Hacker's questions; CSG meeting

[From Bill Powers (930804.0730)]

Ken Hacker (930403) --

1. How does CT differentiate intentions, goals, objectives,
    and purposes?

Mainly by the cirumstances implied by indirect connotations of
these different terms, all of which imply reference signals.
Language is not isomorphic to PCT; it refers to many parts of a
control process in a sort of shorthand that collapses many
aspects of control into one word. This is not surprising,
considering the short time during which control theory has been
part of human experience.

To this list you can add wishes, desires, wants, hopes,
aspirations, anticipations, predictions, and expectations. All
these terms indicate some condition that does not now exist, but
which is to be brought about either by one's own actions or
through extraneous causes. In each case, according to PCT, one
knows of the unrealized condition only through imagination, which
is how we can perceive our own reference signals. As long as
present-time perception differs from the imagined condition, an
error signal presumably exists indicating that the condition is
unfulfilled. Error signals create a feeling of something wrong,
missing, lacking, or unsatisfied, although in the PCT model they
are not directly sensed. What is probably sensed is the imagined
or actual effort of trying to eliminate the error.

A "wish," for example, is a reference condition we do not know
how to bring about in real perceptions; the term implies that we
would be pleased if it came about, but have little expectation
that it will. An "expectation," on the other hand, is a reference
condition that we predict will come about, but not certainly and
not necessarily by our own actions. A "prediction" is a reference
condition that we arrive at from logical deduction or past
experience; if real-time perceptions occur that match the
prediction, we sense the elimination of a logical error, although
prediction implies that the correction of the error comes about
by actions other than our own. We do not normally use the word
"prediction" to refer to achievement of reference conditions by
means within our competence: there we would be more likely to say

The term "intention" indicates to me a reference condition which
one knows how to reach and is about to act to reach. The word
"objective" seems to be used for reference conditions that are
somewhat more distant and problematical, while "goal" implies
still more distance and less confidence (at a higher level) in
being able to achieve the outcome. "Purpose" seems to be used
mostly to explain action -- my purpose in walking instead of
driving is to reduce my use of fossil fuels (the reference
condition that explains the action is the purpose). Purpose is
also used to indicate the kind of reference condition that
something else can be used to achieve, as in "the purpose of a
lawnmower is to cut grass." Purpose used in that sense usually
omits mention (and often, apparently, awareness) of the human
control system required to achieve the purpose.

2. Is it correct to say that CT looks at objectives for humans
  as more about maintaining perceptions than getting certain
  things done as specific behaviors?

Since we know of the external world and our actions on it only in
the form of perceptions, knowingly getting things done
necessarily means perceiving that they have been or are being
done. So maintaining perceptions and getting things done are the
same thing. Generally speaking, the "behaviors" by which we get
things done are not the same as the things that are done. Getting
a nail driven into a piece of wood is done not by getting it
driven, but by the behavior of hammering -- although our language
encourages us to skip the details and say we are "nailing" the
pieces of wood together. We commonly name behaviors by the
outcomes achieved by our actions, not mentioning the actual
means. Communication, for example, is a consequence of speaking,
writing, gesturing, and so forth, but the actions that create
this consequence may not be mentioned. Of course what is an
action from the viewpoint of one level of perception is a
controlled perception from a lower viewpoint: what we see as
"dancing" from the audience is a set of body configurations
controlled by the dancer by means of exquisitely sensitive
variations in kinesthetic perceptions of effort. And sensations
of effort are controlled, of course, by variations in muscle

3. What do PCTers think of "self-organizing" theories of


PCT itself is such a theory. The concept of reorganization was
modeled after Ashby's idea of the "ultrastable" system (BCP, pp.
183, 185). Every theory of behavioral organization needs a way to
explain how adult organization got to be as it is. Unless one
believes that growth and maturation account completely for the
final result (I don't think many people believe that any more),
some mechanism is required to allow the system to build itself
and modify itself to operate successfully in whatever environment
happens to be present.

In PCT we see a common form of organization, the control system,
that results from reorganization (which as a mechanism is itself
modeled as a control system of a different kind). The PCT model,
however, goes into more detail than many others concerning the
kind of organization that ultimately results.

The levels of control in HPCT imply that however human beings may
differ in the specific perceptions they control and the specific
means of control, they seem pre-organized by evolution to favor
certain logical types of control systems, hierarchically related.
The brains with which we are born are not simply homogeneous
masses of identical neurons that could be organized in any
conceivable way. There are favored pathways; there are levels of
physical organization populated by neurons of quite different
construction and habits. The kinds of computations that these
physically different layers can perform must be quite different
from each other. We seem to have, as it were, a kit of components
from which to construct a living hierarchy of control systems,
with the capabilities of the levels being circumscribed by the
kinds of computations each level is physically able to carry out.
The basic nature of the levels has been built up gradually over
evolutionary time. The specific nature of each level results from
the way we put the components in the kit together, through
reorganization, for purposes of present-time control.

I think that the only reason we are able to communicate with each
other and understand each other at all is that we do have a
common hierarchical organization that predates the
reorganizations by which specific control systems come into being
at each level.

Good questions, Ken.


The 9th annual meeting of the CSG was, as usual, different from
all the others, and most enjoyable. Progress continues. I'll
leave it to others to summarize what went on. Dag Forssell
videotaped the entire meeting, and will supply the tapes for the
nominal charge of, I believe, $35 plus shipping. A noble effort,
Best to all,

Bill P.

From Ken Hacker [930804]

Bill, Thank you for your responses to my questions. They are very
useful. I am writing a paper for my discipline about the need to
recast communication research in terms of purpose and controlled perceptions
and to use control theory as part of some major rethinking of how we
depict the basic human communication process. I have the feeling that
I am walking somewhere between the center of a cyclone and a dark closet
that I will be sent to, but I tend to be a disturber by nature and I look
forward to the debates that I may start. TThis will be an early attempt
to bring control theory to a communication theory conference. I will
certainly let you know what occurs. KEN