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Reflections on the Conference: Causes and Reality

Written By: Mark Johnson on August 7, 2010 28 Comments

One of the key questions which has emerged from the conference for me relates to the nature of causality. Ernst reminded us that he believes (with David Hume) that causes are not real but constructed.

I’m much less certain of this.

My second session group talked about politics and ethics. Larry’s summing-up was very elegant and it draws attention to the moral and ethical sides of cybernetics. Put simply, my reality might be a construct, but my actions resulting from my reality affect you and are your reality. They affect your wellbeing, freedom, etc. In other words, constructing carries with it some duty to acknowledge the likely effects on a shared environment of other people, or (in the case of architecture) things which other people engage with. Conversely, my ‘constructing’ depends on the actions you take with regard to your reality. Those ‘likely effects’ seem common to human experience and as such might have some claim for being ‘real’.

We have had a good conference because it was thoughtfully designed to maximise the opportunities for individuals to listen and express themselves. But I wonder if in that thoughtful design there is an implicit notion of ‘real’ causes which 2nd order cybernetics struggles to articulate. Personally, I’d like my cybernetics to allow me the freedom to at least consider the possibility of an ontological world, just as it lends itself to allowing me to consider the possibility of the absence of reality.

28 Responses to “Reflections on the Conference: Causes and Reality”

  1. ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 9:42 am

    I sometimes get frustrated that cybernetics/ constructivism sometimes get stuck making polemic criticisms of objectivity and so ends up looking like solipsism/ subjectivity (as Ranulph noted) when it is, at least as i understand it, equally critical of both. For me the idea of circularity/ feedback means that I can make statements about whatever I encounter which are viable and not merely subjective opinion – they matter. i think the difficulty you note arises because the maxim that ‘I should take more responsibility’ (as per Burl’s final question) can often become ‘you should take more responsibility’ (ie its up to you to understand what i’m saying..)which is the exact opposite (being moral rather than ethical). i need to take responsibility for what i understand you as saying/ how i respond to you but also for how you understand me/ respoond to me. circularity/ conversation/ feedback allows me to do this because i can interact with you – its something we do together. i’m not sure the concept ‘real’ is necessary for this (so much baggage) but i think the concept of ‘others’ is key. von Foerster talks about our inter-dependence with the world rather than our independence from it – i like the observation that if we adopt either solipsism or naive realism we end up as detached observers either denying the object or subject of our observations – cybernetics contrasts with both of these by locating us in the world in the midst of reciprocal subject-object interactions – we are both free and totally responsible for what we do with our freedom. this gives us an ethical position similar to Terry Eagleton’s example of the Jazz Band where each of the musicians’ free musical expression is the ground for each others’ free musical expression. For me the difficulty with articulation you mention occurs when we try to be too polemical..

    • Mark Johnson says on: 7 August 2010 at 10:37 am

      Hi Ben,

      Yes, I think you’re right – polemicism can be a problem. But polemic can be useful to stir a debate: I think there is a way to be polemical whilst maintaining humility. Without humility, however, you’re looking at ‘Homo pontificus’ who Stafford Beer alludes to in Platform for change – the “harbinger of extinction”!


    • ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:38 am

      i dont mind polemic in itself. but when one holds a position which is by nature inclusive rather than polemical i think one can get lost and lose others by arguing too much in only one direction..

  2. Judy Lombardi says on: 7 August 2010 at 11:19 am

    One of the key questions which has emerged from the conference for me relates to the nature of causality. Ernst reminded us that he believes (with David Hume) that causes are not real but constructed.

    Actually i don’t think this an accurate discription of what EvG might think (vs. believe).

    His point based on a Batesson idea, suggests paying attention to constraints is more useful than articulating causes.

    Cybernetics, the art and science of maintaining equilibrium in a world of constraints AND possibilities.

    • Mark Johnson says on: 7 August 2010 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Judy,

      Yes, I agree about constraint, and constraint-thinking in the form of variety management for me gives cybernetics its explanatory richness. But how is constraint not causal? (I am consciously attenuating some aspect of my personal regulation as I ask that, because I have some conception of the sort of question I feel I want to ask, and the sort of discussion I might wish to proceed from it!).

    • ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 1:17 pm

      i think there are two different senses of cause here. cause can be in the sense of ‘what caused these constraints to appear here?’. i take the idea of attending to constraints rather than causes as concentrating on my situation rather than getting het up with how it got there (or do i misunderstand here?). but a cause is also a reason i might have for doing something. von foerster says somewhere: ‘we are all cyberneticians…whenever we justify our actions without using the words “because of…”…but with the phrase…”in order to…”…’

  3. Mark Johnson says on: 7 August 2010 at 2:21 pm

    But are reasons not causes too? It’s the causality of reasons which I’m driving at with my emphasis on ethics. My reasons are my construction, but they have a causal impact…

    I like the Von Foerster thing… it’s very NLP! But I think it still underestimates the causality of reasoning – whether it’s reasoning about how we got here, or reasoning about what we intend to achieve.

  4. ben sweeting says on: 7 August 2010 at 2:39 pm

    yes yes yes. but i think its a different order of discussion to the other which is concerned only with epistemology – that it makes more sense to understand the world in terms of what it means for me rather than how it got there.

    reasoning is often causal -in the sense of following logically from premises, ie because of,- (especially when by computers and philosophers) but it doesnt have to be. eg i am going to travel to manchester by crewe because it is quickest vs. i am going to travel to manchester via crewe because last night i dreamt of butterflies and i once saw a beautiful butterfly in crewe. you have to add a lot of premises to make the second causal rather than a whim.. also many situations are unresolvable using causal reasoning only..(they are too complex, contradictory, badly framed..eg design) and so require us to take a decision rather than merely compute one.

    acting ‘in order to’ is a circular idea of causality very much like steering a ship. this is what i think you were doing when “attenuating some aspect of my personal regulation” in order to have the sort of discussion you wished to have.

    what’s NLP?

  5. Mark Johnson says on: 7 August 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Neuro-Linguistic Programming… a Bateson spin-off.

    I’m going to bed now! But I’ll think some more…

  6. Ranulph Glanville says on: 8 August 2010 at 4:48 am

    I fear the point is being missed.

    At least in my interpretation, Radical Constructivism neither confirms nor denies the existence of a Mind Independent Reality, as it has been called. It says we can’t find out: it’s undecidable. I believe this is Glasersfeld’s position. Foerster added to this with his aphorism (I may not quote exactly): only we can decide the undecidable. According to Foerster, this means we are free to chose (and to change choice).

    I see an extra choice: to continue to sit on the fence, and, indeed, to keep building the fence. This is the maintenance of the RC position.

    Glaserfeld’s position and Foerster’s aphorism mean we can chose our ontology, if that’s what we wish, and that we are responsible for that choice. It also means we have that freedom because there is no logical argument that moves us one way, or the other.

    • ben sweeting says on: 8 August 2010 at 7:04 am

      Ranulph I for one would like to hear you expand a little more on the maintaining the fence position. (do you do this somewhere already that i’ve missed?).

      One interpretation might be that each side is equally valid (because its undecidable) and that we should therefore be tolerant of each and can alternate between the two if we so wish. Another would be that the question can actually be avoided/ bracketed – we can continue while sitting on the fence/ only leaving the fence implicitly. I’m attracted to the latter – it reminds me of the Black Box – i dont need to know whats inside it (whether its real or imagined) only what it seems to do.

      And to come back to Mark’s original point. In acting for the ‘other’ are we implicitly hopping on to the ‘real’ side of the fence?

      There are also two different questions here which I often have confused – one is ontological (is reality real or imagined?) and the other epistemological (is my knowledge objective or subjective?) – perhaps its useful to draw these apart from each other.

  7. Mark Johnson says on: 8 August 2010 at 9:11 am

    Some other viewpoints on this would be very welcome. My experience is that ontology is a tricky thing: even when you’ve thought you can bracket it out, it comes back to bite you. I’m not sure that ontology is something to be ‘decided on’ (sitting on or off the fence). Ontologies lie implicit in even the most radical of constructivisms. Any decision about an ontology however, is necessarily not ontological; it is in the domain of knowledge, not being; as a viewpoint, it is causal. This all makes it very difficult!

    But before getting too bogged-down into all this, one more question to add to Ben’s is: Why does it matter? My own view is that I think it does matter because it can shape the way we apply our cybernetics. My hunch is that a greater ontological acknowledgement would lead to more ‘grounded’ and efficacious cybernetic practice.

  8. Burl Grey says on: 8 August 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Sorry for this turgid scatter shot invoking LOF which some may not know nor grok like me. I do hope I’m not too robust here :-)

    When I say “Take more Responsibility.” I’m somewhat anchored in LOF [and of course Heinz] where my injunction in a given dance, can potentially enable the other’s experience to see if they find viable similarity… to continue the dance of relationship! e.g.(Look down this microscope for a described shape.)

    Now habitual mundane locutions with vocabulary like Ranulph’s (irresponsible?) sentence above: “existence” and “mind” and “reality”, can elicit plausable ordinary meaning that I find limits by locating us in old categories that resist or deny deeper understandings…
    *Take the word “Existence” in LOF page 101 [chapter 11 notes] “…to regard existence… (is) especially corrupt…and vulnerable.”/ “…We must abandon existence to truth, truth to indication, indication to form, and form to void,…”

    I believe such language contributes to confusions that trouble me greatly, like the distinct (and for me, tragic) differences between Klaus and Soren about ’semiotics’ which I fear may be irreconcilable for reasons associated with (at least) the above distinctions. [I find Klaus's 2009 book definitive on this]

    In a simple locution: “Particular language, vocabulary and categories matter, deeply.”

  9. Mark Johnson says on: 8 August 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Burl,
    You’ve prompted me to look more deeply into Laws of Form – thanks! I think this matters, and I worry about an uncritical adoption of any position whether RC (Roman Catholicism or Radical Constructivism – *delete as appropriate*) could lead to ‘blind spots’, missing crucial opportunities to take things forward.
    I cannot say I understand Spencer Brown, but my reaction to your quote is to think that any injunction that ‘we must’ carries some implied ontological viewpoint. Why must we? What’s the mechanism? Would reading Laws of Form help me to identify his ontology?

    Form is very important I suspect. Cybernetics is a wonderful tool for describing the conditions under which a form might arise. If Kant had known cybernetics, I’m sure his transcendental reasoning would have been very different! (In fact, in his work on aesthetics, he does talk about ‘regulation’ in aesthetic experience!)

    But it’s not just form: agency, matter and (I suspect) purpose also count. That’s a bit Aristotelian… and he thought causes were real!

    • ben sweeting says on: 8 August 2010 at 4:08 pm

      when you mention thinking causes being real it reminds me of a friend of mine who was a member of the london ghost society (i went to one meeting – extremely interesting!). if you asked him whether he believed in ghosts he would say yes. but he didnt mean he thought they were ‘really’ dead people walking around etc. he thought it was a genuine unexplained phenomena. people have these experiences which are difficult to explain naturally. so he believed that there was something happening but was not committing to how or why.

  10. Mark Johnson says on: 8 August 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Fascinating! I’ve always wanted to do that!

    In one way or another it is a phenomenon – either psychological (whatever that means) or material (whatever that means!). I would ask a ‘transcendental’ question (a Kantian question): given these things are reported, what might the world be like? Without wanting to sound really weird, I have been thinking about this one from a cybernetic perspective!

  11. Ranulph Glanville says on: 10 August 2010 at 12:52 pm

    A response to Ben’s request for more on fences.

    I see sitting on the fence and rebuilding it as the maintenance work needed to enable people to be able to make a choice. Without the fence, there is no choice to make. So the fence sitter is the most important person around.

    Their job is to remind others that, though they are free to chose which side they wish to be on, and to change this, they are nevertheless making that choice. Don’t forget it.

    What do you do sitting on the fence? Remind others, and be ambiguous, or paradoxical, or contradictory, or indecisive. But I like ambiguity best because it has that breadth in it, and is to do with the observer, whereas paradox (for instance) is to do with the observed. Keep on being meaningless!

    For Mark: what possible interest is how we exist, if we don’t know this? Unless we know, our state of being is irrelevant. Whether I’m dead or alive is of no interest to me unless I know (have reason to believe in) which. So the epistemological precedes the ontological. Of course, according to Bernard Scott, my own work (which he calls pre-ontological) precedes the epistemological, but that’s another matter.


    • ben sweeting says on: 11 August 2010 at 6:12 am

      Thank you Ranulph. I have more (I think quite difficult) questions on this but I’m going to save them for another time. I think it would be interesting to flesh this position out fully sometime.

  12. Mark Johnson says on: 10 August 2010 at 3:41 pm

    That’s a great clarification – thank you! I agree it’s important to remind people that they have a choice.

    I see this as a practical matter, not a philosophical one. I think that the choice that we make is ultimately a moral one. We cannot escape the impact of our choices on others, nor can we escape the effect the world has on us. But the world takes its form through our agency. Our ideas are causal. This to me (and unless I’m misunderstanding him, also to Marx) is an ontological matter. It amounts to trying to ‘do the right thing’. I’d be interested to know if you see ‘doing the right thing’ as being relative or not… Personally, I’m beginning to see a world infused with moral choices which affect everything from individual cognition to institutions and government.

    It may be that the issue over choice changes with historical context: at some times it may be more important to remind people of their freedom to choose than others; sometimes we just have to go and help ‘put the fires out’

    • ben sweeting says on: 11 August 2010 at 6:07 am

      In my view the distinction between relative/ subjective and absolute/ objective is a misleading and problematic one.

      I find von Foerster’s initial undecidable decision, which Ranulph mentions, between my in-dependence from the world and inter-dependence with it very powerful – I tend to see more content in this than that which Ranulph has already mentioned (the choice between the world being real or imagined). What for me is so special about this formulation is that my individuality/ subjectivity (that I don’t know objectively for sure) is because I am inter-dependent with (part of) the WORLD (whichever way you would like to define that). my understanding is relative because it is inter-dependent with the world. it is the objective viewpoint that denies the ‘reality’ of the world by making it only an object to be comprehended at a distance.

      I think this is an utterly radical and wonderful position which has the potential to heal the split between the subjective and the objective.

      Concepts such as ‘doing the right thing’ make much more sense in this understanding. Objective timeless rules tend to be reductive. Leaving ethical choices to totally arbitrary opinion (where *anything can be justified because it is ‘my’ good) is open to sophistry + tends towards the self at the expense of others. If we can understand ourselves as individuals responsible for our own ethical choices but in constrant inter-dependent reciprocal relations with others + the world then it is possible to ask a question of the order ‘what does it mean to live a good life?’ without the answer having to either be an objective rule or a arbitrary whim.

    • Mark Johnson says on: 11 August 2010 at 9:33 am

      Ben, I think we agree on this.

      The question is how it affects what we do. In my work at the university, there have been two contrasting approaches both involving cybernetic models. The first approach is a ‘blueprint’ approach – designing technologies, interventions, strategies etc according to principles of variety management. These don’t always work, because the world turns out to be more complex in that was initially thought when the modelling was done.

      The second approach, which I favour, is a more ‘realist’ approach. This involves studying deeply the organisation as it is, and asking a transcendental question: given it’s like this, what might the mechanisms be like? The modelling tools help to express these mechansisms (mostly VSM, but I use Luhmann a lot too). There is no blueprint, although there might be a broad strategic direction, but from the insight gained through modelling, incremental interventions appear to have greater success.

  13. Burl Grey says on: 11 August 2010 at 8:36 am


    I like your open questioning about this stuff.
    I’m deeply interested in exploring how we’re talking here.

    While most of us have many immediate things on our plate, I hope we can continue to negotiate toward some stable or reliable meanings for our words/epistemological frames.

    No time now for incisive questions but wonder to what extent, if any, you’ve followed the possibly ‘incommensurate’ positions between two of our top scholars: Soren Brier and Klaus Krippendorff. I have a copy of each one’s last book and both have complete mastery of all the vocabulary of cybernetics^2, Heinz, Ernst etc… but cannot agree on how to talk about the most basic questions of all: “The World.”, “Reality”, etc!!!

  14. Judy Lombardi says on: 11 August 2010 at 3:24 pm

    If one cannot objectify then how can one claim to know a cause — the best we can do is know contraints so that we might generate possibilities….

    I think this short might help — maybe not, enjoy, I hope.


  15. Mark Johnson says on: 11 August 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Hi Judy,
    Thanks for the video – I saw it a while ago and it made me chuckle then as it does now!
    I think we have to be very careful with language here. The distinction between constraint and cause is very subtle – at least in the sense that constraints are causal. Constraints are not insuperable – particularly ‘psychological’ ones (I’m thinking of William Blake’s ‘Mind-Forged Manacles’). And in fact possibilities too are causal. Are possibilities constraints? Probably: if I believe something is possible, then it might blind me to the other possibilities (which might be more achievable!)

    I wonder if the most useful distinction might be between the ‘real’ and the ‘actual’?

  16. ben sweeting says on: 12 August 2010 at 4:19 am

    I know of them but I’ve not read them yet. I wonder if the difference is mainly terminological or whether it is deeper?
    I tend to find terminological arguments a little tiresome. from everyday conversation its clear one word can mean all sorts of different things and the same thing can be meant by many different words. when writing my undergarduate dissertation i had cause to look into a lot of the theological debates of early christianity – although the different parties in fact tended to all more or less agree with each other one side would use one word to mean one thing and the other side (in a different culture) would use it to mean something else. so everyone sounded like a heretic to everyone else! one of the things i find powerful about verbal conversation as a way of communicating is that you dont really have to agree on terminology very precisely – because of the circularity involved you can always check the meaning by comparing it with other things. we can communicate quite powerfully using wonderfully fuzzy language.

  17. Mark Johnson says on: 12 August 2010 at 8:37 am

    hmmm. Bit of googling and I found this, which is intriguing and I’m sorry I missed it!
    Roy Bhaskar and Soren Brier sharing a session – that might be interesting! Bhaskar’s Critical Realism makes some powerful criticisms of constructivism. Some have attempted to make the link between the two: I like John Mingers’s work which links Realist philosophy to cybernetics (particularly Luhmann and Maturana) and phenomenology – see his ‘Realising Systems Thinking’. Soren Brier seems to make some use of Luhmann too.

  18. Burl Grey says on: 12 August 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Good catch Mark, interesting stuff!

    I believe definitions are not a problem with this at all. Of course virtually infinite confusions can whirl around definitions, but simple conversation can resolve almost if not all, assuming normal friendly relationships which I‘ve always experienced at ASC conferences. Of course I suppose an “invisible” presupposition could perhaps masquerade as a definitional problem!

    I find the problem at the deepest and most fundamental level: Soren requires the presupposition of an independent reality which Maturana, Glasersfeld, Krippendorff, Kauffman and I explicitly reject.

    This screen may not be a felicitous forum for much detail but I offer (from dozens) two quotes from Soren’s 2008 book “Cybersemiotics” 469 pages! which confirm for me my experience watching him question Maturana in utter frustration at a Vancouver conference.

    [1] p.92 “(Maturana) …never addresses the resistance of reality.”
    [2] p 93 “My concern here has been the function of the concept of ‘outside reality’/snip/ we should not give up the notion of a partly independent ‘outside reality’

    I highly suggest reading Krippendorff’s latest book “On Communicating: Otherness, Meaning, and Information. 2009. In chapter 10 Klaus explicates the limitations of semiotics with precision and clarity. {for me :-) }

  19. Thomas Fischer says on: 15 August 2010 at 4:43 am

    If you are interested, here is a paper on the problems of assuming kinds of causality white using the tertium-non-datur principle. This was published in a computer aided architectural design context:


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