Gregory Bateson, at home in Ben Lomond, California, 1975

The Cybernetics of Self: a logico-formal approach to experience

Gregory Bateson, at home in Ben Lomond, California, 1975

Gregory Bateson’s anthropology of communication provides a perspective of the experience from a systemic and formal approach. This approach is underlined mainly by the theory of deutero-learning and the importance of this theory is based on what Bateson tended to call ‘double-bind’. Deutero-learning points out that any biological system is capable of adaptive changes which come in many forms that depend on the dimension and complexity of the system from which they are observed: these changes can be seen as feedback circuits which action is opened by regular processes of trial and error, so the comparison of these processes enables the adaptive change to be experimented hierarchically as a ‘lived’ experience. In this sense, biological systems cannot only solve particular problems, but also they can form habits that are applied to the solution of the various kinds of problems that arise in their immediate social life. This means that biological systems can act on their own logical assumptions or premises in order to solve the various kinds of problems they face. However, the number of assumptions or premises with which a biological system may count, i.e, so to provide solutions to a particular kinds of problems, it is always less than the number of formal elements and premises that constitute such problems. In other words, biological systems always depart from a smaller number of premises regard to those that conform the kind of problems which they face. For this reason, biological systems commonly use these premises to experience the adaptive changes they need to live, mostly to act accordingly to the dimension and complexity of the system in which they are embedded. Following this approach, deutero-learning implies that biological systems, while they are living organisms, have the habit to learn from what they have already learnt, i.e, they learn to learn. From this perspective, double-bind is a concept that is presented as a way to think ‘analogous themes’, i.e, it serves to think the content of the premises that mean the habitual experience that a biological system may experiment within the system in which it is inserted. Thus, double-bind is a conception that permits to think analogically the experience that a particular biological system lives in the environment where it interacts. Conceptually, double-bind refers to the mental relation that a biological system has with respect to the dimension and complexity of the system in which it exists. But what is this mental relation that characterizes the human biological systems?

It is worth first to consider that the characteristics of the environmental system in which the human biological systems are inserted, are indeed mental characteristics: they are not immanent only to one of their parts, but also to the environmental system as a whole. As an example, we can say that a binary system of operations and commands is mental, as long as we consider the system in which it is inserted and takes on its meaning. A computer thinks and is mental, as it is inserted in a human biological system ―i.e, managed by an individual―, and while such human biological system is inserted in a environmental system as well ―i.e, while it inhabits a specific physical space―. Every system describes then a ‘mentality’ depending on where it is considered the systemic totality in which that system founds itself inserted. Bateson’s approach stems from the fact that in the mind things do not exist, nor objects, nor even events: there are only transformations, percepts and images, as well as the rules for constructing these transformations, percepts and images. In this sense, double-bind is a concept useful to think the relations given between these related subjects as it permits to discern the differences given between the content of the premises ―i.e, the content of what is in the mind, namely: transformations, percepts and images― and the basic premises or rules that allow to mentally construct these contents in regard of the adaptative demands that the human biological system experiences in its environment. According to Bateson, the premises of experiential content that a human biological system experiments, i.e, the rules of the habit that gives meaning to these transformations, percepts and images, are not likely to arise as simple conscious thoughts: that what explains the substance of things in the world, cannot invoke any difference nor any idea, but only the forces and the impacts that make them livable as experience. What explains the world is indifferent to that which gives an experiential form to the things that exist in it and make possible its communication. In the inverse sense, the human biological systems are only capable to invoke differences and ideas that remit to the forces or to the impacts of the substance that explains the things in the world.

For Bateson, it is necessary to refer to the perception and division of the kind of problems faced by human biological systems, mostly as they are embedded in an environmental system which dimension and complexity surpasses them. On the one hand, there are problems of how things are, what is a person, and what kind of world is this ―the ontological problems―. On the other hand, there are problems of how we get to know the kinds of things in the world that we inhabit ―the epistemological problems―. However, as he points out, there is not a concept that integrates the knowledge of both ontological and epistemological problems, i.e, there is not any conceptualization which would formally contain and encompass both kinds of problems in combination. According to Bateson, concepts such as ‘cognitive structure’ or ‘character structure’ fail to suggest that the importance lies in seeing the body as a set of habitual assumptions and implicit premises in the relation given between ‘man’ and ‘environment’: Bateson considers that human biological systems are linked by a network of epistemo-onto-logical premises that are partially self-validating for such systems. But how human biological systems relate to this network of premises, and how the adaptative changes that these systems experiment occur? The premises ―with which the human biological system counts― prove that the adaptive changes that such system normally experiences, can arise from the aperture of a circuit capable to feed back comparatively the vividness of its contents ―i.e, from the substantial perception of the things in the world―. This means that human biological systems are capable of passing the formal content of their premises through a circuit of differences ―a circuit of differentiation― that would relate them to the set of experiences that the system has experimented through its life. For Bateson, the differences that pass through such a circuit, are differences that make differences, i.e, differences that constitute an idea. In this sense, the idea is for him a difference that makes a difference, a ‘bit’ or a ‘unit’ of information. The fact that human biological systems are capable to make the formal content of their embodied premises pass through a differential circuit ―i.e, through a circuit that makes intelligible the experience of their own existence― means that such systems are likely to experiment what Bateson calls ‘cybernetics of self’. The cybernetics of self suggests that ideas are immanent to a network of causal pathways by which information concerning to the transformation of the difference is transmitted. Thus, for Bateson the ideas of the system are configured from a ‘binary structure’ that is not limited by consciousness, which is to say that they are configured as an extended mesh which immanence detours the causal pathways of all unconscious mentation. Therefore, the body of a human biological system is an open circuit to other systems, however, the immanence of the extended mesh of systems is never limited by the body, but it broadens to all the causal pathways by which information can be transmitted.

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