What Am I Thinking?

Thinking about an upcoming dialogue, I thought I’d compose a brief outline of what I’m about in 2023. A conversation starter.

I’m doing “Systems Thinking”.

For 20+ years, I would have called it “Cybernetics” by which I mean the original sense of the term – how humans as living things decide and govern ourselves for the best, individually and collectively – (Cybernetes = Governance = Gubernatorial). Of course in the second half of the 20th century systems and cybernetics became more and more associated with engineered systems – information systems, digital computers, automation & control, robotics, “cyberspace” and the like. Even organisational management systems becoming embodied in the information technology.

So much so that many today, even high-quality thinkers about the eco-socio-cultural processes of humanity, the ills and potential solutions that face us, baulk at cybernetic / systems language, even basic terms like information, algorithms, computation and systems. It’s understandable. These things are now so closely associated with “tech” and with programmable, deterministic – objectifying & de-humanising – applications in every corner of everyday life. But it needn’t be that way. Social engineering too has a bad name, as if it’s something technocrats do to other humans, but engineering (ie ingenuity) is simply something we humans do. We make things happen, creatively.

So, rather than systems engineering, think systems thinking and think soft systems.  Systems of governance, whether individual / group / organisational or state / political, whether hierarchical or democratic or any heterarchical mix of these.

I’m using systems thinking simply to say, it’s better to think of things in terms of their functional relations, internal with component parts and processes, and external with their environmental systems and structures, their ecosystem. And in saying that I’m making absolutely no presumptions about those things being physical, biological, social/cultural or intellectual/conceptual. They’re better treated in terms of functional relations as opposed to objects – in terms of the architecture of many such relationships. Such relational thinking predates the “western” intellectual history of either philosophy or science – including systems science – and was embodied in any number of pre-historical / indigenous / aboriginal ways of life.


With such broad thinking, we quickly bump into all aspects of life, the universe and everything. My own areas of interest probably best illustrated by these three examples:

    • Relational Philosophy
      As I say above, relational thinking is prehistoric – embodied in human traditions long before being intellectually documented in our philosophies and/or sciences. A very recent example from Matt Segall referred to the percept<>concept distinction being an issue underlying so many of philosophy’s enduring problems. Percepts being the things we perceive by direct participation the world, as opposed to the concepts we attempt to capture, name and define intellectually – to get a grip, get a handle on them. Recognising the former as more fundamental than the latter, Segall takes the radical empiricist position (after William James) and takes a dynamic process view of the participatory interaction (after A.N. Whitehead). The English language has sadly lost the knowledge distinction between (say) Savoir / Connaitre (in French) or Wissen / Kennen (in German).
    • Brain-Mind & Consciousness
      Whole libraries have been – and continue to be – written about these topics. Modern approaches range from panpsychist and dual-aspect monist philosophies to neuro-physiological and psychological sciences. All bets appear to stumble on the so-called hard-problem of first-person experience. Two recent thinkers and writers interest me most, seeming to be closest to explanations of these. Iain McGilchrist would reject my use of systems thinking language but he nevertheless takes a wholly architectural position in how our best view of the world comes from integration of left and right brain perspectives – our divided brains architected that way by evolution for good reasons. Mark Solms embraces systems language but focusses on the functional integration of the upper (more recently evolved) and lower (more ancient) brain components in explaining not just how consciousness works but how our first-person perspective is supported.
    • Free Energy Principles and Active Inference
      Free Energy and the complementarity of Entropy and Information are as old as Gibbs & Boltzmann and the formalisation of thermodynamics as a science. They have been increasingly exploited in two directions, inwardly towards the fundamental elements of physics itself and outwardly into the completely generic behaviour of systems as described above. Karl Friston has done most recently to elaborate these in systems thinking terms. Solms has used Friston’s work in his explanation of the evolution and functioning of first-person consciousness (above). Furthermore Friston’s work is being used by a growing community to describe and create an evolutionary ecosystem for human and environmental flourishing.

4 thoughts on “What Am I Thinking?”

  1. How does morality fit into this classification, what is the basis of making moral judgements?

  2. Hi Artun,

    Like I say, the governance / decision-making to act applies at individual as well as group / organisation / social levels, so individual decisions are moral judgements.

    The thoughts and actions we create from our relational views of the world are moral – you’ll have noticed Rowson’s language about McGilchrist’s “attending” as moral acts in that “Manoeuvre” post? The McG left/right maps very well to the Pirsigian SOM/MoQ distinction, no?

    (Just updating the elaborations in the 3 bullets at the end of this post.)

  3. You key on functional relationships and I am going to build a comment using those.

    Regarding the three areas of interest you highlighted, I’d like to point out how they relate to each other (their functional relationships), rather than just leave them as three separate objects. I hope that sounds like a reasonable way to organize your list.

    I’m going to back up and first ask, functionally speaking, what/why/how do we know?
    My answer is that functionally, we can remember the past, sense the present, and plan for the future. We evolved this capability for obvious fitness benefits.

    Planning for the future requires a model of the world and potential changes to it. Building the model requires converting sense data into concepts. You are interested, (1) in what is lost during that conversion, especially the important relational aspects that tend to slip through the cracks.

    Once the world model is built, we can insert a model of ourselves at the center of it, using memories and concepts to help test our plans for the future, and to decide whether the changes are to our liking. Such self-modeling/testing is what I would call consciousness, and this (2) is your second area of interest. Regarding the “hard problem,” I think as long as we take the functional/relational view of this paragraph, there is nothing hard about it. I’m pretty sure you agree?

    Your third area of interest I’m less sure about. FEP/active inference, as I understand it, is mainly about the “how” of the sensing/modeling above. Functionally, it seems to me to be mostly error minimization, and as I’ve mentioned before, it kind of rubs me the wrong way when “free energy” gets that usage. Thermodynamic free energy is something much more fundamental to life, a key from the very beginning, long before any models or even sensing come into play. I certainly agree with you that thermodynamics can be extended outward to all kinds of systems, but I would sooner pick Pirsig than Friston as the man for that job.

    That is probably enough touch points for now, so I will stop there!

  4. Hi Tim, thanks for this.
    Because I’m responding separately to your longer piece of writing (in your book) already, I’ll only put up a brief holding response to this.

    Certainly, I highlighted just 3 points – briefly / roughly – as a conversation starter, on the very understanding that they were massively connected. Addressing them fully is a thesis or book length project, as you know.

    Hard-problem – solved en-passant – never really a problem, just a misunderstanding. Agreed.

    Pirsig over Friston – both part of the journey, obviously I’m going to respond to you where Pirsig fits. Ironically, not sure it was obvious, but “the conversation” this was a starter for kept returning to common Pirsig connections – even though I barely mention him. I’ve had him “on the back burner” for most of the last decade … that conversation was part of the reason I came back to you 🙂

    On my learnings from you – change of topic – two things:

    (1) I now understand your point about me very loosely talking of the 2nd Law as “the driver” – my short-hand. You’re right, obviously, it’s a consequence, a corollary, an “epiphenomenon”. The real “kinetic” driver is the dynamic balance between the concentrating and dispersive forces.

    (2) I think I also get your point that the inevitability of the 2nd law winning out in the long-run doesn’t / needn’t apply at the cosmic “heat-death” scale … I’ll try to summarise my understanding when I respond to that.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.