Category Archives: Forms

Nothing

The notion of nothing is a rather young concept in the history of human ideas. This may be due to the apparent inability to observe the absence of everything. In mathematics, for example, Babylonian scholars first had to invent a representation for the absence of a counter, thereby laying the foundation for the number zero as used today. As a number, zero is conceptually different from other numbers, since it cannot be represented by any describable physical entity. Socially, this has been made possible by the function of negation, which allows us to state that there is something, e.g. a section of a row on an abacus, which can and often does hold counters, but in this specific observation does not. This absence is then the core of this very observation, and it serves functionally as the equivalent of zero. In fact, the number zero can be seen as a shorthand for the observation above.

This shows that it is indeed possible and, with the benefit of hindsight, relatively easy to observe an absence inside a system. All it takes is a technical abstraction of some system of observations, such as counting, and then a reference to the substrate of the system, e.g. the abacus, to show and make explicit where elements are absent. This notion of absence is, however, quite different from the notion of nothing.

In nothingness, absence cannot be made explicit by referencing a substrate, for if there were a substrate, there would not be nothing. The trick how communication deals with nothingness is recontextualization: Nothing then has a semantic boundary, so that there is a system of meaning from which nothing can be observed.

Nothing in the world.

Nothing in the world.

The holistic view of an all-encompassing nothing uses the same function, when it describes the world as the inside of nothing, nothing coming into existence.

The world inside nothing.

The world inside nothing.

With this in mind, observations become non-materialistic, as it is clear that there is no qualitative difference between something and nothing, no substrate to provide a grounding. Rather, nothing and some existence are an oscillatory state, where any side inevitably invokes the other.

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Self and External Reference

Sociological systems theory has established a clear distinction between self reference and external reference. Self reference is the ability of an observer to refer to himself in an observation, while external reference means establishing a relation to another identity distinct from the observer. Self reference invokes the notion of self in the world, and especially the handling of self reference and external reference within one observation is considered an important ability enabling the observer to deal with complexity arising from double contingency.

Looking at the concepts of self reference and external reference in the light of the descriptions of observations we worked out in the previous posts, the intrinsic availability of self reference has to be questioned. If we take any one observer as identical with one and only one observation, and view the notion of unity as a construction coming in after the fact of the actual observation, then we would have to place the idea of self reference also in this realm of constructions coming after the fact. If no two observers are  the same, then self reference is excluded, at least at this basic level. Here, all references are necessarily external, as no other identity can be the same as the actual observer. Even if the same reference were used, it would necessarily refer to a different observation that happened previously or will happen later.

The consideration of constructions coming after the actual observation has been theorized in the concept of second-order observations. These are defined as observations of observations, and they therefore come with the ability to create new contexts for other observations. Such a context can then be a notion of observer unity, i.e. selfhood. It can just as well include the actualization and reconstruction of another identity, such as a separate person. For a persistent notion of selfhood, it would be essential for both modes of observation to closely relate to each other, thus enabling a coherent construction of self reference. At the same time, any second-order observation is also a first-order observation, in that it also has its own unique observer, who can, at its own basic level, only make external references. These can, however, be constructions of self reference for another, external observation.

Memory and Oscillatory State

We have discussed the availability of oscillatory (or complementary) states and of memories as contexts of an observed existence in the last post. Let us now look at their commonalities. Firstly, an oscillatory state as the complementary outside to the inside of the distinction in the focus of the observation necessarily also rests on the memory of a previous observation. As I have laid out, this is also the case if the complementary state consists of an expectation towards a potential future of the current existence.

Secondly, if we can indeed reduce any observation to fundamentally being one distinction separating its inside from everything it is not, then this must also be true for any previous observation remembered in the current one. With this in mind, the difference between oscillatory states and memories as contexts of existence becomes almost obsolete. The one remaining difference is retained in the marker that the oscillatory state is an alternative state of this existence, the existence in the focus of the observation. Thereby, oscillatory states can become a marker of uncertainty, as it is clear that they could potentially gain actual existence in the next observation.

In Chapter 11 of his “Laws of Form”, George Spencer Brown, in dealing with equations of the second degree – i.e., recursive functions -, introduced the notion of oscillator and memory functions. These notions are at the basis of our considerations, and we will return to them for further exploration.

Momentary Observers

Considering the notions of space and time laid out before, observations can only be seen as momentary events, without any intrinsic duration in time or extension in space. This is a necessary pretense, as it is by observations, not within them, that time and space are constructed.

In this sense, only that on which the observation focuses can be said to exist, even if only for the specific observer. Everything else is context for that on which the observation focuses, either providing an alternative perspective on the existence in focus, or referencing the memory of some related entity that was observed before in other observations.

A possible alternative perspective would, for example, be the negation of that which is in the focus. In social phenomena, we often encounter such oscillatory states in which complementary views on one entity negate each other, but in a positive way that does not proceed to negate altogether the existence of the entity in question.

The other option for a context is to reference the memory of another observation. As I have mentioned, this can include expectations towards future observations as well, for they, too, have to be based on previous observations in order to project future events. Also, such previous observations were not made by the same observer. Firstly, any observation creates a discrete observer, thus ruling out the concept of unity at this basic level anyways. But secondly, they also do not have to be made by the same constructed unity, such as a person, on a more abstract level. A person is able to bind together different observations via self-reference, thus creating the notion of conciseness in recognizing existence. Memories of previous observations used as contexts can, however, also deal with external reference, e.g. the notion that some other person made a specific observation. This ability to build on the observations made by other points of reference is one of the strengths and efficiencies in society.

Therefore, any observation can be described as focused on some entity, thus attributing to it the possibility of its existence, and placing this entity in the context of alternative, complementary states of existence, and/or in the context of memories of other observations. All of this is just one event, which means it does not have a duration in time or an extension in space. For this, further observations would be necessary, which could be summoned to effectively construct such measurements.

With this, we have reached the same notion we started out with: The notion of distinction. Any observation can fundamentally be seen as just that, a distinction separating something from everything it is not.

The form of the distinction.

The form of the distinction.

Everything on the outside of this distinction may be made more explicit to infinite detail, however, all of these explications will themselves be observations and thus fundamentally claim only this one distinction. In addition, all such distinctions would be decoupled as individual events, thus creating time, but never falling together. Thus, no universal existence could be claimed for them, and it could also not be referenced from any individual observation.

The Form of the Distinction

One of the main advancements in recent communication and systems theory is the notion that communication is concerned with distinctions. Gregory Bateson’s description of information as a “difference that makes a difference” to a system (in his “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”) can, on an abstract level, also be found in Shannon and Weaver’s information theory (“The Mathematical Theory of Communication”), separating a signal carrying information from noise in the channel, as well as from other possible information. Niklas Luhmann then built his sociological systems theory (explicated e.g. in his “Social Systems”) on two sets of differences: Firstly, he described society as being differentiated by distinctions between functional systems, such as the economy, judicial system, or religions. Secondly, within these systems, he made out codes of distinctions in operational communication. Examples include distinctions between payment and non-payment for the economy, or lawful and unlawful for the judicial system.

The analysis of distinctions is depending on a clear and effective way to express the distinctions it wants to take into the focus of research. Language as a medium is not optimal for this, as it does not allow for the parallel expression of multiple distinctions at once, and it has no way to include the implicit other side of its statements, i.e. to say what is not said or to write the unwritten. In this sense, language is inherently positive, to the extent that even a negative statement is positive in its negativity. In order to gain the ability to discuss the other side of what is made explicit in communication, Niklas Luhmann already started to visualize distinctions using a notation developed by George Spencer Brown in his “Laws of Form”. There, the basic form of the distinction is visualized as follows:

The form of the distinction.

The form of the distinction.

The form on the right hand side of the equation sign is shorthand for a full enclosure being separated from the outside. It can – and regularly is – be represented by circles or squares, or any other form that is fully closed. However, this shorthand is convenient when it comes to more complex forms, with multiple layers of differentiation affecting each other. It is important to note, though, that this shorthand still represents a full separation between an inside and an outside. In his Laws of Form, Spencer Brown writes that “distinction is perfect continence”. This means that what is on the inside of a distinction is only on the inside, and definitely not to be found on the outside of the distinction. Moreover, what is on the inside of a distinction is fully enclosed by the distinction, and cannot itself be separated to be partly inside and partly outside of it. For this, further distinctions, and therefore further observations, would be required.

Dirk Baecker (e.g. in his “Form und Formen der Kommunikation”) then used the calculus proposed by Spencer Brown for the analysis of complex social phenomena, including the notion of the reentry, to which we will come in detail later. But first of all, I want to locate the analyses I will attempt in this blog in the tradition of communication theories viewing communication as being comprised of distinctions rather than humans, persons, or actors.