Thomas Fischer’s Paper Proposal

Perception of circularly-causal systems

Its recognition of circular causality is one of the characteristics that set cybernetics (and some other systems traditions) apart from the focus on linear logic prevalent in modern/Western culture, including the natural scientific paradigm (Dent and Umpleby, 1998). It is a long-standing cybernetic criticism of “modern” thought that it ignores circularly-causal relationships. Cyberneticians and like-minded thinkers argue that this ignorance is largely due to a cultural emphasis on linear causality and the dominance of linearly-causal formal logic systems. Observers’ perception and attention are predisposed towards perceiving linear arcs of causal circles rather than causal circles in their entirety.

The proposed paper will explore compounding challenges which arise where multiple arcs of circularly-causal circles are of different linearly-causal types, undermining perceptions of overall circularity and causal reciprocity and symmetry.

A useful distinction of causal types for this purpose has been proposed by the Dalai Lama (2006) in the context of Buddhist philosophy: This is the distinction between substantial causes (such as a thrown rock breaking a glass window) and contributory causes (such as an idling engine in a smog-filled city). If, for example in a two-arced circularly-causal system, each of the two arcs can be characterized by these two linearly-causal types respectively, then this asymmetry may camouflage the overall circularity.

Consider for example a body of lawmakers signing policy proposals into law (substantial cause) and a citizen affected by these laws participating in a elections of the body of lawmakers (contributory cause). The different impacts players make on either arc of the system make it difficult to perceive it as circular. Moreover, the lawmakers also do other things besides making laws, and citizens also do other things besides electing representatives. Where such other causes are at the centre of attention, they may further take away from the perception of a circularly-causal relationship. Consider, for example, a thermostat consisting of a heat-sensitive switch and a furnace. All of the electric energy that powers the furnace is toggled by the switch (substantial cause) while only a relatively small part of the radiation and hot particles emitted by the furnace, and only a small portion of the heat dissipation affecting the thermostat result in the toggling of the switch. Ambient heat, typically the intended purpose of a thermostat heater, appears as the end goal in of a linear causation, rather than as a side effect of a circularly-causal process.

With insights and suggestions gained through participation in this conference, the proposed paper will examine these obstacles to the perception of circularly-causal systems arising from different types of causality acting in them.

Cybernetic traditions:

  • 3) Experimental epistemology; constructivism; philosophy of science
  • 9) Social sciences

1 thought on “Thomas Fischer’s Paper Proposal

  1. Tom Scholte

    Very much looking forward to your thoughts on these matters and hoping you are open to discussing the ways in which the dramatic arts might be employed in an attempt to heighten the kind of perception of circular causality that you describe.


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