The One Is EverythingOk I’ve been thinking about feedback.

One thing that struck me as interesting was that feedback, as a concept, seems to assume two things (and probably more): 1) step-wise time (and thus some kind of “state” in which a system can be identified, and thus 2) some kind of ‘levels’ within and between systems, in part based on their “state”.

So feedback, at least in the way that I’ve been thinking about it up to now, is this idea that state A of a system precipitates state B in some way, but that state B has non-trivial links ‘back’ to processes that help create state A. But of course because we are talking about the evolution of systems, this idea of ‘back’ may be better understood inversely, as ‘forward’, in the sense that there is a real distinction between state A, state B(sub-A), which is the state of system B-as-influenced-by-A, and then state A(sub-B,sub-A) the state of A-influenced-by-B-which-is-already-influenced-by-A…. And this goes on, so we have something more like a system-of-relations (S) at various points, which are distinguished by virtue of the feedback relations between its states A and B.

Here’s an attempt at a table explicating the pattern of what we mean by “feedback”:

S1 A
S2 B(A)
S3 A(B(A))
S4 B(A(B(A)))
S5 A(B(A(B(A))))

You can see the pattern unfolding infinitely — the thing is that when we think about it in this way, the pattern that is unfolding is one that does so on the basis of these ‘moments’ (S1, S2, …). But these moments are always arbitrary; there doesn’t seem to be any ontological significance to them outside of the context of their actual identification by someone thinking about cybernetics. Our knowledge of the system becomes apropos when we question it, when a need for knowledge arises… and not otherwise.

If this is true, it’s kind of misleading to have the idea of “a system” that exists “in a state” and that this state influences some other system’s state, and so forth. It’s too reductive… and it seems to fall prey to Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness. (Others familiar with quantum physics, and specifically the Einstein-Bohr debates may see some parallels with this line of thinking.)

When thinking about TIME and evolving systems, we run into some serious complexities, because different information flows through a given portion of a system at different rates depending upon the nature of that part of the system and the nature of the information being carried. Heat flows at one speed through a specific material, at another speed through another material. Information carried by light moves still differently, as does linguistic meaning, different types of sensation, etc. etc. etc.. Just about every ‘channel’ of information has its own unique set of variables in this regard, so there is no way to divvy up a given system into “state A” or “state B” with complete certainty, because at any arbitrary snapshot point, an important bit of information from one part of the system might be ‘on its way’ but not yet resulting in any modification elsewhere in the system in a significant way — in other words feedback has an analog character. We can create digital systems in which feedback appears to operate step-wise, but this is always an oversimplification… (perhaps not if we get to the quantum level, but even then I have a suspicion that something, perhaps not either analog or digital, has a role to play in what is now left out of the loop entirely, i.e. is attributed to ‘randomness’). In any case any macroscopic digital process always (?) includes analog processes (on higher and lower levels). The point is that it is misleading to speak of “states” at all.

So what? Well, our very ability to speak about feedback seems to presuppose a conceptual reliance upon “states”. Hmmmmm. What if we got rid of “states” and started to look more at the processes? What if we slipped out of the subtle reification of “statehood” and into the flowing of flows? The processes of processes? It seems then impossible to consider anything but the whole; everything is a whole, evolves-as-whole, is-always-whole-ing, and never ‘just is’.

Mercury Thermostat
For example in an old-style mercury thermostat, the state changes from “on” to “off” to “on” again. The way it does this is through a process of feedback between the temperature of the room and the curvature of a bi-metallic strip. When the temperature is too cold (given a specific calibration point to begin with), the bimetallic strip curves in on itself, causing mercury (a conductive liquid)to fall to one side of its containing vial, where it closes an electrical circuit, making the heater go on. When the temperature is warm enough, the bi-metallic strip expands and causes the vial to tilt the other way, so that the mercury ends up in the other side of the vial, breaking the circuit and causing the heater to go off. Wash, rinse, repeat, over and over.

This is the ‘classic’ case of a feedback system. The system of the room+thermostat includes a feedback “mechanism” by which information ABOUT the “state” of the system is influential in determining the BEHAVIOR of the system. But there is something arbitrary about thinking of the system as composed of a room and a thermostat. We could divide things up into any number of different configurations, which would give slightly different perspectives on the whole. For example we can distinguish the temperature of different volumes of air, the internal components of the thermostat, the volume of air in the heating ducts and their placement, etc. “The thermostat” and “the room” are just cognitive shortcuts for more complex interrelations that, on the one hand, can be usefully summed up by such shortcuts, but which on the other hand deflects awareness from the process by which the making of the distinctions occurs, and its interactive, contingent, on-going nature. This is a general issue that crops up around epistemology.

Exploring a bit further, it would then seem that if we take such an idea to heart, it becomes much more difficult to speak of “levels” that are clear and distinct (to borrow a pithy and dangerous phrase from Descartes)–for the basis for any such distinction is some clarity about difference, and the basis for clarity is the distinction of difference. Alchemically, this is like the operation of precipitation, where a flowing, dissolving, ever-changing substance becomes punctuated by moments of particularly which separate themselves off from the activity of being-in-process with the rest of the solution. Identity becomes not only possible but fitting: here we have the formation of a crystal. It is here, it is this size, it is moving like this, it is not any of these other equally separate and identifiable crystals. (In terms of the alchemical language of process, this is the Earth element at work.)

In other words, the concept of feedback works well by virtue of its implicit reliance upon the tendency to make distinctions in complex wholes: this “part” of a system and that “part” of a system, this “state” at one time and some other “state” at another. Such distinctions may represent an a-ontological punctuation of difference within a field of activity that admits–without the activity of the distinguisher–of no such intrinsic difference. That is to say, distinctions have a certain amount of… freedom to them. Our distinguishing of one state or part of a system may not be rooted in some kind of ontologically independent “reality” which can, on its own hold up the validity of that distinction. Such validity always requires the situated contextuality of the distinguisher. (In terms of the alchemical language of process, this is the element of Water at work).

Thermostat detailOne can think of the thermostat/room system as a homeostatic one, which brings the room temperature towards some specific target through negative feedback. But this ‘stasis’ is somewhat illusory; it is accomplished by continual change. No matter how the system is constructed, it is change that creates the stasis. So it’s more accurate to think of the thermostat/room system as evolving around a cyclic attractor, where the temperature regularly fluctuates above and below a certain average (the ‘target’ temperature). It is also the stasis that creates change; the curling and uncurling of the bimetallic strip can only occur if the ambient temperature has some aspect that is constant (in this case, that the temperature STAYS above or below the target value–you’ll notice that this is a case of higher-order constancy, a constancy that is possible on the basis of change that maintains a difference).

So we sometimes make a distinction about levels: on a ‘higher’ level the system is essentially constant, while on a ‘lower’ level it is continually in flux. But again these are cognitive shortcuts for interweaving processes which do not admit of such self-distinction. The ‘levels’ are identified BY us FOR us. Just as the identification of ‘states’ is contextually contingent and not necessarily ontological, so it is with the identification of ‘levels’.

This is not to say that our distinctions are completely unguided or arbitrary–because we can’t overlook the fact that we ourselves are involved in any system by virtue of our interaction with it. Even if we are ‘just looking’ at a system, we cannot but help look with eyes that see only particularities that evolve with our ability to distinguish them. Even our seeing is cybernetic, involved in recursive looping between the ‘out there’ and the ‘in here’. The seeing is not either ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’, but partakes of both aspects, being guided by outer processes and inner processes simultaneously, and which affects the ‘seeing system’ in multiple ways, some of which may be inconsequential, and some of which may make all the difference in the world.


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