Bateson’s Mind and Nature

Gregory Bateson Mind and Nature: A necessary unity Wildwood House 1979

Bateson was an anthropologist with some interesting and influential views on biological evolution, cybernetics and information theory, not least that it is difficult to communicate ideas outside of a broad range characteristic of a particular culture. He is known as the ‘father’ of family therapy. As a mathematician I can only try to interpret him as best I can.

This is Bateson’s last book, summarising his ideas.

I Introduction

[While making] an attempt to re-examine the theories of biological evolution in the light of cybernetics and information theory …. [it] became monstrously evident that schooling in this country [USA] and England was so careful to avoid all crucial issues that I would have to write a second book to explain what seemed to me elementary ideas relevant to evolution and top almost any other biological or social thinking – to daily life and the eating of breakfast. … Even grown-up persons with children of their own cannot give a reasonable account of concepts such as entropy, sacrament, syntax, number, quantity, pattern, linear relation, name, class, relevance, energy, redundancy, force, probability, parts, whole, information, tautology, homology, mass (either Newtonian or Christian), explanation, description, rule of dimension, logical type, metaphor, topology, and so on. …

It seemed to me that the writing out of some of these very elementary ideas could be entitled, with a  little irony, “Every Schoolboy (sic) Knows.”

The attempt to write down his ideas was a transformative experience.

It began to seem that the old-fashioned and still-established ideas about epistemology … were a reflection of an obsolete physics and contrasted in a curious way with the little we seem to know about living things.

… What is the difference between the physical world of pleroma [the non-living world that is undifferentiated by subjectivity], where forces and impacts provide sufficient basis of explanation, and the creatura, [the living world], where nothing can be understood until difference and distinctions are invoked?

I offer you the phrase the pattern which connects as a synonym, another possible title for this book.

… Why do schools teach almost nothing of the pattern which connects? Is it that teachers know that they carry the kiss of death which will turn to tastelessness whatever they touch and therefore they are wisely unwilling to touch or teach anything of real-life importance? Or is it that they carry the kiss of death because they dare not teach anything of real-life importance? What’s wrong with them?

We have been trained to think of patterns, with the exception of those of music, as fixed affairs. It is easier and lazier that way but, of course, nonsense. In truth, the right way to think about the pattern which connects is to think of it as primarily (whatever that means) a dance of interacting parts and only secondarily pegged down by various sorts of physical limits and by those limits which organisms characteristically impose.

[If] the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds, whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones.
Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behaviour (those stories which are projected into “action”), but also those of all internal stories … .

What is a story that it may connect the As and Bs, its parts? And is it true that the general fact that parts are connected in this way is at the very root of what it is to be alive? I offer you the notion of context, of pattern through time.

… I am asserting that whatever the word context means, it is an appropriate word, the necessary word, in the description of all these differently related processes [that he gives as examples].

There is a parallel confusion in the teaching of language that has never been straightened out. Professional linguists may know what’s what, but children in school are still taught nonsense. They are told that a “noun” is the “name of a person, place or thing,” that a “verb” is “an action word,” and so on. That is, they are taught … to define something by what it supposedly is in itself, not by its relation to other things.

I what is offered in this book, the hierarchical structure of thought, which Bertrand Russell called logical typing, will take the place of hierarchical structure of [Lamarck’s] Great Chain of Being … What is important is that, right or wrong, the epistemology shall be explicit.

So the immediate task of this book is to construct a picture of how the world is joined together in its mental aspects. How do ideas, information, steps of logical or pragmatic consistency, and the like fit together? How is logic … related to an outside world of things and creatures, parts and wholes? … How is the world of logic, which eschews “circular argument,” related to a world in which circular trains of causation are the rule rather than the exception?

[We] shall see as every schoolboy ought to know that [classical] logic is precisely unable to deal with recursive circuits without generating paradox and that quantities are precisely not the stuff of complex communicating systems. In other words, logic and quantity turn out to be inappropriate devices for describing organisms and their interactions and internal organization.

At present, there is no existing science whose special interest is the combining of pieces of information.

Throughout, the thesis will be that it is possible and worthwhile to think about many problems of order and disorder in the biological universe and that we have a considerable supply of tools which we do not use … partly because we are unwilling to accept the necessities that follow from a clear view of the human dilemma.

II Every Schoolboy Knows

Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, an even sleep, is based on presuppositions. It differs, however from most other branches of human activity in that not only are the pathways of scientific thought determined by the presuppositions of the scientists but their goals are the testing and revision of old presuppositions and the creation of new.
[It] is clearly desirable … for the scientist to know consciously and be able to state his own presuppositions. It is also convenient and necessary for scientific judgment to know the presuppositions of colleagues working in the same field. Above all, it is necessary for the reader of scientific matter to know the presupposition of the writer.

Those who lack all idea that it is possible to be wrong can learn nothing except know-how.

It is worthwhile to attempt a tentative recognition of certain basic presuppositions which all minds must share or, conversely, to define mind by listing a number of such basic communicational characteristics.

1. Science never proves anything

2. The map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named

3. There is no objective experience

4. The processes of image formation are unconscious

5. The division of the perceived universe into parts and wholes is convenient and may be necessary, but no necessity determines how it shall be done

6. Divergent sequences are unpredictable

7. Convergent sequences are predictable

8. “Nothing will come of nothing”

9. Number is different from quantity

10. Quantity does not determine pattern

11. There are no monotone “values” in biology

12. Sometimes small is beautiful

13. [Classical?] Logic is a poor model of cause and effect

14. Causality does not work backwards

15. Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction

16. “Stability” and “Change” describe parts of our descriptions

III Multiple Versions of the World

In this chapter … I ask … “What bonus or increment of knowing follows from combining information from two or more sources? [But] my ultimate goal is an inquiry into the larger pattern which connects.

1. The case of Difference

[It] takes at least two somethings to create a difference.

The stuff of sensation … is a pair of values of some variable, presented over time to a sense organ whose response depends upon the ratio between the members of the pair.

2. The case of Binocular Vision

   The binocular image, which appears undivided, is in fact a complex synthesis of information from the left front in the right brain and a corresponding synthesis of material from the right front in the left brain.

[The] difference between the information provided by [the two retinas] is itself information of a different logical type.

9. The case of “description,” “tautology,” and “explanation”

   A pure description would include all the facts (i.e., all the effective differences) immanent in the phenomena to be described but would indicate no kind of connection among these phenomena that might make them more understandable. …

In science … description and explanation … are connected by what is technically a tautology. … Al that is claimed is that if the axioms be such and such and the postulate such and such, then the theorems will be so and so. Inotherwords, all that tautology affords is connections between propositions. …
Tautology contains no information whatever, and explanation (the mapping of description onto tautology) contains only the information tat was present in the description. … Description, on the other hand, contains information but no logic and no explanation. For some reason, human beings enormously value this combining of ways of organizing information or material.

It is necessary to understand that right and left cannot be defined … .

[An] explanation is a mapping of the pieces of a description onto a tautology, and an explanation becomes acceptable to the degree that you are willing to accept the links of the tautology. … That is all. It is always a matter of natural history, a matter of the faith, trust, rigidity and so on of the organism … .

The manner of search … might be called the method of double or multiple comparison.

….  It is the Platonic thesis of this book that epistemology is an indivisible integrated meta-science whose subject matter is the world of evolution, thought, adaptation, embryology, and genetics – the science of mind in its widest sense.

IV Criteria of Mental Process

This chapter is an attempt to maker a list of criteria such that if any aggregate of phenomena, and system, satisfies all the criteria listed, I shall unhesitatingly say that the aggregate is a mind and shall expect that, if I am to understand that aggregate, I shall need sorts of explanation different from those which would suffice to explain the characteristics of its smaller parts.
This list is the cornerstone of the whole book. … This book must stand or fall … by the validity of the idea that some such structuring of epistemology, evolution, and epigenesis is possible.

  1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and … difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than to energy.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of the difference which preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable … but are not themselves subject to transformation.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation discloses a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.

I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria.

V Multiple versions of relationship

In this chapter, in addition to talking about double description, I want to examine the subject of boundaries. What limits the units, what limits “things”, and above all, what, if anything, limits the self?
… “Inside” and “outside” are not appropriate metaphors for inclusion and exclusion when we are speaking of the self.
The mind contains no things, no pigs, no people, no midwife toads, or what have you, only ideas (i.e. news of difference), information about “things” in quotes, always in quotes. Similarly, the mind contains no time and no space, only ideas of “time” and “space”. It follows that the boundaries of the individual, if real at all, will be … something … like the sacks that represent sets in set theoretical diagrams or bubbles that come out of the mouths of the characters in comic strips.

Relationship is not internal to the single person. It is nonsense to talk about “dependency” or “aggressiveness” or “pride”, and so on. … All characterological adjectives are to be reduced or expanded to derive their definitions from patterns of interchange, i.e., from combinations of double description. [The] understanding (conscious and unconscious) of behaviour through relationship gives a new logical type of learning.

The whole matter is a little difficult to grasp because we have been taught to think of learning as a two-unit affair: The teacher “taught,” and the student (or experimental animal) “learned.” But the lineal model becomes obsolete when we learned bout cybernetic circuits of interaction. The minimum unit of interaction contains three components. … stimulus, response and reinforcement.

Similarly, we can expect self-validation in other examples of the same logical typing. {These are] categories of contextual organization of behaviour.

1. Know thyself

2. Totemism

3. Abduction

VI The Great Stochastic Processes

It is a general assumption of this book that both genetic change and the process called learning (including the somatic changes induced by habit and environment) are stochastic processes. In each case there is, I believe, a stream of events that is random in certain aspects and in each case there is a nonrandom selective process which causes certain of the random components to “survive” longer than others. Without the random, there can be no new thing.
I assume that in evolution the production of mutant forms is either random within whatever set of alternatives the status quo ante will permit or that, if mutation be ordered, the criteria of that ordering are irrelevant to the stresses of the organism.

We face, then, two great stochastic systems that are partly interaction and partly isolated from each other. One system … is .. learning; the other is … evolution.

The task of this chapter is to show how these two stochastic systems, working at different levels of logical typing, fit together into a single ongoing biosphere that could not endure if neither somatic or genetic change were fundamentally different from what it is.
The unity of the combined system is necessary.

Finally, it is necessary to put together the two stochastic processes which I have separated for the sake of analysis. What formal relationship exists between the two?
[When] we admit naming as a phenomenon occurring in and organizing the phenomena we study, we acknowledge ipso facto that in these phenomena, we expect hierarchies of logical typing.
So far we can go with Russell and Principia. But we are not in Russell’s world of abstract logic or mathematics and cannot accept an empty hierarchy of names or classes. For the mathematician, it is all very well to speak of names of names of names or of classes of classes of classes. But for the scientist, this empty world is insufficient. We are trying to deal with an interlocking or interaction of digital (i.e., naming) and analogic steps. The process of naming is itself nameable, and this fact compels us to substitute an alternation for the simple ladder of logical types that Principia would suppose.

… There must always be a generative process whereby the classes are created before they can be named.

VII From Classification to Process

The thrust of my argument is that the very process of perception is an act of logical typing. Every image is a complex of many-level coding and mapping.

It is necessary to expand on the relationship between form  and process, treating the notion of form as an analogue of what I have been calling tautology and process as an analogue of the aggregate of phenomena to be explained. As form is to process, so tautology is to description.

{There are] three dichotomies: form-process, calibration-feedback, and higher-lower logical type. … I shall argue that [the first two] are … mutually synonymous but that the relationship between higher and lower logical type is more complex. [Structure] may determine process and … process may determine structure. I believe that this is the analogue in the real world of Russell’s abstract step from class to class of classes.

The effect of any … jumping of levels, upward or downward, is that information appropriate as a basis for decision at level will be used as a basis for decision at some other level, a common variety of error in logical typing.
In legal and administrative systems, such jumping of logical levels is called ex post facto legislation. In families, the analogous errors are called double blinds.

[It] appears that the idea of “logical typing,” when transplanted from the abstract realms inhabited by mathematical philosophers to the hurly-burly of organisms, takes on a very different appearance. Instead of hierarchy of classes, we face a hierarchy of orders of recursiveness.

A world of sense, organization, and communication is not conceivable without discontinuity, without threshold. If sense organs can receive news only of difference, and if neurons either fire or do not fire, then threshold becomes necessarily a feature of how the living and mental world is put together.
Chiaroscuro is all very well, but William Blake tells us firmly that wise men see outlines and therefore they draw them.

My Comments

If not for the introduction, what ‘Every schoolboy knows’ might seem a reasonable summary of what British workers used to make of ‘workers education’, when it was a ‘thing’, of the ideas that used to be reflected in ‘worthy’ British TV  programmes when they were aimed at educating the masses, and what some seemed to think students should be taking from their ‘progressive’ education. Since then, these things seemed largely to have become accepted. It follows from Bateson’s (reasonable) views on ‘differences that make a difference’ that the promulgation of such insights became both less important and more difficult. But what is the situation now?

At least Bateson provides a useful check-list, backed up by a reasonable discursion. Usefully, this makes repeated reference to Russell’s notion of logical typing, and to Russell & Whitehead’s Principia. In essence, seems to be proposing a dual inter-connected ‘ladders’, both of which resemble Russell’s hierarchies. This is reminiscent of Whitead’s process view. As ‘every schoolboy knows’, it would be a mistake to assume (as some seem to) that reality had a structure of the same general ‘type’ as mathematical ‘models’, but maybe something like Whitehead’s notions of processes and epochs could be used to reason logically about Bateson’s process and form? In any case, Bateson’s account is calls to mind category theory, albeit with more complicated structures than the usual ‘linear’ applications. Maybe something like category theory could be used to reason logically about what can be known? That is, maybe one can reason about life, mind and nature logically, just so long as one uses a logic that takes account of what ‘every schoolboy knows’?

Addendum: Bateson was first drawn to my attention as a way of thinking about the Cold War, but has seemed strangely relevant to crises ever since, up until and including the pandemic of 2020-.

Dave Marsay


(From wikipedia.)

Abduction. Used by Bateson to refer to a third scientific methodology (along with induction and deduction) which was central to his own holistic and qualitative approach. Refers to a method of comparing patterns of relationship, and their symmetry or asymmetry (as in, for example, comparative anatomy), especially in complex organic (or mental) systems. The term was originally coined by American Philosopher/Logician Charles Sanders Peirce, who used it to refer to the process by which scientific hypotheses are generated.
Criteria of Mind (from Mind and Nature A Necessary Unity):[31]

Creatura and Pleroma. Borrowed from Carl Jung who applied these gnostic terms in his “Seven Sermons To the Dead”.[32] Like the Hindu term maya, the basic idea captured in this distinction is that meaning and organisation are projected onto the world. Pleroma refers to the non-living world that is undifferentiated by subjectivity; Creatura for the living world, subject to perceptual difference, distinction, and information.
Deuterolearning. A term he coined in the 1940s referring to the organisation of learning, or learning to learn:[33]
Schismogenesis – the emergence of divisions within social groups.
Information – Bateson defined information as “a difference which makes a difference.” For Bateson, information in fact mediated Alfred Korzybski’s map–territory relation, and thereby resolved, according to Bateson, the mind-body problem.[34][35][36]

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