the paradox of objects

One of the most profound and ironically the most trivial philosophical experiences happened to me in about 1994. At Wolfson College, it was at a particularly difficult time for me in my own mental health. But a period that was particularly enriching personally, creatively and intellectually.

I was sat on the steps outside Wolfson College porters’ lodge. It was a fine day in the late spring or early summer. I was trying not to believe anything at the time, because everything I seemed to believe about myself and the world just made me depressed. It was an existential experiment and I think because of my neurodiversity (the extent to which I can become overstimulated in social settings which can overload my system unless I manage it) it left me a state of mania and with increased mental activity, which I intellectualised.

I was looking at the tree to the right of the main door, as you look out toward Barton Road and toward Granchester. Paradox had been on my mind and that encouraged me to try not to believe in anything (which is impossible to do, – don’t ignore historicity – said my criminologist friend Kevin Haines, he was right of course).

Paradox means the death of binary logic, the death of the true and false binary.

What occurred to me while looking at the tree. And it continues to haunt me. That all that is the tree is only that because of what is not the tree. The tree can only be because of that that is not the tree. It follows that for anything to exist, it only exists as a result of its negation. Fundamentally all objects emerge from paradox through distinction or difference. They both are and aren’t at the same time.

How can this fundamental paradox result in objects in the world that have such material properties, if at the heart of the matter there can be nothing there. Well nothing but distinction.

Distinction or difference is the foundation of consciousness, reasoning and in information. Thurston wrote in the 1920s about comparative judgement and that the basis of this judgement was though being able to distinguish one thing from another. This is the underlying feature of consciousness being able to perceive one thing as different to another. From simple distinction we are able to perceive patterns spatially and temporarily, we identify oscillations and repetitions in the cycle of systems of distinction and order. Effectively a fractal emerging from a simple system of recursion.

When I perceive a tree, when I observe a tree, I make the distinction between what is that tree and what isn’t that tree. How is the paradox of this object resolved? What gives it any permanence? It exists but also it doesn’t.

The mathematics of George Spencer Brown, his Laws of Form, uses a primary algebra that can show how order can emerge from paradox. That the thing equating to the not thing, can be dealt with iteratively, through recursion, through reentry into itself. At its simplest we get the emergence of an ordinal system extending indefinitely: first; second; third, fourth … More sophisticated reentry leads to other patterns with specific rhythms and aesthetics, like the Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) an expression of the golden ratio and evident in many organsisms in the world.

There is no permanence only a changing order. The existence of objects reflects the endurance of order and recursion. It is not that objects exist, it is that order exists; order that emerges from paradox.

Cybernetic realism

Before I became interested in cybernetics, my research had been – through accident rather than intention – broadly moving toward Critical Realism. This is and was primarily through reflexivity. Reflexivity, as a word, has its first usage in late medieval/ Early Modern English history. Early usage is material and refers to physical phenomena. That something bends back on itself, interacts with itself and references itself. The word then is used to indicate a self-referential encounter by a being with itself. Reflexivity as an ongoing negotiation of the world.

Cybernetics offers its own take on reflexivity. The idea of autopoiesis is analogous to reflexivity. It was originally posited by Maturana and Varela to explain how biological systems respond to and interact with complex environments. An organism (or biology system) momentarily interacts with its complex environment. This interaction provides feedback to the organism which responds by adapting its internal systems and processes to respond to that feedback. It is a recursively contingent behaviour, where the organism is able to remake itself in response to a changing environment. Luhmann extended this to psychic and social systems.

Margaret Archer’s realist social theory extends and elaborates on reflexivity, providing an account of how the individual negotiates and then changes structures and cultures (potentially) through reflexivity. The cybernetic account considers how a system which includes organisms and structures, also works reflexively through autopoiesis. The adjustments to the system’s internal processes are remade though recursive and contingent behaviours.

I think one of the major differences, is that reflexivity in realist social theory suggests something akin to linear causalities. Autopoiesis is cyclical, an iterative action, of re-entry into itself.

I have presented the idea of Cybernetic  Realism to incorporate the autopoietic and the reflexive.