Gregory Bateson:

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
This book collects essays and lectures that spread over 35 years of Bateson's career. In his almost mystical style, while reviewing the most disparate material, ranging from schizophrenia to epistemology, always fascinated by cybernetics and often angered by social issues, Bateson promoted a new way of thinking about the human mind, the "ecology of ideas". The mind is an aggregate of ideas. Ideas populate the mind and continuously evolve. Ideas evolve in a Darwinian fashion, the most useful ones surviving while useless ones decay and die away. Thus Bateson views the mind as the theater of a natural selection and evolution of ideas. Our conscious life "is" that evolutionary process. This predates Dawkins's memes.

In "Style Grace and Information in Primitive Art" (1967) Bateson is fascinated by the meaning that is conveyed by art. He argues that art helps achieve wisdom by mixing the conscious and the unconscious. Grace in art depends on the level of integration between conscious and unconscious elements. In this essay, however, Bateson deals also with consciousness. It is physically impossible for a system to be completely conscious, i.e. conscious of everything that is going on inside and outside the system. Organisms cannot afford to be conscious of matters that can be dealt at the unconscious level. By definition, then, the total content of consciousness is only a sampling of the organism's overall state. A conscious observation of the whole system is a contradiction in terms.

"A Theory of Play and Fantasy" (1954) is marred by its application to psychotherapy and by a fascination with Russell's theory of logical types, but it contains some interesting insight. Communication can be literal (denotative) but it usually contains some kind of abstraction, and Bateson focuses on the metalinguistic ("The word cat does not scratch") and the metacommunicative ("This is play").
A message does not consist of those objects that it denotes just like a map does not contain the territory. Just like in Russell's theory a set cannot be an element of itself because it belongs to a higher logical type, so the context of a message is of a higher logical type than the words of the message.
There is a basic level at which an organism responds automatically to the "mood-signs" of another organism. There is a higher level at which an organism is aware that an act of communication is a signal, and that signals are not necessarily literal, not necessarily correct, not necessarily trustworthy, that signals need to be judged carefully. The metacommunicative acts are particularly interesting because they seem to belong to the same catagory of paradoxes that Russell studied. "This is play" means (quoting Bateson): "These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote". Because of the abstract thinking required by play (and to understand that play is play and not the real thing) Bateson argues that the emergence of play was crucial in the evolution of communication. Animals that play are communicating about something that does not exist (e.g. anger). That could be the origin of fantasy, of the ability to conceive possible worlds. The most important thing in metacommunicative analysis is the existence of a "frame" that indirectly instructs the receiver on how to understand the message.

"Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia" (1956) restarts from the concept that Russell's theory of logical types is correct (a set cannot be a member of itself without causing logical contradictions) but it is routinely breached in human communications, for example when we employ humor or play. Communication involves sudden shifts in communication mode (e.g. from literal to metaphorical to fictional). Schizophrenia has to do with the inability to correctly understand the mode of the communication. In "The Group Dynamics of Schizophrenia" (1960) Bateson even makes use of VonNeumann's and Morgenstern's theory of games (published in "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior", 1944) to try and explain schizophrenia. In this essay Bateson also defines the "self" as an aggregate of habits plus an "immanent state of action" (a concept borrowed from Bertalanffy). "Minimal Requirements for a Theory of Schizophrenia" (1959) discusses theories of evolution and materialistic science in general. Samuel Butler opposed Darwin's theory of evolution, that was founded on chance, and instead thought that habits can become so unconscious that eventually become part of the "inherited" characteristics of the next generation. Bateson distinguishes the achievements of scientists such as Newton and Darwin from the theories of thinkers such as Butler and William Blake. The former (the materialists) assumed that the context can be isolated. The latter envisioned a more unified universe. The former have nothing to say about ethics and aesthetics. But viewed as a hierarchy of contexts the universe doesn't look so deterministic, and, in fact, science becomes more like art. Bateson points at the stochastic nature of both species evolution and neural development: the general picture is one of a hierarchic system in which stochastic change occurs at boundaries between levels.

In "Double Bind" (1969) Bateson discusses both creativity and learning. Contrary to the material world, that can be explained simply using forces and formulas, the world of form and communication invokes differences and ideas. A man is not frightened by a lion, but by the idea of the lion, and an idea is "a difference that makes a difference". Bateson believes that humans have a "transcontextual" ability/skill for dealing with ideas, and that skill can equally result in someone becoming a poet or a clown or a schizophrenic. In most cases the "transcontextual" skill is not regarded as a pathology, but as a gift of nature, a gift that enriches the person's mental life; but in the case of schizophrenia that "gift" becomes a curse and harms the person's mental life. Whenever that gift is used properly, the result is higher creativity.

We learn via trial and error, and it could not be otherwise, however "error" is costly. Bateson argues that first-order learning (the learning by trial and error) is supplemented by second-order learning whose function is to reduce the amount of trial and error needed to learn. There is, in other words, a hierarchy of learning levels so that we don't just learn how to solve a particular problem but we can also form a habit that solves an entire class of problems to which that particular problem belongs.

"Form, Substance, and Difference" information, message, difference, difference of a difference, and map and territory.

"The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication" (1964) is an ambitious attempt at fusing Russell;s Theory of Logical Types (according to which no class can be a member of itself), the Theory of Communication (that Bateson believes is the theory behind all forms of organization and behavior), Von Neumann's Game Theory, and Psychology. "Learning I", such as Pavlovian conditioning, is about learning the appropriate response to a stimulus. There is a hierarchy made of stimulus, context of stimulus, context of context; and of stimulus, and so forth; and there is a parallel hierarchy for responses. A context is a metasignal that classifies the signal in a category. What defines and differentiates categories is the "marker". For example, we understand that the action in a theatrical play is fictional because we are in a theater, we were given a playbill, the curtain opens, etc. What we learn is how to respond to an entire category of stimuli with a category of responses. Then there is "Learning II", which leads to a change in the process of learning. For example, one can get better and better at rote learning. Then there is "Learning III", which is a change in that change. And here Bateson thinks that the human mind reaches its limit (this predates Colin McGinn's "cognitive closure"). "Learning II" is what determines the character of a person (e.g., risk attitude, degree of determination, sense of humor, degree of accuracy). A psychologist is typically concerned with Learning I, whereas a psychiatrist is typically concerned with Learning II. A person's personality does not exist in a vacuum: it is always related to other people or to the environment, so it is about human interaction. Learning II results in habits. Learning III is about changing those habits, and it is difficult even for humans. Something that may precipitate an instance of Learning III is the need to choose between equally valid contraries.

Within the odd cybernetic analysis of the organization Alcoholics Anonymous, "The Cybernetic of Self" (1971), Bateson provides further clarifications of his concepts of information and information processing. "A bit of information is a difference that makes a difference": quiescence and activity have both informational relevance, and that relevance is the same for both. The mental characteristics of a system are not located in a specific control structure (whether brain or governor) but spread throughout the entire system Just like it is incorrect to say that the mind is in the brain (it is in the brain plus the body plus the environment), so it is incorrect to claim that the computer by itself exhibits mental properties: it is the combination of the computer and its programmer that does. Bateson gets very close to Dawkins's notion of the "extended phenotype". The self is not just consciousness. "The self is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of a much larger field of interlocking processes".

"Problems in Cetacean and other mammalian communication"(1966) deals with preverbal and nonverbal communication. The big brain evolved to deal with the game of relationship, with the need to interpret the behavior of other members of the same species. Bateson notes that the paralinguistics and kinesics of other people and even other animals is generally easier to understand than a foreign language. He explains this by dividing communication into digital and analogic. Digital communication is one in which the sign has no particular connection with what it stands for : the word "big" is not bigger than the word "small". On the other hand, the magnitude of a cry or a silence or a facial expression is directly proportional to the object of the communication (whether danger or happiness).

"Cybernetic Explanation" (1967) mentions that cybernetic explanation and the tactics of mathematical proof are similar (something that Turing noticed before Wiener coined the term "cybernetic"). The universe is a hierarchy of contexts within contexts, and the explanation for an event is often found in the larger context (the opposite of what Physics does when it looks for an explanation of the whole by studying its parts). Similarly, communication theory relies on "stimulus and response" kind of relationships rather than on "cause and effect" kind of relationships. Physics studies how a body causes another body to move due to a transfer of energy; Cybernetics studies how something reacts to something else, and the "message" only triggers that reaction but does not involve a direct transfer of energy; the responding system is fueled by its own energy. The relationship between the two modes of explanation is that the "cause and effect" relationships sometimes create circuits within which each part influences all other parts. These circuits receive energy from the outside and can influence other systems, but can also be studied as wholes. Such a casual circuit also exhibits the property that the reaction to a random event is non-random, and that is because the reaction is due to the working of the circuit as a whole. Redundancy is part of the process of communication. When we see a tree top, we can guess that there are invisible roots. Any message introduces redundancy: the sentence "it is raining" tells you something that you will see if you look outside the window. Bateson concludes the essay with a sentence that he really doesn't explain: "Noise is the only possible source of new patterns."

"Redundancy and Coding" (1968) discusses two forms of communication among animals, the kinesic and paralanguistic one versus the verbal linguistic one. Bateson believes that they originated for different purposes. If one evolved after the other, Bateson can't explain why, but he thinks that verbal skills evolved due to the need to interact with other members of the species.

"Form, Substance and Difference" (1970) summarizes the main ideas discussed in the previous essays and takes off in a quasi-mystical direction. Darwin's theory contains an error: it assumes that the evolutionary unit is separated from the environment, when in fact it is the combination of organism and environment. Proof of this is that an organism that destroys its environment will perish. The territory is not in the map: the differences are in the map, and precisely the differences that make a difference; i.e. information. The mental world is simply maps, and maps of maps, and maps of maps of maps, etc. There are two systems of explanation (Jung's "pleroma" and "creatura"): the physical one, that explains events by searching for the forces that cause them, and the mental one, that explains events by looking at differences. Each difference that makes a difference becomes an elementary mental idea. There is a hierarchy of cybernetic systems (of trial and error processes) that transforms simpler ideas into increasingly more complex ones. At each level of the hierarchy there is a "mind". Bateson points out that the "mental" hierarchy of cybernetic systems is similar to the hierarchy of cybernetic systems that constitute the units of evolution. The unit of mind and the unit of survival are the same. From this observation he derives the idea that everything is mind, and that minds contain minds, the largest mind corresponding with what people call "God". To the "transcendent" philosophy of the religious god he opposes the "immanent" philosophy of mind: his god is not separate from the subjects that it created but they part of it.

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