Pathologies of Epistemology
The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism.
First, I would like you to join me in a little experiment. Let me ask you for a show of hands. How many of you will agree that you see me? I see a number of hands—so I guess insanity loves company. Of course, you don’t “really” see me. What you “see” is a bunch of pieces of information about me, which you synthesize into a picture image of me. You make that image. It’s that simple.
The proposition “I see you” or “You see me” is a proposition which contains within it what I am calling “epistemology.” It contains within it assumptions about how we get in-formation, what sort of stuff information is, and so forth. When you say you “see” me and put up your hand in an innocent way, you are, in fact, agreeing to certain propositions about the nature of knowing and the nature of the universe in which we live and how we know about it.
The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism*
The “logic” of alcoholic addiction has puzzled psychiatrists no less than the “logic” of the strenuous spiritual regime whereby the organization Alcoholics Anonymous is able to counteract the addiction. In the present essay it is suggested:
(1) that an entirely new epistemology must come out of cybernetics and systems theory, involving a new understanding of mind, self, human relationship, and power;
(2) that the addicted alcoholic is operating, when sober, in terms of an epistemology which is conventional in Occidental culture but which is not acceptable to systems theory;
(3) that surrender to alcoholic intoxication provides a partial and subjective short cut to a more correct state of mind; and
(4) that the theology of Alcoholics Anonymous coincides closely with an epistemology of cybernetics.
The present essay is based upon ideas which are, perhaps all of them, familiar either to psychiatrists who have had dealings with alcoholics, or to philosophers who have thought about the implications of cybernetics and systems theory. The only novelty which can be claimed for the thesis here offered derives from treating these ideas seriously as premises of argument and from the bringing together of commonplace ideas from two too separate fields of thought.
The first two steps of AA are as follows:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than our-selves could restore us to sanity.
Implicit in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary—and I believe correct—idea: the experience of defeat not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first “spiritual experience.” The myth of self-power is thereby broken by the demonstration of a greater power.
In sum, I shall argue that the “sobriety” of the alcoholic is characterized by an unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism, the division between Mind and Matter, or, in this case, between conscious will, or “self,” and the remainder of the personality. Bill W.’s stroke of genius was to break up with the first “step” the structuring of this dualism.
In no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.
This total system, or ensemble, may legitimately be said to show mental characteristics. It operates by trial and error and has creative character.
Similarly, we may say that “mind” is immanent in those circuits of the brain which are complete within the brain. Or that mind is immanent in circuits which are complete within the system, brain plus body. Or, finally, that mind is immanent in the larger system—man plus environment.
In principle, if we desire to explain or understand the mental aspect of any biological event, we must take into account the system—that is, the network of closed circuits, within which that biological event is determined. But when we seek to explain the behavior of a man or any other organism, this “system” will usually not have the same limits as the “self”—as this term is commonly (and variously) understood.
Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, tree-eyes- brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind.
a new way of thinking about what a mind is. Let me list what seem to.me to be those essential minimal characteristics of a system, which I will accept as characteristics of mind:
The system shall operate with and upon differences.
The system shall consist of closed loops or networks of pathways along which differences and transforms of differences shall be transmitted. (What is transmitted on a neuron is not an impulse, it is news of a difference.)
Many events within the system shall be energized by the respondent part rather than by impact from the triggering part.
The system shall show self-correctiveness in the direction of homeostasis and/or in the direction of runaway. Self-correctiveness implies trial and error.
Now, these minimal characteristics of mind are generated whenever and wherever the appropriate circuit structure of causal loops exists. Mind is a necessary, an inevitable function of the appropriate complexity, wherever that complexity occurs. But that complexity occurs in a great many other places besides the inside of my head and yours. We’ll come later to the question of whether a man or a computer has a mind. For the moment, let me say that a redwood forest or a coral reef with its aggregate of organisms interlocking in their relationships has the necessary general structure.
If, now, we correct the Darwinian unit of survival to include the environment and the interaction between organism and environment, a very strange and surprising identity emerges: the unit of evolutionary survival turns out to be identical with the unit of mind.
Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene- in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.
Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.
Maurizio Lazzarato's essay The Event and Politics from his The Revolutions of Capitalism (a selection) - the themes can also be found in an earlier article in Ephemera "From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life":
"We need a new concept of "wealth", a new concept of "production". To create thse new concepts, it is necessary to forget the philosophy of subject and that of labour, which restrain us from understanding the cooperation between minds. Spirit, like intellectual or immaterial labour has a tendency to cross the borders: it is without spatial existence and does to reduce to its manifestations. In the era of immaterial labour and cooperation between minds, it is not possible to think social conflicts in terms of the friend/enemy dichotomy, or in terms of the conflict between two classes, nor in terms of liberal (private/public) or socialist (individual/collective) traditions. Creation acts in another way than exclusion, competition or contradiction, the evolutionary principles of the above. Ho should we then translate the concept of multitude to politics? A fertile starting-point might be Gabriel Tarde's sociology of "difference and repetition", which allows us to understand that some of the key concepts of Tarde, like those of "invention, imitation, memory and sympathy" might be very appropriate for explaining the mode of the cooperation of the multitude.
And finally Enzo Rullani's book Modernita Sostenibile (Sustainable Modernity) (you can find an essay containing the last chapter in English as pdf "Knowledge Economy and Local Development". Rullani's thesis is that modernity has signified a "runaway growth" which is neither sustainable, nor lasting. The growth has been attained through "reproduceable knowledge" applied to specific and distinct fields which all operate with an internal logic - without regard to anything outside them - e.g. economy. But today this ignoring of complexities like social, cultural ecological systems which cannot be contained within simple fields is heading us towards global crisis. Rullani's solution is not to try and stop the mechanisms of growth, but to apply them reflexively.