P. 10 From Cybernetics and Human Knowing vol. 1, no. 4, 1993

Why is it so? Here, the concept of autopoiesis is central. An autopoietic system is defined as a system constituted by "processes interlaced in the specific form of a network of productions of components which realizing the network that produced them constitute it as a unity." (Ibid. p. 80) Two things are important in this quotation. First, that the autopoietic system is a closed system. Second, that the precondition for the system to establish itself as a unity, i.e. to perform as a self-organized system, is self-reference: the components must "realize" the network that produced them.

Of course, such closed systems cannot interact by "exchanging information" in any traditional way. "Organism A does not and cannot determine the conduct of organism B because due to the nature of the autopoietic organization itself every change that an organization undergoes is necessarily and unavoidably determined by its own organization." (Ibid. p. 120; cf. ibid. p. 102)

Does this mean that interaction or communication isn't possible? No, communication is possible, but not via information flows: "Autopoietic machines (or, in my terminology, autopoietic systems, LQ) do not have inputs or outputs. They can be perturbated by independent events and undergo internal structural changes which compensate these perturbations. (Ibid. p. 81) What is normally perceived as interaction, seemingly based on the exchange of information, is in reality behavioral coupling of closed, mutually perturbating systems. "In this coupling, the autopoietic conduct of an organism A becomes a source of deformation for an organism B, and the compensatory behavior of organism B acts, in turn, as a source of deformation of organism A, whose compensatory behavior acts again as a source of deformation of B, and so on recursively until the coupling is interrupted." Obid. p. 120)

Information as a Difference which Makes a Difference

One of the results of the early discussions of second order cybernetics - i.e. systems whose operations are based on their self-reference was that the concept of communication had to be drastically revised. It is simply not possible to think of "something" - be it a substance or an energy or something third - which flows from one system to another. These systems are closed, and their operations are based on references to themselves.

What is the conclusion? One possible conclusion is that the concept of "information" must be revised so that it reflects communication as behavioral coupling of perturbating systems. Another possible conclusion is that for any system the environment exists only as the system's construction.

The first possible conclusion is that information isn't a difference in the external world which is then transported into the observing system. Instead, information is a difference in the external world which brings about an operational change - a difference - in the observing system.

The famous father of this definition is Gregory Bateson 8 , and the definition was presented for the first time in 1969. First in the paper "Double Bind" given in August 1969 Bateson 1972, p. 271f) and in the paper "Mind/Environment", also from 1969 (Bateson 1991 p. 166). Second in the lecture "Form, Substance, and Difference" delivered in January 1970 (Bateson 1972, p. 453)). And third in the paper "The Cybernetics of 'Self: A Theory of Alcoholism" published in 1971 (Bateson 1972, p. 315). In "Double Bind" from August 1969 he writes: "A difference which makes a difference is an idea. It is a 'bit', a unit of information" (P. 271f), and not until January 1970 he gives the famous wording that "what we mean by information - the elementary unit of information - is a difference which makes a difference:.."

Page 11

(p. 453). To my knowledge, there is no further elaboration of this concept of information in Bateson's work. He returns to the definition in his book from 1979, Mind and Nature. A Necessary Unity, (cf. p. 68f), but without expanding the analysis. In Bateson's late papers the definition is repeated several times (cf. Bateson 1991 p. 309 from September-October 1979). Still, in his very last, beautiful talk, taped from his sickbed in the Spring 1980 the definition is maintained (cf. Bateson 1991 p. 237).

Already (and not least) in the first of the three papers, the one from 1969, the argument for defining information as "a difference which makes a difference" is obvious. "Clearly there are in the mind no objects or events - no pigs, no coconut palms, and no mothers. The mind contains only transforms, percepts, images, etc., and rules for making these transforms, percepts, etc. (...) ...it is nonsense to say that a man was frightened by a lion, because a lion is not an idea. The man makes an idea of the lion. The explanatory world of substance can invoke no differences and no ideas but only forces and impacts. And, per contra, the world of form and communication invokes no things, forces, or impacts but only differences and ideas." (p. 271) Consequently, Bateson totally breaks with the concept of information as a thing or a substance or an energy, which can flow between the outside and the cognitive world. Here, Bateson is closely related to a theory of psychic and social systems as closed, self-referential systems. 9 Partly, the mind is a closed system, which doesn't contain physical objects, but only mental categories, images, etc. Partly, the mind must be self-referential, because it contains rules for the production of these categories and images. Thus, with a beautiful metaphor used in a talk from 1975 Bateson says that "You have sense organs specially designed to keep the world out." (Bateson 1991 p. 182)

This differentiation between the physical world and the psychic and social world Bateson relates to Kant's differentiation between "das Ding an sich" and forms of knowledge. "The Ding an sich, the piece of chalk, can never enter into communication or mental process..." At the same time, however, Bateson loosens the categorial differentiation between the physical and the psychological-social world. Now he Says that the outside world contains an infinite number of so-called differences: "...there is an infinite number ofdifferences around and within the piece of chalk. (...) Of this infinitude, we select a very limited number, which become information." (p. 453) Thus he states the reasons for the definition of information (differences in the physical world makes a difference in the mental world); at the same time he gives up the point that "difference" is only a mental phenomenon.

It is interesting that Bateson developed this concept of information relatively late. His earlier work on communication (Ruesch and Bateson 1968, first published in 1951) is still totally based on the mathematical definition of information, 10 and still in 1966-1967 his analysis of communication is based on information as a thing, something that a person has, or doesn't have, a thing that can be "processed", "distributed" in certain quantities, etc., cf. for example his article "The Message of Reinforcement" which was written in 1966 and published in 1970 (Bateson 1991 p. 133-146) and the article "Cybernetic Explanation" (in American Behavioral Scientist Vol. 10 No. 8, April 1967 (cf. Bateson 1972 p. 402). In 1967-1968 the development toward the new concept begins. In "Redundancy and Coding" published in Thomas A. Sebeok: Animal Communication: Techniques and Study and Results of Research, Indiana University Press 1968) Bateson questions the elimination of meaning in mathematical information theory, however without presenting any alternative (Bateson 1972 p. 414). Both in "Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation" and in "Conscious Purpose Versus Nature", two lectures given in July and August 1968, Bateson uses a cybernetic model of complex systems for the human mind, em-

Page 12

phasizing systemic closure and environmental disturbance as elements of human knowing: "...people are self-corrective systems. They are self-corrective against disturbance..." (Bateson 1972 p. 429). Thus, by reading his works in chronological order one can follow Bateson's fascinating elaboration of the mystery of human understanding step by step.
Information as a (Mental) Difference

If observing systems are closed, and if their operations are based on references to themselves, then the concepts of communication and information must be changed. One possibility is to conceptualize communication as systemic coupling, as we have seen. More drastically, however, one might claim that for a self-referential system, the environment only exists as something constructed by the closed, "observing" system, any observation being self-observation. Then, information is neither a "thing" or "difference" in the external world, nor is it a difference which makes a difference. Rather, information becomes a mental construction. The human being constructs a mental difference, and through this the world is brought forth.

For example, in contributions of Heinz von Foerster such expressions can be found. In his paper "Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things" from 1974, he develops his critical discussion of the concept of information (cf. above) into an explicit definition of information. Here, in proposition nine (out of twelve) regarding "an epistemology for living things" he says that "'information' is a relative concept that assumes meaning only when related to the cognitive structure of the observer of this utterance (the 'recipient')." From this follows statements eleven and twelve, that "the informrtion associated with a description depends on an observer's ability to draw inferences from this description", and that "the environment contains no information; the environment is as it is." (in Foerster, H. von (1984) p. 263)

As it appears, Heinz von Foerster has elaborated a definition of information which is not only different from Shannon's classical concept of information, but which also radicalizes Bateson's approach, cf. above. While Bateson relates himself clearly to Kant's "Ding an sich ", Heinz von Foerster in his 1984 preface to the second edition of his Observing Systems concludes that such a "Ding an sich" cannot be claimed existence. "...I see the notion of an observer-independent 'Out There', of 'The Reality' fading away very much like other erstwhile notions, 'the phologiston', 'the imponderable caloric fluid','the ding-an-sich','the ether', etc., whose names may be remembered, but whose meanings have been lost." (Heinz von Foerster, 1984)

However, I will still call in question whether the above examples actually represent an antirealistic position. When von Foerster presents his postulate: "The environment, so as we observe it, is our construction" (1981 p. 40), we shouldn't forget the embedded sentence "so as we observe it". Similarly, when Frascisco Varela, following a critique of information as substance or "stuff', as he says, states that "information, sensu strictu, does not exist" (1981 p. 45), we shouldn't forget his "strictly speaking". "The fact is", as Varela explains, "that information does not exist independent of a context of organization that generates a cognitive domain, from which an observer community can describe certain elements as informational and symbolic." (Ibid.) Information is the observer's construction. But this of course doesn't necessarily imply that the difference in reality that triggered the mental difference called information is a mental construction.

Information as a Difference which Finds a Difference

According to Bateson information is a difference which makes a difference, while information, according to (existing or non-existing) radical constructivists, is the autonomous observer's unguided or blind 11 construction.

Page13

Metaphorically speaking "between" these two definitions, information can be defined as a mental difference which finds or is confirmed or stimulated by a difference in the external world. Even though the German sociologist and philosopher N. Luhmann normally doesn't use the concept information in this way, I think that it is quite representative of his theory of human understanding.

In an article from 1988 about organization Luhmann provides the following specification of the concept of information: "In the context of the autopoietical reproduction the environment exists as irritation, disturbance, noise, and it only becomes meaningful when it can be related to the system's decision-making connections. This is only the case when the system can understand which difference it makes for its decision-activity when the environment changes or doesn't change in one or the other respect. Such a difference which exists for the system in the environment and which for the system may imply a difference for the system itself, i.e. a different decision, in accordance with Gregory Bateson we would call information. As 'difference that makes a difference' information is always the system's own product, an aspect of the processing of decision and not a fact in the environment which exists independently of observation and evaluation. On the other hand the system cannot freely create information as its own product or let it be. The system is continuously perturbated by the environment, and with its decision-network it seeks out perturbations so as to transform them into information and to use them as a guide for decision-making. " (Luhmann 1988b p. 173, my translation)

Here Luhmann seems to be closely related to both Maturana's and Varela's theory of autopoiesis and to the cognitive theory represented by Bateson. However, there are major differences which I will summarize in the following sections. Even though Luhmann is rooted in second order cybernetics, he has developed its basic constructions through conceptual specifications. Firstly, he makes a distinction between biological systems and social and psychic systems, thus avoiding the universalizing tendency of autopoiesis. Secondly, he makes a distinction between social and psychic systems, thus further specifying Bateson's theories.

Biological Versus Social Systems: Meaning as the Conditionality of Social Systems

Luhmann very carefully specifies the difference between biological and social (and psychic) systems. All these systems are autopoietic. This means that they don't just relate to each other, they do so in reference to themselves. They are conditioned in the sense originally specified by Ross Ashby. However, the basic difference is that the conditionality of social (and psychic) systems is constituted by meaning (in German: Sinn). Thus, meaning represents the conceptual specification of social and psychic systems.

Meaning is the specific form of conditionality which separates psychic and social systems from other systems 12. Thus, meaning is closure. But meaning is as well opening. We "see" the world through our concepts, through our system of meaning. Our conceptual differences "find" external differences. "Communication systems develop a special way to deal with complexity, i.e., introducing a representation of the complexity of the world into the system. I call this representation of complexity 'meaning"', Luhmann writes, thus avoiding "all subjective, psychological, or transcendental connotations of this term. The function of meaning is to provide access to all possible topics of communication." (Luhmann 1990c p. 146) "What's the meaning", we ask, or "it has no sense", we say, and what we in reality do is to reduce contextual complexity by means of the second order relationship which is called meaning. "All understanding has to do with circular relations, with relations which in themselves relate to themselves." (Luhmann 1986a p. 72, my translation)

Page 14

In a central section of Soziale Systeme Luhmann's defines and elaborates "meaning" as follows: "If one (...) puts the concepts perception and self-perception at the level of systems theory in general, and if one (...) combines them with the concept autopoiesis, then self-perception becomes a necessary component of autopoietical reproduction. At this very basis it becomes possible to separate organic and neuro-physiological systems (cells, nerve systems, immune systems, etc.) from meaning constituting psychic and social systems. At all these system-constituting levels, the basic law of self-reference is at stake, but for the former group it is at stake in a more radical way than for meaning-based systems. (...) In contrast to nervous systems it is possible to include system borders and environments in meaning-based structures and processes. For processes of self-referential systems system borders and contexts take the form of meaning in such a way that internally such systems can operate with the difference between system and environment. Meaning makes it possible in all internal operations continuously to include references to the system itself and to a more or less elaborated outside world..." (Luhmann 1984 p. 64, my translation)

On the one hand psychic and social systems are closed systems. Actually, it is their closure that allows these systems to make recognitions, because recognition is related to conceptualization, which means that something outside the system is made into a concept for the system, and that this concept interferes with other concepts within the system.

This closure has relevance for psychic as well as for social systems. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that "human self is a relationship which relates itself to itself. (...) Human self is not relationship, it is that the relationship relates itself to itself. (Soren Kierkegaard 1963 p. 73, first published 1848) If the self opened itself to the flux of the outside world, the self would disappear. Then it wouldn't be a self, but would become a non-separated part of the other. As an illustration, so-called "normal" psychic systems balance between two abnormal states: One is narcissism, which is overstated self-reference. The other is selfdenial, which is understated self-reference. The "normal" state of affairs is a relationship to the outside world in a reasonable balance between self-reference and outside world reference.

However, just as meaning is the key concept for the self-referring closure of psychic and social systems, it is also the key for their opening to the environment.

In this respect, meaning is the condition for the possibility of communication. "Not all systems process complexity and self-reference in the form of meaning; but for those systems that do so, only this possibility exists. For those systems meaning becomes a form of the world and thus bridges the difference between system and environment. Environment is given for them in the form of meaning, and the boundary between system and outside world is a meaning boundary, which refers in and out. Meaning as such, and specificglly meaning boundaries, guarantees the connection which cannot be removed between system and environment, and this in a form which is specifically related to meaning: through redundant reference." (Luhmann 1984 p. 95f, my translation) Similarly, in his Essays of Self-reference Luhmann writes: "The function of meaning is to provide access to all possible topics of communication. Meaning places all concrete items into a horizon of further possibilities and finally into the world of all possibilities. Whatever shows up as an actual event refers to other possibilities, to other ways of related actions and experiences within the horizon of further possibilities." (Luhmann 1990c p. 146)

This means that other systems exist for us as far as we constitute them as other systems. As Kierkegaard says in continuation of the above quotation: "Such a relationship, which relates itself to itself, a self, must have been establish-

P. 15
Home