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The Strange Loop of Personal Control


The changing meaning of "Cybernetics"

Cybernetics is about feedback and control in animal and machine.

Draw a plot for the popularity of the term "cybernetics" and the prefix "cyber". It started post-WWII, peaked around 1970, had strong but decreasing visibility about 1980, practically disappeared for a couple years, then came back with Mondo 2000 magazine in the late 80s. Over time, "feedback" and "control" -- essential to the original definition of "cybernetics" -- have been left out of the definition, and have been literally forgotten. The tacky prefix "cyber-" now means "computer-related" and no longer means "feedback" or "control". The definition of "cybernetics" has become diffused and trivialized, or at least re-defined to become a synonym for romanticized futuristic computer networks, with no deliberate thought given to the principles of feedback and control between the physical and online realms. Now, telepresence, such as remote control of a mobile machine using first-person perspective, is not considered to be "cyber", but online chat is. This new connotation of "cyber" overemphasizes the computer, to the point of excluding concern with the general harnessing of feedback to effect control.

Cybernetics in the old sense died around 1982 because it had always been too inclusive, and it became diffused. The original, fundamental cybernetics, concerned about feedback and control, became greedy and became a general theory of everything. Cybernetics lost the sense of having its own core framework or position; it lost touch with itself.

Cybernetics applies to individual self-control and self-determination with an intensity that is distinct from the problems of sociological control. Alan Watts wrote about the problematic nature of self-control cybernetics in his article "Zen and the Problem of Control" in the book _This Is It_. The problematic nature of personal self-control is the core of my theory of Ego Death and Self-Control Cybernetics.

I haven't much interest in sociological problems, because I've been fully occupied and driven to grapple with problems of personal, individual self-control.

Now my systematization of personal self-control cybernetics is languishing while I waste precious time learning Web-oriented programming to pay the bills, to support my risky system of philosophy. My core insights happened in the midst of programming jobs and computer labs, while grappling to secure a concrete attainment within present society: posi-control over my own thoughts and actions. I chased the promise of full self-determination through reason and logic -- self-determination through metaprogramming.

Engineering, reason, and practical mental-model construction have been my guiding lights, not any sort of religion (including spirituality), nor socio-political concerns. One can hardly think deeply about ones own mind without some encounter with religion and society. New-Age love of mystery and sociological concerns were only indirectly relevant to my pressing concern, which was to think in a logical way and have posi-control and stop being in a state of self-conflict. Ken Wilber had a few ideas about the nature of transcendence, and Watts had a few ideas about Zen as self-control cybernetics. And I had flashes of insights into moral agency and responsibility, visions of Abraham's raising the knife and Jesus on the cross. And I sometimes had the sense of being a helpless puppet in the hands of some higher-level controller who is free from the machinery of time.

Religion and socio-political concerns get too much attention. The workings of the personal mind, how one controls oneself, needs more attention, something other than self-help, psychological spirituality, and transpersonal psychology. Some approach characterized by rational mental-model construction applied to the problem of how one consciously controls one's thoughts and actions, with the aim of increasing personal self-control and self-determination. This problem requires new tools, new approaches, new definitions of the driving concerns. In the essential summary of my Theory, I stripped out all terms that originated from the language of spirituality, and converted my models of religious experiencing into pure cybernetics terminology to discover the real character of my thinking, in isolation from the many links that I have forged to other people's conceptual frameworks. (There were practically no sociological links to break, no sociological cliches and frameworks to detach from, just religious links and terminology.) Yes, I am somewhat interested in the politics of consciousness, the politics of keeping the mental development of the average citizen as low as is economically expedient.

But I'm not investing much attention in social change; my goal is not to change the world, but to direct my attention to modelling the problem of personal self-control, neglecting the sociological backdrop. My chosen problem is, given this sort of society, where people are in a state of partial self-conflict, how can individuals attain maximum personal self-control in order to direct their own thoughts and actions?

There are interesting questions in cybernetics other than social control of one group by another. There is an interesting cybernetics problem at the heart of our individual, personal agency. We are cybernetic individuals, responsible and self-directing control-agents who choose our goals and control ourselves toward those goals, monitoring our progress and modifying our actions to reach our chosen goals. Cybernetics principles apply to individual self-management as well as to social power-relations.

The history of cybernetics has a place for Watts and for those who pursue his analysis of the problem of personal self-control. "Zen and the Problem of Control" is a landmark paper from the mid-60s. Watts also discussed feedback, personal control, and self-grappling in his book _The Way of Zen_ in the mid-50s. Several rock bands have also covered the problem of personal self-control in ways that are highly innovative and contemporary.

Zen as self-control cybernetics

Only a loser would lose control. People could control their trip if they just had more will power.

Alan Watts Mailing List - General Information: "Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a philosopher, writer, and speaker. He wrote over twenty books and numerous articles on subjects such as personal identity, the true nature of reality, and the pursuit of happiness, relating his experience to scientific knowledge and the teachings of Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. He also gave many lectures, seminars, and radio talks which are now on audio tape, and a number of TV and film talks which are now on videotape. Some of us find his writings and recordings to be an invaluable resource in our quest to understand and enjoy life."

Watts identified the connection between cybernetics, self-control, and Zen.

A Wattsian concept: Self-control there is, but the homunculus who controls is essentially illusory.

The illusory aspect of cybernetic self-control and personal power

Many cognitive scientists are interested in the puzzle of the inner homunculus who appears to live inside the mind and control the thoughts and actions. But this presents an infinite regress. How can self-control control self-control itself? Self-control there is, but no additional layer of control controlling that control -- that would be an infinite regress, a redundant and superfluous layer of mental control like "adding legs on a snake" or "walking by lifting your legs using your arms", as Watts loves to say.

The essence of Zen and mystic enlightenment is actually self-control cybernetics. Usually I sense myself as an autonomous source of my own thoughts. But in the mystic altered state, the thoughts are perceived as arising by themselves, from beyond my mental control. Do you control your own thoughts before they arise, or after they arise? Your very act of controlling your thoughts is itself a "thought".

All control actions are predetermined, including the most gratuitous, random actions you can think of. This is a logical conclusion as opposed to the normal, gullible dualism of our concept of self-control. There is only my stream of control actions, no controller entity above and beyond the entire stream of control events.

'Cyber-' means control, not computers. Pop cyber-theorists entirely overlook the most important aspect of cybernetics: control. And the most interesting and profound type of control is self-control -- for example, regulators, governors, and steering devices such as a ship's rudder. Do you steer yourself? Are you an independent, sovereign governor of your mental state? Or are you a helpless puppet of the time-axis? There is no time for freedom. Cybernetics as the dynamics of self-control steersmanship turns out to be associated with determinism. While people assume cybernetic control emphasizes freedom, actually cybernetics fits better with the clockwork determinism type of scientific worldview.

One of the most interesting juxtapositions of theories is to insert cybernetics dynamics inside a static, clockwork, predetermined block universe model. How can there be control and choice if everything is fixed? Actually, there is no contradiction. All cybernetic control actions are eternally predecided, and are 'completetely free' only in a limited sense, or on a surface level. The thread of cybernetic control actions across time, the trail of events traced out by a steam governor or by an automaton's decisions, is forever fixed. Each control action at each moment in time exists fully in itself, by itself. Each control event everywhere in time has its own self-sufficient, independent existence. All these control acts just sit in spacetime forever, whether past or future. And each cybernetic control-act in a conscious mind experiences itself as the present moment.

My favorite philosophical cybernetic lyrics, by Rush, from the acid rock album _Caress of Steel_:

III. No One At the Bridge

Also of great interest to cognitive cyberpunks and cyberneticists: [to do: link to my Rock page]

Rush, from _Grace Under Pressure_ - "The Body Electric"

If you examine these songs line by line, you can find several lines concerned with guidance systems, self-control, personal power, and self-steering... and a disturbing illumination of the illusory aspect of such cybernetic self-control. We are free, not clockwork automatons. But this freedom might very well be clockwork. There is no time for freedom. Neither is quantum freedom a legitimate refuge for Mr. Homunculus, he who lives inside the mind and controls his thoughts of self-control. From this logic there is no escape, no place to hide. This is the legendary illumination: the revealing of the underlying impotence of all control systems -- not quite the power of spiritual freedom that many seek. The mystery of Eleusis steps forth to show its fearsome countenance: the nature of the kubernetes, our beloved governor.

Books about personal self-control cybernetics

Some authors from which the field of self-control cybernetics can be assembled: Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Alan Watts, and Marvin Minsky.


Hofstadter: _Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid_ (see the recent interview in Wired magazine for perspective on his cognitive-psychological motivations)

Hofstadter and Dennett: _The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul_

Dennett: _Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting_

Watts: "Zen and the problem of control" in _This Is It_

Minsky: free will material and control-oriented material in _Society of Mind_.

The cross-time superego controller becomes disengaged - character becomes disengaged, replaced by radically innovative, psychotically creative imagination and vision (envisionment-power) (radically powerful and flexible vision-logic). accustomed intention-set and thinking style (accustomed character) is replaced by wild vision-logic - a crazily flexible, hyper-envisionary thinking-style. hyper-dynamic cognitive power. uncontrollably hyper-dynamic cognition. hyper-dynamic cognition. uncontrollably dynamic cognition.

It must be possible to construct a mental construct structure/device that coerces will -- long route: will can be transgressed and values inverted, in order to crush delusion. short route: will can be transgressed and values inverted, for no reason -- in truth, none is needed. "Just because I legitimately can." Or, "to show that I can". But the later are not profound. Mere chaos to show that's truly possible, to show that the accustomed egoic values have no real force whatsoever. But will you do that? How does your will ever stay on track? Does the will tend to be guided for the better, or not? Where in the hell does the will-act-stream come from? Why do some people will this, while some people will that? Why do I will X at time 1, and Y at time 2? Who is the original author of my will-act-stream? What has that Author laid in store for me up ahead in the will-act-stream? Why? What guides that author in making me will X vs Y at the future point? The mystery of the decisions that the Author made in creating each person's will-act-stream. What is my fate? WHAT AM I FATED TO WILL? I don't know. What am I fated to will?

Fear of god is knowing that the Author has already fated me to will my future will-acts; they are already set ahead in time, and when I am there, I will get to see what these will-acts are -- what there were made, timelessly, to be. I am helpless to affect or change them, because any act or anything I will can only, by definition, lead to something.... struggle is fundamentally futile.

trembling in fear of our own will power overpowering itself and running amok [a hypothetical possibility] -- or fear just from having the accustomed IS pushed aside and replaced by some emphatically undesired intention-set. -- will-coercion, will-rebellion; backfiring of the effort to control.

If your will is free, then it cannot be controlled, for it is free and not chained. The strange loop of personal control

THINK! Magazine - A Philosophical Journal

The cover shows a very cool black-and-white reproduction of Escher's self-chomping dragon.

I think of the serpent biting its tail as the cybernetic feedback loop involved in human self-control. The loop of delusion, containing an autonomous, power-wielding, self-moving homunculus-entity. A king of himself, receiving his power not from the divine will or the omnipotent Fates, but from himself.

The serpent steers himself, he lives in the middle of his control-loop.

Relevant, clear books about fatalism, determinism and cybernetics

There seem to be no books relating determinism, self-control, mystic phenomena, and cybernetics, though some sections of _Godel, Escher, Bach_ imply such a confluence of topics.

The first book on determinism that I read was _Free Will and Determinism: A Dialog_ by Clifford Williams. This is probably the clearest, most accessible book presenting the usual arguments. Usually the dialog format irritates me, but in the case of the determinism debate, the dialog format works especially well. "The aim of this book is to present the main features of the problem of free will and determinism via a dialogue that is clear, readable and interesting. I have attempted to make the dialogue suitable for persons who have had little or no background in philosophy." By the time I found this book, I already had discovered the world-model which successfully integrates determinism, the type of freedom which we experience, self-control, cybernetics, and choice, so reading the book merely affirmed my understanding of the misconceptions and systematic errors of thinking and semantics and gave me practice in pointing out the standard misunderstandings.

Everyone should read certain sections in the following books, but they should also read about many other things, in order to understand the way in which many separate domains of philosophy can be very powerfully combined, with breathtaking and tangibly disconcerting results -- with destabilizing results.

All these are extremely readable and accessible, and very computer-conscious:

First, read this short article, in my opinion, the most profound and suggestive article ever written: Alan Watts: "Zen and the problem of control" in _This Is It_

Hofstadter: _Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid_ (see the recent interview in Wired magazine for perspective on his cognitive-psychological motivations). Find the sections on levels of control, self-control, and determinism.

Excellent and readable -- discusses computer science, AI, cybernetics, cognitive science: Hofstadter and Dennett: _The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul_

A very recent summary of the cliche, rutted arguments -- he points out key errors that cause deadlocked arguments: Dennett: _Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting_

Minsky: free will material and control-oriented material in _Society of Mind_, a very widely read, browsable book about AI.

Cyberneticist Charles Muses is a colleague of Norbert Weiner and Arthur Young. He wrote a fascinating book entitled "Destiny and Control In Human Systems". [to do: search DejaNews for that and It was printed by Kluwer as a textbook, and can be hard to find except in university libraries. Someone wrote: "Unfortunately it has several key typographical errors that are confusing. Indeed, I corrresponded with him a few times to try and carify some of those things, and he provided me with several pages of corrections. But with your interest in the control function, I would imagine that you might want to take a look at it."

This could be highly suggestive for integrating self-control cybernetics, determinism, and the block universe.

Books about cognition and cybernetics; limitations of established approaches

Relevant books that study life, consciousness, and higher experiencing in addition to cognition and cybernetics.

Cognitive science has been, in practice, predominantly mindless and lifeless. There are a couple of cognitive science books that study interesting modes of cognition. Cognitive Science is half-asleep minds studying how the half-asleep mind works.

I've read The Embodied Mind by Varela et al. I'll check out his other works including The Theory of Autopoiesis. Thanks for the pointer to the critique of the objectivist stance of the early cyberneticists -- _The Phenomenon of Life_ by Hans Jonas. The book sounds familiar but I didn't know it had a passage on cybernetics. Cybernetics and cognitive science have potential that's broader than what people happen to have done with them.

A field is defined by what people have done with it, yet the field can be said to contain approaches that haven't been discovered or tried. It is important to know what approaches have historically been taken in a field, but also important to re-conceptualize the field to address concerns that those approaches, so far, have overlooked.

I specifically study self-control cybernetics in humans, and that involves subjective experiencing. If one studies self-control cybernetics, they should study the relevant mystic phenomena and insights. If a researcher fails to address these most interesting topics, it's not the fault of the field of self-control cybernetics.

Too bad the second wave of cybernetics is completely bogus -- "cyber-"computers and the "cyber"-Internet completely lack an intelligent, substantial connection to the field of cybernetics. Maybe the essence of the original definition of 'cybernetics' deserves to be forgotten, given that the cyberneticists were so general that the subject dissolved and dissipated.

An issue of the MAPS (Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies) newsletter had a brochure for the _Technologies of the Sacred_ conference in South America, put on by Stan Grof, with quite a few names from the psychedelics and transpersonal psychology communities. It's satisfying to see the connection fully acknowledged. I hope the term "technologies" in the conference name is more than just a vague, gratuitous allusion to synthetic drugs. I doubt they will develop the general concept of cerebral technology at all. Well, at least, the opportunity remains open to publish something all the more timely and innovative.

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