[From Bill Powers (2000.02.25.0853 MST)]
[From Paul Stokes (2000.02.23.1609 GMT)]
I've read your paper on sociology and PCT. Most interesting. I think it
will improve, however, if some old misconceptions about closed-loop systems
(originating long before your time, largely from Bertalanffy) are cleared up.
A "closed-loop" system is not a "closed system" in Bertalanffy's (or
Maturana's) terms. It is _thermodynamically_ open, meaning it is open in
terms of information and energy. After all, in PCT, all feedback loops at
all levels are closed through the environment, not inside the active
system, and thus the system both affects and is affected by its environment
at any level of analysis.
The term "closed-loop" is actually redundant: If there is feedback, there
is a loop, and if there is a loop, it is closed!
Even more confusing is the oxymoron "open-loop", the opposite of
"closed-loop." Engineers, when testing feedback systems, often "open the
loop" by cutting a connection where they want to measure something without
the feedback effects. Since the loop is closed during normal operation,
they refer to the system's condition with the connection cut as
"open-loop", meaning that the loop which is normally closed has been
opened. By extension, if a system produces outputs which, by design, do not
have any significant effect on its inputs (like a doorbell), it is termed
an "open-loop" system, as if the loop had been closed at one time but was
opened, which of course is not at all the truth. Ah, language.
So "closed-loop" and "open-loop" have nothing whatsoever to do with
Bertalanffy's "closed system" and "open system", terms which he borrowed
from thermodynamics without particularly understanding them. This should
lead to some modifications of statements in your paper implying that the
PCT model is a "closed system." The PCT model, in single units or in the
full hierarchy, is entirely an "open system."
You characterize the "radical individualism" of PCT as based on the " valid
observation that the individual organism is the sole source of all
activity." I don't think I could agree with that as the basis of PCT. For
me, the real basis is that the world we experience is a world of
perception, so that when we make anything happen, we make it happen in our
perceptions, with the actual effects of our actions in the (presumed)
outside world being only indirectly, theoretically, and conjecturally known
This applies, of course, not only to our perceptions of the inanimate
world, but to our perceptions of the other people in it. And it applies not
only to such perceptions as the positions, movements, and shapes of other
people, but to our perceptions of their desires, intentions, preferences,
and personality characteristics. It's ALL perception; there is no point of
view that is not located and implemented inside of some person (or other
organism). This applies to perceptions of social phenomena as well.
That is what I think is the grounding for the "radical individualism" of
PCT (It doesn't seem radical to me -- it just seems to be a statement of
the facts of life as best we can know them).
Now let's think a bit about your proposals concerning points where the
system is "open and malleable" to outside influence. I think you have
misconstrued PCT to some extent here, if you think that the behavior of a
control system is not open to outside influence. Anything that disturbs a
controlled perception will give rise, often quite predictably, to actions
tending to oppose the effects of the disturbance. And in PCT organisms are
capable of modifying their own organization so they can reach their goals
using whatever environmental properties and constraints exist. The behavior
of a control system necessarily takes into account the properties of its
The central question here is whether we see the system as resourcefully
adjusting its own organization and actions as a way of coping with outside
disturbances, or as passively subject to outside influences that shape its
-- well, behavior is the wrong word, so let's just say "operation." In all
of your examples, you actually side with the first choice: that organisms
actively adjust their behavior as a way of achieving what they want, rather
than being passively shaped by outside forces.
1. Reference levels
I think that (perhaps for the sake of the argument) you exaggerate both the
degree to which human beings share reference levels and the degree to which
we can _know_ they share them even when they appear to do so. The
underlying problem is not so much the reference levels as the perceptions
in terms of which reference levels are stated. With considerable effort and
cross-checking, you and I can come to feel that we are perceiving the same
thing, especially if it's something simple like a color (green) or a shape
(circle). But the higher we go in the hierarchy, the more difficult it
becomes to decide whether we are talking about the same perception.
Technically, of course, we can _never_ talk about the _same_ perception --
yours is in your head and mine is in mine. But we can sometimes satisfy
ourselves that we use the same words in the same circumstances to refer to
the same external or objective condition, and thus not worry about whether
my "green" would look green to you.
However, I agree than many people desire to conform to social norms as they
understand them, and that the reasons for this desire make perfect
practical sense. The "reasons," of course, have to do with higher-level or
more important individual goals, such as the avoidance of conflict and
pain, and the achievement of love and friendship. We can reorganize our own
behavior until it is providing us with the perceptions we want, meaning
perceptions for which we have nonzero reference levels, and avoiding those
we don't want. We are the ones who decide what we want and don't want, but
the external world and the social systems in it determine how we have to
act in order to get what we want. Even that statement is subject to
misunderstanding because of our hierarchical organization: what we want at
one level is the means of getting what we want at a higher level. Thus to
get what we want at one level, we have to learn what to want at the next
level down. Autonomy is always relative to the next level up.
3. The "center of gravity" of perceptual control lies between its main
masses (to commandeer your metaphor). One main mass is the reference
signal, which is set by the next level up or by heredity. The other main
mass is the net disturbance (both additive and parametric), which is the
environment's way of telling us what we have to _do_ to keep our
perceptions in the states we prefer. The "Self" (big S) is simply the
aggregate of perceptions having do do with ourselves, small s, that are in
consciousness at a given time: it is a high-level perception or set of
them, consisting of perceived attributes that we control by various means.
It is a perception like any other perception, and thus lies inside ourselves.
A reference signal (an entity in the model) describes the preferred state
of a perception, and we external observers come to know it as a reference
_level_, meaning the state of an observable controlled quantity toward
which behavior always pushes the variable. This aspect of behavior is
ultimately determined by the organism itself and by nothing else but the
history of the species to which that organism belongs. The _ultimate_
determinants of reference levels are not alterable in a single lifetime.
However, intermediate reference levels are determined by a combination of
higher-order reference signals and disturbances originating in the
environment. The reference signals tell a control system what it wants to
accomplish by acting, and the disturbances (which include properties of the
environment) determine how it has to act to achieve the specified
perceptual result. So what you say about the influence of social factors on
behavior is true, but not as true as you make it out to be.
Try thinking of it this way. Each of us, individually, autonomously, and
independently of any other person, needs to eat, for the sole reason that
we have inherited the structure (and intrinsic reference signals) of a
human being. But in order to eat, we learn that we must behave in certain
ways in relationship to other people, and strive to bring our perceptions
of other people into states that maximize our chances of eating. We must do
this not because we are human but because we live in a group of interacting
human beings, each with built-in desires and needs just like ours.
The primary problem that I see is to distinguish between the control
systems that are present because we are human and those that come to be
present (in a single lifetime) because we live in an environment with its
own properties and other people with their own properties. If there were no
other people, we would still have to acquire (if we could) control systems
that take into account the physical properties of the world into which we
happen to be born. Adding in other people, all trying to do the same, we
also have to acquire control systems that take into account what others
need and want, because unless we do, we can't get what we need and want.
4,5. The role of behavior
Behavior, as you say, is seen in PCT as the means of controlling a
perception at the same level of organization. Thus the behavior _can't_ be
the focus; if disturbances affect the perception, the behavior must be free
to change in any way required to counteract the disturbance -- if control
is not to be lost. The environment, not the organism, determines what
disturbances will exist. Thus the organism must allow its own actions to
vary as feedback effects demand, for that is the only way to counteract
However, as you point out, our behavior has effects other than those that
alter the states of our own perceptions. When we look at another person,
what we see, and what affects us, are the _actions_ of that person. We
can't see the other person's perceptions, which are all that matter to that
person; what we can see is what affects _our_ perceptions, which is all
that matters to us. What matters to us is the other person's action, which
exists in our own perceptions.
This is not to say that it's impossible for us to perceive our own actions.
We can, and do, at lower levels of organization. And we can learn to set
reference levels for those actions as controlled variables in themselves,
as part of our means for controlling the relationships we perceive between
ourselves and others. We can look for alternative means of achieving our
own reference levels, if the initial means we find offends or in some other
way disturbs the perceptions others are controlling. We can readily
discover which of our actions is disturbing others, because as control
systems they will push back against any disturbance, and we will feel the
result as resistance to our actions. From there on, it's a question of
winning, losing, or conflict resolution.
As you can see, I hope, we are within reasonable range of reaching
agreement. How about trying another draft, and let's see how it goes.