very often confused and used interchangeably. These three terms are “machine“, “system” and “model“. In Design for a Brain in chapter 2/5 Ashby explains in more detail how he uses the word ‘system’:

Because any real ‘ machine’ has an infinity of variables, from which different observers (with different aims) may reasonably make an infinity of different selections, there must first be given an observer (or experimenter); a system is then defined as any set of variables that he selects from those available on the real ‘machine’. It is thus a list, nominated by the observer, and is quite different in nature from the real ‘machine’. Through- out the book, ‘the system’ will always refer to this abstraction, not to the real material ‘machine’.

In Kihbernetics we try to observe this interpretation and define this terms as:

MachineAny phenomenon observed in a common domain of interaction by two or more observers
SystemAn organized set of interrelated variables selected by an observer to describe some of the machine’s functions and/or behavior
ModelAn organized structure describing the relationship between all the selected system variables built by the observer for sharing with other observers
Variable (noun)A quantifiable entity (scalar) with well-defined upper and lower boundaries that is the measure of an element, feature, or factor (property) of the machine and subject to variation or change. Also known as a signal.
(of the system)
The state of the system is a vector containing all the values of all the internal system variables (signals) measured by the observer at the same point in time. Some other vectors in the system are input and output.

The word “system” is often used to identify either a machine (a “physical system“) or a model and the phrase “mental model” is often used to identify what is in fact a system (more details here). The best way of looking at the difference between the terms in this “triad” is the same as the difference between an observed triangular object (the machine) a drawing of that object (the model) and the concept of a triangle (the system). The system is just an idealized concept of the machine containing a limited subset of all the machine’s properties (variables) as selected by a particular observer.

Phenomenal Domains

Machines and their models can be directly compared by multiple observers because they reside in the same phenomenal domain external to the observer(s). In fact, in Cybernetics, Ashby’s main purpose for a model is not to describe but rather to control the machine.

As all observers as entities (organisms) reside in that same domain as the model and the machine they can readily interact, modify and investigate (validate) the two. This is why different observers can have different meanings (systems) for the same machine or model. However, as the model is a simplified replica with a variety lower than that of the machine it describes, “standard observers” may have fewer problems getting a consensus over the models than by just discussing the machines they describe.

So, a system is not something that is already given and exists in the real world independently of us as observers; that’s the machine. The system is the result of observers exercising their free will in selecting a finite list of variables and finding relationships between them by observing (or guessing) the inner working of the machine.

When this is understood, then it doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that things like structure, hierarchy, information, etc. are also just language constructs used to aid our ability to discuss systems and build models for sharing our observations with other observers.

HvFoerster’s Observer Blunder

Heinz von Foerster in his famous speech from 1979 Cybernetics of Cybernetics speaks about another triad:

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.

He goes further to state:

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.

We beg to differ. We believe that there is a clear historical timeline in place.

In the beginning, there was just the lone observer who, by observing their environment looking, as usual, to increase their chance for survival by searching for food and shelter, observed some other entities that behaved in a strangely familiar way and started to socialize because they realized that as a group they could achieve more (food, protection) than when rummaging alone. And slowly these observers started using signs, sounds, and words to create a language for describing (model) and sharing with others what each one of them individually observed or realized from observing something that may have been important for the whole society. Not sure how to fit the rooster in this whole story, though.

Earlier in the same speech von Foerster recognizes:

… Maturana’s proposition, which I shall now baptize “Humberto Maturana’s Theorem Number One”: “Anything said is said by an observer.”

And proceeds with, what I consider a gaffe of adding a completely unnecessary corollary:

… to Maturana’s Theorem … which, in a modesty, I shall call “Heinz von Foerster’s Corollary Number One”: “Anything said is said to an observer.”

Unnecessary, because the whole statement from Maturana’s Biology of Cognition, written back in 1970 is more than complete and requires no corollary, as it reads exactly like this:

“Anything said is said by an observer. In his discourse the observer speaks to another observer, who could be himself; whatever applies to the one applies to the other as well. The observer is a human being, that is, a living system, and whatever applies to living systems applies also to him.”

Maturana’s Scientific Explanations

Maturana in Ontology of Observing (1988) states that (emphasis mine):

there are no such things as scientific observations, scientific hypotheses or scientific predictions: there are only scientific explanations and scientific statements

He further explains that:

the criterion of validation of scientific explanations entails four operational conditions:

a) The specification of the phenomenon to be explained through the stipulation of the operations that a standard observer must perform in his or her praxis of living in order to also be a witness of it in his or her praxis of living.

b) The proposition, in the domain of operational coherences of the praxis of living of a standard observer, of a mechanism, a generative mechanism, which when allowed to operate gives rise as a consequence of its operation to the phenomenon to be explained, to be witnessed by the observer also in his or her praxis of living. This generative mechanism, that is usually called the explanatory hypothesis, takes place in the praxis of living of the observer in a different phenomenal domain than the phenomenal domain in which the phenomenon to be explained is witnessed, and the latter as a consequence of the former stands in an operational meta-domain with respect to it. Indeed, the phenomenon to be explained and its generative mechanism take place in different non-intersecting phenomenal domains in the praxis of living of the observer.

c) The deduction, that is, the computation, in the domain of operational coherences of the praxis of living of the standard observer entailed by the generative mechanism proposed in (b), of other phenomena that the
standard observer should be able to witness in his or her domain of experiences as a result of the operation of such operational coherences, and the stipulation of the operations that he or she should perform in order to do so.

d) The actual witnessing, in his or her domain of experiences, of the phenomena deduced in (c) by the standard observer who actually performs in his or her praxis of living the operations stipulated also in (c).

If these four operational conditions are conjointly satisfied in the praxis of living of the standard observer, the generative mechanism proposed in (b) becomes a scientific explanation of the phenomenon brought forth in (a).

The above citation contains a number of fundamental revelations about autopoiesis and systems sciences in general:

  1. The observer is an autopoietic dynamical (living) system with the capability to explain (model) phenomena observed during its praxis of living (in the domain of operational coherences of its praxis of living);
  2. These explanations can be interpreted by other standard observers living in the same phenomenal domain of operational coherences of their praxis of living
  3. The praxis of living of an observer stretches through two adjacent but non-intersecting phenomenal domains:
    • the (internal) domain of interactions (function) of its elements as a composite entity (his or her domain of experiences)
    • the (external) domain of interactions of the observer in its environment as a simple unity or whole (behavior in the domain of operational coherences).
Work in progress from this point further:

Topics / Issues for possible further exploration:

  • Communication as modeling:
  • The first type of communication must have been audio-visual (signs)
  • The oldest type of modelling is storytelling, first by pictures and then by spoken and written language.
  • The model is a message produced by the observer to communicate with other observers.
  • Except for DNA where the model is part of the machine?
  • All autopoietic (living) machines are observers trying to make sense (extract meaning) from their environment?
  • What is the relationship between life (autopoiesis), observation and cognition?

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