Imaginary State

Even though an observation must consist of distinctions, it is possible that the subject of the observation is not in a clear state, i.e. in a state that could be communicated as clearly distinct from everything it is not, because something else might also be the case. George Spencer Brown has referred to such an unclear state as the imaginary state. This imaginary state is defined by containing one or more further distinctions, which oscillate between their inside and their outside. Of course, they do so not by themselves, but by being observed. The classic example of such a state would be the notion of Schrödinger’s cat, locked in a box with a capsule of poison gas set to open in case the determining atom disintegrates.

While the cat is locked up, we cannot observe the cat itself directly, but only reference the notion of it existing inside the box, either dead or alive. The cat can thus be said to exist in the  imaginary state of being both dead and alive at the same time. Since being dead and being alive are separate concepts on different sides of one distinction, we have to refer to them individually when describing the cat in the box, yet, in this imaginary state, each side of the distinction dead / alive inevitably leads to the other side. Therefore, the distinction can be said to oscillate between its two sides. In order to break out of this imaginary state, we have to add another observation: We have to open the box and look inside to determine whether the cat is alive or whether it has been poisoned.

The same concept of the imaginary state can be applied to social situations awaiting decisions, for example the outcome of a trial, or the reaction to a job application. Until we observe the decision and thus the choice for one side of the distinction at stake, the situation is in an oscillatory, imaginary state, regardless of how much we analyze it. It can be noted, then, that indeed none of the outcomes exists while the imaginary state lasts. A trial is not lost nor won until the verdict is spoken, and a job application is neither accepted nor rejected until the decision is made explicit. Also, the expression of any such decision has to be in accordance with expected and usually regulated social processes: The trial verdict has to come from the judge or jury, and the decision on the job application must be backed by the organization offering the job.

Returning to Schrödinger’s cat, this premise results in the somewhat unintuitive conclusion that, in communication, neither a dead cat nor an alive cat exist inside the box. Only the cat in the imaginary state can be said to exist. In communication, the decision for either the dead or the alive cat is not reached until the box is opened and the box-opener signals his observation of the outcome. In any case, though, is the outcome expected to match the design of the experiment. For example, a dead cat and an unopened poison gas capsule are not expected. The experiment would then have failed, and the description of the entire process would need to be readjusted. This would again require additional observations framing the design of the experiment and its expected outcomes.

If we assert that none of the sides of a distinction in an imaginary state actually exists on its own, we will then have to take into account both sides of the distinctions in question whenever observing such a situation. We will come back to this when we take a closer look at the concept of the reentry in George Spencer Brown’s calculus.

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