[From Bill Powers (960125.0600 MST)]
Hans Blom, 960125 --
This is, for me, the basis of the eternal misunderstanding in many
discussions: what _I_ control is determined by the outside world as
much as by me myself. Is that still "control", or do we want to
refine the explanation? This touches on some basic issues, I think.
Thanks for your reply to Rick Marken; the question you raise so simply
and clearly is important enough that everyone in PCT ought to try to
come up with an independent answer. Here is my attempt, from two angles.
It is certainly true that according to the basic idea of HPCT the goals
at each level in the hierarchy are adjusted when there are disturbances
that affect higher-order systems, and that this is true at every level.
This means that we do not freely choose the goals at any level; they are
caused to vary by disturbances of higher perceptions, and at the highest
level they are either built-in or are determined by reorganization.
Reorganization is organized around inherited reference levels for
critical internal variables, and occurs when external disturbances cause
deviations of those variables from these given reference levels. There
seems to be no place, even in PCT, where both behavior and goals are not
determined by impersonal factors in the environment or in our own
It is always important in dealing with PCT or any other theory to
recognize that it is a human-made theory. Specifically, PCT, just like
S-R theory or reinforcement theory or adaptive-control theory, is a
mechanistic theory motivated by the explicit goal of finding a
mechanistic explanation of behavior. We try to imagine arrangements of
neural computing elements and connections that, together with the known
physiology of the body and under the right conditions, will predict
human actions that we can observe.
So we approach the very process of theory-building with the intention of
using only physical elements in the theory and making no appeal to
mystical or supernatural forces that intervene in the natural processes
of brain and bodily function. Physical determinism is built into ANY
model we might come up with, from the very beginning. It is chosen, not
It should be no surprise, therefore, that our theory leads us to trace
all behavior back to origins in the physical world -- either the
external environment of the present, or the environment that shaped our
evolution. That is exactly what we _intended_ the theory to do.
PCT is, above all, a _self-reflexive_ theory. It applies not only to
human behavior, but to the theorist theorizing about human behavior. It
is only in PCT among all other mechanistic theories that we can speak
consistently of what the theorist intends for the theory to do and under
which we can explain how an intention might be carried out. If we intend
that a theory be mechanistic, PCT can explain what we mean by "intend,"
and it outlines roughly the organization through which we will achieve
that intention. There will be a perception of the character we call
mechanistic; it is derived from perceiving some kinds of elements in the
model but not others, from descriptions cast in objective mathematical
and physical terms but not in personal or ideosyncratic terms. When we
hear descriptions of a model, our own or someone else's, we compare what
we perceive of these descriptions with the reference condition we have
decided to impose on descriptions; if there is a discrepancy, we try to
correct it -- to catch and correct our own mistakes or those of others.
We want the model to be objective, mechanistic, scientific, and precise,
and the things we think, say, and do are adjusted so the result is
perceived as fitting those criteria.
So speaking entirely from within the PCT framework we can build an
explanation of how and why that framework exists. This is what I mean by
a self-reflexive theory.
And why is PCT a self-reflexive theory? Because that is what I intended
it to be from the very beginning. I vowed to myself over four decades
ago that whatever the theory had to say about human beings, it had to be
acceptable as a description of my own private experience of myself and
the world. That criterion was even more important, and of a higher
level, than the criterion that the model be mechanistic. This explains
why I have been willing to vary the strict mechanistic requirement when
such a variation seemed necessary -- for example, in trying to
understand my own consciousness. Through various experiences, I realized
that the properties of awareness seemed not to fit the strict
mechanistic model. Such experiences were disturbances of the principle
that whatever the model said, it said about the modeler as much as other
people. So when dealing with awareness in the light of my experiences, I
was willing to admit the possibility of nonmechanistic explanations.
However, not having any such explanations at hand, I did not offer any
but left the error uncorrected, to be dealt with, perhaps, at some later
time. I focused on areas of theory and experiment where such
explanations weren't needed, and dealt with the disturbance that way.
And why did I so self-righteously vow to make the model self-reflexive?
Because of a strong feeling that I am not basically different from
anyone else. I have no special status among human beings; whatever is
said about them can be said, in some way, about me. If others can be
cruel and selfish, then so can I. If I am interested in learning truths
about my experiences, others are interested in learning truths about
theirs. If I can be persuaded by carefully-wrought arguments, so can
others. I am simply one example of homo sapiens, and have no privileged
position from which I can see what others are incapable of seeing, or in
which I am exempt from the faults of others. I must deal with all people
Perhaps it is evident how, out of this system concept of a human being,
there arose the principle that any valid theory of behavior must apply
to the theorist as well as the subject, and how, out of that principle,
PCT became a theory that puts private experience in the central
position: control not of reality, but of perception. Even our theories
are about perceptions -- OUR OWN perceptions, always.
With all that said, let's take a different view of the problem.
While it's true that disturbances of higher-level perceptions cause
lower-level goals to vary, disturbances do not _set_ lower-level goals.
When we concentrate too much on changes, we tend to forget that we also
have to explain the steady state, the average condition around which
those changes occur. If disturbances _created_ lower-level goals, then
we would have to predict that if, for a moment, all disturbances at all
levels became zero, we would cease to do anything at all and would have
In fact, most of our goals, particularly at the higher levels, are of
such a nature that even in a disturbance-free world we would have to set
lower-level goals and ultimately act. Just begin with the intrinsic
reference levels. We need to keep fed, to keep our metabolism going.
This means we must constantly provide fresh supplies of food, because we
are always burning it up and excreting the waste products. But the
environment (aside from other human beings) knows nothing of our needs;
there may be food in it, but the food will not get up and walk itself
into our mouths. So to meet this internal requirement, we must
eventually learn how to set and achieve goals having to do with finding
and ingesting food.
What causes these goals to arise? Not disturbances, but basic needs.
There is no active impetus from the environment against which we must
react; there is simply a natural process of energy loss which is always
there and is caused by our own internal activities. The environment does
not need to do anything to us to make us seek food; we learn what food
is and how to acquire it quite spontaneously, because it is our nature
as evolved control systems to be able to learn such things. If it were
not for inherited goals having to do with our own physiological states,
we would simply run down and die.
This is not a chicken-and-egg proposition. The goal must exist first. It
is only the inner goal that says we should eat. Without the goal,
sensors might register that the internal energy level is approaching
zero, but there would be no reason not to let it go all the way. Without
the goal, a perfectly valid solution to the S-R equation is zero in,
zero out. In fact, if it were not for goals, the entire organism would
be just an S-R mechanism, and if the stimuli ever stopped the organism
would stop. It is a goal that produces nonzero output when the input
(including disturbances) is zero.
We can see a goal at any level of organization as having two components.
One is the component that is set by a higher-level system as a way of
achieving a nonzero higher-level goal. The other is a variation around
that first component that represents changes in the higher system's
output that resist the effects of disturbances of a higher-level
perception. If the disturbances of the higher-level system's perception
momentarily disappeared, there would still be a requirement for a non-
zero input from the lower system to maintain the higher perception, and
the higher system would still be sending a nonzero reference signal to
the lower system.
So if you assume that independent disturbances of any perceptual
variable average out to zero or a constant value, you can look at the
average setting of a reference signal and attribute it solely to the
_undisturbed_ action of a higher-level system. In particular cases that
average might be zero, but in general it will be nonzero. If we consider
only this average component of a reference signal, we can see that the
entire hierarchy is kept active by the highest current levels of nonzero
reference signals. We can see that the average way of interacting with
the environment is due to the fact that the organism has goals. Even in
the absence of independent disturbances, the organism would be actively
manipulating its environment.
There is one last consideration. Sometimes, it seems, we do things just
to see what will happen. There seems to be no way to account for such
actions; there is no reason for them except a desire to experience
something new. Sometimes we don't like the result and avoid repeating
the action; sometimes the result opens new worlds to us. But the main
point is that there appears to be a non-mechanistic influence acting
within us, as far as our ability to explain this phenomenon now goes. If
course we may choose to have faith that a mechanistic explanation will
be found some day, but if we're honest we will have to admit that "some
day" is not "now." Right now, there is apparently a non-mechanistic
joker in the deck. Maybe it will turn out to be a particle of
radioactive thorium that randomly excites neurons, but whatever it is,
it has a definite influence on brain activities and we have no way to
explain its capricious actions. No theory of human nature can be
complete without at least providing a place for this kind of influence,
a box with an output but no known input and a question mark inside it.