"Naive questions"

[From Bill Powers (920922.1700)]

Eric Harnden (920922.0940) --

Eric, if you hadn't asked those naive questions, I might have asked
you to do it. You've expressed exactly the problems that most
psychologists seem to have with control theory. I keep hoping that
there will be some magical way to answer such questions, one that will
show control theory in so clear a light that it will all become plain
in a flash, as it has done for all the people who now call themselves
control theorists of the PCT sort. But that illumination has to come
from within; there are no magic words for those who haven't prepared
themselves to hear them. And when the hearer is prepared, the words
are banal and simple. It's all perception. All action is control. All
organisms are organized to control what happens to themselves, not to
react blindly. Hearing those words, people who already understand nod
and say yes, that's it all right. That's how we work. Those who
haven't seen the simple truth yet ask what the hell we're talking

As you say, it's no surprise for a psychologist to learn that behavior
is motivated by desires for food, water, sex, companionship, and other
such things we require to live. This is the first dim view of what is
really going on, and it would take a really stupid or really stubborn
person not to admit that behavior has such things as its ends -- even
as its purposes. But there is a huge gap between recognizing these
abstract sorts of "requirements" and realizing that _all_ behavior is
"motivated," that most motives are not such vitally important or
philosophically significant things, but simple and ordinary things,
the stuff of ordinary life as it goes on from moment to moment.

The littlest words are probably the oldest, and point to the most
important things in life. One of the littlest words is "do." We speak
of behavior as what organisms "do." Control theory unpacks this little
word into its details. It asks, and answers, the question "How do you
do what you do?"

In conventional psychology, behavior is taken for granted as a given.
Organisms "respond." Their responses can be simple or complex, but
they are treated as simple acts, occurrances, units. Behind this
concept is a rather vague notion that somehow the nervous system makes
the muscles produce those responses; a pattern in neural impulses is
transformed into a pattern in space and time outside the organism.
That is how "doing" happens in the traditional view.

But control theory shows us that this can't be the right story. It
calls attention to all the variations that slip in between the
commands of the nervous system and the consequences that we recognize
as behavior, and shows that the assumed simple causal chain does not
in fact exist as it's been assumed to exist. And it shows that the
only way to explain any regular act, however trivial and simple it
looks, is to trace out the closed loop of cause and effect in which
the act is embedded.

So sometimes, when I hear psychologists and others talking so
assuredly about the world of organisms as they see them, and when
doubts creep into my mind, I will perform some simple act and look
most carefully at it and feel it with close attention to what is
happening. I will hold out a hand, and say "There, I see a hand. I see
the fingers stretched out. And now I will make the fingers look and
feel as if they are curling up, more and more, until I feel the
fingers against the palm, see the shape of a fist, feel the sensation
of effort in the forearm muscles." I look and feel very carefully, and
I confirm that that is all there is. What my hand is doing is known to
me only through sight, kinesthetic and tactile sensation, and the
sense of effort. There is nothing else. It is truly all perception.

By going through this little exercise over and over, and looking even
more carefully, I can detect just in advance of the changes in
perception something almost too familiar to name: the sense of willing
that the act should occur. There is a foreknowledge of what I will see
and feel, a foreknowledge that is like imagining the sight and
feeling. And in fact, to create the act in my perceptions, all I need
to do is conjure up that imagined sight and feeling in a particular
familiar way, and the actual sight and feeling obediently follow. I
will that my hand look and feel open, and so it looks and feels. I
will that it look and feel closed, and that happens, too, as swiftly
as the imagination can change.

That's what a baby is doing. The baby isn't just waving its arms and
legs around; it isn't just fascinated by the sight of its own hands.
It's learning how to make those perceptions obey its will. This is
difficult; there are connections to be made that grow into place only
slowly. When a baby in the midst of cooing and wiggling its fingers
and waving its arms suddenly breaks into anguished crying, I know
what's wrong. It's trying to recreate a perception of its own hands
and arms in the space around it, and the damned things won't do what
it wants. I remember that, I think. Gaining control over these visual
and tactile and kinesthetic perceptions takes endless trying for hours
every day. There is no need for any external stimuli to cause this
behavior. The baby is learning to be human, learning to control, and
nothing else is more important. The need to control, which results in
what we call "doing," resides in the baby, as do the mechanisms for
acquiring that control.

When I really need to check out the principles of control theory from
the ground up, I don't go to a servomechanism textbook or reread what
I have written. I go back to the source. I hold out a hand before my
eyes and move the fingers, watching them and feeling them and sensing
the play of the muscles moving them. It's all perception. All action
is control. All organisms are organized to control what happens to
themselves, not to react blindly. Action is the matching of
perceptions to desired states of those perceptions.

It isn't control theory that tells me about these experiences. It's
these experiences that tell me about control theory. Try wiggling your
fingers. Maybe you will suddenly see what this is all about.



Bill P.