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International Journal of General Systems


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INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS TO FRANCISCO VARELA' S CALCULUS FOR SELF-REFERENCE


RICHARD HERBERT HOWE & HEINZ VON FOERSTER
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Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A Version of record first published: 31 May 2007.

To cite this article: RICHARD HERBERT HOWE & HEINZ VON FOERSTER (1975): INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS TO FRANCISCO VARELA' S CALCULUS FOR SELF-REFERENCE, International Journal of General Systems, 2:1, 1-3 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03081077508960827

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Int. I . General Syxtems 1975, Vol. 2, pp. 1-3.

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INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS TO FRANCISCO VARELA'S CALCULUS FOR SELF-REFERENCE


RICHARD HERBERT

HOWE and HEINZ VON FOERSTER

Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

Etymologically speaking, correct opinion is orthodox; paradox, however, lies beyond opinion. Unfortunately, orthodox attempts to establish the orthodoxy of the orthodox result in paradox, and, conversely, the appearance of paradox within the orthodox puts an end to the orthodoxy of the orthodox. In other words, paradox is the apostle of sedition in the kingdom of the orthodox. This is a headache, and has been ever since the Cretan philosopher Epirnenides put forth the proposition that "All Cretans are liars". The paradoxical proposition is seditious . because it maintains an undesirable autonomy vis-a-vis any orthodox attempt to, apprehend it: when apprehended as true, it turns out to be false; when apprehended as false, it turns out to be true. As long as was possibJe, logical orthodoxy intrusions just as attempted to treat such sed~tious would any other orthodoxy, that is, to dismiss them as cranks, as (syntactic) pathologies, (semantic) freaks, in short, as aberrations (of thought). Paradox survived in the kingdom of the orthodox only by virtue of the asylum granted it as an entertainment'for the learned, much as in happier times the insane were displayed for the amusement of the curious. This comfortable state of affairs, however, abruptly changed when Bertrand RusseH discovered that paradox is central-and not peripheral -to all logical inquiry, that is, it affects the general validity of logical formalism per se, and must be dealt with at the outset in any logical theory. Consequently, already in the introductory 'chapters of the Principia Mathematical Whitehead and Russell ( W & R) address themselves to logical problems that arise with "certain contradictions" (i.e., the paradoxes) and to remedies that bring about their solution: "An analysis of the paradoxes to be -avoided shows that they all result from a certain kind of vicious circle."' In order for their readers to appreciate the similarity of these para-

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doxes, W & R describe seven of the most popular ones, including Epimenides remark and, of course, Russell's class of all classes that are not members of themselves.
"In all the above contradictions (which are merely ~tlcctions from an infinite number) there i s a common characteristic, which we may describe as self-reference or reflexiveness. The remark of Epimenids must include itself in its own scope. If all classes, provided they arc not members of themselves, are members of w this must also apply to w ; and similarly for the analogous relational contradictions".'

Now that the seditious spirit corrupting orthodoxy in logic was identified as Self-Reference, W & R could go about exorcising it. The method, known as the Theory of Logical Types, by which the two liberal gentlemen sumssfully performed this operation, was simply to prohibit selfreferential utterances, statements, propositions, descriptions, etc. This prohibition not only eliminates the potenti,al for formulating paradoxes of the above kind, it also eliminates the potential for contaminating utterances, statements, propositions, descriptions, etc. with the properties of those who utter, state, propose, describe, etc. In other words, implicit in the Theory of Types is the proviso that is the ultimate protector of the Claim to Objectivity: "The properties of the observer shall not enter into the description of his observations."* The logic of our Western industrial corporate society (with limited liability) is unidirectional, deductive, competitive, and hierarchical, and the keystones of its paradigms are the Claim to Objectivity and the Theory of Types, which exclude in principle the autonomy of paradox and of the individual. In the scientific revolution that we now create and experience, however, we perceive a shift from causal unidirectional to mutualistic systemic thin~ung,~.' from a preoccupation with the properties of the observed to the study of the

'

COMMENTS TO VARELA'S CALCULUS

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properties of the o b s e r ~ e r . The ~ initiator of this shift was Kant, who placed the autonomy of the observer at the center of his philosophy, thus making this autonomy responsible for the properties of the observed.' It can bc no coincidence that the realization of this shift in our contemporary scientific paradigm takes place just as the relationship of (individual) autonomy to (social) responsibility has become intensely problematical. One manifestation of this shift is our rapid recovery of the significance of both paradox and self-reference, and of their intrinsic relationship. For instance, in psychiatry the significance of the relationship paradolr-self-reference, which in one context may have destructive, but in another context constructive consequences has been pointed out again and again by George Bateson.'? In the destructive (pathological) case, a paradoxical interpersonal (e.g., mother-daughter) relation exists, the "double bind", in which autonomy of one partner (daughter) is encouraged by the other (mother) on one level of discourse, but denied on another (say, the interpretive) level; the (controlled) breakdown of the "metalogue" causes the victim to withdraw affectively, and other schizophrenic symptoms develop." On the other hand, stress experienced through the irresolvability of paradox in known domains (c.g., two incongruent flat retinal images of the " s k e w scene) necessitates creating new dimensions ("depth").
both sides. Each half of the paradox p r o m the other . . . if you s w a t out one of these paradom YOU embark. on a voynge, which may include hallucinations and t r a m... But you come out knowing something you didn't know before, something about the nature of where you arc in the universe"."
"A parndox is a contradiction in which you take sides-

paradox and " . . . the famous argument of Godel may, evidently, be thought of as an application of
y . P P l . 4

The immediate precursor of Francisco Varela's Calculus for Self-Reference(CRS)and, most likely, a necessary prerequisite for understanding it, is. of course, G. Spencer Brown's Laws o f Form.15 Although a skeleton of the form of these laws is given by Vareia in the appendix to his paper, those unfamiliar with this formalism should get hold of Laws o f Form for the sake of enjoying an amazing book and for relishing Varela's Calculus. The train of thoughts leading to CRS is initiated by G . Spencer Brown's Calculus of Indications (CI), which is implemented with ultimate parsimony by a single operator marked 1 (a "distinctor"), which does several things at one time. Since we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction, when this mark is taken as a token for indicating the state distinguished by the distinctor, then 1is zn "indicator" (for the state so marked is now the marked state); a "signal" (signalling distinction); and an "intentor" (since use of any signal is intent). The state not marked with the is the unmarked state. mark 1 Rules for concatenating this operator to give a primary arithmetic are determined by two axioms (no other ones are needed):
Axiom 1. The law of calling. The value o f a call made again is the value of the call. That is to say, if a name is called and then is called again, the value indicated by the two calls taken together is the value indicated by one of them. That is to say, for any name, to recall is to call. (In notation:

..

the "form of condensation.") Even in the context of inquiries into the structure of logical form it became evident that dogmatic prohibitions as expressed in the Theory of Logical Types are untenable in a general theory of logical fonns. For instance, according to Curry and Feys:' "We can no longer 'explain' a paradox by running away from it; we must stand and took it in the eye." And, indeed, these authors not only looked paradoxes in the eye, but also constructed a whole class "paradoxical combinators," one of operators, t l ~ e of which, Y, called "the paradoxical combinator," may be used to construct logico-mathematical objects of a more or less paradoxical nature. For instance, Y may be used to construct Russell's
Axiom 2. The law of crossing. The value o f a crossing made again is not the ualue of

'

the crossing. That is to say, if it is intended to cross a boundary and then it is intended to cross it again, the value indicated by the two intentions taken together is the value indicated by none of them. That is to say, for any boundary, to recross is not to cross. (In notation:

7 s
the "form of cancellation.")

COMMENTS TO VARELA'S CALCULUS

With two initials Initial 1. Position

1Initial 2. Transposition

'rnl= m I r

the primary algebra is established. Letf(X) be the form of an algebraic expression, then expressions of arbitrary length can be established recursively (where Xi = f(Xi+l) and, e.g., f 2 ) ( x i= ) f(f(Xi)) etc.):
y = f '"'(X,).
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shift from objectivity to subjectivity but rather to initiate an ethics, for he clearly saw that without autonomy there could be no responsibility and hence no ethics.' Ethics-and not subjectivity-is the complement of objectivity. Lying-and not objectivity-is the problem and the force of the paradox of the Cretan liar. With his calculus of the paradoxical, the sel f-referential, the autonomous, Varela has opened for the first time the possibility of a Calculus of Responsibility.
REFERENCES I. A. N. whitehead and B. Russell, Principio Mathematico, Second Edition, University Press, Cambridge, 1925. 2. lbid, p. 37. 3. lbid, p. 61. 4. R . Abramovitz er 01.. Cybernetics of Cybernetics, B.C.L. Report No. 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1974, p. 374. 5. T. Kuhn, Tlre Structrrre of Sciertti/ic Revolurions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961. 6. W. R. Ashby, "Systems and their informational rncasures." In: Tretld~ irr Cerreral Sysrems Theory, edited by G . J. Klir, John Wiley, New York, 1972, pp. 78-97. 7. S. Beer, Decbiorr uric1 Conrrol, John Wiley, New York, 1964. 8. H. R. Maturana, Bio/ogy oJ~Cognitio)t,B.C.L. Report No. 9.0, Biological Computer Laboratory, University Urbana, i, 1970. of l l l i ~ ~ o i 9. 1. Kant, Kririlik k r reir~en Vernurtfr, Kiiniglich Preussische Akallemie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1903. 10. C. Baleson, Steps to or1 Ecolofy o j Mind, Ballantine, Ncw York, 1972. 11. G.Bateson, D. D. Jackson, J. Haley, and J. H. Weakland, "Toward a theory of schizophrenia," Behavior01 Scietrre, 1, No. 4, 1956. 12. S. Brand, "Both sides of the necessary paradox (Converutions with Gregory Bateson)." I n : I1 Cyberrtetic Frorltiers, by S. Brand, Random House, New York, 1974, pp. 9-36. 13. H. B. Curry and R. Feys, Combinarory Logic, North Holland, Amsterdam, p. 5. 14. Ibid, p. 178. o j Form, First edition : George 15. G. Spencer-Brown, Lrr~ns Allen and Unwin. London, 1969. Second edition: Julian Press, New York, 1972. 16. 1. Kant, Grwrdlegutrg zur Metapllysik der Sirten. Koniglich Preussische Akadernie dcr Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1903.

these become recursive expressions For n of indefinite length, and because of the identity
+

y = lirn f("-')(X,-,) = lim f'"'(Xn)


n-m n-m

the function may re-enter its own scope to give, when so collapsed the formal equivalent to Russell's paradox

f =A
Thanks to the ingenious notation, the bi-stable nature of such expressions becomes transparent, forcing a new logical dimensiok which SpencerBrown interprets as Time. Starting from precisely this point, Varella goes through Russell's argument backwards, interpreting this bi-stability as indicating indication: selfindication, self-reference, autonomy, which he indicates by the stylized symbol of the snake eating its own tail: The calculus now being developed from the calculus of indication augmented by the state of self-indica:ion or otttono_my has not only logical but also epistemological significance. In placing the autonomy of the observer at the center of his philosophy, Kant's intention was not to effect a

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