Xmas Joy of CSGNet

[From Rick Marken (2016.12.24.1230)]

RM: I’ve been going through the CSGNet archives and though I’ve barely made it through the first 2 years (which are available only in PDF) I’ve already found some nuggets that I thought would make some nice stocking stuffers for Xmas. CSGNet started on August 20th,1990 so it’s been going strong for over 25 years. But what struck me is the fact that many the issues we argued about then are basically the same as those we argue about now.

RM: I’ve attached some posts that I found particularly interesting. I’ve set each one off with underlined titles to describe what I think is the main point of each. I’ve used our current convention of using initials at the beginning of each paragraph to identify its author. I’ve also included the date and the name of the author of each post.

RM: I begin with a post that seems particularly relevant to the season since it is about scientifically (rather than judgmentally) exploring the nature of religious system concepts. It’s a wonderful post, and also kind of depressing, since it expresses Bill’s hope that CSGNet would become a forum for discussing phenomena first, theory second when, in fact, it has evolved into just the opposite; a forum for discussing theory first, phenomena second (if at all).

RM: The last post is interesting only because it documents the origins of the name PCT to label Powers’ application of control theory to understanding the purposeful behavior of living systems.



System Concepts as Phenomena

Date: Sat, 4 May 91 09:55:17 -0500

[From Bill Powers]

BP: When the issue of religion, higher power, faith, and so on appeared on this net, only a couple of voices were heard against a vast silence. This is interesting. I happen to know that there are some strong opinions out there, a few favorable and many unfavorable, on

this subject. I jumped right into it with a control-theory-based conjecture about the way religious perceptions and phenomena fit into the control model, and Rick, after expressing his views along the same lines, noted that we seem to have hit a touchy subject and offered to change it (not that we’re limited to one subject at a time). And Joel Judd may have expressed more than one person’s view when he said

Joel Judd: Talking about higher levels seems kind of ethereal I guess; not terribly


BP:The interesting aspect of Joel’s comment is that it IS a higher-level point of view. To say that something isn’t terribly scientific is to imply that we try to say things that ARE scientific. From this I deduce that one can perceive the degree of scientificness of a discussion. If the degree is less than some desired degree (very scientific), something must be able to detect the difference between the actual degree of scientificness and the desired degree. This difference, I take it, is the basis for whatever action is taken concerning the discussion, such a writing a sentence saying that it’s pretty ethereal. Clearly, there must be a system concept about what “scientific” means, and there seems to be a control system related to it.

BP: It seems to me that for those who consider stick-wiggling boring and want to get into the more interesting higher-level aspects of the control-system model, we have here a wonderful laboratory in which to explore the real system, the one we carry around in our heads all the time. If I say something that bears on religion, your first reaction to it is evidence about the system concepts you have and are willing to defend. If it is possible for you to observe those reactions and bring out a fuller description of them, you will have one foot in the point of view from which you can evaluate system concepts as a phenomenon, using a real live example. As you observe this example of a system-concept control system in action, you will see how control actually works at this level, and gain a deeper understanding of the way system concepts guide and use lower levels of organization such as those having to do with principles and programmatic thinking – logic.

BP: Of course in order to do this, it is necessary at least for the moment to cease identifying with any particular system concept – that is, treating it as your own point of view. I would wager that very few of those who saw the “religious” topic go by did anything but identify with whatever system concept was operable at the moment. The disturbance was successfully counteracted; the incipient error was kept small. If the topic had switched immediately back to one of the other lower-level topics that have been popular, there would have been a little sense of relief, of relaxing the guard. The disturbance would have gone away.

BP: And now here it is back again. So what’s happening now? Same sense of error again? Same generalizations about why it’s not a good topic? Same strategy for making it go away? Have you been here before? If so, why not observe what’s going on this time? You don’t have to identify with a system concept to do that. It’s just a system concept, a phenomenon. It relates to principle thoughts and logical thoughts and familiar words and phrases hooked up into familiar sequences. When you’re just observing it, it isn’t a good concept or a bad concept; it’s just what it is and it works the way it does.

BP: Phenomena first. Theory second. Hearken to Marken.

What Experiments in PCT Should be About

Date: Sun, 18 Nov 90 22:11:40 CST

[From Bill Powers]

BP: I should add – all the models that Tom Bourbon, Rick Marken, Ray Pavloski, and I have been using for five years or so employ phase lags. A model with one time-integration at its output (90 degree phase lag) accounts for at least 95 per cent of the variance in human tracking behavior. All these other details, including the transport lag thing, have come up through trying to get that last 5 per cent. I don’t know how much farther we want to push this, but I’d say it’s almost time to get on with more interesting (higher-level) experiments.

Cooperation as Mutual Control

Date: Mon, 17 Dec 90 18:20:31 CST

[From Bill Powers]

BP: I think there’s a step beyond the “keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off my control systems” prickle. We do have to live together and therefore we have to respect each others’ wills as well as defend our own. This often means letting other people control our behavior. Look at the reference number above: Gary Cziko (901216) “made me do that.” But how could he make me set a reference level for writing dates in a particular way? Mechanically, physically, he couldn’t. I wrote it that way all by myself. But I chose a way of writing it that was suggested from outside me, not because Gary has more clout than I do but because I basically don’t care how I write dates and I do care about making our system of communication work better. I like communicating with Gary and all the rest of you, and I like seeing myself as one member of a bunch of people who are trying to support each other and encourage each others’ efforts toward a noble end. Noble ends are the ones I like, of course. The higher-level system adjusts the lower-level goal.

Control Theorists Missing the Controlled Variable

Date: Tue, 9 Apr 91 08:38:26 -0700

[From Rick Marken]

Martin Taylor (910408) writes:

MT: My question: What is new, that
makes it worthwhile to take up this

cause again and perform this kind
of study?

RM: There was (and is) a large contingent of
psychologists doing tracking studies and analyzing the results in
terms of control theory. There is just one little problem with that work
– it missed the whole point. These folks were (and are) applying
control theory within an S-R framework. I recently had a nice
discussion with one of the dean’s of “tracking study” control
theory. This fellow knows all the equations and all the dynamical analysis. But he
still imagines that the input (the difference between cursor and
target, for example) causes the output (handle movements that affect
the cursor/target relationship). The notion of a controlled perceptual
variable or a subject specified reference for that variable is not of interest to this fellow – because it has no PRACTICAL value.

MT: …My question is
more stimulated by Marken’s draft

paper, which mentions several
studies I would have expected to see

30 or 40 years ago, as if they
demonstrated something new. Maybe

they do, but I don’t see it yet.

RM: If you understand that behavior is the
control of perception then how in the world could you have asked
about the wisdom of carrying on with the early tracking studies??? If you
understand what it means to say “behavior is the control of
perceptions” then it could not escape your notice that the early “tracking
studies” missed (and continue to miss) the whole point of control of
perception – namely, controlled variables and the cause of the
reference states of these variables. These old tracking studies are only
superficially like the tracking studies that Bill Powers (and other
CSGers) do.

Date: Mon, 15 Apr 91 20:50:16 -0500

[From Bill Powers to Martin Taylor (910408)]

BP: As to “what’s new” about control theory, Rick Marken (910409) gave the same answers I would give.

PCT Name

Date: Thu, 9 May 91 13:08:00 -0500

[From Gary A. Cziko]

GC: I’ve started to read Kent McClelland’s manuscript. He provides a very nice intro to control theory; I’m just getting into the sociological stuff and so don’t have much to comment about this yet.

GC: However, I like very much the name he has chosen for the discipline that unites the people this network. He calls it PERCEPTUAL CONTROL THEORY (PCT for short). I think this a great name, and it distinguishes our psychological concerns from the engineering ones.




Richard S. Marken

“The childhood of the human race is far from over. We
have a long way to go before most people will understand that what they do for
others is just as important to their well-being as what they do for
themselves.” – William T. Powers

[Martin Taylor 2016.]

Thanks, Rick. This is a nice idea, and a good way to see how some ideas (and people) have held constant over the quarter century, while others have evolved. It's good to remind ourselves where the stable base is, from where we can launch our explorations of the unknown.

[From Rick Marken (2016.12.24.1230)]

RM: I've been going through the CSGNet archives and though I've barely made it through the first 2 years (which are available only in PDF) I've already found some nuggets that I thought would make some nice stocking stuffers for Xmas. CSGNet started on August 20th,1990 so it's been going strong for over 25 years. But what struck me is the fact that many the issues we argued about then are basically the same as those we argue about now.

Yes, when I have scanned the archives looking for a particular topic that fact has periodically struck me, too. It suggests that the base is not as stable as we might like it to be. Two possibilities suggest themselves: (1) that the issues that remain unresolved either are irrelevant or (2) that the issues have not proved amenable to experimental test.

I did and do (perhaps more strongly now than then) disagree with the 4 May 91 comment by Bill: "BP: Phenomena first. Theory second." A quarter century ago I might have simply pointed out that an infinity of theories can account for any phenomena, but that one theory that can predict phenomena might predict correctly or wrongly and can be tested and compared with another that might predict what would be observed under the same conditions. Now I would say that the very perception of phenomena is highly dependent on the theory "glasses" through which you observe them, and that it is very dangerous not to use theory and phenomena in equal harness when trying to learn what nature can tell us. Neither should be first, but different people are better at one than at the other.