Space I

I have described observation as comprised of distinctions, and in the last post, explored how time can come into existence out of the sequentiality of observations. Notably, it can be stated that observations are necessarily sequential. Any one observer is equal to what is observed, and only that which is included in the observation can be a reference at that particular point in time. This is not to say that observations can contain only one reference. Indeed, multiple references are not only possible in observations, but they are the norm, as we will see in further case studies.

Space can be described as the possibility of simultaneous existence. As with points in time, we have concepts of points in space, and also in a similar way, we can describe extensions in time as we can in space by explicitly relating different points. However, I would argue that, again similar to how time is constructed, space is also born out of the need to create continuity between observations, instead of itself being available for direct observation.

If observers are defined as part of their observations, distinct observations by one identical observer are not possible. Any one observation is always tied to its one observer, and a subsequent observation has another observer, distinguishable at least because he is making this other, subsequent, observation. The identity of both observers then has to be defined in yet another observation, taking both previous observations into account. Therefore, if no observer can make more than one observation at once, the possibility of simultaneous existence also cannot be verified in an observation. Direct observation of space is, then, impossible.

This is not to say that different existences cannot be observed in their relation, and that this relation is necessarily non-spatial. Indeed, ontological statements of the form “this is here and that is there” are rather common. However, I would argue that such statements are in fact memories of previous observations, rather than actual observations at that particular point in time. Consider how the notion of space is used as individual memory technique, where you are taught to match things you want to remember to an arrangement of places you are familiar with. You are thus asked to construct a space out of familiar relations, and then add heretofore unfamiliar references on top. A more abstract and more reduced version of this concept can be assumed as the foundation of any notion of space. The very possibility of relations is the first premise, onto which specific models of relations can be built. The places connected by such relations can then be populated by references to observations. The trick is that actual observations can firstly deal with potentially many of these relations, thus creating contexts for their subjects, and secondly they can operate as if the referenced observations were actually part of the current observation, belonging to what is going on at the moment.

I would argue that such references that are related to the subject of the current observation serve as memory functions, binding something that has been possible and probably will again be possible to the actual moment. Thereby, they serve functions of expectation as well. In the functional relation to an observation, memory and expectation are therefore indistinguishable. In order to use them differently, they have to be specified using further contexts. We will investigate such cases in detail.


Time I

Within society, time is commonly used as an index. Some event can be said to happen or have happened at a certain point in time, or is scheduled to happen after a specific period of time. To make this reliable, time is thus considered as a steady continuum that can be referenced whenever the need arises. Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the secure notion of time, albeit without much social consequence. As society does not travel at speeds approaching that of light, the effects of relativity are negligible for social practice. And, after all, Einstein did not challenge the underlying notion of the form of time as a continuum, rather, he postulated rules as to how this continuum relates to other continua.

How, then, is time used within society? One obvious example are clocks. Their face with the constellation of its hands or digits are a communicational offer that can be referenced in further communication, even though it does need a contextual interpretation. For example, when reading a 12 hour clock, the observer needs to provide the additional information of a.m. or p.m., which he had to derive from a different source. Often, this will be clear to the observer because of the events that preceded the reading of the clock, e.g. having been to work already without a night’s sleep in between. This may seem trivial, but remember that the ability to observe such a sequence of events is a common initial step in a medical sanity check.

Clocks can be thought of as devices designed for the sole purpose of creating a defined sequence of events and counting them, such that the score is always visible on their outside. The events are mechanical or astro-mechanical movements, or samples of battery-powered oscillations of a quartz crystal, or the measured decay of atoms. Regardless of  the actual device, society is mainly interested in the score, i.e. that which we consider the actual point in time, or the delta in between different scores, which we consider a period of time. Either way, the readings used in these processes are samples of other processes designed to be read by society itself. The scores kept, even by a sun clock, are based on social conventions of number systems and of linearity in counting. Clocks can, then, be described as devices which are part of and extend their creator’s observation of what time should mean for society.

If we broaden our perspective beyond just clocks, it will become apparent that society in general is based on the sequentiality of events. Causalities are constructed because certain events follow others, with expectations towards specific sequences. Returning to the notion of distinctions, we can postulate that in general, observations of distinctions are expressed not all at once, but in sequence. Certainly, some distinctions can perhaps be observed together, contextualizing each other, but any expressions of such constellations are expected to be followed by others, just as others preceded them. In society as the autopoiesis of communication, observation follows observation, and some observations happen to reference certain scores treated as accounts of time. In this broader perspective, it would be oversimplifying to speak of clocks and the society that built them as keeping time. Instead, the events, i.e. the observations being expressed within communication, would have to be understood as the source events generating time for society. We will continue to analyze the actual functional processes involved at a later time.

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.

Reality I

Looking at reality as being composed of distinctions means having to accept that it is created by observers. One may find it plausible or not that a distinction exists while not being observed, but for the argument, this is without consequence. After all, whenever it is being noticed, this is by observation, and by observation only. The inverse can be postulated as well: Any observation necessarily notices distinctions. In the simplest case, any observation states that there is something that is distinct from everything it is not, for otherwise, this entity could not be said to exist. This “being said to exist” can be described as isomorphic to Heidegger’s “Dasein” (e.g. in his “Sein und Zeit”), i.e. an entity being brought into the world by the claim that it exists, against the backdrop of the possibility of its existence.

Without distinctions, nothing in the world could be distinguished from anything else, and in the end, not even the world itself could be described within itself as a concept, thereby becoming inexpressible. There would not be a word “world”, because as a word, it can only exist in relation to the system of words that is language, which in turn can only exist within communication. Thus, even the syntactic existence of “world” as a word rests on the premise of distinctions, before even considering the semantic value of the notion it references.

Any distinction is, then, necessarily an observation, just as any observation must be at least one distinction. In communication, distinctions are never expressed individually, but rather come in more complex arrangements, some of which we will analyze later. This is because such an observation cannot be expressed without its social embedding, e.g. its form as a message, for example being spoken instead of written, and by whom in which situation, and so on.

A reality composed of distinctions then has to be also a reality entirely created by observations. However, as reality itself is distinct from everything it is not, it can ultimately also only be existent when observed. Reality is what it is only from the perspective of this ultimate observer, because it is there that the distinction is drawn between those distinctions which belong to reality and those that do not. Any distinctions not taken into account by this observer are therefore left out of the concept of reality as seen from this particular ultimate observer’s point of view. “Ultimate” may sound like a claim of absoluteness, but the contrary is intended: Any observation of reality is an “ultimate” observation in that at the moment of its coming into being, it contains everything this observer is subsuming on the inside of the distinction of reality from everything it is not. However, the observation is “ultimate” in that it is itself positioned outside of communication. It can be referenced in communication, but it is impossible to express all of the distinctions included on the inside of the distinction in communication, because this expression itself would have to be included as well. If we accept this necessity and state that “reality is all this, and the expression that reality is all this”, we are missing this very statement on the inside of our distinction. We would have to state that “reality is all this, and the expression that reality is all this, plus the expression we just made that reality is all this, and the expression that reality is all this”. At this point, we would be missing the latest statement, have to include it, miss the next latest statement, and so on. Therefore, we can assert that, if the “ultimate” observation of reality is indeed possible, it can at least not be expressed in communication. Therefore, it is again without consequence in the argument whether such an “ultimate” observation exists or not. We may as well neglect it for its social nonexistence, and accept that any social concept of reality is inevitably incomplete.

Why Observers?

With the realization in mind that a notion of a multitude of non-person observers in society is rather unintuitive and requires in-depth explanations in most cases (one of which I attempt in this blog), why would we even start such a complicated endeavor in the first place? Why not just stick with the seemingly obvious notion of statements about the reality of society?

My personal answer is that the attempt is motivated by the concern that if observers remain unobserved, the notion of objectivity becomes plausible. This can lead to a situation where statements are postulated as equally binding for every possible addressee, without requiring any responsibility from the originator of the statement. In this blog, I will analyze such statements in an attempt to make explicit some underlying social structures which point back towards the observer of a statement that was supposed to be objective. Of course, all of this has already been explained to us by Heinz von Foerster. Yet, unimpressed, society and primarily language endorse statements that claim to be objective, and they also mostly neglect the social preconditions on which such statements are built.

This is not intended as a naive attempt to change the way society behaves. Instead, the focus is on adding another observer perspective, no more important than any other, but one that is directed towards the social functioning of the preconditions that lead to statements in society. The observer is, then, the ultimate precondition for a statement, yet he fascinatingly manages to stay out of the picture in many social phenomena. Presumably, this paradox is no accident, but indeed servers powerful social functions. We will come back to this later.

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.

Observations and Distinctions

What, then, is an observation? I have mentioned some obvious examples in the previous posts, such as explicit judgements or whether or not something fits into a certain category. One thing all examples have in common is that they provide a distinction, separating different areas of meaning. In the case of a judgement, this could be good from bad, cheap from expensive, fast from slow, etc.

But is this really the end of it? For an observation, do we need to make the other side explicit as well? I would argue that this is not the case. For any observation, it is usually enough to just state that something is good, bad, cheap, expensive, or indeed fitting a certain category. It is, however, not necessary to make explicit the opposite, i.e. to specify what exactly is not good, not bad, not cheap, not expensive, and not fitting the category. This can remain unspecific and only be made explicit upon request, e.g. when a judgement is challenged by an opposing observation. Then, however, such an explication will have to be viewed as a separate, additional observation. In the meantime, while the other side of the original observation is left unspecified, the observer attributed with the observation is implicitly accountable for the other side as well. After all, it was this observer who made the distinction between the two sides in the first place, so he can be expected to know both and make the implicit other side of what he communicated explicit if necessary.

One could even go so far to say that, indeed, the observer is the distinction, insofar as the distinction is entirely accounted to him, and he in turn is also defined by the distinctions he makes in communication. In communication, the observer is entirely invested in the distinction he makes in his observation. If he wanted to pull away from it, he would have to bring in another observer to whom the distinction could be attributed. However, this would then be another, different observation, separating the actual observer from the attributed observer. In this second observation, the actual observer would again be fully invested to the extent that he could be identified as the distinction itself. In cybernetic theory, this is known as the constant oscillation between observations of the first order (observations of an actual observer), and of the second order (observations one actual observer can make of other observations). We will come back to this.