comments on Danny Yee's review of _Mind and Nature_

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Sun, 5 Mar 1995 23:32:47 CST

I sent these comments to Danny off-line. They are lengthy, so be warned.

Danny Yee said in his review of Bateson's _Mind and Nature_

> First of all
> I think some Bateson's basic presuppositions are wrong, or at least
> need to be qualified:
> "8. Nothing will come of nothing." Bateson argues that there can be
> no new life and no new order without information (most of the time).
> As it stands this is a bit vague, and I'm not convinced that the
> exceptions are as rare as he suggests.

When Bateson uses the term, information, here, he refers to the cybernetic
definition of information, the probability of occurrence of some event or
thing, the negative of entropy. The more information an event or thing
carries, that is, the lower its probability of occurrence. When you have a set
of events, say 100 possible events, and each event is as likely as every other
event, then the occurrence of one eliminiates 99 other events that might have
occurred. The event carries a lot of information. This case also illustrates
a system that has very little order. If an event is very probable, such as
the likelihood of "u" following a "q" in English orthpgraphy, then the
occurrence of "u" carries no information, since its probability was 1.0. You
already knew it was coming--it's occurrence in that slot did not eliminate
25 other possibilities, as there is only one possible letter following a q.
In the "qu" case, you're dealing with a a system that is very orderly; there
are rules that constrain the occrrence of particular events such that not
every member of the set (in this case letters) has an equal probability of

Now, when you understand information in this way, Bateson's statement makes
sense. The only source of new order is in the the universe of random events
and things. In _Steps to an Ecology of Mind_, he puts it this way--new order
is the result of periodic raids on the random. The only possible source of
new signals is in the noise. The only source of new genetic material is
more or less random mutation. Nothing comes of nothing states this principle
by stating its negative. But cybernetic explanation is in an important sense
negative explanation, the process of reductio ad absurdam, eliminating
possible explanations because they are less probable than others. Elimination
of error is _negative_ feedback. Any constraint on a set of possible events
eliminates some members of the set from occurring by making others more

> "10. Quantity does not determine pattern." There are physical
> systems which exhibit qualitatively different patterns -- periodic
> cycles or chaotic behaviour, perhaps -- for different values of
> some quantitative (real or complex) driving variable.
Your example does not contradict the original statement. Why those values and
not others? Take a thermostat connected to a furnace to heat a room. Once
you set the room temperature dial, say to 68 degrees, you see the temperature
in the room rise and fall cyclically to 72 before the faurnace shuts off and
to 64 before it turns on again. The pattern is not determined by the quantitiy
but by the organization of the termostat-furnace linkage that makes the
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 71 AND 72 AND BETWEEN 65 AND 64 the quantities that MAKE A
DIFFERENCE in how the system operates. The difference between 68 and 69, 69
and 70, 70 and 71, etc., make no difference whatever to this system. The
pattern is in the organization of the system that makes certain values of the
quantity crucial and others irrelevant.

> "11. There are no monotone 'values' in biology." All other things
> being equal, the more seeds a plant can produce in its lifetime
> the "better" (in terms of inclusive fitness). Perhaps this isn't
> a counterexample, but then I'm not entirely sure what a "monotone
> value" is -- are there any in *physics*, for example? Bateson is
> obviously trying to generalise from the fact that evolution is not
> progressive, but I don't think his extension works.

Bateson's statement refers to two things--(1) there is neither a quantitative
nor a qualitative value located anywhere within an organism or a population
that is not defined by or part of or functionally connected to some other
value or set of values with which it covaries, and (2) the ways in which
scientists understand change in a system is ordinarily by a procedure of
measuring and scaling particular values as if the were independent measures
of a whole system. That is, montone values that are the common coin of
biological measurement and comparison are obtainable only by decontextualizing
the system, subsystem, component, etc., being measured. George Miller, the
psychologist, found that human beings are lousy communication channels by
measuring responses to monotone values like electronically generated sound at
variable pitches. People are able to make 7 + or - 2 distinctions on any
monotone scale. As soon as he started combining different kinds of stimuli
simultaneously, the number of distinctions people could make increased
> Though I agree with an ontology where relationships are just as "real"
> as spatio-temporally instantiated entities, I don't like Bateson's
> reification of "difference", and especially his linkage of it to
> "mind". His definition of the latter is too broad for my liking; it
> doesn't distinguish the "mind" of a tree from the "mind" of a human
> or the "mind" of a society.

Reification in what sense, Danny? Information as probability must depend on
some set of events or things which has members that are different from one
another. Without difference, there is no probabilty and thus, no information.
Now, you can take this one step further. Among all the possible differences
in a single entity or set of them, some differences make a difference in the
relations between this entity and others, between the entity and its context,
etc.. In the thermostat example above, only two differences, between 71 and
72 and between 65 and 64 were differences that made a difference TO THAT
SYSTEM. To the observer, on the other hand, we can distinguish between 65
and 66, etc.. Now, take the experience of cosmic consciousness or the
athlete's "sweet spot" and other peak experiences. What characterizes all of
them is the UNITY of everything in the experience--the loss of differences.
These are examples of INFORMATIONLESS states, as would be perfect zero F.
Hardly reification.

> While I agree that all these things do
> share common features (and Bateson has done a great job of exploring
> these), "mind" is not the right word to use for them. Common usage
> would suggest reserving it for distinctive features associated with
> complex central nervous systems (and, pace the subtitle, I think it's
> clear that there *are* some fundamental differences between people and
> trees, even leaving consciousness out of the picture). Similarly I
> think Bateson is inviting confusion when he lumps all ontogenetic
> change and development together with cognitive change as "learning".
Bateson is not the only cybernetician to equate mind with any circuit through
which information flows such that the circuit's behavior at one time will
affect its behavior at a later time. The generalization of the "mental" in
this way makes possible comparison and--yikes!--collaboration between
specialists in different forms of circuitry, biological, electrical, etc.,
that deprivileges human mental activity as a thing apart. If Lake Erie
shows many of the same properties as an individual human mind, is this a
trivial finding?

> Bateson's discussion of stochastic processes and his suggestion of
> a parallel between "learning" and "evolution" are provoking, but I feel
> the latter holds only at a level of abstraction too high to provide
> useful insight into practical questions. Finally, Bateson's schema
> with the zig-zag between form and process is supposed to be applicable
> to a range of things including speciation and variation, continuity
> and discontinuity, and number and quantity. I think that this is
> massively overambitious, and that his examples are rather contrived.
> (Though arguably much less so than those commonly deployed on behalf of
> the Marxist dialectic or structuralist binary opposition.) I'm also
> dubious about imposing a _Principia Mathematica_ style hierarchy of
> logical types on human thought, and feel that people are not (even
> locally) nearly as rational as Bateson suggests.
Bateson does not propose the sort of rationality that you assert. There is a
difference between a model for (the observer's) understanding of organization
and the phenomena to be understood. The advantage of using logical types is
in being able to sort out levels of learning process. What the therapist does
when she induces a schizophrenic to compare alternative modes of learning with
the one that he or she learned at home is precisely to guide the level of
memory and talk to the context in which the patient learned to learn things.
You want a less contrived example? Look at Bateson's edited version of
_Percival's Narrative_, an autobiographical account of how a 19th century
son of an English prime Minister cured himself of schizophrenia.
> Mike Lieber