The various laws of requirement

You may know, I’m a big fan of the so called “Ashby’s law“, not as a true law, an algorithm, but as “rule of thumb”, an heuristic. This law should be used to understand variety creation – as do biological “systems”, also known as “evolution” – and not to reduce variety – as do human made systems. (“systems” between ” ” because I prefer to limit the use of the word systems for human made systems only).

Human, but all too humanly

ability to run dry as a requirement for a ship

As with every law, the Law of the Requisite Variety is a human law. (That might be why we also call it “Ashby’s Law”). As are the “laws” of physics, like Newton’s Laws of Motion or the laws of thermodynamics. The laws of physics, don’t have to be maintained by human beings – they maintain themselves, so to say. There’s no “gravity police” ordering your soap to fall on the ground when showering.

These are self-referent laws, to be used in the meaning of “self made” (from the Latin “facere”, to make) and self-correcting – and have no exceptions. A ball, thrown away seems to obey the laws, because it follows the only trajectory it can follow. No referee necessary. When one throws it in the same way a second time, it will follow the same path. As-if it “knows” or even “recognizes” these laws. (Self-reference leads to paradox, but that’s a different story). Sadly, our use of mortars rely on this.

Ashby’s law is actually a theorem, like that of Shannon on communication. Because both start with making exceptions. In the quoted article, Ashby starts with:

“Given a set of elements, its variety is the number of elements that can be distinguished. Thus the set {g b c g g c } has a variety of 3 letters. (If two observers differ in the distinctions they can make, then they will differ in their estimates of the variety. Thus if the set is {b c a a C a B a } its variety in shapes is 5, but its variety in letters is 3. We shall not, however, have to treat this complication).”

The exception is between ( ): “if two observers differ in the distinctions they can make … “. This puts an observer outside the (Ashby’s) observation. As an (outside) observer, I would say that various observers should be incorporated in what one calls a law of variety. This is where variety seems to start.

If I see what I mean

The same exception uses Shannon in excluding “meaning” from a message, because different “observers” can have derive meaning from the same message. Or – even worse – one and the same message can now differ in meaning from yesterday. Never the same meaning twice. Never the same meaning twice.

“Meaning” being the interesting part of a message. The interesting thing about meaning is that human beings differ in their meanings about opinions … or is it opinions about meaning). I hope you agree with this opinion.

Life is a game with only one referee: life

Both then prove their theorems, within the domain they so defined. Also: “The proof of a theorem is a logical argument that uses the inference rules of a deductive system to establish that the theorem is a logical consequence of the axioms and previously proved theorems. ” Which is fine, except that a natural domain – an universe-of-discourse so to say – doesn’t limit itself to user defined limits. Natural processes “use” self-made, or self-referent “limits”.

“A boundary”, and this may come as a surprise, is a paradox. Human boundaries are mental of legal boundaries, but not natural boundaries. We know that a river, a swamp or an ocean can be considered “a boundary”, a “situational” boundary, but at the same time, one can cross them. What’s a limit for one creature, is domain for others. For you a river is a boundary, for fish land is and for birds, neither.

Excluse me

By excluding certain situations, one excludes certain observers AND certainly excludes these “others” from one’s community. The problem becoming, that within a community, one “must” use the meaning as commonly agreed upon. (“Community” combines “com” as in “common” with meaning, as in “mun“. And you’ll know that any community – like a village, a town or a nation – has boundaries, imposed by “inhabitants”.) So, one tends to use “situational boundaries” as “limits”.

In other contributions, I’m naming these metaphor-in-use and metaphor-espoused. One can use a river, for instance to navigate, swim, sail, transport, cool, … while using it as a boundary between people. The crossing of a river (or Mediterranean, I suddenly see the ambiguity in that word) then becomes “an-other” problem.

Shannon, Ashby and others have proved their theorems using logic. This is logically consistent, but excludes paradoxes.

As a paradox – a statement about itself – cannot be both true and not-true. At the same time, I have to say, because that’s my definition of a paradox: it’s true and not true, but not at the same time.

You might know that Gödel has proven – with no exception (!) – that any system is either consistent and incomplete – there seem to be theorems one cannot prove within the system – or complete and inconsistent – theorems exclude each other, like

This statement is false“. If it’s true, it’s false and if it’s false, it’s true.

What do you think?

Ashby and Shannon made their system “incomplete” at the expense of consistency, says I. And that’s within the law. It also made their laws having “exceptions” with cannot be proven within their system. For instance the behaviour of natural “systems” – out of control – and “meaning” – ambiguousness (I love words with a, e, i, o and u).

I prefer to use another description of Ashby’s Law (one he himself has made), which connects it with Shannons: “the development of a system is being limited by the development of it’s channels of communication”. (I paraphrased, as I don’t have the time to look it up)

Reflections for facilitating groups

  • Use language ambiguously – double meanings – to realize changes in behaviour. Consistence is nice, but change always happens to be inconsistent with the current situation.
  • A meeting is always also about “crossing borders”: act like a bridge, enabling “cross border” travelling.
  • Create choices, options, possibilities and enable participants to “come together” themselves. Use your structure (design, agenda, concrete goals, gestures, … ) to maintain safety, not their content.
  • When a participant asks a question about a concept, (I had it the other day: “what do you mean by intervision?”), DON’T answer it. I know, it’s very hard to do, because you “know” the answer. When someone doesn’t understand a concept (s)he can also not ask a question about it. So first acknowledge the relationship (“OK”, “good”, “hhmmm”, …- non-verbal – “perhaps others don’t know too” – signalling, “you’re not alone in this”. Or “good question” (this is also buying yourself some time)) and then research the question. Use Clean Language questions like:
    • … (slowing down) what do you think?
    • … what would it do for you?
    • … what would you need from something like <concept>?
    • … until what point could you understand our conversation?
    • … can you think of an example?

What would you do differently next meeting?


Ashby’s law: More by me on Ashby (opens in a new tab).

About Jan Lelie

Met diversiteit kom je verder, wanneer je elkaar beter begrijpt.  Jan Lelie kan helpen. Ik faciliteer besluitvorming met behulp van mijn mind@work methode. Sommigen noemen het agile, anderen lean of serious play. Het zit er allemaal in. Daarnaast geef ik workshops en master classes aan professionals die zelf beter willen faciliteren.
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